Capital’s Tom McGeveran on the departure of Sue Simmons and loss of another New York institution.
Tom writes exclusive missives for the Capital newsletter—you can sign up here—which I always find myself reading despite my best efforts to ignore all newsletters.
Live Bait: A Lesson From the Annals of Peter Kaplan’s New York Observer
This story about Tyler Rush takes place on Aug. 5, 2003. It was originally published sometime in May 2009 as part of a special Peter Kaplan farewell edition of the New York Observer. After reading it, Tyler sent me this drawing of an eel. It’s been prominently displayed in my living room ever since.
Back when I was Jake Bloom and just an intern at an Observer still headquartered at the old townhouse on 64th Street, I was summoned into Peter Kaplan’s office and given a very important task: Buy Tyler Rush, head of the art department, a birthday present. He was turning 40 and the staff was going to celebrate after the paper’s close that night.
He likes fishing, I remember being told by Peter. Find him a nice tackle box. And be sure to get him some bait. Live bait.Tackle box. Easy. Live bait? Not so much.
Even though I was from Miami and had grown up surrounded by water (and presumably fish), I was clueless.
But so great was my desire to impress Peter, to separate myself from the other interns, to have my name remembered accurately, that I said, No problem.
I had learned from Peter the most important lesson of my brief career: A good reporter says yes to any assignment and figures out the details later, whether it’s hard news, a trend piece or … live bait.
But what was he talking about? Shrimp? Chum? Worms!?
Extensive Googling turned up only one shop in the city that sold “live bait”—vague, but promising. I called. They were closed.
Dismayed, I headed out to the fishing supplies store to buy the tackle box. It was cloudy, foreboding.
Where can I find some live bait? I asked the clerk, as I purchased the tackle box with Peter’s credit card (cha-ching!). They only sold frozen shrimp.
What are you fishing?
Er, striped bass?
Oh, they like eel.
Perfect. Where do I get one of those?
The live eel was 3 feet long, when straightened. I picked him out from a tank in a market on a side street off Canal. Like a harmless goldfish, he was handed to me in a knotted black plastic bag filled with water.
I flagged a cab and once inside, I could immediately tell the eel was not happy.
It made a loud clicking noise, the eel equivalent of Get me the fuck out of here, you fucking piece of shit. If I could reach your eyeballs, I would eat them out of your motherfucking skull. Or so I imagined.
Luckily, the cab driver, a Sikh, was too busy asking me questions about the news of the day to hear anything.
What ees dis gay bishop? he asked me, a Jew with a live eel and a tackle box.
I didn’t know how to answer.
Back at the townhouse on 64th street, I marched directly to Peter’s office to present him with my prize.
Great! I can almost remember him saying in his inimitable way—unless, I guess, if you’re Tony the Tiger.
Somehow—and I don’t want to put the blame squarely on Peter or Elon, his assistant at the time—the decision was made to release the eel into the downstairs bathtub, so that it could swim freely until we gave it to Tyler (the close was still hours away).
Elon and I went to the basement. We plugged the bathtub with a towel, started the water and gingerly put our sinewy friend in.
It immediately became enraged, swimming away from the rushing water and clicking like mad.
I remember thinking, if the eel, seemingly on the verge of a heart attack, died, I would be haunted forever by the clicking—my tell-tale heart.
Only when the steam started to fill the bathroom, did we realize we had mistakenly turned the wrong knob and hot water was filling the tub. We were cooking the eel alive.
Defying common sense—perhaps it was dazed by the heat—the eel made a mad dash for the drain. It pushed the towel aside, stuck its head down the hole and tried to wiggle its way to freedom.
One of us shrieked. (I don’t want to point fingers, but it was Elon.)
Panicked, I lunged and twisted the cold knob, sending Elon, myself and the eel into an exhausted stupor.
There must be some wisdom gained out of all this, I thought, watching Edgar (yes, we named the eel) swim serenely around the tub. At some point, “Follow the money” had become “Follow the live bait” and I realized there was little difference between the two (ok … maybe a Pulitzer). Faced with the untenable prospect of disappointing Peter, I had learned to be more resourceful.
But what was I going to do with this eel? I was certain Tyler was going to take one look and run back upstairs (even though I doubt Tyler had run a day in his life).
Hours later, after we sang happy birthday to Tyler and gave him his tackle box, we ushered him downstairs for his one last surprise.
Tyler looked into the tub and chuckled. He sized up the eel, and feeling magnanimous, decided he would free it in the East River. (So much for bait!) Without hesitation, he stuck his arm into the luke warm water, grabbed the eel, stuck it in a garbage bag and walked out.
It was a happy ending in true Observer fashion: Peter, inspired and feeling perhaps a little mischievous, had sent a cub reporter on an impossible task and the cub reporter returned with, well, a story. And Edgar, he was free now.
Thank you for everything, Peter. The New York Observer will never be the same without you.
Sadly, I can now say the same thing about Tyler.
Potential with a capital P.
Daily Dot interested in covering Reddit, Digg, 4Chan, not so interested in letting users share their content on them
The Daily Dot, a digital “newspaper” that will cover social media communities—think Reddit, Digg, 4Chan—like metro beats, is a great idea. It’s easy to see where the traffic will come from: Not only will the locals clamor to see their names “in print,” but the outsiders, intimidated yet intrigued by sites like 4Chan, will stop by to gawk at the exotic products of these communities’ cultivated insularity.
It’s a win-win, except for one small thing: They are neither interested in making it easy to share their content on anything but Twitter and Facebook, nor are they interested in tracking its popularity on other social media sites.
The question is why. Now, I think there may actually be a reason for this—aside from your usual startup hiccup. These guys know these communities. They know how their users operate. I don’t think they saw it as a conflict of interest or playing favorites. That would be taking the newspaper metaphor a bit too far. I think there’s a deeper explanation for it: Those social media buttons just don’t work.
We have had clients tell us that only Twitter and Facebook integration has been successful in driving significant traffic to the site and while its nice to include the Reddit and Digg icons, they do nothing. If that is the case, then it would make sense that the editors of the Daily Dot thought that the inclusion of those buttons would undermine their credibility, as those buttons demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how those communities function. Am I warm?
So what does that mean to a site whose sole purpose is to cover these communities? Truthfully, the most reasonable explanation is that this is a startup and they just haven’t gotten around to it. But even that explanation hints at a real issue: if it’s something that can be easily omitted, how important is this kind of social media integration to an editorial product?
The new Nieman Journalism Lab is confident you will scroll down
Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab launched a redesign today, again demonstrating their wisdom regarding the interwebs. Everyone knows the last Monday in August is National Soft Launch Day. (Oh, I just made that up? Doesn’t matter. Nobody is reading this, just like nobody will notice that the Twitter bar at the top of NJL’s homepage is one pixel off. It will be fixed by the time the Uniques get back from drinking Mai Tais at some Cancun Club Med. Didn’t I just mention it’s the last week in August?)
To be honest, that one pixel—which is probably unique to my browser (hey njl, it’s firefox v. 6)—is the only proof I could find that suggests this is indeed a soft launch. Kudos! It’s a sharp, well thought out redesign. Don’t trust me. You can take a quick tour with director Joshua Benton.
So what does their redesign tell us about their vision of the future of journalism?
* Your users will scroll down. The new NJL features no less than 8 stories above the fold on its homepage. All its other offerings, the newly minted Fuego, Encyclo, its app and other Nieman spin-offs, are further down the page.
* More “magezine-y” design means more of a focus on features.
* Pick a pretty font for your headlines.
* Double down on Wordpress.
* Double down on Twitter.