Nightcrawlers! Party Reporting and the Paper of Record

At the Tony Awards last week, a pair of the city’s rival nightlife columnists, Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times and Marshall Heyman of The Wall Street Journal, happened to walk into the Beacon Theatre together.

Spying Mr. Heyman, a theatergoer stopped to gush about his work. He did it better than anyone else, the man said. Was the woman by his side—Ms. Maslin Nir in her mother’s Pucci—his wife?

Not quite. But the two columnists are wedded to a common mission: figuring out—in a city teeming with tabloids, gossip bloggers and celebrity-fawning weeklies—just what the hell its most sober-minded daily newspapers are doing writing up parties, fawning over models and skirmishing over celebrity bons mots.

The Journal touched off the battle in March 2010, hiring Mr. Heyman, previously an editor at W, to write a nightlife column for the Greater New York section—which had been launched as part of an aggressive effort to shake the Times’s claim on the city’s cultural coverage as well as on local advertisers.

The next month, Carolyn Ryan, now the Times’s metro editor, enlisted Ms. Maslin Nir, an accomplished freelancer, to write up two parties a week as the Nocturnalist on the City Room blog. The Times, of course, had published society columns before, most recently the Boldface Names, penned by Joyce Wadler. Amusing but less consequential, Boldface Names was killed in 2006 by Ms. Ryan’s predecessor,Joe Sexton, after executive editor Bill Keller decided it had “run its course.”

Ms. Maslin Nir adopted a more personal, idiosyncratic approach, going deep-sea diving in Brooklyn and watching aerialists in Williamsburg. There are many ways, the column suggested, to define “society” in New York.

Heard & Scene, Mr. Heyman’s effort, took a different tack, invoking the paper’s business ethos by acknowledging the financial interests behind the various events. By including the companies that paid for the canapés—and not merely their celebrity guests—he quickly became a favorite among publicists.

With Mr. Heyman filing six columns a week, sometimes spanning several far-flung soirees, collecting party quotes took on the urgency of an arms race. In April, the Nocturnalist became a twice-weekly national print feature and largely abandoned outer-borough diversions for glitzier events.

Ms. Ryan suggested the column skew more high-profile, Ms. Maslin Nir remembered, wanting a feeling of “pushing my nose up against the glass at these rarified worlds.” The column also quadrupled the number of parties it covered each week.

Given the hectic pace, it wasn’t surprising when both columnists began wrangling groups of stringers to cover more banquet halls and boîtes. Ms. Maslin Nir enlisted seasoned newsroom veterans like Sam Roberts, Brian Stelter and bureau chief Shaila Dewan. The Journal uses stringers inside and outside Dow Jones to flesh out the section, paying about $200 for freelance dispatches, according to a source. Mr. Heyman did not return Off the Record’s calls for comment.

It’s not as if the two columns were using the manpower to compete for scoops. After a year on the job, the dailies’ coverage remains uniquely mild. When Ms. Wadler left Boldface Names, she complained that publicists had dulled the beat. So far, the new generation seems to have accommodated itself to this reality, trafficking less in dish than in ambiance and occasional gems of irony.

“If one celebrity were trash-talking another, that wouldn’t be our thing,” Ms. Maslin Nir said.

Neither column is out to break news, but it’s in their interest to stay abreast of the industries. “If you don’t have people at parties you lose touch with what’s going on minute by minute,” explained a VP at a major arts publicity firm. “It’s smart, and it’s good for advertisers.”

And in this climate, maintaining good relations with advertisers is crucial, even for serious-minded outlets like The Times and The Journal, which have arrived on a beat already crowded with reporters from the tabloids (the Page Six and Gatecrasher columns), New York magazine, WWD, Guest of a Guest and this newspaper, not to mention freelancers for glossy mags’ party blogs.

“You see the same group of them every night. They’re all friends,” the publicist said.

At a recent event for a sunglasses company, a chummy, communal vibe was in the air. Access to one reporter’s mental catalogue of celebrity faces (Wait, was that Terry Gilliam?) was swapped for a plus-one to a future fete or a spare cigarette. Who could afford to be mean when they will all reconvene a week later for the opening of a hotel?

The collegiality owes to the fact that many see the party beat as a better lubricated version of J-school. New York magazine has turned an army of eager contributors into an event-coverage machine called Party Lines. The section’s wrangler, Patti Greco, deploys dozens of freelancers and interns, some barely of drinking age, many still in college, to parties around the city. (Her predecessor, Jada Yuan, recently moved on to feature writing.) Their items are filed into a central editing unit, a party reporting chop shop where reports are disassembled and slotted into various sections. Pay ranges from $50 to $150, depending on the reportage’s mileage.

It’s not a writer’s romantic ideal, but it works. There’s always another party, another Kyle MacLachlan sighting, and another aspiring young thing to screw up his courage and walk over with his recorder held aloft.

But they might not see Ms. Maslin Nir there so often. She has been named a full-time reporter at The Times and is slated to do its rotational training program, which means more visits to the cop shop than the coat check. She’s keeping one foot in the club; the Nocturnalist will be a weekly, four-party column. The rest of the week belongs to Mr. Heyman and the stringers.

 

Nightcrawlers! Party Reporting and the Paper of Record