Power Punk: Jodi Kantor

The Times’ li’l culture czarina; what an audition! what mentors! but where are pieces on Eugene O’Neill?

A year ago, there was a consensus inside and outside The New York Times that Sunday Arts and Leisure was in a major funk-the section was a bore, digestive rather than energetic, let alone contentious. A search began for a new editor.

At the time, Jodi Kantor was in her fourth year as an editor at the online magazine Slate . She had gotten Times columnist Frank Rich, a friend of Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley, to contribute. Mr. Rich liked dealing with her, and they struck up a correspondence. In the fall of 2002, she not-so-innocently offered to share her thoughts about how Arts and Leisure could be improved.

Mr. Rich said O.K., and so she fired off a lengthy e-mail to the newly appointed culture editor, Steven Erlanger, who was impressed.

The first sentence: ” The New York Times is serving its readers spinach for dessert.”

Then–executive editor Howell Raines gave his approval to hire Ms. Kantor in January, one of his last moves before the Jayson Blair scandal and the post-Blair anti-youth backlash. The sneers could be seen all over town. Here’s a little spot for you to imagine them.

Ms. Kantor was 27 years old, and was known at The Times mainly for writing a few book reviews and Dining section pieces on topics like falafels and the difficulty of selecting her wedding menu, while Slate was no one’s idea of the forefront of cultural journalism. Besides, conventional wisdom had it that no editor, least of all the out-of-nowhere Ms. Kantor, could put the spurs to the sluggish behemoth that was the Arts and Leisure section. Yet now, just nine months later, say what you want about how compelling the section still isn’t-Arts and Leisure is practically unrecognizable. Ms. Kantor charged into The New York Times , that temple of self-regard, den of thwarted-ambition lifers and, without the authority to fire anyone or hire anyone new but a deputy, made a staff of seven editors all at least a decade older than she is give their product an extreme makeover.

“Sure, I was terrified,” Ms. Kantor said.”Butthat’s yourword,not mine. The word I woulduseis ‘daunted.'”

The perky, bespectacled 28-year-old was having a quick dinner near The Times ‘ West 43rd Street headquarters on a Monday night. She was about to go on vacation in Hawaii, and had to get back to the office where, she said, she would be staying until 2 a.m. Ms. Kantor admitted to feeling “very happy” and “supercharged.”

“It’s an all-you-can-eat cultural experience!” she said of her new position. “There are not enough hours in the day to consume as much culture as I want to or shall consume for this job. You just have to force yourself to go to that screening of Cold Mountain -you know, poor me, having to actually be compensated to screen and think about movies. So it’s incredible.”

One key to her success may be her ability to ignore her public image and keep her eyes on her own idea of what the prize is. Soon after she arrived on 43rd Street, the word was that her shell-shocked staff was appalled at her slash-and-burn methods. Last July, there was the inevitable Page Six item: Some anonymous staffers complained that Ms. Kantor was “very aloof” and “in over her head,” assigning laughable pieces to “old Slate cronies and Web bloggers.”

Ms. Kantor didn’t flinch. “I’d been warned that getting reamed by Page Six was actually a ritual of coming to work at The Times ,” she said, finished with her lamb chops. “It’s practically in the orientation guidebook. So I’d been waiting around for it to happen to me, and when it finally did, I thought, ‘I have been initiated . I have been hazed .’ I think I got more congratulatory e-mails the day I was reamed by Page Six than on the day I was hired.”

Besides, who cares about gossip columns-or even your own staff-when the cadre of middle-aged men who are your Times superiors sing your praises in three-part harmony?

“I love her intelligence and vivacity,” said executive editor Bill Keller, hmmm ; “She’s warm, quick, engaged and responsible, and she’s quickly made her way at The Times ,” said Steven Erlanger, hmmm ; “She’s very mature and poised. But it’s amazing that she has so much more time to keep growing. You know, it’s kind of impressive. She gets it. She just gets it,” said Frank Rich, hmmm !

Ms. Kantor said she grew up a “total New York City kid” in four boroughs. She was not only a “huge” reader but an “obsessed” and “addicted” one. She reread A Wrinkle in Time 10 times and devoured the Sweet Valley High series, but The Times was her first love. “It was the first publication I read,” she said.

By eighth grade, Ms. Kantor said, she was reading it religiously every day.

Her current job may in fact be a textbook case of Times geekiness come full circle: By high school, she was proudly sporting a red Times sweatshirt that fit funnily, the sleeves way too long, “and yet I wore it,” she said. Her mother got her a blue button that asked, “Have you read your New York Times today?” She affixed it to her backpack. Always, the first section she opened was Arts and Leisure, Ms. Kantor volunteered, eerily echoing a certain dreaded TV commercial.

Asked what her parents do for a living, she replied, “You know what? I have a little pet peeve, if you don’t mind. I hate talking about parents and professions and stuff. It’s so like New York Times wedding section.” Apostasy!

After graduating from Columbia University magna cum laude in 1996, Ms. Kantor spent a year in Israel and another one working for the Giuliani administration. Early in her first semester at Harvard Law School, she figured out that she didn’t want to be a lawyer. A journalist friend of hers had introduced her to an editor at Slate , David Plotz, to whom she began soul-searching e-mails about why she felt trapped on the wrong path. Mr. Plotz took pity and hired her as an editorial assistant at Slate ‘s Washington, D.C., office. “I never thought I could make it as a journalist,” Ms. Kantor said. “I thought it was like being an actor; I thought for every successful journalist, there were two or three thousand talented young wannabes who had just never gotten their chance at success.”

Kantor, you’re going in there a youngster, but you’re coming out a Gelb!

-George Gurley Power Punk: Jodi Kantor