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New York Times launches Chuck Klosterman-less version of ‘The Ethicist’

Why was Chuck Klosterman’s column “The Ethicist” the first page in the New York Times Magazine sought out by the Erik Wemple Blog each Sunday? Because of moments like last Nov. 16. Klosterman, a well-known writer/journalist/essayist, was addressing a letter from some anonymous individual who’d done something shifty at a Starbucks. Though the letter-writer had arrived at the coffee shop intent upon buying a cup of “drip coffee,” he/she switched plans when a woman ordered a pumpkin-spice latte was told the product wasn’t available and received a coupon for a free drink. “When it was my turn, I ordered a pumpkin- spice latte. Was this ethical?”

Here was Klosterman’s answer, in case you so foolishly missed it: “No. You’re a liar and a low-rent con artist. And you live in a community where pumpkin-flavored beverages are way too popular.”

Now get this: The New York Times Magazine is losing this “Ethicist.” In a release, the publication has announced that it’ll be renaming the feature “The Ethicists” (plural, that is). Gone: Klosterman and his authoritative ethical sensibility. In: A team of commentators — novelist Amy Bloom (“Lucky Us“), Politico media columnist Jack Shafer (disclosure: a friend) and New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino.

And the Times is not actually replacing Klosterman with three writers. They’ll be doing a weekly half-hour podcast — in collaboration with podcast king Slate Magazine — adjudicating a handful of ethical issues. Their best stuff in the podcast performance will be filtered into a column that appears both online and in print. The team’s first podcast is already here, as Bloom, Shafer and Yoshino discuss fidelity, bill-paying, alleged credit-card fraud and other matters.

This “reinvention” of “The Ethicist,” which debuted in 1999, resulted from ripping up the platformic premises on which “The Ethicist” has rested. The trick, says magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein was to “stop thinking about it as a print franchise….We simply set out to create an ‘Ethicists’ podcast and then work backwards into print.” The new approach, says Silverstein, should make for an attractive package for advertisers: “Who doesn’t want to be adjacent to ethical content?” he asks. The new “Ethicists” presentation will be part of the largest-ever New York Times Magazine, featuring 200 pages and 121 ad pages (the last time that magazine had that many ad pages was October 2007, pre-financial meltdown).

As his contract neared expiration last December, Klosterman had doubts about whether he wanted to move past his three-year anniversary as the magazine’s ethics czar, a milestone he would have reached in June. As the 42-year-old writer ages and digs in deeper on his book projects, he has found that multitasking doesn’t work so well. “I kind of wanted to move on,” says the former “Ethicist.” Silverstein, who took over as top editor of the magazine last year, asked Klosterman to extend his contract 12 weeks to bridge the transition to the three-person team. Since Silverstein & Co. had been very kind and helpful to Klosterman, he decided it would have been “unethical” not to do the additional 12 weeks. “It would have been this weird kind of in-between period,” he says.

Though Klosterman took the job in part to discipline his writing — a goal abetted by the tight word limits imposed on “The Ethicist” — an unexpected benefit was intimate understanding of the feature’s audience. A well-traveled writer, Klosterman notes that the audience for Spin magazine was people who thought they had “ownership” of some killer thing, and the magazine was mainstreaming the thing. At GQ and Esquire, he says, readers were more detached: “They see the piece and they say, ‘That piece exists,'” he says. Then comes the bloodthirsty audience for “The Ethicist”: “What they seemed to like the most is when I would pick a question that was sort of clear, where the person was clearly being unethical, and then to clearly damn them for being unethical,” says the columnist.

Those folks stand to be both frustrated and vindicated by the new regime. In a couple of cases on the current podcast, experts Bloom, Shafer and Yoshino part ways on quandaries, including this one: “You’re attending the wedding of your best friend. Right before the ceremony, you see your friend’s fiancee sneaking out of the bedroom with someone who is definitely not your best friend…Do you tell your friend what you saw?” Shafer said no — not your problem; Yoshino voted for sharing the information. “We’d always hear people talk about how one of the things they like to do is sit around and read it with their spouse and kids and argue about the advice,” says Silverstein. “We wanted to actually create a format in which that itself was the thing.”

One risk of enlarging the feature is taking on lame issues, as Bloom & Co. do in the opening podcast. They take a question from a Brooklynite who claims that the couple downstairs has taken to allowing their baby to “cry it out,” causing said Brooklynite to lose some sleep. “Is it within my rights to talk to them about it?” asks the tired dweller. That’s more a practical question suited to a manners czar than an ethics question for three philosophers. And Shafer displays his credentials as a lousy manners expert: If the Brooklynite hasn’t already had a discussion with the couple, Shafer suggests bringing a gift for the baby. “Knock on the door and say, ‘Ooh, I hear your baby…has had trouble sleeping and I thought that this little cuddly might help,” says Shafer on the podcast. “People are suckers when you give their babies a present. Doesn’t matter what it is. You could give them a 10-pound anvil and they would just beam,” he adds, to endorsements from the others.

In other words, the New York Times Magazine has lined up three experts behind an indirect and passive-aggressive problem-solving approach to dense urban living. Should things get ugly in the corridor of a certain Brooklyn multi-unit dwelling, it’s on the new “Ethicists.”