“All news breaks online anyway,” said Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time magazine. “So why are we hoarding things to release them on Sunday night? It just seems crazy.”
Mr. Stengel was invoking 21st-century technology to explain an apparently retro move: On Aug. 17, Time announced that as of January, it will begin coming out on Fridays instead of Mondays—returning to the schedule established by Henry Luce in 1923.
So is Time chasing the future or the past? Sometime in the intervening decades—“We can’t quite figure out exactly when that happened,” Mr. Stengel said, guessing it was the early 60’s—Luce or his successors decided Friday was a bad bet. For decades afterward, the magazine would appear at the start of the weekly news cycle, elbowing Newsweek and U.S. News for position.
Newsweek and U.S. News are, so far, staying where they are. But three months into Mr. Stengel’s managing editorship, Time is changing tactics. The news is moving too fast for the old print product to keep up.
On Aug. 21, the new issue of Time featured a two-page spread on the arrest of John Mark Karr in the JonBenet Ramsey case, complete with a sidebar on the Lindbergh baby. It was solidly reported and judiciously skeptical of Mr. Karr’s confession. But by that morning the rest of the media had already moved ahead to the suspect’s return flight to the U.S., debating the question of whether it was appropriate for him to have been served champagne in business class.
So the responsibility for news is supposed to shift to Time.com, while the red-bordered sheaf of pages finds a new role. “The Web is the greatest tool for getting information in human history,” Mr. Stengel said. “If you’re interested in breaking news, you’re going to go there. When you lived in a little village in the 17th century, there was no place to go for breaking news. You’d hear drums banging and find out something was going on.”
Time won’t be the first Luce-founded print title to retreat to the safety of the Friday-through-Sunday audience. “I can’t speak for Time’s readers or what Time’s editors are trying to achieve with this, but we’ve both figured out that the best time to get readers’ attention is on the weekend,” said Bill Shapiro, managing editor of Life magazine.
Life, Time’s iconic photo-heavy sibling, was shut down entirely in 2000, after fading from a weekly to a monthly. It was revived in 2004 as a newspaper supplement on floppy stock, distributed in 90 papers across the country. In roughly 98 percent of those papers, Mr. Shapiro said, it is delivered in the Friday edition.
“From an advertising perspective, Friday is a terrific day to get into someone’s hands,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Time president and worldwide publisher Ed McCarrick expressed the same sentiments in the Time announcement, which quoted him as saying, “The new Friday on-sale date gives advertisers a tremendous opportunity to convey their messages to Time’s 27 million readers before the weekend, when consumers do the large majority of their purchasing.”
Mr. Stengel said that Mr. McCarrick’s message did not mean that the business side had a hand in the scheduling change. “Anytime we’ve made an announcement about anything, that sentence will go in there,” Mr. Stengel said. “ … Advertising has never come up as one of the deciders.”
For the readers, then: What’s so great about Friday?
Fridays are, after all, traditionally the days that the government puts out embarrassing news and statistics, to make sure the coverage gets overlooked.
Mr. McCarrick said that the Friday-published Time will lead a cycle of its own—the punditry cycle, rather than the news cycle, via the weekend talk shows. “When you see Russert and you see Stephanopoulos and you see Wolf Blitzer, Time will be setting the agenda,” Mr. McCarrick said. “Hopefully, it will shape that dialogue.”
“You are getting information into people’s hands when they are most ready to have it,” Mr. Stengel said. “It is about leadership and steering the debate, and creating the agenda, rather than merely reflecting or mirroring it.”
And what if the national agenda is about picking up the dry cleaning, and the debate is over whether the Jets can cover at home against New England?
“The competition is not another news magazine,” Mr. Stengel said. “The competition might be watching football on Sunday or going to the zoo or going to the movies. We’re all competing for eyeballs and attention. It’s not like someone says, ‘Gee, now is my time to read a newsmagazine. Which newsmagazine will I choose?’”
Over at Life, Mr. Shapiro said that his weekend readers get features with “an emotional through-line,” citing a piece that presented photographs of Ferris wheels with an accompanying essay by Garrison Keillor. “I know in your snarky paper that will come off really Middle America,” Mr. Shapiro said.
“Our competition is really USA Weekend and Parade,” Mr. Shapiro said.
So Times’ Joe Klein will be going up against IQ guru Marilyn vos Savant. The score to beat on your Stanford-Binet test is 228, Mr. K!
But Mr. Shapiro said he didn’t see his Time-Life siblings moving into that niche. “Editorially, there’s a huge difference,” he said. “They are not putting out a weekend magazine. They are putting out a magazine that comes out on the weekend, but could come out on Tuesday.”
Life, Mr. Shapiro said, “is geared to help you celebrate the two most important days of the week.”
“It’s not about Iraq,” Mr. Shapiro said. “It’s not about illegal steroid use. It’s not about tycoons putting their hands in your pockets. It’s not meant to make you feel guilty like The New York Times Magazine. It might make you feel like a better person, reading a 5,000-word piece, but I want to spend time with my kids.”
Over to West 43rd Street! “I think weekend readers, my readers, read habitually—and that is a challenge for Time,” New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati, another veteran of serving the weekend crowds, wrote in an e-mail. “Readers of The Times have been finding time to read The Times Magazine on Sunday for generations.”
Time magazine, Mr. Marzorati wrote, has “done tremendous reporting these past years, and reminded us what newsweeklies can do so well—think of Time and Haditha. But they haven’t traditionally given readers long-form magazine journalism.”
The main relationship that Time will need to renegotiate as it moves to the weekends, though, is with Time.com. In theory, the Web site will take the lead in breaking news, while the weekend magazine goes for more polished work.
The highest-profile hires on the Web site, however, have been from the world of opinion, including Andrew Sullivan and former Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox. In June, Mr. Stengel named Ms. Cox the Washington editor of Time.com—a title previously held by political-reporting veteran Matthew Cooper.
“It’s different than Matt Cooper’s job,” Mr. Stengel said. “Her job is to write and to help figure out our Washington online strategy. She ain’t a manager.”
Nor will she edit. “Breaking news filed from Washington is edited in New York anyway,” Mr. Stengel said. “My feeling is that everybody in the Washington bureau works for Time magazine and Time.com. I have a one-newsroom philosophy.”
“Writers just claim something is a trend with no support,” said Kelly Bit, a college senior and aspiring journalist, in a downtown bar recently. “That’s what trend pieces are.”
Can it be? Anecdotally at least, in the summer of 2006, the trend piece appears to be a journalistic form in crisis.
The basic formula has long carried reporters and readers alike through lazy vacation months: colorful quotations from a number (specifically, three) of the trendsetters; a blurb or two from academic experts; some vaguely thesis-related statistics; a reference to the broader zeitgeist.
Now the emphasis seems to be less on which way the cultural winds are blowing and more on the gaps in the stories, through which the wind leaks out.
For Ms. Bit, the turning point came a year ago, with a front-page New York Times article by Louise Story, which argued that “many” ambitious Ivy League women “seem” to be “put[ting] aside their careers in favor of raising children.” It resonated with post-feminist fears—but ambitious Ivy League women pounced on the methodology, accusing Ms. Story, a 2003 Yale grad, of constructing a “trend” out of interviews with her own girlfriends.
Trend pieces often begin with input from a friend or colleague. Sometimes, those casual observations spiral outward to the larger culture, gathering more and more evidence in their widening loops.
This is the subjective style, the approach generally practiced at papers such as, for instance, The New York Observer. The subjective piece persuades and catches on (search Nexis for “Man Flab”) or it passes as a curiosity (search for “Floppy Woo”).
The Times-ian trend piece aims for something more: objective fact and epistemological rigor. Faced with her critics, Ms. Story defended her reporting, saying that while she had found her sources among her fellow Yale women, she had done it by using randomly distributed questionnaires.
The Times keeps dishing out its findings. This summer, the paper ran 2,625 words on affairs between women and their contractors, 1,426 words on the spread of skull insignias in fashion and 1,170 on the newfound hipness of drinking rosé. Last week, The Observer reported that Jennifer 8. Lee’s big-splash 2005 trend piece, “The Man Date,” is being optioned for a movie.
But wary readers are now looking less at the trend that at the piece.
“I still read them,” Ms. Bit said, “just to say to myself, ‘Wow, The Times thinks that’s a trend.’ I don’t even necessarily make fun of them with other people anymore.”
Every decline requires a peak. On June 22, 2003, The Times published Warren St. John’s “Metrosexuals Come Out.” No one needed to be reminded, that summer or afterward, what the piece described. The metrosexuals were upon us.
But even Mr. St. John was unsure if he had a true trend on his hands. “With that story,” Mr. St. John said recently, “I felt that a group of marketers were convinced that [metrosexuals] existed. I found people who said that they actually fit that description. What I can’t possibly know because I’m not old enough, or not smart enough, [is] if that creature is the same as one in the 1940s with different hair products. It may well be that Kiehl’s Lotion is the Brylcreem of the late 90’s.
“I felt that the reaction to that piece showed that it was on-target, but maybe that’s just because I’m a metrosexual.”
Mr. St. John’s years at the Times Styles desk (and before that, at The Observer) have made him something of a practitioner-theorist, and his estimations of the state of the trend piece aren’t particularly promising. Some of it may be personal: “Literally every week,” he said, “some guy will pitch a story to me that says macho guys are back, and someone else will pitch one that says it’s time for a new new metrosexual.”
But his critiques mostly target the slipperiness of the genre itself.
“In my mind, the red flag is the simple phrase ‘more and more,’” Mr. St. John said. “You ought to be able to tell me how many more. If you can’t tell me how many more, maybe you don’t have a story. It begs, you know, head scratching. It’s such a bold claim. More and more! Really? Jeez! How many more?
“There’s an inherent parlor-game component to the trend story—if it’s not happening, it doesn’t mean anything,” Mr. St. John said. “Editors in general don’t like to publish stories about random quirky things. So there’s a kind of pressure to put things into a context, to put it into something broad and culturally meaningful.”
Which gets at the central problem: “Just because something is interesting,” Mr. St. John said, “doesn’t mean it’s a trend.”
But it might just make it as a trend piece.
You would not accuse Tessa Sprauer of false modesty, or missing out on an opportunity to shine ….
Somewhere on a faraway beach, a cellphone rings, a BlackBerry buzzes, a laptop beeps ….
Yes, it’s July.
Whispers follow her like so many eyes.
So began four different Times Styles articles published in recent weeks. The structure of a trend piece is preset, Mad Libs–style, with blanks to fill in. The artistry comes in putting together an enigmatic opener.
After assuring readers it was July, David Colman’s July 27 exegesis on skull-themed clothing continued: “The sun’s shining. People are heading to the beach or just out, to catch some UV, drink some Mountain Dew and indulge in some good clean summer fun.
“But what is that little black cloud drifting across the sun? Will it ruin our picnic, like ants or a motorcycle gang? Heaven protect us—a skull? Not one, but a sea of them! Ah, but ere it comes near, it is clear: it will barely cast a pall.”
Poetry trumps prose. And maybe it should, if readers’ reactions to the substance of the trend stories are any guide.
“People love trend stories,” said Daniel Radosh, who’s written for everything from The New Yorker to Suck. “But, yeah, the Times Styles section is just kind of appalling. Trend of teenagers wanting to dress well? People who can’t go on vacation? Kate Moss taking off her clothes? Thursday Styles has created this outlet of the dubious trend story …. Semi-retirement would be appreciated.”
“They are all so absurd,” said Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam. “All generally limited to a one-ZIP-code radius of where the editors—or their hipper stepchildren—live.”
And now even the established rules of the game are being subtly loosened.
Consider the anecdotal example, directly quoted from a civilian social tastemaker. It is the trend piece’s great contribution to journalism as such—when Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke, no one much cared which man-on-the-Sarajevo-street would make for the most colorful wire copy.
But the population of illustrative examples is thinning out.
“Being a kind of triple-A league trend whore myself,” Mr. Beam said, “usually you still need three solid if somewhat outlandish examples to prove a trend. But Times Styles does now seem to feel that two, two and a quarter sometimes suffice.”
Yes: Two is the New Three!
Stephanie Rosenbloom’s Aug. 10 Times piece, “Please Don’t Make Me Go on Vacation,” for instance, quoted a career Web site rep, a travel Web site flack and a Details article by Anderson Cooper. But for on-the-ground and on-the-record evidence of wired professionals avoiding vacation time, the article included just two regular people: Ellen Kapit, “a real estate agent in Manhattan,” and Randi Friedman, “a publicist in Manhattan.”
The same day, Ruth La Ferla’s “An Impressionable Age” argued that teenagers are being more fashion-forward this year with their back-to-school sartorial choices.
Anecdotal Example No. 1 of the rise of fashion consciousness was 13-year-old Tessa Sprauer, who said that she “never wear[s] anything literally like basic.” Example No. 2 was an eighth-grader named Ally Zingarelli who “like[s] getting dressed up more this year.”
But the proposed Example No. 3 didn’t quite fit: Aileen McCluskey, 16, confided to Ms. La Ferla that she dresses more “upscale” these days than when she was “[i]n junior high.”
Does the fact that a high-school junior now cares more about her clothing than she did when she was a preteen prove a broad societal trend, or is it more a function of, say, human biology?
The Times went with the former.
Even the once-obligatory appearance of a credentialed expert is becoming negotiable.
Mr. Colman’s article on skulls did include a quote from Robert Rosenblum, an N.Y.U. professor who “explained that the skull is central to vanitas, a genre of still-life painting in which temporal pleasures are juxtaposed with a skull.”
But according to Columbia journalism professor Andie Tucher, “You don’t necessarily need an expert to validate the story. You just need to make sure the story has resonance beyond the reporter sitting in pajamas trying to come up with ideas.”
Ms. Tucher, a scholar of the history of the American press, recounted an era when the trend piece was anything but hackneyed and near-comatose.
“My real feeling,” she said, “is that trend journalism became popular and important in the 60’s and the 70’s, sparked by New Journalism. The idea that people were going to write longer stories, deep inside stories, a trend—not just the trendiness, but also to set it in some kind of context that was smarter than daily journalism.
“But then mainstream journalism began to follow suit. The Times was later than the other papers, starting in 1976 with its Living sections and weekend sections, later than The Washington Post and the L.A. Times. The new mainstream stuff, a) was longer, and b) was supposed to look smart.”
Not every Post or Times beat writer can be Tom Wolfe. But Ms. Tucher said the real downfall came only with the last decade’s advances in electronic communications.
“The Internet is driving it,” she said. “There’s little time to sit back and think, [a story] gets picked up by the Web if there’s anything that really grabs. Journalism—there are no borders any more. The boundaries are gone.”
A young Manhattan writer amplified, via e-mail, the historian’s analysis:
“Editors face the pressure of declining readership pretty much every week,” he wrote, “especially in New York. There are, like, a billion different things to read …. This is a job: You call a few people, get a few quotes, write a few words about a thing you don’t really know that much about, and then you start over again.”
“I think,” Nick Sylvester concluded, “people are just happy to have jobs in the industry.”
Yes, that Nick Sylvester.
Mr. Sylvester was fired from The Village Voice this spring, after a trend piece he had written on young urban men using pickup tips from author Neil Strauss’ The Game turned out to contain fabricated anecdotes. For most, the 24-year-old simply became 2006’s Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair, a young fabulist in over his head. But in a blog-posted mea culpa, Mr. Sylvester claimed that his Strauss article actually began life as something of a trend piece parody—complete with phony “gonzo” details. The crime, he admitted, was in making his “liberties” less than obvious, with letting them be published as fact.
“There’s nothing wrong per se with examples, experts, relevance, when trying to situate or make sense of an event or person or phenomenon,” Mr. Sylvester said recently. “I question the packaging of simple human interaction as ‘Sirens! Sirens! New, Improved Trend, Young People in the Hip East Village Giving Blowjobs to Lepers, But Not Really! Sirens! Sirens!’”
Mr. Sylvester said he sees little point— given how atomized and mediated the culture is anyway—in arguing over a trend piece’s “objectivity.”
“What constitutes a trend?” he asked. “Five people doing crazy stuff? 100? Don’t all trends start with a group of friends? … Discounting hard news, which has a supremely important function that nobody should fuck with, why are people so hung up on whether something actually happened exactly as said, instead of a story’s moral weight?”
Yet the faded, abused, misused format still may not die.
In 1998, Daniel Radosh penned a GQ article titled “The Trendspotting Generation,” a meta-trend piece about fin de millenaire trend pieces which asked a simple question: What is the appeal in reading about trends? “We turn our anxieties into narratives, complete with deeper meanings, and thereby hope to conquer or at least soothe them,” Mr. Radosh wrote, in the parodic first-person plural.
Warren St. John once kept a copy of the essay on his desk at The Times.
“When I wrote that,” Mr. Radosh said, “I was an idealistic young man and I had the idea that if I used every cliché of the trend story, it would cause a rift in the space-time continuum and end the trend story.”
Perhaps the Trendspotting Generation is now being replaced by a generation of Trend Skeptics—readers like Kelly Bit and writers like Nick Sylvester—who, implicitly or explicitly, are dubious about any attempt to discover social currents that steer more than individuals or groups of friends.
But, if that’s the case, how would we know? As Mr. Radosh said, “There are writers who want to write a story about trends, but they know they will look foolish. The ‘backlash story’ just becomes another way to write the trend story.”
Ms. Tucher, the Columbia journalism professor, considered the notion of a “backlash trend piece” on trend pieces for a moment, before giving a measured response.
“I don’t want to say emphatically that such stories are stupid or silly,” she demurred, “but they can be way too clever.”
—Samuel Jacobs and Jonathan Liu
Follow Michael Calderone via RSS.