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Twitter: the anti-New Yorker
May 11, 2009 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Writer Dan Baum is twittering the epic saga of being hired at the New Yorker, after 17 years of trying, and then let go. It's an eye-opening and engaging tale for any writer. Baum, who wrote on a myriad of subjects, is perhaps best known for his post-Katrina New Orleans coverage. Told (annoyingly, if innovatively) in 140-character spurts, his tale takes you into the New Yorker offices ("like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying,") reveals that writers at the august mag get $70k and no benefits, and outlines the cumbersome process of story pitches to mercurial editors. In a rare inside look at the biz, he links to the pitches that worked, and those that didn't, on his website.
posted by CunningLinguist (145 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ouch. Sometimes I'm really bitter about never getting my "break" in journalism, and sometimes I feel like I've dodged a bullet.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:00 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


What a fucking waste of time. There's a reason for paragraphs, asshole.
posted by Malor at 8:00 AM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


(not you, CunningLinguist, that stupid twitter feed.)
posted by Malor at 8:01 AM on May 11, 2009


$70k isn't that bad, but when you put it in context (this is the fucking New Yorker we're talking about) it's a pittance.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:05 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I have to admit the format is maddening. But I have an unhealthy fascination with the New Yorker, so have been glued to his feed.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:05 AM on May 11, 2009


Reading this broke my eyes.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:08 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's stuff like this that makes me question going to the New yorker every Tuesday to submit my cartoons. That and the five years of steady rejection and the slow erosion of my self-esteem.
posted by The Whelk at 8:10 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Or, to put it one way. I was rejected for their collection of rejected cartoons.

Twice.
posted by The Whelk at 8:10 AM on May 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


Twitter is the anti-New Yorker.
posted by grobstein at 8:18 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Something about the tone/delivery of this piece made me imagine that he was strapped to the end of a giant rotating boom-arm on some mid-desert astronautical training facility, being spun at colossal speeds and yelling out doppler-shifted fragments of his story every time he passed the listener.

Kind of interesting, but it didn't make me want to read his tale - not as a stream of artificially-shortened sentences floating in a soup of interface-cruft, anyway.
posted by Drexen at 8:20 AM on May 11, 2009 [26 favorites]


This has to be the stupidest fucking way to tell an involved story I've ever seen. Twitter has its uses - this is not one of them.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:20 AM on May 11, 2009 [16 favorites]


I thought it was interesting, and even considered posting it, but then realized dude is wearing a pink fedora.
posted by The Straightener at 8:22 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


grobstein: "Twitter is the anti-New Yorker."

Well, it's the anti-"William Shawn-era New Yorker". I suspect Tina Brown wishes Twitter had been around during her tenure.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:24 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Something about the tone/delivery of this piece made me imagine that he was strapped to the end of a giant rotating boom-arm on some mid-desert astronautical training facility, being spun at colossal speeds and yelling out doppler-shifted fragments of his story every time he passed the listener.

Kind of interesting, but it didn't make me want to read his tale - not as a stream of artificially-shortened sentences floating in a soup of interface-cruft, anyway.


No, but I'd totally watch the video of that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:24 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


In a parallel universe, the internet sprang from the literary world, rather than the military. In this universe, Twitter is founded by John Updike. Tweets have a minimum word count and are fact checked by interns.
posted by zippy at 8:28 AM on May 11, 2009 [29 favorites]


Dear god reading that is obnoxious.
posted by delmoi at 8:28 AM on May 11, 2009


Twitter is the anti-New Yorker.

And that is a good thing.
posted by blucevalo at 8:28 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've thought about doing short stories via twitter. I may try it for real now.
posted by empath at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2009


Why would you Twitter an "epic saga"? Wrong medium, unless it's supposed to be a satire. But it's not funny, so I'm guessing it's real.

I wouldn't mind reading the real story somewhere, if he ever writes it. I don't understand why he'd do it 140 characters as a time. Silly grandstanding.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2009


The fact that he decided to write a rather involved essay in 140 character twitter bursts makes me think that The New Yorker made a good decision in getting rid of this guy. It strikes me as a good strategy when planning layoffs to lay off people least likely to publish their "tell all" stories in a readable format.
posted by deanc at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2009 [12 favorites]


The fact that he thinks Twitter is a good delivery system for this information makes me wonder how he lasted at the magazine at all. Unbelievably stupid.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:30 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you haven't been rejected by the New Yorker, you're not John Updike.
posted by plexi at 8:32 AM on May 11, 2009


Man, I had just come here to post this. *Shakes fist at CunningLinguist.*

It's a really weird way to tell this particular story, but for some reason it works.

My favorite line (re: the atmosphere in the New Yorker office):

"It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it."

posted by lunasol at 8:36 AM on May 11, 2009


This guy has a pretty weak grasp of the english language and punctuation from reading some of those pitch ideas... PERFECT FOR TWITTER!

"Not that being on staff means not having to write full story proposals." WHAT?!?!
posted by outsider at 8:39 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sweet jesus, this is annoying to read.
posted by lullaby at 8:42 AM on May 11, 2009


I'm not saying nobody will ever beat it, but this is probably the worst story-telling mechanism I've ever seen in the wild. Which is kind of like an accomplishment, right?
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:42 AM on May 11, 2009


It's a really weird way to tell this particular story, but for some reason it works.

I heartily disagree. I'm on the point of copying and pasting the lot into a text file to make it readable, but I believe that would make me rather angry.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:43 AM on May 11, 2009


One of his failed pitches became a best-seller for another author: Positively Fifth Street.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2009


this is seriously the worst idea anyone ever had
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


But I love the New Yorker, so why not? But almost immediately after I started reading it, I thought:
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:49 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I mean, there's a reason why Wall-E was a great movie but would have been a pretty dumb book.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:49 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


At first I was a little hesitant: as interested as I was in the subject, I didn't think that it was the proper medium to tell a story in.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:49 AM on May 11, 2009 [17 favorites]


Here's a Yahoo Pipe that shows them in chronological order. Can't figure out how to make it look more than 20 tweets back though.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:51 AM on May 11, 2009


One of his failed pitches became a best-seller for another author: Positively Fifth Street.

His pitch was to make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker, and write about it?
posted by delmoi at 8:53 AM on May 11, 2009


There are many circles of conversational hell, but one of the most frustrating is the one where the person that you're talking to speaks in paragraphs of one sentence apiece. They'll pause... you'll start to reply... and then they'll deliver the next sentence, often stepping on your reply. After a while, you either want to tell them to stop it, just fucking stop it, or find anyone else to talk to, even the guy who says "uh huh" after every single fucking time you pause for an instant, which is clearly meant to convey that he's listening closely to what you're saying but in fact implies the opposite.

After trying to follow this guy's twittering, I'm hoping that he gets fired by everybody.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:54 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


The best course of action would be for the New Yorker to publish his Twitter story in the magazine, but out of order, to make him seem even weirder.
posted by ORthey at 8:56 AM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm supposed to read a long story in 140 character faux paragraphs...in reverse order!? Why not set the text in Zapf Dingbats too. And make your readers contract genital herpes.

ti[diotic];dr.

But I thought the story pitches were interesting (PDFs only, huh?), Mr. Baum, so you can't be rotten through and through. Just get your online shit together.
posted by Glee at 8:59 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, am I twitter dyslexic, or was he let go/fired because he insisted on moving to Costa Rica for the year because his daughter wanted "an adventure"?

If so: Christ, what an asshole.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:01 AM on May 11, 2009


Wow, that's a lot of hate directed at someone for telling his story.

I agree, it's a horrid method for him to choose to communicate his trials and tribulations. But my position on twitter is not unknown.

But I remember reading this guy's work, and really enjoyed what he contributed to the magazine. That article on Jake Leg was fascinating. I had wondered what had happened to him, as just about any author for the New Yorker will make an appearance regularly enough...

Would a blogspot account have been more appropriate? Or posting it to his private website? I'm surprised he could even keep his train of thought writing in tiny chunks like that.

I do hope he finishes posting the tale. I wish he'd chosen a different method, but content is winning over form for me in this one.
posted by hippybear at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can't figure out how to make it look more than 20 tweets back though

Twitter doesn't allow feeds to draw more than 20 tweets. Which ended up really sucking for chronological day-poem I was trying to use it for.
posted by sciurus at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2009


His pitch was to make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker, and write about it?

No, his pitch was to write about the Horseshoe Casino / Binion murders. :)
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2009


Where are you seeing the $70k figure? I'm reading that they initially offered him $75k then bumped it up to $90k so he wouldn't write for Playboy. He might've been able to get more through negotiation.
posted by naju at 9:04 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm supposed to read a long story in 140 character faux paragraphs...in reverse order!? Why not set the text in Zapf Dingbats too. And make your readers contract genital herpes.

If Raygun was still being published, that is probably exactly what their Twitter stream would look like.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:05 AM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wait, am I twitter dyslexic, or was he let go/fired because he insisted on moving to Costa Rica for the year because his daughter wanted "an adventure"?

No, I think he's taken a pause in his tale at a rather inopportune moment in the narrative.

According to an earlier post, the issue was about his posting rejected articles on his website with analysis of why they were rejected which cut the cord between him and TNY.

Perhaps I'm reading that incorrectly, but that's what this seems to say:

These killed stories were the reason Remnick gave when he called in early 2007 to say he wouldn’t renew my contract.

Can't figure out how to make it look more than 20 tweets back though

Twitter doesn't allow feeds to draw more than 20 tweets.


Um, what? I kept clicking the "more" button at the bottom of the page until it had loaded everything back to the beginning of his account. Does that only work in Safari?
posted by hippybear at 9:06 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


FUCK. TWITTER.

Here's the story, in paragraphs, generated with the help of Excel and Word's find/replace feature.
# First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. “Staff writer” is a bit of a misnomer, as you’re not an employee. But rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year.

My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I Loved it. More later.

It took me seventeen years to break into the New Yorker. I’d been a freelance journalist that long, and had sent in Proposals from time to time. I never even got rejections. The New Yorker doesn’t send them. If they don’t want the Story, they simply don’t respond, so filing to the New Yorker is like filing to the dump. You send in a proposal, and If you’re smart, you forget all about it.

In May 2002 I sent in a proposal for a profile of a particularly interesting Mexican government official. That proposal, if you’re interested, is at http://bit.ly/B9sP5. In fact, I’ve posted a lot our successful magazine proposals there. In any case, I mailed in the proposal and promptly Put it out of my mind, as always. Four months later, I got a call from John Bennet, who had been an editor Longer than just about anybody. He loved the proposal. In fact, he was teaching a magazine-writing class at Columbia University at the time, and he told me he was sharing the proposal with his students because he thought It was one of the best he’d ever read. What took so long to respond, he said, was clearing the assignment Alma Guillermoprieto, who had been covering Mexico for the New Yorker for years. John didn’t think he could assign A piece about Mexico without checking with her first. That was courteous of him. And of her, to give the green light. He assigned me the story – my first ever for the New Yorker! – and to celebrate I took the rest of the day off to Bike into downtown Watsonville, buy the New York Times, and spend the afternoon reading leisurely. There on page A-something was a little article about the Mexican official I was about to profile for the New Yorker. He’d been Fired, and his office abolished. As Boris Badenov used to say: I drop bomb on moose, and who gets blown up? Me.

John was gracious. What else would you like to write? he asked. I remembered a story I’d tried for years To interest my agent in: An epidemic of paralysis in 1930 caused by Prohibition, and which spawned an entire Sub-genre of the blues. John gave me the assignment, which became “Jake Leg,” my first New Yorker piece, Which can be read here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

I was paid $7,750 for “Jake Leg,” which ran 5,000 words. Dollars-per-word isn’t a very good measure of pay. Because writing short can take more work than writing long, but either way, this was good pay but not terrific. At the time, I was writing just about full time for Rolling Stone, which was paying me $3.40 a word.

Still, the New Yorker is the New Yorker, and my next question to John was, “What can I do next?”

As any writer knows, editors almost never suggest stories. Generating story ideas is the real work; researching and Writing them is the easy part. In one of our conversations, though, John let drop a real jewel: “We have this sense that we should be paying more attention to the military,” he said. (This was now early 2003, as the country was getting ready for war in Iraq. “Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here knows anything about the military.” Well, I certainly didn’t know anything about the military but I did find it interesting, so I piped up, “I can do that!” I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience or knowledge in the field of arms.

Tom Wolfe is right, I think, when admonishes young writers to ignore the old advice about “writing what you know,” and instead write about what you don’t know. If you have to learn about something from scratch, he argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions. John said I was welcome to give it a try. “Think about trying a process story,” he said, using a term I’d never heard. “It’s a New Yorker standard,” he went on. “You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure.”

By that time the improvised explosive device was the weapon of choice in Iraq, and limb loss was the signature Wound of the Iraq war. So I followed one soldier from the moment he left his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin To join the Army to the day he returned to speak to his high school without his leg. John Bennet gave me another Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said. “Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: “Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think Is particularly fine, strike it out.”

My wounded-soldier story ran as “The Casualty” and can be found here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

Next I pitched a story about what killing does to soldiers, psychologically, and how the Army is ill-equipped to deal With the damage that killing does. That proposal can be read here: http://bit.ly/B9sP5. That piece, “The Price of Valor,” won the Medill School of Journalism's 2004 John Bartlow Martin Award, and can be read here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU

Now I was three stories in to the New Yorker, but I wasn’t about to let die my relationships with other magazines. After All, I was a freelancer with no other income, and relationships with editors and their magazines is the currency of the Trade. While writing the pieces for the New Yorker, I also wrote two for Playboy, about genetically modified crops and about The perils of electronic voting. The proposals for both of those articles can be seen here: http://bit.ly/B9sP5, and the Playboy stories themselves can be seen here: http://bit.ly/18VBwU.

Then, out of the blue, Rolling Stone called with a jaw-dropping over-the-transom assignment: 30,000 words on missile defense, to run over several issues, and paying $90,000. I was floored. I got the call while I was in San Francisco working On yet another New Yorker assignment about geneticists trying to make people live forever. Right after I hung up with Rolling Stone, John Bennet, my New Yorker editor, called for some reason. In an act of inadvertant brilliance, I mentioned To him my new Rolling Stone assignment. Forty minutes later, David Remnick rang my phone. “Don’t do that Rolling Stone piece, he said. “Come to work for me instead, on staff.” The heavenly angels burst into song. I’d made it to the Staff of the New Yorker.

To be continued on Monday.

Quick note, since there seems to be some confusion: I was fired in 2007, and just telling the story now because people on my book tour ask. Will resume my story about getting hired and fired at the New Yorker in five minutes.

Remnick asked, “What do you want to write?” We bandied some ideas.
# I told him that two years down the road, my wife, daughter, and I were planning to move abroad. We didn’t know where, but Rosa would be in eighth grade and we wanted a family adventure.

Remnick said, “As long as you’re writing 30,000 words I want to publish, I don’t care where you live.”

I was beside myself with glee. Remnick’s deputy, Pam McCarthy, called with the details. The magazine would pay me $75,000 a year for 30,000 published words. In return, I’d agree not to write for The Atlantic, The NY Times Magazine, Harper’s, RS, and a few others. Hell, I’d be giving up a $90k Rolling Stone assignment to earn $75k at the New Yorker. And what about Playboy? Playboy wasn’t on McCarthy’s list, and I’d made a pretty good living from Playboy. Could I still write for Playboy? McCarthy said, “How about we increase you to $90,000 and you don’t write for Playboy either?” I said fine.

It’s much more pleasant to write for one magazine’s sensibilities than many. Especially if that one is the New Yorker. The editing is as superb as you’d imagine. And it’s lovely to have all the time and resources you need. I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn’t had, found crucial sources I hadn’t interviewed. It’s like having a team of back-up reporters. They work like soldier ants, and are invariably cheerful. Their boss, Peter Canby, is a calm and competent gentleman.

I must say, though, the office itself is a little creepy. I didn’t work there. I live in Colorado. But I’d visit 3-4X a year. Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles. And from around the stacks of review copies that lie everywhere like a graveyard of writers’ aspirations. It always seemed strange.

Making it to the New Yorker is an acheivement. It is vastly prestigious, of course. And the work is truly satisfying. Imagine putting out that magazine every week! Yet nobody at the office seems very happy. The atmosphere is vastly strained. I’d get back on the Times Square sidewalk after a visit and feel I needed to flap my arms. Get some air into my lungs, maybe jog half a block. And I came to realize I had a really good job. I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker. Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.

Still, the work was great. After seventeen years of freelancing, it was quite a thing to get a check every month. If I had a productive month, I’d get a check. If I had an unproductive month, I’d get a check. It was dreamy. Not that being on staff means not having to write full story proposals. Some successful ones can be read at http://bit.ly/ck4Em Some unsuccessful ones can be read at http://bit.ly/i4zWD

Only occasionally would I get a verbal go-ahead to write a story, such as when the tsunami happened. The story I wrote about that – and all my stories – can be seen here: http://bit.ly/TQfOk

All the work that goes out under my byline is at least half the work of my wife, Margaret Knox. Details about how that works can be found here: http://bit.ly/15kjtV And here: http://bit.ly/WB3Vp Margaret doesn’t care about getting credit and we knew that double bylines would never work. But I was surprised that Remnick would never allow, on the Contributors page, something like: “Dan Baum is a staff writer who works with his wife, Margaret Knox.” Margaret hated that I’d even ask. “What’s the difference?” she’d say. She was right, of course. We both enjoyed the work, and both benefitted from the income. “Dan Baum” was just the name of the brand.

One of the best things about working for the New Yorker is that sources call you back. Though maybe not with the alacrity that people return a call from Rolling Stone. I’d worked for The Wall Street Journal, and found that people were way more eager to return calls from Rolling Stone. A friend explained it this way: “If you get quoted in The Wall Street Journal, you might get rich. If you get quoted in Rolling Stone, you might get laid.”

Still, leaving a message from the New Yorker, you’re pretty sure get called back. That may not sound like much. But for a reporter on deadline, it’s everything. I was on staff for three years, and six of my stories were killed – five long ones and one Talk of the Town. All of them can be read here, at the bottom of the page: http://bit.ly/TQfOk. Atop each is a paragraph explaining, from my point of view, why the story died. It seemed to me that in each case, the reason for the story being spiked had nothing to do with the quality of the work. But maybe I’m wrong. That’s why I put them on the website, to let others decide. Maybe they really were stinkers.

These killed stories were the reason Remnick gave when he called in early 2007 to say he wouldn’t renew my contract. But from the high hill of my old age, the real reason seems a little more complicated. The big difference between being freelance and on staff – besides the irregular pay and the lack of benefits – Is you’re not part of an institution. And every institution has its own character, its own emotional temperature. Freelancing for so long, I’d forgotten that. (If I ever knew it; I never held a job very long, either.) I’d come to believe that all that matters is the quality of the work on the page. That’s what set the writing life apart, I thought. And journalism folklore is replete with impossible personalities tolerated – yea, venerated – because their writing was so good. Hunter Thompson. Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. And on and on.

Now, I’d always tried to make myself very easy to work with. Never, ever missed a deadline. Footnoted all stories. Didn’t write too long or too short. Delivered clean copy. Called to talk at the right time of day on the right day of the week. Turns out, though, magazines have personalities – especially a magazine like the New Yorker, with such a long history. Had I been working in the New York office, I might have picked up on this, and adapted to it. But living in Colorado, and flying in for a one-day visit every three or four months, I had no idea. And being out of the institutional-man mindset for so long, I simply didn’t have the antenna. Or maybe I was too arrogant to care enough to take the time to figure the place out. Either way, I blew it.

Here were the guideposts along the way: A year before Rosa reached eighth grade, I emailed Remnick and said, “Remember our deal?” “Remember when you hired me I said my family and I wanted to live abroad for Rosa’s eighth grade year? “And you said, ‘I don’t care where you live as long as you’re producing your word count for the magazine’? “Well, we’d like to do that a year from now.”

David replied that he really needed me to stay put in the middle of the country, to balance the magazine’s focus on the coasts.

Like a dope, I fought back.

I said, “Jon Lee Anderson covers Latin America and lives in London.” Remnick said he didn’t want to tell me and my family how to live, and that if we went abroad, he’d still look at proposals. He just couldn’t keep me on contract if we moved abroad. “I know that,” I told him. “I know that if I quit my job I can do anything I want. But I want to stay on staff and do what I want.”

There’s a fine line between standing up for the deal one has and being a dilletante. I seem to have crossed it. We didn’t go abroad. Remnick kept me on staff. But I’m sure I did not endear myself to him. (Rosa, though, said, “I don’t work for Remnick. I still want to go.” She ended up living in Costa Rica without us. Spent second semester of eighth grade living with a Costa Rican family. But that’s another story.) Her blog from Costa Rica – which we haven’t finished posting – is here: http://bit.ly/9T1V1.

Let's all take a break and get some work done. I'll finish this tomorrow. 7 minutes ago from web.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:09 AM on May 11, 2009 [75 favorites]


To him my new Rolling Stone assignment. Forty minutes later, David Remnick rang my phone. “Don’t do that Rolling

Rolling Stone, John Bennet, my New Yorker editor, called for some reason. In an act of inadvertant brilliance, I mentioned

On yet another New Yorker assignment about geneticists trying to make people live forever. Right after I hung up with

defense, to run over several issues, and paying $90,000. I was floored. I got the call while I was in San Francisco working
Man, this is totally the wrong way to tell this story. He has his own damn website, why can't he put this up as an essay there? This is completely illegible. Where is the beginning? How many times do I have to hit this 'more' button at the bottom of the page to get there?

I am curious but I am not curious enough to try to parse his story back-to-front.

Oddly enough this mode is how I check out webcomics that catch my eye - I'll start from the latest page and hit 'back' a bunch of times until I decide if I'm interested enough to go to day 1 and start from there, or give up. But a page of comic offers rather larger narrative chunks than 140 characters...
posted by egypturnash at 9:14 AM on May 11, 2009


Profound irony from another annoyed click on the 'more' button:
Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following
chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New
“Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict
Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said.
posted by egypturnash at 9:15 AM on May 11, 2009


Oh, hey, I remember that Jake Leg story too. That was pretty cool.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:15 AM on May 11, 2009


Um, what? I kept clicking the "more" button at the bottom of the page until it had loaded everything back to the beginning of his account. Does that only work in Safari?

I didn't explain it too well, I think. Twitter limits the feed display to 20 items at a time. [cite]

posted by sciurus at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2009


I'm still left with the impression that he lost his job because his editor wouldn't let him move to Costa Rica, but now I remember that Jake Leg story, and good goddamn, that was a good one.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:22 AM on May 11, 2009


Thanks mudpuppie, it is actually an enjoyable story by someone who just doesn't get why you should use twitter.

It appears he identifies why he got fired quite well. When the economy is bad, you're at the mercy of your employer. I can't really sympathize with him on pushing the living abroad part, it was not in the contract. If it is not in the contract you're entirely dependent on your employer's mood swings and the economics of replacing you. He had absolutely no bargaining power, nothing he could negotiate with. Rule no. 1 about layoffs, when they're going on, do whatever you can not to be on your bosses radar.
posted by geoff. at 9:23 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


It sounds like he was let go because he was hard to work with, despite his assurances to the contrary. Talking about the internal process of the magazine on his personal website, where its only result will be to annoy his employers? Wanting to move to a foreign country when he's supposed to be focused on a certain region and being really pushy about it? Posting annoying stories in 140 character bursts on Twitter, where it's completely unreadable?

I'd have fired him too.

There are lots of writers around, and I bet The New Yorker has its pick of anyone they'd be interested in. Catering to a prima-donna doesn't sound like a great situation for them.
posted by bshort at 9:24 AM on May 11, 2009


This guy is a twat for using twitter. There, I said it, now we can all move on...
posted by livingdots at 9:27 AM on May 11, 2009


mudpuppie: "FUCK. TWITTER.

Here's the story, in paragraphs...
"

Are tweets considered public domain? Or could the author claim that you've exceeded fair-use by doing that?

No chops-busting intended... just curious.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:31 AM on May 11, 2009


Thanks, mudpuppie.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:32 AM on May 11, 2009


Mudpuppie, genius. Good thing too, as after my failed Yahoo Pipe experiment, I was on the point of copying and pasting the lot into Word.

Shocking misuse of the medium.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:32 AM on May 11, 2009


yes yes, the twitter feed is obnoxious.

but to move on from that: it occurred to me that this might be a kind of misguided attempt to boost his hirability. a kind of "look at me! i'm hip to the internet, plus, here are all my new yorker articles! did I mention they win awards?! also, I'm a darling character in my own right! have you noticed my pink fedora?" I hope it's nothing that mercenary, but i also know how tough it can be freelancing anything, especially writing, so I can empathize with the desperation that can lead to that kind of thing.

that proposal about the mexican official, though, sounded amazing.
posted by shmegegge at 9:36 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


There, I said it, now we can all move on...

There are still several thousand mefites who have yet to show how much cooler than this guy they are.
posted by srboisvert at 9:40 AM on May 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm glad he got fired.

It's not "innovative" if it's annoying.
posted by Zambrano at 9:40 AM on May 11, 2009


Some of the comments in this thread make Strunk & White seem like a couple of freewheeling party animals.
posted by blucevalo at 9:42 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm glad he got fired.

Man, that's so cold, Zambrano!

I like the guy enough - thanks to mudpuppie - to have wished he got his travel adventure and kept his job.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:47 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


» Nicely spotted, Lentrohamsanin!

I totally stole the Zapf Dingbats example from a David Carson interview (maybe in that Helvetica documentary from a few years back). He had to put a boring/pointless text in Ray Gun but didn't want to. His solution was to set the text in Zapf Dingbats, make a visually compelling layout, and save the readers from actually having to read it -- but still make it possible to get something from the text.
posted by Glee at 9:49 AM on May 11, 2009


Are tweets considered public domain? Or could the author claim that you've exceeded fair-use by doing that?

Eh. Their TOS makes it sound like it's up to the user, and I don't see any specific copyright info on his page.

Plus, if he really wants to get the story out of how badly he was mistreated by everyone's favorite magazine, he should be glad that some people have been willing to put it into a format that others might actually find useful.

As an aside, and as an explanation for why I don't feel bad copying/pasting his work here (like I would if it were a magazine article, say) I really hate Twitter. Primarily because there is an inherent self-importance in its use by everyday people like me, those of us who are stuck at our desks and assume that our friends/family actually care that someone just left bagels in the breakroom. But then you've got the pathologically self-important people like this guy. "Ooh, I have this story that I think will interest you!" [And you know what? It *does* interest me.] "But I'm going to tell it in a way that leaves you hanging on my every single 140-character bursts! So check back every 10 minutes or so! And maybe I you'll even have to wait until tomorrow to find out the ending! But you will check back, I know it! Because it's just THAT fascinating!"

No thanks. Livejournal and its ilk were bad enough when they hit the big time. But now I'm expected to check back every 15 minutes? No thanks.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:59 AM on May 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm not saying nobody will ever beat it, but this is probably the worst story-telling mechanism I've ever seen in the wild.

I can top that. Carved into marble blocks, one word at a time. You choice of: a) shipped to you COD, or; b) lobbed at your house with a trebuchet.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:02 AM on May 11, 2009 [17 favorites]


Are tweets considered public domain? Or could the author claim that you've exceeded fair-use by doing that?

No chops-busting intended... just curious.


It would depend on Twitter's TOS, but there's no way they would make the material public domain. Most likely the author retains copyright of the text they post, and grants Twitter a non-exclusive right to publish them. So technically yes the author might have a valid copyright infringement claim in this case. The toughest part the author would have to prove as far as disputing Fair Use goes would probably be proving that re-posting it negatively affected the value of his work. Since his Twitter account doesn't result in any direct profit, he can't really claim that he is being negatively affected financially by reposts of the material (with a proper cite).

Of course, the vast majority of these kinds of cases are settled out of court anyway, so really all he would have to do is complain to MetaFilter and the mods would take it down.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:07 AM on May 11, 2009


Well, I think that it's fair use given that the original format made it unreadable; also, without it, I'd never have known about the guy or followed any of the links to his site.

Kudos, mudpuppie.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:22 AM on May 11, 2009


This was interesting, but only after mudpuppie fixed it.

Twitter is now mentioned three times on the front page. As an avid Twitterer, this madness must stop.
posted by grouse at 10:25 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


My favorite part is the bitching about the pay. Um...99.999999999999999999999% of freelance journalists would shit themselves and faint to receive anywhere near $1.60 a word, let alone the $3 plus Rolling Stone paid this blow-hard at some point.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:25 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


mudpuppie that was awesome, thank you.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:27 AM on May 11, 2009


In other "Twitter meets death of old media" news, The New York Times is live-twitting a "strategy" presentation in which "execs are telling the newsroom how the imperiled paper is planning to move forward in the digital age and whatnot". (via)

My favorite:

Ruled out accepting donations from readers and endowment for news gathering.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:29 AM on May 11, 2009


That NYT twit stream has a wonderful bit of information buried in it:

Roxana Saberi has been released in Iran.
posted by hippybear at 11:12 AM on May 11, 2009


God I hate Twitter.

How the fuck do you get it to start from the beginning???
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:19 AM on May 11, 2009


Judging by the number of f-bombs and "hate hate hate"s in this thread, Twitter must be doing something right.
posted by blucevalo at 11:25 AM on May 11, 2009


Judging by the number of f-bombs and "hate hate hate"s in this thread, Twitter must be doing something right.

You know who else I fucking hate hate hated?
posted by grouse at 11:28 AM on May 11, 2009


Here's how to do Twitter reportage right.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:32 AM on May 11, 2009


@danielsbaum tl;dr
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:38 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


NPR had a story obout 4chan yesterday, I can't wait for writers to pile into /b/.
posted by benzenedream at 11:41 AM on May 11, 2009


I could write for the New Yorker, but not have to be of the New Yorker. Therein lies the reason I’m no longer there.

I work remotely, and I can totally relate to this.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:50 AM on May 11, 2009


Thurber: @hross What about a Talk piece on this fellow? Could play up the perennial loser bit.
HRoss: WHO HE AND WHY THE HELL ARE YOU USING ALL THESE GODDAMN @S? BRING WHITE IN HERE AND HE'LL GLADLY EXPLAIN ALL ABOUT PUNCTUATION. GODDAMN. ROSS
posted by Spatch at 11:51 AM on May 11, 2009 [11 favorites]


it occurred to me that this might be a kind of misguided attempt to boost his hirability.

Misguided is right. Why would anyone hire this guy now? So he can blab your conversations to everyone when things don't go his way?
posted by Superfrankenstein at 12:10 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I can top that. Carved into marble blocks, one word at a time. You choice of: a) shipped to you COD, or; b) lobbed at your house with a trebuchet.

I can't stop chuckling at this, and it's beginning to concern the young mother sitting across from me at the coffee shop. I'm not going to hurt you lady, I swear!
posted by Kwine at 12:16 PM on May 11, 2009


benzenedream, there are some prolific, interesting writers on /b/ already.

Granted, some of their leitmotifs include the Fresh Prince and asking "WHO WAS PHONE?"
posted by infinitewindow at 12:22 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've thought about doing short stories via twitter. I may try it for real now.

I'll Paypal you two dollars if you promise to NOT do this.

(I'll send it two pennies at a time, too, until you get the point.)
posted by rokusan at 12:26 PM on May 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Presumably, he took his inspiration for this from the Japanese cell-phone books talked about in the New Yorker here. The idea is novel, but it will NEVER work on Twitter, because Twitter does not have a way to reverse the feed. (Also, it doesn't help that every line is capitalized.)

Thanks, mudpuppie, I wanted to read the story but after going to Twitter and looking at it I just gave up. Nice work, Mr. Baum, on turning away readers with an incredibly awful format.
posted by graventy at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2009


Instead of posting in this thread, I'll be sending to all participants postcards on which my opinions have been scrawled in red wide-tip Sharpie. So, check your mailboxes.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2009


The only reason Baum's writing it that way is because he has nothing better to do. So he's jacking off with Twitter.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:35 PM on May 11, 2009


So he's jacking off with Twitter

Wait ... isn't that what everybody is doing with Twitter?
posted by TBoneMcCool at 12:37 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Grown man in a pink fedora tweeteringing a long long story... and yet, a pretty good writer. He clearly has 'presentation' issues. And thanks Mudpuppie, IRL first rounds on me.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2009


Gawker, HuffPo and Media Bistro are in with their breathless analysis.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:17 PM on May 11, 2009


This was brilliant because it got him linked everywhere that matters and massively discussed in time for the release of his new book. it was a deliberate ironic take on the death of long-form journalism.

What is less brilliant is his apparent arrangement with his wife, where he gets all the glory and she gets *none* of the credit, even though he says she does half the work. If that's true, she should have co-author title on the books, even if they don't allow that in magazines.
posted by Maias at 1:43 PM on May 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Maias, I'm glad you brought up the unusual arrangement he has with his wife. I can't believe the New Yorker allows co-collaboration without attribution (could one, say, hire a ghost writer, or a college student, to do the same?).
posted by availablelight at 1:52 PM on May 11, 2009


Dan Baum: "I'm telling my story via Twitter. Look at me. Look at me. GOD DAMMIT LOOK AT ME!"
posted by ericb at 1:53 PM on May 11, 2009


Maias is spot-on.

1. Put on pink fedora.
2. Wear seersucker suit jacket.
3. Use short-form Twitter to "tweet" about my experiences with long-form New Yorker magazine.
4. Get the Internets to discuss/debate what's really up.
5. "It could be a Twitter experiment....Or maybe he's promoting something. Could he have a book out?"
6. PROFIT!!!
posted by ericb at 1:59 PM on May 11, 2009


Gosh. . .talk about burning one's bridges. . .
posted by Danf at 2:01 PM on May 11, 2009


TBoneMcCool: "isn't that what everybody is doing with Twitter?"

Given the character limit, wouldn't cybersex on Twitter be something like premature ejaculation?
posted by Joe Beese at 2:01 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


mudpuppie. . .you realize now that you have a permanent, unpaid job transcribing this guys tweets into legible prose, don't you?
posted by Danf at 2:02 PM on May 11, 2009


ts;dr
posted by djgh at 2:14 PM on May 11, 2009


There was no transcribing, danf, thank god.

1. Scroll to the bottom of his page and click 'more' repeatedly (and repeatedly again) until that awful interface finally displays all the relevant posts.
2. Copy. They will be in reverse chronological order.
3. Paste into Excel. Insert a separate column that numbers the rows (i.e., put '1' in row A, and make row B = 1 + column immediately above; copy down).
4. Sort (descending) by row number so that the oldest post is first.
5. Paste as unformatted text into MS word.
6. Use find/replace to eliminate the variants of "about 5 hours ago from web." Then replace all the # signs with spaces.
7. Go through and add hard returns so that there are paragraph breaks where there should have been paragraph breaks in the first damn place.

Tag. You're it.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:15 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Given the character limit, wouldn't cybersex on Twitter be something like premature ejaculation?

More like unending foreplay. Just as frustrating, if not more so.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:21 PM on May 11, 2009


My short story via Twitter:

#Once upon a time there was a boy named Cooley and he lived happily ever after.

With room left over.
posted by mazola at 2:31 PM on May 11, 2009


4. Get the Internets to discuss/debate what's really up.

I think we'd have probably talked about this here, Twitter bullshit or not. It's an interesting story, as the post describes.
posted by graventy at 2:38 PM on May 11, 2009


availablelight, apparently, the NY'er discourages joint bylines-- I don't know why.
posted by Maias at 2:41 PM on May 11, 2009


I think the real story here is Dan Baum's working arrangement with his wife, Margaret Knox. Dana Goldstein at the American Prosepect thinks so, too.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:41 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


And apparently so do Maias and availablelight. I fail at search terms. (I used "Margaret Knox" rather than "wife.")
posted by ocherdraco at 2:43 PM on May 11, 2009


From ocherdraco's link:
I don’t presume to know if Dan Baum or Margaret Knox are happy with the arrangement they’ve worked out. Maybe they think they are being really feminist and progressive by involving Margaret so deeply in Dan’s work. And yet, their system seems to reinforce the oldest sexist divide, the one that pushes women into the “private sphere” while men go out and conquer the public world, taking most of the credit.

This is exactly what I thought when I read that part in Baum's piece.
posted by nooneyouknow at 3:02 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


I thought MeFites were up on Japanese trends, but graventy was the first to draw the connection. In 2007, 98 cell phone novels were published into books. This twitter-book thing is unimpressive on so many levels.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:12 PM on May 11, 2009


Apparently there's a whole website devoted to one sentence stories - perfect for twitter talespinners.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:47 PM on May 11, 2009


Tailspinners?
posted by shmegegge at 3:52 PM on May 11, 2009


No, talespinners.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:58 PM on May 11, 2009


Tail Spin.
posted by The Whelk at 4:26 PM on May 11, 2009


Tail spine. (Warning: ewwwww)
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:34 PM on May 11, 2009


Twitter. Truth in advertising.
posted by dbiedny at 5:32 PM on May 11, 2009


If you get quoted in The Wall Street Journal, you might get rich. If you get quoted in Rolling Stone, you might get laid.

And if you get quoted in Foreign Affairs, look out: free cocaine wherever you go.
posted by ornate insect at 5:52 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


$70k isn't that bad, but when you put it in context (this is the fucking New Yorker we're talking about) it's a pittance.

This reinforces my sense that the writers at the New Yorker (perhaps not invariably, but predominantly) Do Not Need The Money. Whenever they write something that is personally revealing, it involves distant parents and Connecticut.
posted by palliser at 5:55 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don’t presume to know if Dan Baum or Margaret Knox are happy with the arrangement they’ve worked out. Maybe they think they are being really feminist and progressive by involving Margaret so deeply in Dan’s work. And yet, their system seems to reinforce the oldest sexist divide



Oh for crying out loud!

Baum credits his wife Margaret Knox (on his website, in mudpuppie's extract here) with being a brilliant and essential editor.

He says:
Writing a first draft is somewhat akin to moving a big block of marble into a sculptor’s studio. It takes some skill, and a lot of stamina, but it isn’t art. The art begins when Margaret gets her hands on the manuscript, which goes back and forth many times before completion. Editing a piece often takes longer than it took to research and write the first draft. Everything that goes out under the byline “Dan Baum” is at least half Margaret’s work.

Yes, brilliant editors are very often not as garlanded as they should be. Not even when they're Maxwell "The Great Gatsby" Perkins!
But they are not authors.
That's why they don't get author bylines.
And that's not sexist!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:22 PM on May 11, 2009


To be fair, TAP's blog post acknowledged that her work was an editor's, rather than an author's, and that editors don't get byline credit. Their complaint was that she doesn't get masthead credit, either, plus she isn't paid.
posted by palliser at 6:47 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Goddamn, I like twitter but I fucking hate people who think it's important enough to chat about it constantly or that it's a good form of media for transmitting things longer than a paragraph or two.
posted by flatluigi at 6:48 PM on May 11, 2009


Hi. Thanks to @mudpuppie for presenting the story in a readable form. I didn't realize that he'd done that, or I wouldn't have got around to doing the same thing here. (Mine has clickable links, which I like. (Oh, calm down, it's just a document (which was made with copy+paste, sed, textpad, and love).))

Cheers.
p.s. direct DCMA shakedowns to whatever contact method I've established on my profile here on MeFi; they'll be honored.
p.p.s. Excel/Word? Gah, sed.
posted by DavidLoyall at 6:53 PM on May 11, 2009


*DMCA I suppose. It's 2009, I can't edit a comment? Not even within 60 seconds of the original post?
posted by DavidLoyall at 6:55 PM on May 11, 2009


Margaret Knox, on her collaborative role:



I agree with Ann Friedman. I value the stability and flexibility that editing Dan's work allows. Also, freelancing work pays very little. By working together, we were able to shoot into the stratosphere, earning more than a dollar a word -- which many magazines have been paying for the past two decades. Dan's New Yorker wages and his advance for Nine Lives allowed me to work on fiction, for which, as yet, I haven't been paid.

Posted by: Margaret Knox | May 8, 2009 4:43 PM
posted by availablelight at 7:05 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tag. You're it.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:15 PM on May 11


OK pups. . if he twitters this tomorrow, I'll take a crack and put it here if it works for me.
posted by Danf at 7:58 PM on May 11, 2009


Tiny mummies! Tiny paragraphs!
posted by matteo at 8:54 PM on May 11, 2009


Sorry, but keitai novels are NOTHING like a Twitter feed. You might as well say that he was inspired by Amazon reviews because they're both opinionated. That link just ain't there.
posted by No-sword at 2:59 AM on May 12, 2009


I was under the mistaken impression that he was posting these tweets (or whatever they're called) periodically; a few everyday. So I added him to my Twitter, and then he just went and put a whole clot of entries out. Maybe he's a good writer -- does he even realize Twitter is in reverse chronological order! Maybe he thought some fact-checkers were going to reorganize it in chronological order like he was used to at the New Yorker.

Interesting story, but in the end a bit whiny -- although I did appreciate the insight into what it's like at the new Yorker.
posted by bluefly at 8:30 AM on May 12, 2009


Ooooo, a rumble!
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:45 AM on May 12, 2009


"I will be posting this account, in due order at www.danbaum.com."

And lo, our snark made him right his ways.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:49 AM on May 12, 2009


And here's the rest of it:

Okay, let's finish up this saga about the New Yorker and be done with it

My contract was renewed after one year, and then after the second. Both times were nail-biters. It isn’t pleasant, late in one’s career, to face a life-or-death career moment every year. Not the genteel, tweed-jacket kind of life I’d envisioned at the New Yorker. But that’s modern life. And as I say, all New Yorker writers put up with it, I’m told. Even the big names.

Each year, I got a three-percent raise. That’s small, but hell, ninety-something large is good pay. And it’s not like we went into journalism to get rich. Second guidepost on my road to unemployment: When Katrina happened, I petitioned successfully for the assignment. I got to New Orleans two days after the levees broke. Jon Lee Anderson was sent in as well. As I arrived, Remnick called my cellphone to say he was coming, too.

Now, I was a little freaked out down there – hot, confused, mind-blown, and more than a little frightened. But still, I probably shouldn’t have said, “You’re going to bigfoot me?”

(To bigfoot is to snatch a story away from a lower-ranking reporter.)

“I would never do that,” Remnick said.

“Well, what do you call this?” I asked.

Remnick came to New Orleans. I drove him around for a day and a half, a story in itself, for another day. Then he continued his trip across the Katrina-struck South

He wrote a very good piece, geographically bigger than New Orleans and more historical than my more immediate reporting. So he technically did not bigfoot me, I suppose. On the other hand, the magazine had only so much appetite for Katrina, and his story satisfied a lot of it. So that’s a tough call My pushing back against Remnick when he wanted to come to New Orleans was, in retrospect, a mistake. Protecting one’s journalistic turf is fair; protecting it against one’s editor – especially el capo de tutti capi – is dumb. Where I really blew it, though, was in a single conversation in Remnick’s office in August of 2006. Just David and I, overlooking Times Square, kicking around story ideas. I wanted to write about Mexico’s disputed presidential election. A million people were demonstrating in Mexico City.

David said, “Dan, this is not the year of Mexico.”

“Not the year of Mexico?” said I. “With a million people in the streets and immigration one of the biggest issues in the US?”

I should have felt a chill descend, but didn’t. Strike one.

Here’s what I thought: Remnick and I are the same age and grew up within about twenty miles of each other in New Jersey. Two guys at the top of their game, having a discussion. He edits the magazine, I write for it, but basically the same species.

Turns out, not so much.

David said, “I guess if you want to write about Mexico, you might write about that mayor of Mexico City; he’s interesting.” And here’s where it all went to hell. I should have said, “Great idea, David. I’ll get right on it.”

Instead I said, “David, that’s the guy I’m talking about! That’s the guy who claims to have won the election!”

“That’s the guy who everybody is demonstrating over!”

Now, what was the point of doing that? He was ceding me the chance to write about the situation in Mexico. And if he didn’t know the details, he had more than the average American’s sense of Mexican politics. But, believing we were two colleagues - couple of guys from New Jersey - hashing out what was best for the magazine, I made him feel uninformed.

Then I did it again

He said, “How about the governor of Montana? He’s an interesting guy; you could profile him.”

Again, the correct response would have been, “Right away, sir.”

Instead, I said, “David, I proposed that story six months ago and you turned it down.

Now it’s too late.

“Next week, he’s on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.”

Oops.

The conversation ended amicably enough, but everything went to hell after that. I knew it at once. It all turned frosty. I couldn’t get proposals approved, one story got assigned at an unusually and impossibly short 3,500 words, Two stories got killed, And then, in January 2007 – the very day Margaret and I returned from taking Rosa to Costa Rica – Remnick called to say he wouldn’t renew my contract come September.

He said he didn’t like my work. There were those five long stories that were killed. That’s a lot in three years, he said I argued that in all five cases, the quality of the work wasn’t the problem, (Again, you can read them here, along with my explanation of what happened, and judge for yourself - http://bit.ly/k4oHY )

Remnick disagreed. My work had started out good but had declined over time, he said. He was very cold on the phone. By this time, I’d signed the contract to write “Nine Lives,” our book about New Orleans. (www.danbaum.com)

“David,” I said, “Could I take a book leave and come back? I’ve done good work for you, and could again.”

“That’s not possible,” he said, and that was that. It has always felt to me that the problem wasn’t my work. A lot of people liked it. I’d won an award, And that the real reason Remnick fired me was that he took a personal dislike to me after our conversations. I was pretty bitter for a while. A New Yorker writer should be able to have a straight-up exchange of views with his editor, And a guy as accomplished and powerful as David Remnick shouldn’t be so insecure that he can’t take some pushback.

Pretty galling, too, to be punished for failing to fit into an organization that made it clear I wasn’t part of the organization. I, like all New Yorker writers, was never an employee. No 401K and no health insurance does more than deny nice benefits. It sends a message: You’re on your own. We only buy your services. And we’ll revisit that every year. You’re not one of us; but we’ll chop off your head if you don’t act like one of us.

Ah, what’s the use?

The reason I’ve waited so long to tell this story is it’s given me time to think. Who knows what it takes to put out a magazine like the New Yorker every week?

Let’s face it: It’s very good. And Remnick not only edits it, he writes a ton of stories. The pressure must be intense. Maybe the New Yorker can’t run like a collective. Maybe it has to run like an aircraft carrier, with one captain in absolute control and everybody else on bended knee. After all, everybody always called Mr. Shawn “Mr. Shawn.”

Maybe Remnick knew he was facing budget cuts like everybody else, and somebody had to go. In any case, any number of therapists have told me there’s no point in analyzing other people’s behaviour. Only one’s own.

The failure was mine. I didn’t bother to figure out the culture of the New Yorker.

Turns out, Remnick may have done me a favor, letting me go before the great wave of journalist layoffs, And he let me work out the rest of my 2007 contract by writing a daily online column about New Orleans, For the New Yorker’s website. (You can read that here: http://bit.ly/k4oHY )

Writing that column let me stay in New Orleans while researching “Nine Lives.”

It also gave me a crash course in that fascinatingly convoluted city, which helped me write the book. Having to go out and find something to write about every day for five months was hard, but fun, And I got to know things about New Orleans that even some New Orleanians said they didn’t know. (Where to buy live turtles for the pot, say, or the intricacies of making a Hubig’s Pie.)

So I came out okay.

And that’s where my New Yorker story ends.

If you were waiting for a full-on dish of Remnick and the New Yorker, I’m sorry to disappoint. The New Yorker is an idiosyncratic place, no question. There’s plenty there not to like. But do I miss it. At least I miss the early days when everything was going well. I liked writing for an intelligent readership with broad interests. I liked the editing, and the factchecking. I liked having New Yorker business cards, and the prestige that went with them. And I loved the regular check. The biggest disappointment was learning that, after all, it’s not only about the work on the page, That the writing life is not a pure meritocracy, or a refuge from office politics. All that crap still matters. Even at the top of the heap. Perhaps especially at the top of the heap.

Who knew?

I will be posting this account, in proper order, at www.danbaum.com. Thank you for your patience

Over and out.

posted by Happy Dave at 9:24 AM on May 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


DavidLoyall, mudpuppie is a girl. Also, since you're new here, I'll point out that we don't really use the @username convention here.
posted by grouse at 9:35 AM on May 12, 2009


The failure was mine. I didn’t bother to figure out the culture of the New Yorker.

You know, I find this guy very engaging and I now plan to buy his book, but this is a little disingenuous. Accusing your editor of bigfooting you can NEVER go over well, whether it be Remnick or whoever edits Star Magazine these days. I think his firing had little to do with the culture of the New Yorker and a lot to do with him being a whiny snot.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:10 AM on May 12, 2009


Happy Dave's second instalment suggest to me he was let go for being an argumentative asshole. Is it not enough to get to do your story? No, he had to make sure his boss understood that he was wrong.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:51 AM on May 12, 2009


The reason I’ve waited so long to tell this story is it’s given me time to think.

But not enough time to wash out those white whine stains, apparently.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:32 PM on May 12, 2009


This is actually pretty interesting, now that I don't have to read it in Twitter. The annoying sour grapes don't start till after he's told the story of his firing. The little bit of complaining about Remnick didn't especially bother me either. What I found the most dissonant and weird were the complaints about the conditions of employment at The New Yorker. Is it really scandalous to hire only on 1-year contracts? I am an at-will employee.
posted by grobstein at 6:12 PM on May 12, 2009


Is it really scandalous to hire only on 1-year contracts?

I found the one year contracts, paltry salary (compared to other media big shots in Manhattan, where a crappy but well known newspaper columnist can make more than $400k) and quirks like refusing to ever acknowledge query letters very odd indeed. Because it's, you know, the New Yorker, where so many writers dream of going, where so much talent lies. I guess that's why they get away with it.
I know I wouldn't complain.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:22 PM on May 12, 2009


All that, plus it's hardly full time, and it's a great way to develop and sell a book.
posted by grobstein at 9:54 PM on May 12, 2009


For the non-New Yorkers, I want to point out that 70K isn't a high salary here. It wouldn't put you on the poverty line, but you probably wouldn't be able to live in Manhattan on it, unless you were willing to live in a closet-sized apartment or have roommates.
posted by grumblebee at 6:26 AM on May 13, 2009


Here's the version on his website.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:32 AM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Amazing: this guy tells a fascinating story about what it's like to work at the New Yorker, surely one of the most interesting journalistic situations around, and all some of you can think to do is haul out the snark.

Happy Dave's second instalment suggest to me he was let go for being an argumentative asshole. Is it not enough to get to do your story? No, he had to make sure his boss understood that he was wrong.

He said that himself. Is it not enough to tell a story on yourself and point out that it makes you look bad? No, Meatbomb will jump on your throat anyway. I thought weed was supposed to make people laid-back.

I'm just glad all of you are such perfect human beings, never complaining about anything, that you feel you have the right to sneer at Baum. (I'm sure it's not jealousy that he got to write for the New Yorker or anything like that. No, you just have the very highest standards for human behavior.)
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know about refusing to reply to query letters but I have a rejection letter for a "Talk of the Town" piece I wrote on spec. It was a really nice, appropriate rejection letter saying thanks, nice writing, but no thanks. This was about ten years ago, just when Remnick took over.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:52 AM on May 13, 2009


Is it not enough to tell a story on yourself and point out that it makes you look bad? No, Meatbomb will jump on your throat anyway.

Holy shit, lh, so yeah I was agreeing with the author's own assessment of the situation... if he is your best friend or something, well then let him know I hope he works past it. If he isn't, well then why so fighty? Maybe we should both smoke a fatty, you cute old grumpus!
posted by Meatbomb at 10:03 AM on May 13, 2009


Now, I’d always tried to make myself very easy to work with. Never, ever missed a deadline. Footnoted all stories. Didn’t write too long or too short. Delivered clean copy. Called to talk at the right time of day on the right day of the week.

I think we're not the intended audience for this -- the whole thing reads to me as "Hello, editors of the world! I am talented freelance writer, ready to do your bidding! Also able to drum up much attention through use of currently-hot media! Reasonable rates! Call today!"
posted by ook at 4:58 PM on May 13, 2009


Not that there's anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. More power to him.
posted by ook at 5:01 PM on May 13, 2009



Oh for crying out loud!

Baum credits his wife Margaret Knox (on his website, in mudpuppie's extract here) with being a brilliant and essential editor.


He also calls her his "writing partner," says she works with his first drafts (which most editors never get to see) and says "Non-fiction frequently calls for a strong individual voice, and occasionally the use of the first person, so double bylines often aren't practical."

That sounds like a lot more than editing-- and double bylines are perfectly appropriate in books, even if they are written in first person. I've done two such books myself, as the second author.
posted by Maias at 5:32 PM on May 13, 2009


Maias,
Just in case you catch this. Everything you say is accurate up to a point. (And I think you're a wonderful writer). Husband & wife partnerships sometimes follow a singular pattern with editor/writing parts woven more closely together than the norm because of the emotional link enhancing their complementary spheres and I get a strong impression this is the case here.

As an editor, however, I have indeed worked with first drafts. (It's generally hell). And I do not see myself as a co-author. However rough and/or frail a first draft is, I did not produce it. (Though, when riled - I'll whine in private to colleagues that I ought to have the bloody byline!!) The publishers I work for generally prefer single to double bylines as a rule - except when the second name is much better known - or unless a double byline was the deal when the manuscript was submitted.

You probably have a very fair point.
Sometimes single bylines are more convenience than accuracy.

However, like languagehat, I've been startled how little credit Baum has garnered for (eventually!) telling a terrific tale, with deliciously self incriminating indiscretion...so I thought it a bit much for some people to take terrific, somewhat unsolicited umbrage on the part of his suddenly "downtrodden" editor/wife!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:14 PM on May 14, 2009


Thanks Jody-- yeah, I do think he does a generous thing by offering up his successful and unsuccessful pitch letters on the site and I *loved* his Jake Leg NY'er story and his drug policy book.

I can understand not sharing a byline when there's a tradition that doesn't allow it. I have personally experienced wonderful support from a partner in the form of unpaid editing and structural advice-- and given similar help. But I wouldn't show a first draft to someone I wasn't extremely close with and I wouldn't expect them to do the heavy lifting on it that is needed at times.

So not putting her name on the books bothered me because of the "writing partner" and "50% of the work" stuff. What if they got divorced? And what about the history of women being subsumed in men's "brands"?

I don't disagree that he should get credit for putting that out there-- though I do wonder whether the net effect will be positive or negative in terms of his career because of some of the indiscretions.
posted by Maias at 5:52 PM on May 14, 2009


I can't help but imagine Dan Baum drunk out of his mind and calling from the back room, "Honey?! Where's my honey!?"
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:16 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


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