“This Is So Onion”: In Which The New York Times Admits Its Trend Pieces Are Bullshit

new york times trend piece

Over the course of the last year or so, the New York Times has covered such dubious trends as monocles, man-buns, and hipsturbia, leading many people to wonder if the Styles section is just one big joke that the paper of record is playing on its readers, or if there’s actually anyone on staff in that section who believes in what they are writing. Personally, I’ve always wondered if these trend pieces are just a way for Styles writers to fuck with bloggers, forcing us to write over the weekend about the idiotic things that we read in their pages. But there was never real proof that the authors of these pieces were anything other than completely sincere in their coverage of things like the “establishment beard” or the return of pubic hair. If anything, the apparent earnestness of these trend pieces protected them from the harshest criticisms, because they were so out-of-touch with reality as to be pitied, instead of just mocked.

And yet, mock we did. Because, well, there have to be standards somewhere, you know? And the New York Times is one of those places. Besides, it’s not like anyone at the paper would notice, right? The bullshit trend pieces kept coming, so there must be someone over there who really believes in them, right? Wrong.

Over the weekend, the public editor of the TimesMargaret Sullivan, explained why the Times runs trend pieces (like the one about monocles) that aren’t really trends, giving us a look inside the trend-making factory, and (spoiler!) it’s kind of scary in there. Sullivan writes that after the whole monocle debacle, she found herself wondering, “why… does The Times do so many of these pieces? How do they come up with them? And how do editors react when they are mocked?” Which, we have often found ourselves wondering those very same things! But we don’t have the same access as Sullivan to the Times‘ Styles staff. So we didn’t have any answers. Until now! Yes! We love answers to things that cause so much cognitive dissonance (like, how does the paper that publishes “Invisible Child” also claim that people making $250,000/year aren’t even middle class?) that we’re surprised we don’t get more nose bleeds.

But so, what do the Styles people have to say for themselves? Well, Denny Lee, an editor in the Styles section, said, “‘When I first read it, I thought, ‘This is so Onion.’”… The language was intentionally ‘slightly overwrought,’ making it obvious that the writer, Allen Salkin, ‘was in on the joke.'” Oh, cool. So, it was a joke that the Styles section was playing on everyone, and we just didn’t get it. How funny. Maybe this is because, as Sullivan notes, the “Internet is not good at nuance”? Or maybe it’s because we expect better things from the paper of record? Hard to say. Tough call, right? Maybe someone else from Styles can explain the motivation behind these trend pieces better.

Stuart Emmrich, editor of the Styles section, tells Sullivan, “I try to stay away from ‘trend’ stories in favor of what I call ‘snapshots’ — pieces, sometimes inside quick hits (usually in the Noted column) and sometimes cover stories, that give a window into the lives of some of our readers.” Emmrich goes on to say, “Most often [trend pieces] come from a Monday morning meeting with my staff where I open with a very specific question: What did you do, see, listen to, read or talk to friends about this weekend? Is there a story there?” All of which is just fine, and typical of most newsrooms, but also only serves to highlight the problem with the Times trend pieces, which is that they disproportionately focus on wealthy, white New Yorkers who live in certain parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, not only because those are the readers the Times assumes its writing for, but also because those are the people that make up the Times newsroom. 

Writing about what you know might be common (if sometimes questionable) advice for fiction or creative nonfiction writers, but it shouldn’t be a mantra for journalists. Reporters—especially those attempting to relay cultural and societal trends—should go outside their wheelhouses and explore what’s going on in the world outside the neighborhood they live in. Trend pieces can have actual value, can contain cultural criticism and can create larger conversations (see: Fiona Duncan’s piece on normcore). The Times doesn’t do that, instead pandering to the lowest common denominator, trusting that enough bloggers will be so outraged by the amount of words devoted to a nonexistent eyewear trend that responses to the idiocy of monocles will result in the Times winding up as the beneficiary of thousands of extra page views, making the paper no better than, like, Neetzan Zimmerman, and making us maybe finally on the verge of actually having that nose bleed after all. Ugh.

Sullivan, of course, doesn’t think about it that way, and instead seems to delight in the cleverness of these trend pieces. She writes, “While The Times’s declarations of trends can sometimes seem self-serious, overblown and out-of-touch, they also can — at their best — provoke moments of recognition and lively conversation. And because they occasionally provide a full day’s worth of hilarity, let’s pray that they never go away.” Yes, let’s pray that we never live in a world where the New York Times actually acknowledges that there are things of cultural significance happening outside of the limited experiences of its staff. Or maybe, let’s not waste our prayers on bullshit like that, and instead hope that there will be a time when the paper of record doesn’t treat the culture at large with contempt, preferring instead to write about all the people forced to move to the Upper East Side because $3,000/month just doesn’t mean what it used to in Park Slope. Not everything needs to be cynical clickbait. We’re not all BuzzFeed yet.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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