One has to wonder if departing New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller will leave behind many friends in the newsroom. First he bothered his media-beat reporters by writing of his dislike for new media like Twitter. It turns out he’s not crazy about old media (books) either – at least when writing them take his reporters away on book leave or detracts from their reporting.
His upcoming column for the July 17 Sunday Magazine, “Let’s Ban Books, or at Least Stop Writing Them,” sounded like a sotto voce corporate policy memo, with some surprisingly mocking cracks about his news staff: “Two editors were writing books about their dogs. At the same time!”
There was exciting news last month among the Twitterati. Brian Stelter, The New York Times prodigy and master of social media, announced to his 64,373 followers that he is going to write a book. The obvious question: What’s up with that?
Not that I doubt he can do it. The man The New York Observer calls our “Svelte Twitter Svengali” has a history of setting the bar high and vaulting over it. He files prodigiously for The Times; stars in the new “Page One” documentary; and has promulgated, as of my last check, 21,376 Tweets -- not counting the separate Twitter stream where he records every morsel of food he consumes. (Brian lost more than 90 pounds last year on a Twitter-assisted diet; it’s probably hard to feed yourself when your fingers are permanently affixed to a keyboard.) As his colleague in the media-reporting unit, David Carr, memorably said of the talented upstart, “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter was a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”
So yes, he can write a book. But why would he want to? Why, in fact, would anyone want to?
Watching that trend, I find my grief for the state of civilization comes with a guilty surge of relief. Sure, I would miss books -- and so, by the way, would my children -- but at least the death of books would put an end to the annoying fact that everyone who works for me is either writing one or wants to. I would get my staff back!
I’ve learned interesting things from the books of my staffers. I learned that I employed a financial writer who got himself so deep in debt he couldn’t make his mortgage payments, a media columnist who had been a crack addict and a restaurant critic with a history of eating disorders. (To those who found these cases problematic, I replied that there is no better qualification for writing about life in all its complexity than having lived it.)
We indulge our writers because we want the talent happy, and because a little of their prestige accrues to The Times. But we do so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return. There is the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their books and what goes into the paper. There is the awkwardness of reviewing books by colleagues -- and the greater awkwardness of not reviewing them. There is the resentment of those left behind to take up the slack, especially where fat advances have been paid.