back to the Black Table
       
  THE OLD GRAY LADY IS EATING ITS YOUNG: WHY THE TIMES NEEDS JODI KANTOR.  
   
   
 

With all the sturm und drang going on at The New York Times these days, it came as little surprise to see the hatchet job The New York Post's Page Six -- armed with those dreaded nameless newsroom sources -- gave to Sunday Arts and Leisure Editor Jodi Kantor on Tuesday. The only surprise might be that it took them this long.

If you didn't see it, the gossip item concerned further grumblings at the Times about Kantor, who took over the section in March after working four years for Slate. Kantor's hiring was part of since-resigned Executive Editor Howell Raines' attempt to liven up a stale section with some youth and energy, and Kantor, who pioneered the Sopranos table talk among psychiatrists at Slate (along with other innovations), became the smiling face of the Raines regime: Young, talented and ready to stir the pot a little bit.

To many, particularly young journalists, Kantor's hiring was inspirational, a symbol that new voices on the Web were finally being noticed by the mainstream media. A 28-year-old editor at the Times?! Fans of Kantor's work knew that she would be great at the job, but that the Old Gray Lady noticed seemed to legitimize the whole enterprise. The revolution was beginning.

But then Jayson Blair happened, and he took down Raines and his supporters and damn near the whole paper. Much has been made of Blair's race, but if anything, what mattered more was his age: 27. It's not black reporters who are derided in the Times newsroom -- it's young ones. Particularly those who, like Kantor, started their careers on the Web.

Raines took a chance on Kantor, and with him gone, some believe her protection has eroded. So some Times staffers -- likely those from sections other than Arts and Leisure -- are taking aim. The Page Six piece is aggressively nasty, calling Kantor "in over her head" and claiming she's using "inexperienced webloggers" to write for her section. It goes on to attack journalist Sarah Hepola, who has freelanced for the Times under Kantor, for her gripping piece in The Morning News about meeting Blair and the very nature of deceit. The implication is clear: Kantor is hiring undisciplined, lazy Web writers to grace the pages of the sacred Times.

It's difficult to blame Page Six for the spiteful piece; it's a gossip column, after all, and it is a juicy tidbit. No self-respecting gossip columnist would have avoided it. No, this seems to have originated from within the Times, and the fear and envy of anything new is obvious … and emblematic. (Of course, it is certainly possible that Page Six just made the whole thing up; stranger things have happened. We are talking about the Post here. But, for the sake of discussion, there seems to be no reason to take the story at anything less than face value.)

So let's start from the top. This whole notion that Kantor's origins in Web journalism somehow makes her less of an editor is ridiculous. First off, Kantor wasn't running jodikantor.diaryland.com. She was a top editor at Slate, one of the finest publications, online or offline, you'll find. Kantor might not have the decades of journalism experience as the guy in the tweed suit and bow tie still using his grandfather's typewriter, but she clearly has proven herself on a nationwide level, in a medium more immediate and stressful than the slow, daily (or even weekly) pace of a newspaper. (Kantor had a piece up on Slate about the 9-11 terror attacks by 11:30 that morning.)

The Page Six item also seems to imply that anyone who writes for the Web is a disgruntled Weblogger just shooting their mouths off. The rip on Hepola is a cheap shot -- the story extracts quotes from her Morning News story that make her seem like a perpetual liar; anyone who actually read the story understood that Hepola was analyzing the very nature of dishonesty -- but typical. Amazingly, Web journalism is still seen by many as reckless, a couple of geeks in their parents' basement with a modem and a bunch of free time. This preposterous perception could be classified as quaint or outdated if it had ever been true in the first place. And let's face it: What publication has a wider credibility gap these days: Slate, or the Times? Think hard about your answer.

 

 
 

And, lest we forget, Kantor is doing a fine job. Who can forget the great grunge hoax of a decade ago, where Seattle pranksters convinced the paper of record that young rock stars were using terms like "swingin' on the flippity-flop" and "cob nobbler"?

Kantor's greatest strength is her ability to take what the Times, in the past, might have once brushed off as petty pop culture and turn it into something worth talking about. Critical thinking about pop culture is a fairly recent concept, and Kantor has helped legitimize it by putting it in the Times. She, through the Times, has an opportunity to set an agenda that is recognizable to the biggest consumers of mass culture. If newspapers want to remain relevant, they're going to have to continue to attract those same consumers. If you're a journalist who doesn't think that's where the future of this industry is going, you're in the wrong business.

She has also brought in a number of quality writers with backgrounds on the Web, like Hepola, who also has years of experience at the Austin Chronicle, and Gawker's

 
 

Elizabeth Spiers. These are new voices bringing new ideas to the Times … and she's just getting started.

But there's that whole problem again: Writers from the Web. The notion is that Web writing is inferior to something that appears in print. This idea is even prevalent in Web writing circles themselves. Ask any Web editor what the ultimate goal for their site is, and they'll inevitably say, "Oh, print, definitely. We'd love to get into print." But if you want to see the future of journalism, and of writing, you'll find it on The Morning News, or Flak, or Haypenny, or, we dare say, The Black Table. This is where they're coming from. This is where it's happening. Publications who notice this will be successful -- those who do not will not.

Some Times staffers' disgruntlement with the Web community is nothing new. Back when www.nytimes.com was owned by Times Company Digital -- a completely separate company from The New York Times Co. -- the Website was viewed with suspicion and open hostility from paper staffers. Website employees were treated disdainfully and as somehow trying to bring down the paper from within. When the bubble burst in April 2000, delaying ill-advised TCD plans to launch an IPO, the glee on the print side was not disguised. (Full disclosure: I once worked for NYTimes.com and Times Company Digital. I saw this firsthand.)

And with Raines gone, a bit of that familiar glee has returned.

The Web is where the next generation of writers is coming from -- the workers have developed the means of production -- and that's precisely the reason the Times so desperately needs people like Kantor. For all his faults, Raines recognized that. If a few catty and chatty Times staffers continue to do whatever they can to discredit the very people who can save them, well, as that famous grunge story might say, they'll become a bunch of lamestain cob nobblers.

 

*BT*

Will Leitch is managing editor of The Black Table. Aileen Gallagher contributed to this story.