Monday, May 11, 2009

I guess you know this means WAR, Attila?

On the recent collapse of Conde Nast's super-upscale business magazine Portfolio, Little Miss Attila approvingly quotes Virginia Postrel:
Portfolio worked -- for a while -- as an advertising vehicle, but it never gave readers a reason to care. And from what little I know from the inside, the stuff about editing the life (and glamour) out of articles is entirely true. Newspaper training isn't the ideal background for magazine editors.
Attila then adds her own snark about people from "a newspaper background," as if our inferiority were a self-evident fact known to everyone in the literary racket. Of all the insults I have to bear -- Michael Gerson is a twice-weekly columnist! -- this little put-down is just too damned much.

Postrel is the former editor of Reason, and her dig at "newspaper training" may be a backhanded jab at current Reason editor Matt Welch, formerly of the L.A. Times. The Gawker item Postrel links in blaming "newspaper training" for the demise of Portfolio is by former researcher/staff writer Paul Smalera, who aims his ire at the magazine's top editor:
[Smalera's colleagues'] resumes were dotted with long-term assignments from Time, The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times and other A-list publications. The most popular being the Wall Street Journal, the former home of editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman and much of her top staff.
OK, so Portfolio was directed by a former Wall Street Journal editor who brought a lot of Journal staffers along with her. So what? David Brooks, whom I loathe, used to work at the Journal. That coincidence is not even an indictment of the Journal, much less an indictment of everyone in the newspaper industry. What is Smalera's specific grievance against Lipman?
But if you have to say one thing about the failure of Lipman to create a successful magazine, it would be that dissent was not brooked by her. Not ever. . . .
When others at the magazine tried to inject their talents into the dialogue by questioning the wisdom of certain articles, certain cover choices, word choices, headlines, etc., Lipman was not interested in hearing from them if their ideas about those things differed from hers. . . . When Lipman took any advice at all, it usually came from the top deputies she brought with her from the Journal. Yet despite her tight grip on the magazine's editorial content, there was the obvious scattershot, disconnected mix of stories and covers, and the pendulum swung wildly from issue to issue. Lipman's means of survival and ascension at the Journal soon became clear with firings and departures and freeze outs at Portfolio: they had less to do with editorial acumen and more to do with knowing how to squash revolutions and power plays.
OK, fine. Lipman was a dictatorial ogre who surrounded herself with favored cronies, refused to listen to advice or suggestions from anyone else, and generally tyrannized the workforce. Let me see a show of hands if the same general description fits your boss.

Everyone? That's what I thought. In the immortal words of Elvis Costello:
Welcome to the working week.
I know it doesn't thrill you.
I hope it doesn't kill you.
Life sucks. Oh, and did I mention that I've got ties older than Paul Smalera?
I was a computer geek for several long years after college, and though I enjoyed it, it wasn't my calling. So I moved to New York and decided to become a journalist. . . . After writing some freelance articles and getting a foot in the door at another Condé Nast magazine, I found my way to Portfolio.
Right. The starry-eyed ex-geek moves to New York to be a journalist, because you can't be a journalist anywhere else except the most expensive city on the planet. And by age 30, or whatever, he knows everything there is to know about journalism, so that he is now qualified to tell us:

Readers got some articles written by really good writers who could've become A-listers, had their articles not been edited within an inch of their lives and rewritten mercilessly, as if not by magazine editors but rewrite men at the New York Post City Desk. They got some articles chock full of good raw reporting that should've been re-worked into something readable by those same rewrite happy editors. And they got some utter crap, written by hacks that should've never been there to begin with.
As for me, like a lot of the younger writers there, I was never really able to do much damage, or earn much praise. There were easily half a dozen writers under 30 there whose role was to be seen and not heard. Despite our hustling and trying to curry favor with our editors, in the hopes they could sell us to Lipman, we were up against the faceless contract contributors for space, and we -- especially me -- usually lost that battle.
Alas, Paul Smalera, God's gift to journalism! His talents unrecognized, aced out by "hacks" and "faceless contract contributors," his brilliant work editorially abused by wretched "rewrite men" who did not appreciate his every golden adverb.

Maybe everything Smalera writes about Lipman's blunders is true. But her most glaring blunder, I would suggest, was hiring punks like Smalera. If arrogance were talent, he'd have already won a Pulitzer or two. His article on "How Google Works," for example, obviously would have been an instant classic had it not be hacked to pieces by the editors.

The classic, though, is Smalera's dishy little tell-all about Portfolio which, in fact, tells us more about Smalera than it tells us about anything. His conclusion:

Essentially, it's hard to take principled stands when you work pretty much at the beneficence of a billionaire. And if you're wondering what's wrong with journalism these days, that's pretty much it.
Hey, I've got an idea: Let's start a business magazine for readers who resent rich people!

If Little Miss Attila wishes to indict those of us from "a newspaper background," she'll need a better witness than a dime-a-dozen punk like Smalera.

UPDATE: Does my vendetta against Smalera seem a tad personal, considering I don't know him from Adam's housecat? Trust me, I know the type: The junior staffer whose ambitions are more literary than journalistic, who thinks himself unduly burdened by the task of actually finding some news to report, who imagines that writing is superior to mere reporting -- a dime a dozen, like I say.

You run into this artsy-fartsy literary type too much in the news racket. They saw something in a movie (All The President's Men) or on TV (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) or read a magazine article about journalism and said to themselves, "I want to do that!"

What they didn't want to do was sit through a school-board meeting or write up a softball tournament or do any of the other crappy little jobs that (a) were the traditional training ground of journalists, and (b) are necessary to the production of a newspaper.

Which is to say, they don't want to pay their dues. Because they're arrogant punks. They don't want to work at a job, they want a "career," something glorious and wonderful like what they saw in the movies. If you ever hire somebody like that, they'll sit around brooding about how damned unappreciated they are, and how this work they're asked to do is beneath their talents, and they'll whine, whine, whine.

The only way to deal with such people is rudely. You're not going to alert them to the yawning gap between their skill and their ambition by talking nicely to them. Grab 'em by the scruff of the neck, get in their face, and tell 'em to shape up or find a new line of work.

Reality check, Paul Smalera: You suck.

UPDATE: Pouring salt in the wound left by Attila's insult, Smitty e-mailed me a link to this:
Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker for a time . . .
My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000.
Nice work if you can get it. I can (and do) produce far more than 30,000 words in a month. My usual pace of original composition is about 400 words an hour, and I have never had a problem knocking out a reported 1,000-word news-feature in a single day, to wit. But the "No Conservatives Need Apply" sign hangs above the door at the New Yorker, so somebody else will have to do that $3-a-word work, I suppose.


  1. The sorriest trade in the world is that of the 'journalist,' that ink-stained wretch who -- ostensibly -- knows how to write but certainly does not know what he's writing about.

    Were I an editor of nonfiction, I would hire ex-cops, ex-firemen, ex-firefighters, ex-bureaucrats, doctors, engineers and scientists as my correspondents. I suspect it would be easier to teach them to write than it would be to teach modern journalists anything.

  2. Urhm, you do know that when I attack "newsmen", you are not included. Now, my logic is simple; you actually report, you know, the news; the ones I attack do not, or worse, they distort, misinform, lie, etc. Even if I disagree with you on many things, I think (and that is important) that you are as honest as possible.

    Besides, your style seems old school. I have to wonder if you have a manual typewriter or three, and maybe an electric for kicks (and a small printing press, who knows?). I sort of wish I had one too, though for different reasons (a manual, a good one). Yeah, even if I tend to think of you as liberal (comparative, secular if you will), you bring to mind the newsman I used to like to read, sometimes in spite of myself.

    I am just avoiding a war. I can't win it. I can't write. Kick a dead horse, while he is down to boot, but... neigh...

  3. What I want to know is how a person moves to an expensive place like New York City, without a real job, sending out freelance articles, hoping to make it in writing?

    I really want to know the economics of that. I want to know how that works, because that is the question I always have, and that is the question that all writers like Smalera rush past without commenting on.

    How do you support yourself with no income while looking for your 'big break'?

    Mikey NTH

  4. I spent three years as news director at a little radio/TV station in Baraboo. I wrote upwards of 15,000 words every week. My salary was...well, less.