Copy Cats: The Secret Art Cabal Inside The New York Times

cqcx rosen tapia libii Copy Cats: The Secret Art Cabal Inside The New York TimesThere’s an early scene in CQ/CX—a new off-Broadway play about The New York Times that does not pretend any character’s resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental—in which the guy based on Jayson Blair encounters a veteran editor at the paper’s favored watering hole.

“Started as a copy boy 43 years ago in March,” the old-timer brags as he fetches Jayson a Glenlivet. “Only job I ever had.”

Mistaking Jayson for a news clerk—one rung above the copy boy—the editor can hardly believe such a young man had written all those page one stories. (For good reason, it turned out.)

“Used to take years to get a byline,” he remarks. “Now they hand them out like candy.”

Well, maybe not that easy. But cultural changes at The Times over the past 20 years mean the newsroom grunts probably aren’t angling for bylines, anyway. Job openings dwindled with the economy, hiring scrutiny ramped up (thanks, Jayson), and the career track that gave the Times copy boy job its retroactive glamour (Arthur Gelb, Gay Talese and Robert Rosenthal all did stints) ceased to exist.

As a result, the Times clerical department—once a gilded cage for Phi Beta Kappas with Pulitzers in their eyes (but unwilling to move to Hartford or Newark to accumulate the clips required for a full-blown reporting job)—is staffed by men and women who harbor artistic, not journalistic, ambitions.

In fact, CQ/CX was written by one such underling. Gabe McKinley spent 12 happy years as a Times subordinate.

“I needed a day job while I was rolling around on the floor in acting classes at Tisch,” Mr. McKinley told The Observer from Los Angeles, where he was taking meetings for a CQ/CX movie.

For Mr. McKinley’s older brothers James and Jesse—a Times culture writer and national correspondent, respectively—clerking was the first step in following in the career trajectory of their father, a writer for Esquire and Playboy. For Gabe, it was just a gig.

“News assistants can write, they have opportunities,” Mr. McKinley said, “but the paper would rather have people who lack ambition in that industry but are competent at doing things that need to be done.”

He wasn’t the only creative type drawn to the job’s late call times and union wages.

“You meet a lot of artists,” he said. “It’s a good job for that. You can work at night and the pay is good. With overtime you can make an existence.”

And because they’re not frantic careerists, spending every spare moment hustling on a story that might get them noticed for a promotion, a content inertia has settled over the department. It’s the kind of job one could really settle into.

“You go in thinking, ‘It’s just a job, it’s better than waiting tables,’” Mr. McKinley said. “And then you walk out of the building 12 years later.”

On a recent Thursday night, a Times news assistant named Chris Harcum opened Rabbit Island, a one-hour comedy put on by the Frigid Festival, in the dusty Kraine Theater above KGB bar. The same night, 500 yards away, singer-songwriter and Times news assistant Alfonso Velez played a show at Joe’s Pub.

Another, Mathew Warren, recently raised $15,000 to make a documentary about Latin boogaloo music, We Like It Like That, on Kickstarter. Justin Sullivan, a temping Times clerk, just left the department to go to L.A. to record an album with his band, the Babies, which also features Cassie Ramone from Vivian Girls and Kevin Morby from Woods.

The Times’s artsy subaltern has found a sympathetic leader in Steven McElroy, the head of the clerical department, who came to the Times in 1995 as an actor looking for a temp job.

While working off and on at the paper, Mr. McElroy put on Chekhov and Shakespeare off-Broadway, adapted Sartre for the stage, and directed a play about Coyote Ugly (post-GQ article, pre-Tyra Banks movie) and a one-woman show about body image that was a huge hit on the college circuit. It’s called Size Ate and it is written and performed by Margaux Laskey, now the deputy head of the Times’s clerical department.

When he didn’t have one foot in the theater, Mr. McElroy wrote about it for the Arts & Leisure section and the Arts Beat blog.

“I became sort of enamored of The New York Times,” Mr. McElroy said, “It turned into a real career for me.”

Five years ago, Mr. Harcum was wrapping up a puppet theater gig when his costar said she was off to her other job, at The Times. He asked her to call him if she heard about any other openings up there, and it wasn’t long before Mr. McElroy called him in.

“I immediately recognized him and said, ‘You were in this play with my friend,’” Mr. Harcum recalled. “We just started talking about theater for 20 minutes.”

Mr. McElroy said that when hiring clerks and news assistants he looks for someone who has a good attention to detail and who is not going to be put out by having to do support work. Some news assistants do research or fact-checking, others compile data for entertainment listings, best-sellers lists and weather reporting, most make copies and answer phones.

“I don’t care if they’re actors, reporters, painters—we have a painter, or we used to—or whatever,” he said, “but I do care if they care about the quality of The New York Times.”

These days, one news assistant will get tapped for a probationary “8i” reporting job every few years. (Maureen Dowd’s assistants have a good batting average.) The others post their extracurricular achievements—a short story published in an anthology, a new show going up—to the internal “Ahead of the Times” online bulletin board.

“No matter who it is, acting is a part-time job,” Mr. Harcum said. “Even if you’re famous, you’re working on being famous. That’s more your job than your acting is. You have to do something, and this is the best job I’ve had outside of anything I’ve done with my art.

“They would say whenever you’re catering or waiting tables, ‘It’s like you’re performing!’ But, honestly, putting the paper up is the closest thing I’ve had to putting up a production,” he said.

“Almost any close can seem just like an opening night in a way,” he went on, “where you’re sure something could go wrong or at the last minute you have to change something out.”

Mr. Harcum was forced to cut 40 pages from the script of Rabbit Island in the days before it went up to meet the festival’s strict 60-minute time limit. He also added a nonspeaking role, which he played. He kept a straight face while the actors nailed punch lines that had flopped in rehearsal and swiftly changed the set between scenes.

And the music that played while he was rearranging cubes? It was written by Scott Garapolo, a fellow news assistant who trained Mr. Harcum on the Week in Review section.

Although Times clerical jobs have changed, one of the gig’s evergreen perks is the insider’s view it affords of The Times, if you’re into that sort of thing.

“When I look back, my fondest, most meaningful memories come from that grunt’s-eye view of the place,” said Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair editor and former Times copy boy.

Mr. Purdum officially learned the editors’ names by bringing them print-outs of wire copy, but his duties sometimes extended to hand-delivering Abe Rosenthal’s briefcase to his Central Park West apartment, so that he could go to dinner unencumbered.

For Mr. McKinley, it afforded a front-row seat overlooking one of the paper’s greatest scandals.

“I remember Jayson walking into Gerald Boyd’s office and thinking, ‘Uh oh,’” said the playwright, who was then charged with compiling the Page 2 news summaries.

He and Mr. Blair became friendly, and their late nights out informed the tone of the dialogue.

“Jayson spent a lot of time with the clerks because we were closer in age to him and, later, because the clerks always know everything that’s going on at the paper,” he said. (Indeed, Mr. Gelb started the paper’s first internal newsletter, Times Talk, while working as a copy boy.)

Such privileged access didn’t escape the notice of Times higher-ups.

“The entire masthead has seen the play, past and present,” he added, including Jill Abramson, Al Siegal and Craig Whitney. “I think they want to know if they’re in it.”

kstoeffel@observer.com