How do you know when the best part is over? Restoration Hardware opens in the neighborhood. Björk gets profiled in The New Yorker . Zhang Yimou starts putting Zhang Ziyi in all his movies.
And Vanity Fair essayist James Wolcott arrives on the Web, via jameswolcott.com: ” … I was having brunch with Elvis Mitchell, formerly screening-room maverick at the Times …. “
I nearly didn’t get to write this today. I was running up the steps for the 8:55 LIRR and my left leg buckled out from under me-”Berbicked on me,” as Rob Patrick said in 10th grade, after Trevor Berbick tried to get up from a Mike Tyson knockdown and his legs refused to comply. Almost wiped out right there.
But I made it. More or less intact. It reminded me of something Ira Stoll said when I talked to him on the phone yesterday. “There’s all this stuff you have to deal with in a so-called real job,” Ira said. “Commuting time, having to say hello to the other employees in the office, interoffice memoranda …. “
He was reflecting back on Smartertimes.com, his old Web log. When Ira started Smartertimes, nobody knew what a Web log was. “We’re worried about Ira,” some fellow journalists told me back then, over beers. “He’s holed up in his apartment, writing on his Web page about typos, bias and errors in The New York Times every day.”
Moral: Never consult a bunch of journalists about the future of journalism! Smartertimes doesn’t load in my browser anymore-”It is, sadly, defunct,” Ira confirmed-but that’s because Ira is now managing editor of The New York Sun .
“It became more awkward to do that, as I had my own newspaper with its own problems,” he said.
And Smartertimes lives on, without Ira or even itself. There are blogs now dedicated to picking apart The New York Times from the right, from the left and-thanks to public editor Daniel Okrent-from within The Times itself.
It’s hard to digest revolutionary change. I turned on Monday Night Football last night-mashing down hard on the remote buttons, because the battery is dying-and I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion that the Carolina Panthers are the defending N.F.C. champions. I’ve safely ignored Carolina all these years, and now I have to pay attention? To a team dressed like that? I can barely remember a single thing that happened in last year’s Super Bowl. Plus last night’s game was a dog. I went to bed at half time.
The thing about Ira’s path from blogging into print journalism is that the traffic is so heavy in the opposite direction. It’s like an autobahn of people with print careers, hurtling Web-ward.
Hence James Wolcott, apparently unsatisfied with 3,000-odd words a month in Vanity Fair . Besides brunch with Elvis, here are some of Wolcott’s online interests: Zell Miller, Bill Clinton’s bypass, Tony Kushner, Mel Gibson, Kitty Kelley’s Bush book, Ruth Shalit’s wedding and Leno vs. Letterman. (He’s for Leno.)
Oh, and hurricane season: “I root for hurricanes. When, courtesy of the Weather Channel, I see one forming in the ocean off the coast of Africa, I find myself longing for it to become big and strong-Mother Nature’s fist of fury, Gaia’s stern rebuke.”
That got him a link from print columnist Dave Barry, in the blog he runs on the Miami Herald Web site: “I say we put this guy on a raft far out in the Atlantic Ocean with a sign that says, ‘COME TO ME, IVAN, YOU BIG STRONG FIST OF NATURE! I AM ROOTING FOR YOU!’”
Welcome to the business, Mr. Wolcott.
“I can’t imagine a writer who started reading blogs not being tempted to try one himself,” Terry Teachout told me today.
The author, Wall Street Journal drama critic and Commentary music critic has been blogging for a year, on a page called “About Last Night” at ArtsJournal.com. “I think blogging has actually been good for my writing,” he said. “It’s loosened me up a little bit.”
Sample from today’s entry: “I have two Wall Street Journal pieces due, a profile for Wednesday’s paper and a drama column for Friday’s paper. Assuming I get them done on time, I can start working on the 2,000-word book review that I’m scheduled to ship off to a magazine some time tomorrow. (To my credit, I’ve already written 500 words’ worth of the review, but the rest has yet to make itself manifest.)”
That lowered my hopes of getting him on the phone. But he was able to pick up and talk about his new outlet. What blogging provides, he said, is an “immediacy, informality and independence that you can’t find in the print media.”
He’s not worried, he said, about using up his ideas on the blog. “I really see the blog as a kind of public notebook or sketchbook,” he said. Part of the appeal, he said, “is that backstage glimpse it gives of the writer’s life.”
Blogging is more spontaneous than regular writing, but it’s writing nonetheless-as opposed to spontaneous blathering on cable TV, he said: “Blogging, by contrast, I think …. ” (Here my notes, in my hasty scrawl, appear to say “CRIDLY OCITHS”) ” … takes us back to a more considered but spontaneous” form of expression.
Everybody wants to write about the bloggers. The bloggers are hot. They are Transforming Journalism, breaking down the walls between subjectivity and objectivity and between subject and object. They have a news peg right now, as the engines behind the 60 Minutes –National Guard memo controversy.
My eyes glazed over writing that paragraph. Everything I could say about the memos has been captured in a letter to the editor posted on AndrewSullivan.com. Go read it, if you want.
Maybe the way to do a blog story is to do a gimmick. Better yet, a really trite-seeming gimmick. It will be, like, meta: The triteness is a commentary on the triteness! Turtles all the way down!
Not that any carefully constructed device can protect you from the withering and omnipresent scorn of the blogosphere, should it think it’s being attacked. The blogosphere is sensitive.
“I could write an account of this conversation while we are having it,” Terry Teachout said. I checked-he didn’t. Whew.
I have a journalist friend, one with a good day job, who tried starting a blog back in January. No, this isn’t like when somebody writes in to “Ask Beth” about how her “friend” is afraid she might have herpes or something. Really. A friend. Not me. Anyway, the point is, this friend lasted six weeks before sputtering out. He tried to revive it during Reagan’s funeral, then gave up again. One of his final entries ended thus: “P.S.: This silly little ripped-off item just burned up 10 minutes. We’re starting to remember why we quit blogging in the first place!”
For no particular reason, we were just talking in the office about the art of heckling the Oscar telecast. What is it about the spectacle of the Academy Awards that turns everyone into Joan Rivers? Except Melissa Rivers. Joan Rivers is like a drag queen. Melissa is just a drag.
“It was a last resort, and it was a resort I checked into,” Mickey Kaus said. I caught him on his cell phone yesterday afternoon, while he was driving on I-95 near Baltimore. That’s where I was driving this past weekend, but I didn’t mention it to him.
Kaus, proprietor of Kausfiles (which he “rents out” to Slate ), got into blogging so early and with such enthusiasm that he now tends to speak in blog-ready one-liners. “It was a tradeoff of no editors and no deadlines, which were good, in exchange for no money and no readers,” he said.
Now that it’s possible to get money and readers by blogging, what else of the print world has he left behind? “The result is there’s some corner-cutting, probably,” he said. “When I wrote a piece for The New Republic , I would talk to three times as many people as I needed. Now I talk to 80 percent of the people I need.”
Readers, he said, fill in the other 20 percent: “You wind up figuring out the right position faster.”
The New Republic is catching up to Mickey Kaus. The magazine now runs three separate blogs-”Campaign Journal,” “Iraq’d” and “&c.”-on its Web site. The purpose, editor Peter Beinart said in a phone call, is to capture ideas that would get lost in the current world of rapid commentary. If you have a quick reaction to something in today’s paper, Beinart said, “You still want that presented to your readers, rather than just e-mailed from one writer to another.”
Yes, even the deliberative New Republic feels the gathering speed. And sees its benefits: When you have a blog, you don’t worry so much about boring readers to death. Hence the Iraq blog, which allows the magazine to hammer away at the policy aftermath of the war it supported. The message to fellow hawks, Beinart said, is: “No, you can’t get away from this.”
“So blogs are good for crusades, and that kind of works well for TNR ,” he said. Had the blogosphere come into being earlier, he said, the magazine “might have had a blog on Bosnia.”
The magazine also uses its Web site to publish intermediate pieces-meatier than blog items, too perishable to save for the print edition. But as the Web creates opportunities, it destroys them too. “There are certain kinds of pieces that we don’t do in the magazine as much,” Beinart said. In the past, the magazine might have printed a lengthy analysis of the Presidential nominating speeches or the debates. No more, not with a week’s lag time.
“Some people would care,” Beinart said. “But probably not enough people.”
The written word is always just about to go under. First radio was going to kill it, then television. But then what if the real enemy of the written word turns out to be the written word?
When I asked him, Mickey Kaus said he hadn’t done much print work lately-”my fault, not the Web’s fault,” he said. “The short deadline always beats the long deadline.”
And how was Kaus enjoying the short-deadline product at jameswolcott.com? “Half of it was brilliant and half of it was stuff that made me think less of Wolcott,” Kaus said. “It’s worth having because half of it is fantastic.”
“He’s just started,” Kaus added, “so it’s unfair to judge him.”
So, a non-judgment: “He’s certainly good enough, but there are some people where the ratio isn’t that good.”
Andrew Sullivan never answered my e-mails. That seems fitting. Andrew Sullivan is to the blog-print relationship what Cololnel Kurtz was to the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now . For some reason, I only recently got around to seeing Apocalypse Now on cable. I think most of us have these odd blind spots, things in popular culture that we know about but have somehow missed. I’ve never heard “Freebird” either, and I have no idea why not.
“The print people want to be bloggers and the bloggers want to be print people,” Ira told me. The New York Sun is happy to facilitate the transition. The paper has printed “outtakes” from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Ira said, and James Taranto’s online column. It runs op-eds by the overlawyered.com guy.
One of Ira’s favorite bloggers is the writer of the Captain’s Quarters blog. “[His] day job is, he’s a call-center manager for a fire-alarm company or a burglar-alarm company,” he said. ” … We had him do an op-ed for us. He was thrilled.”
Back and forth it goes: ” The Sun is thinking of starting a blog as part of its newly revamped Web site,” he said. “And the reporters want it.” They want it, he explained, “to get full buzz in the news cycle.”
He estimates it’s “75 percent likely” that The Sun will launch the blog, which will probably be a combination of news and opinion. Both count as breaking material these days.
“Not only do people know what happened yesterday from the 6 o’clock news,” he said, “but they’ve already been told what to think about what happened yesterday by the blogs.”
Is the discourse going to be consumed by 300-word squibs? “I’m afraid that just sounds like contemporary magazine journalism to me,” Teachout said.
Odd fact: When you talk about the blogs, everything sounds like a kicker. E.g.: “It may be that editors will make better bloggers than writers,” Mickey Kaus said. “Editors know when to stop.”
So where’s your own blog, Peter Beinart? “It just seems too tiring, to be honest,” he said. “And I’d probably be always contradicting myself.”
The thoughtful mega-opinion piece isn’t dead. James Fallows has one in the current Atlantic , “Bush’s Lost Year.” Ira Stoll said Norman Podhoretz has “electrified people” with his 40,000 word piece in Commentary , “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win.”
Commentary put it up online, Stoll said. “Clearly he didn’t write that 40,000-word piece-and it wasn’t edited-in 15 minutes or a half hour,” he said. “They wanted to get it up on the Web.”
I clicked on the Podhoretz piece. “[W]e are only in the very early stages of what promises to be a very long war …. [W]e are up against a truly malignant force in radical Islamism …. The attack came, both literally and metaphorically, like a bolt out of the blue …. “
Uh-huh. Yep. And et cetera.
Hey, Bruce Chen threw a complete game for the O’s yesterday! Meanwhile the Yankees, trying to patch over Kevin Brown’s spot in the rotation, gave up 17 runs.
The whole instant-commentary business isn’t as new as it looks. When I heard all the excitement over the fact that the bloggers were coming to the political conventions, I got out an anthology of H.L. Mencken’s newspaper writing. There it was: sharp, subjective, blow-by-blow commentary, written on the fly in 1924-1928-1932-1936 ….
“People like Mencken wrote in takes,” said Terry Teachout, who wrote a Mencken biography. “I think that Mencken himself might have been quite fascinated [by blogging].”
Teachout said he has no qualms about putting material on his blog, then refining it into published pieces. But with The Wall Street Journal , he said, it’s “understood I won’t jump the gun on my Friday column.”
“That’s just good journalistic manners,” he said.
Night is falling on Manhattan. The sky is an almost oceanic blue, and the lights are on in the buildings outside my office window. After a three-day layoff, James Wolcott has just posted again:
“For the next few weeks I will be stationed at vacation headquarters in Cape May Point, New Jersey. Of course, a writer is never truly on vacation.”
On Tuesday, the New York Post ‘s Page Six ran a notable correction in its “We hear” department: ” … THAT it wasn’t Jam Master Jay the other night at Crobar. It was loud and dark and our intrepid reporter has trouble distinguishing among Grandmaster Flash, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Fab Five Freddy and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Jam Master was murdered two years ago, and we apologize to his family.”
But what if Page Six gets caught in another dark establishment full of hip-hop luminaries? In the interest of future accuracy, Off the Record presents a handy reporting questionnaire for Page Six leg persons. Simply ask the following questions-in order!-and you’ll never go astray again:
1. Are you alive?
Yes: Go to question 2.
No: You are talking to JAM MASTER JAY.
2. Did you have a role on TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air ?
Yes: Go to question 3.
No: Go to question 4.
3. Are you married to Jada Pinkett?
Yes: You are talking to WILL SMITH.
No: You are talking to D.J. JAZZY JEFF.
4. Did you appear in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate ?
Yes: Go to question 5.
No: Go to question 6.
5. Did you host Yo! MTV Raps?
Yes: You are talking to FAB FIVE FREDDY.
No: You are talking to DENZEL WASHINGTON.
6. Have you ever called yourself Big Baby Jesus and/or Dirt McGirt?
Yes: You are talking to OL’ DIRTY BASTARD.
No: You are talking to GRANDMASTER FLASH.
And now, a word from Off the Record architecture correspondent Gabriel Sherman:
On Sept. 12, Suzanne Stephens, a special correspondent for Architectural Record , was boarding Delta Airlines Flight 145 traveling back to New York from the Venice Biennale, and found she was seated in the same middle row as 56-year-old former architecture critic of The New York Times Herbert Muschamp.
Ms. Stephens, author of the just-published Imagining Ground Zero: The Official and Unofficial Proposals for the World Trade Center Site , and Mr. Muschamp came to blows earlier this year, when Ms. Stephens tried to include in her book architects who had contributed to a special issue of The New York Times Magazine that pulled together plans for the World Trade Center site, and which Mr. Muschamp had curated. Fellow Times reporter Julie Iovine was seated one row behind.
According to Ms. Stephens, upon realizing the pending seating arrangements, Mr. Muschamp promptly turned to Ms. Stephens and declared: “Would you mind switching seats with Julie [Iovine] so I don’t have to look at your fucking face ?”
To which Ms. Stephens said she retorted, “Certainly, and may you rot in hell!”
The verbal volleys drew the attention of nearby passengers, according to sources on the flight. A woman from Croatia jumped up and said, “Well, it looks like you all know each other!” Other passengers sneaked curious looks towards Mr. Muschamp and Ms. Stephens.
“Herbert was already sitting down when I got to my row, and he turned and without saying hello, that’s when it happened,” Ms. Stephens told Off the Record. “He told me, ‘Do you mind switching seats with Julie, so I don’t have to look at your fucking face?’ That’s when I answered back.”
Neither Mr. Muschamp nor Ms. Iovine returned calls for comment before press time.
Eventually, Ms. Stephens and Ms. Iovine swapped seats, and then Mr. Muschamp and Ms. Iovine traded seats again before take off. Once the musical chairs between the smarting journalists subsided, the parties settled in for the flight, in which architects Jessie Reiser, Nanako Umemoto, Enrique Norten, Preston Scott Cohen, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli and director Spike Lee were also on board.
Aric Chen, a contributing editor at Surface Magazine and a design writer who has penned pieces for GQ and Elle Decor , was also on the plane, seated in the aisle across from the developing fracas.
“Throughout the entire flight, Herbert had this creepy smirk on his face. He had the look of someone who was unraveling,” Mr. Chen said. “It was kind of a zombie-ish, smug little smirk.”
According to a source familiar with the dispute between Ms. Stephens and Mr. Muschamp, it all began in February of this year, when Mr. Muschamp learned Ms. Stephens was preparing the book. Mr. Muschamp was reportedly furious that Ms. Stephens had contacted the architects in the Times Magazine spread-many of them his personal friends-without approaching him first. This winter, the two sides ratcheted up the legal rhetoric, with Ms. Stephens’ lawyer issuing a letter threatening to sue Mr. Muschamp for tortious interference and Mr. Muschamp threatening legal action of his own. The two sides finally reached an accord this spring, but by that time, most of the architects in the Times Magazine package declined to participate in Imagining Ground Zero .
” The Times was prevented from being represented in the book by one of their employees, and the project couldn’t show all the work of something The Times had sponsored, because of the machinations of one of their employees,” a source involved in the proceedings said.
“You know, it’s funny-I guess I felt I was doing the right thing all along, no matter how horrible it got,” said Ms. Stephens. “I wasn’t doing something I didn’t think was right. These architects had done a lot of work, and they deserved to be in this project.” Then she added: “But I’m not confused or upset. For Herbert, it’s a power thing.”
Follow Tom Scocca via RSS.