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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:21 PM ET, 12/27/2011

New York Times’s Sunday Review, in review

The year is ending, so it’s time for the Erik Wemple Blog to look back at the stories we’ve covered over our first half-year in existence. We’re calling it the Look-Back Fortnight.

The New York Times bagged its legendary “Week in Review” section in late June in favor of a windier, thinkier “Sunday Review” section. After one taste of the switchover, this blog editorialized for a retraction. Please reinstate the Week in Review, we asked.

Too hasty a judgment?

Nah, the longing for the old continues. Though the stuff in Sunday Review does occasionally captivate, quite often it alienates. An example: In November, Frederick Seidel wrote a little essay titled, “Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?”

Enticing premise, baffling execution. Seidel proceeds to draw some kind of comparison between motorcycles and products by Apple, with this quasi-conclusion:

In Dallas, at Advanced Motorsports, his motorcycle dealership, Jeff Nash, a gentleman and one of the great Ducati racebike tuners in America, and a racer himself, deplores the passivity of the young who would rather be home with their iPads playing computer games than astride the red-meat lightning of an 1198 Superbike blazing down a Texas highway making that unmistakable growling deep Ducati sound. Mr. Nash would go further.
Better to be out in the air astride just about any motorcycle alive!

Too often the Sunday Review’s pieces have come off as the hurried scribblings of some author or expert on a cool topic. Author Rachel Shteir turned in an October piece on the gender dimensions of shoplifting. Again, a really promising notion — followed by surveyish prose:

And I learned that although men’s fingers were stickier than women’s, there was a difference in what they took and where they took it from.
A 2005 study, conducted by Joshua Bamfield at the Center for Retail Research in Nottingham, England, may be the only one to show that men and women steal different things. While women took clothes, groceries and perfume, men grabbed TVs, household appliances and power tools. According to Mr. Bamfield, men tended to hide their power tools in backpacks, while women were more likely to smuggle the perfume out in strollers. Men also saw shoplifting as a transitional crime, a pit stop to more profitable criminal pursuits, whereas women sometimes shoplifted for years — though many stopped after marriage.

Within the genre of stray-comments-from-established-author, no exemplar was more flimsy than that of Erica Jong, who wondered in a July edition of the Sunday Review whether sex was “passe.” (Answer: I don’t think so.)

Whatever the formula, the Sunday Review appears to be gaining audience. “The online traffic to the review has been fantastic,” says Gerald Marzorati, editor at-large of the New York Times. Of the move from Week in Review to Sunday Review, Marzorati says, “Every product gets freshened up from time to time...I think it’s working really well.”

So what has changed from the inside, Marzorati? He suggests there’s more enterprise flowing into the Sunday Review than its predecessor. He gives his writers more time to work on their pieces, with lead times of 10-12 days as opposed to just a few. Also, he affords them more square inchage. “Some pieces run as long as 2,000 words,” says Marzorati. May I please categorize that as a drawback? If there’s one luxury that my Sunday doesn’t afford me, it’s to review a 2,000-word opinion piece that could be 700 words. Yes, the Week in Review’s essays read like brainstorms buttressed by a phone call or two, and that was part of the appeal.

None of this is to say I’ll ever stop thrashing through the Sunday Review. Even if a lot of the pieces fail to meet their conceptual promise, the section is ambitious, and even though Frank Bruni on politics doesn’t move me, this piece on his family did.

Plus, the media geek in me lives to game out the difference between “news analysis” and “opinion,” as defined in the section. Habitués know that pieces in the section get slotted into these categories, which both have careful definitions within the walls of the Times. Not to mention shepherds: Marzorati says he edits “news analysis” pieces; another editor manages the “opinion” basket. Next time you consume a Sunday Review, try putting a piece of construction paper over the label. Read the adjacent piece, and then guess whether it’s “news analysis” or “opinion.” After enough iterations, you can calculate your own New York Times Provocative Content Categorization IQ.

Distinctions among content categories have a grand tradition at the Times, a tradition in which the Week in Review played a key role. In his memoir, former Times Executive Editor Max Frankel writes that the legendary Lester Markel, who shaped the paper’s approach to Sunday newspapering, “insisted there be no ‘News Analysis’ or ‘Man in the News’ profiles in the Sunday ‘straight news’ pages outside his jurisdiction. This artificial wall between ‘facts’ and their ‘meaning’ burdened The Times for another generation. Tearing it down became one of my abiding ambitions.”

By  |  04:21 PM ET, 12/27/2011

 
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