Inside the Times, Managing Editor Rouses Rookies

The New York Times has seen tomorrow, and it is Medicaid fraud and man dates! On July 6, Times managing editor Jill Abramson and associate managing editor Rick Berke convened a lunchtime gathering of the paper’s youngest writers—including health-system-exposé scribe Michael Luo and social-trend-piece innovator Jennifer 8. Lee—to urge them to put their stamp on the paper.

The morning that Judith Miller was heading to jail in the name of civil disobedience, Ms. Abramson was telling The Times’ youth corps to practice a little disobedience of its own. Her message, said a staffer who attended, was: “Don’t roll over to your editors. We’re the future of the paper.”

“Not to start World War III with editors,” Ms. Abramson said on the phone this week, “but I wanted to consciously send them a message that we want the paper to be full of engaging writing and engaging voices.”

So, at a buffet luncheon of sushi, tandoori chicken and curried cauliflower in the paper’s 11th-floor dining room, Ms. Abramson admonished the junior set to resist the paper’s “stentorian voice.”

“Jill encouraged us to be rebellious in our writing,” the staffer said. “She told us we should fight back. If we want to do something risqué that editors clean up, we should push back.”

The designated Wild Ones consisted of 16 staffers under the age of 30. Besides Mr. Luo and Ms. Lee, the group included business writers Andrew Ross Sorkin and Eric Dash, metro reporters Sewell Chan and Nicholas Confessore, arts reporter Lola Ogunnaike and Boldface Names scribe—and occasional cartoonist—Campbell Robertson.

Ms. Abramson said the meeting with the young Timespersons was part of a larger effort to get sharper prose into the pages. “It’s a feeling in general that I have,” she said. “I’m talking about writing with style and some edge, and constantly looking for the most interesting way to frame stories.”

The clash between writerly ambitions and editorial caution is an eternal one at The Times. Ms. Abramson herself experienced it shortly after joining the paper’s Washington bureau in 1997, she said.

For a 1,600-word front-page piece on the scandals plaguing then–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Ms. Abramson—fresh from The Wall Street Journal—ventured to write a narrative lead, she recalled. An editor in the bureau threatened to turn it into a straight-news one.

“I pressed to keep it the way it was,” Ms. Abramson said. “I pushed back, and it mostly stayed the way I wrote it.” (“In the fall of 1962, Bruce Babbitt met Paul Eckstein,” the final version began. “They were first-year students at Harvard Law School …. ”)

“I got a good reaction from people in the bureau,” she said. “It was a different kind of piece.”

Cultivating that spirit of rebellion is likewise an institutional tradition around The Times.

“In my day,” former managing editor Arthur Gelb said, “the backbone of The Times was the voice of the young reporter. I always believed young reporters were the strength of the paper. Older reporters helped out the younger ones. It was a cycle. But that cycle broke down, to my regret.

“Without the young reporters’ voice in the paper, we lose a great deal,” Mr. Gelb continued. “We lose a freshness.”

Freshness was what Ms. Abramson and Mr. Berke were seeking at the lunch meeting. (Executive editor Bill Keller had planned to attend, but had to cancel to be in court with Ms. Miller.) Among the youth-oriented topics on the agenda was the question of whether The Times should consider abandoning the use of formal honorifics throughout the paper. Currently, only the sports pages and The Times Magazine omit the titles.

“I raised that,” Mr. Berke said. “I was just curious if younger people thought it was stodgy and old-fashioned.”

The verdict of the new generation: No, sir!

“Most people in the room,” Mr. Berke said, “thought it was a unique element in the paper.”

The editors also consulted with the youngsters on the subject of the paper’s pop-culture coverage—a wedge issue in the Howell Raines era, when Britney Spears infamously landed on the front page. “What we don’t want to do is Britney,” Ms. Abramson assured them at one point, according to a staffer.

One staffer took the occasion to contrast The Times’ coverage of the recent Live 8 concerts with The Washington Post’s. Next to The Times’ package of dispatches from pop-music critics Kelefa Sanneh in Philadelphia and Jon Pareles in London, The Post’s 2,000-word feature account of the Philadelphia show “had more flavor,” that staffer opined, according to another person at the lunch.

At another point, Ms. Abramson invited the writers to send her their drafts, “at the risk of being inundated”—another longstanding practice at The Times.

“Certainly I don’t interfere with the normal editing of the paper,” Ms. Abramson said. “Nor do I want the reporters to say to their line editors, ‘Well, Jill likes it, and she says I don’t have to listen to you!’”

In March—a year into the Valerie Plame leak case, but three months before it reached fever pitch—Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper sat down in an Italian restaurant to help Roll Call columnist Mary Ann Akers write some jokes.

Ms. Akers was performing a stand-up routine later that night at the National Press Club, in a memorial event in honor of Hunter S. Thompson that Mr. Cooper was emceeing.

“I said I wanted to make reference to the C.I.A. leak investigation and the prosecutor’s threat to throw him in the slammer,” Ms. Akers recounted in an e-mail. “He said, ‘Sure, since I’m not allowed to talk about it, you can.’”

So Mr. Cooper helped her put together her gags—“like the champ that he is,” Ms. Akers wrote. She welcomed the input—after all, Mr. Cooper had been in the comedy game for eight years, doing stand-up at various clubs in New York and Washington, D.C., when he wasn’t covering the White House for Newsweek and Time.

To date, Mr. Cooper has performed between 40 and 50 gigs in the course of his moonlighting career, according to political columnist/part-time comic Walter Shapiro. Mr. Shapiro was the one who “discovered” Mr. Cooper the Comedian, landing him his first public appearance at the Gotham Comedy Club’s Boomer Humor night after seeing him give a toast at the Washington Monthly Annual Dinner.

Mr. Cooper’s bread and butter came from political jokes, and his impressions of Bill Clinton and Al Gore were famous among professional comedians and the Washington press corps alike.

“I remember how he talked about Clinton and Gore, and he was comparing their personalities to two kids experimenting with pot,” said political satirist Richard Siegel. “He said that Gore was the real uptight one—you know, ‘Mom’s gonna catch us, I know she’s gonna catch us,’ and Clinton was like, ‘Oh, c’mon, let’s listen to another album.’”

After that first gig at Gotham, Mr. Cooper started taking his comedy very seriously. He’d come up to New York to perform whenever he was asked—which was often—even if he had to be in the newsroom the next morning. Often, according to Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Cooper would hop on midnight buses back to the capital after evening shows in New York.

“Matt is much more of a New York–funny guy than a Washington-funny guy,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Video of the 2004 “Washington’s Funniest Celebrity” contest shows Mr. Cooper drawing hardly any laughs with a five-minute routine on John Kerry’s stiffness, John Edwards’ resemblance to John Denver (“You’re a multimillion-dollar trial lawyer—get a decent haircut!”) and Martha Stewart.

At one point on the tape, after a riff about Dick Cheney and W.M.D. lands with a thud, Mr. Cooper looks down and raises his eyebrows in apology: “O.K.—you know, it’s Wednesday night, you don’t get the good comics on Wednesday night. That’s the thing. You have to go on Saturday nights. You get the better comics on Saturday nights.”

“Seriously, that’s not emblematic!” Mr. Shapiro said. “Washington humor is how many times you can mention Tom DeLay in the same sentence. New York is a little more knowing, a little less self-important.”

Indeed, 2004 was not Mr. Cooper at his best. He had won the same contest six years earlier with a perfect score, beating out the likes of Norman Ornstein for top honors. (In an unfortunate footnote to his victory, Mr. Cooper was accused of anti-Muslim sentiment by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for making “choking sounds as he tried to pronounce an Arabic name” during his set.)

Despite that history, Ms. Akers took his advice at the National Press Club, writing a joke into her set about his potential prison sentence.

“He thought I should do something in my routine on the gay outing campaign that surrounded the ’04 elections,” she recalled. Having covered the scandal for Roll Call, Ms. Akers knew she wanted to use a bit about former Congressman Ed Schrock, a Virginia Beach conservative who was outed during his re-election campaign, and Mr. Cooper apparently thought that would be a good opportunity to drop a riff about his own legal problems.

“My joke ended with something like, ‘Hey, did you know Ed Schrock still works on Capitol Hill?’“ Ms. Akers wrote in her e-mail. “‘Yes, true story. He does. He’s an attendant in the men’s room.’ Then I said, ‘Hey, speaking of man-on-man love, let’s talk about Matt Cooper.’”

According to Tim Howe, who has produced several gigs featuring Mr. Cooper, the embattled Time reporter stayed in the back of the room, pacing back and forth and listening intently as Ms. Akers performed. “Cooper knew the whole routine!” he said. “I could see him mouthing the words. And then when a joke hit, he just pumped his arm in the air.”

As prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s attack sharpened in the following months, the jokes stopped coming—and Mr. Cooper hasn’t performed a comedy routine since the Hunter Thompson event. Mr. Cooper declined to comment about his past or future comedy career.

“I hope he comes back; he’s a talented guy,” says Chris Mazzilli, owner of the Gotham Comedy Club. “I’m sure he’d have quite a following now.”

—Leon Neyfakh

New York magazine “Naked City” columnist Amy Sohn faces certain obstacles to writing about sex in its varieties: She’s now a stable thirtysomething, married and breeding and working for Adam Moss. But Ms. Sohn knows the perfect friend to consult for insights into the sticky dating-and-mating scene—a randy, twentysomething sex columnist for the New York Press by the name of Amy Sohn.

Selected leads from recent “Naked City” columns:

July 25, 2005: “A few years ago, I started seeing a man twice my age.”

June 20, 2005: “When I graduated from college and moved back to New York, it hit me that since I had not met the love of my life at school, I would have to find him in the Real World, a place that seemed terrifyingly dangerous and immense.”

Feb. 14, 2005: “I was riding home from a party in a cab with a narcissistic boyfriend when he said, ‘I’m a little bit upset with you.’”

Nov. 22, 2004: “A month before I met the man I eventually married, I was seeing a guy I’ll call Flake.”

Aug. 16, 2004: “A couple of years ago, I met a guy at my local bar, and as soon as I beat him at eight-ball, he said he liked my eyes.”

May 10, 2004: “A few years ago, I dated the ex of a friend.”

—Tom Scocca

New York Times pundit standings, July 12-18

1. Frank Rich, score 24.0 [rank last week: 1st]

2. Sarah Vowell, 15.0 [5th]

3. Thomas L. Friedman, 13.0 [2nd]

4. Paul Krugman, 12.5 [6th]

5. Bob Herbert, 0.5 [3rd]

6. (tie) David Brooks, 0.0 [no rank] Nicholas D. Kristof, 0.0 [7th] John Tierney, 0.0 [4th]

Temp columnist Sarah Vowell channeled her inner Alsop this week, offering a piece titled “The Speech the President Should Give.” So much for ladies being too shy and retiring to play the op-ed game! Or to prosper at it: Ms. Vowell placed both of her columns in the week’s Most E-Mailed list—two more than Bob Herbert, David Brooks, Nicholas D. Kristof and John Tierney put together.

—T.S. Inside the Times, Managing  Editor Rouses Rookies