Once The New York Times identifies a hip, new trend, it's as good as dead. The intensity of the spotlight melts an underground phenomenon like plastic, casting it into the molten river of pop culture. From there, a faded fad is doomed to resurface again and again, stripped of all novelty, perhaps on an episode of "Friends."
Or in the pages of the Orlando Sentinel.
Readers under 40 have long lamented the Sentinel's obsession with all that is pedestrian and second-hand. Jim Abbott's Nov. 19 paean to matchbox twenty ("matchbox twenty strikes the hype") confirms the paper's profound cluelessness.
"In a business where trends and images change like costumes at a Britney Spears concert," muses Abbott, "Rob Thomas and his unapologetically mainstream band have fashioned a career unreliant on hype." So begins his misguided praising of the band with "underdog appeal." "Unapologetically mainstream" is, you see, a good thing to Abbott. (Note to his copy editors: There is no comma in "Red Hot Chili Peppers," though they may be both red and hot.)
This came just two days before Tyler Gray's inexplicable 1,700-word treatment on a Golden Tee Golf tournament at the International Drive Friday's Sports Grill. "How easy is it to poke fun at grown men playing video games?" asks Gray. Probably just as easy as working for an out-of-touch newspaper.
The Sentinel's institutional dullness begins at the top, where senior editors comb the cultural landscape for signs of ultra-new topics to explore. Usually this means asking their school-aged children what's happening, monitoring "the MTV," or skimming the magazine racks while in line at the grocery store. And the river keeps on flowing.
Next, these ideas are bounced around the isolation chamber at Orange and Concord. Editors languish from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in their near-windowless offices, a dismal realm of slap bracelets and Hammer pants.
The results can be tragic.
Sept. 4 was a dreary, rain-soaked evening across Central Florida. It was the perfect night to stay home and watch the finale of "American Idol." Storms were a-brewin' at the Sentinel, too. A front page story was planned for the next morning, and every angle had to be covered. Who would win? What would this mean to the music industry? What did "local fans" have to say? A small team of sleepy-eyed, professional journalists was dispatched to find out.
Hal Boedeker's shameless 953 words included such valuable insights as, "He looks like a frog," in reference to "Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini. This from one of seven teenagers who were "celebrating" with their parents that night in Winter Springs.
The story amounted to 10 minutes that readers will never get back.
Parry Gettelman worked at the Sentinel from 1989 until 2000. Her recollections are from before Tim Franklin's term as editor, but she's pretty sure that little has changed procedurally.
"I felt like I was writing for Tiger Beat, rather than the newspaper at times," she tells me by phone from her home in New Orleans. "Something's not serious art because it sold a lot of copies; I mean, Hostess Twinkies have sold a lot and that's not art, either."
As a staff writer mostly responsible for music reviews, Gettelman remembers frequent clashes with superiors who had little tolerance for critical thinkers.
"They really had no faith in the writers at all, it was very much a manager's paper," she says. "A lot of people there had a more middle-management mentality, the same mentality as if they made cars or widgets."
And arts writers weren't exactly encouraged to venture out of their air-conditioned cubicles.
"People are spending way too much time in the office," says Gettelman. "The vibe of the newspaper was people felt like they had to be at their little desk typing away."
The New York Times may have a cost-efficient solution for the pop-addled Sentinel: go outside.
While the Times may smother a burgeoning trend with more attention than is necessary, at least the paper usually gets there first. One of Lola Ogunnaike's first stories was about blackpeopleloveus.com, a website that satirizes white stereotypes. At 27, she is one of the youngest staffers at the Times, and in only her second week, she likes what she sees already.
"They have a lot of faith in their writers," she says. "They believe writers are passionate enough about what they're covering to get the work done."
Before she arrived, Ogunnaike just assumed she'd be hitting the pavement. While the website was sent to her through e-mail, she didn't consider it newsworthy until hearing the buzz from her peers, in person.
"I go out a lot to see what's happening in and around the city," she says. "I talk to as many people as I can. You can't spot a trend from your office; you have to be a part of what's going on."
Sometimes being a part of what's going on means getting some fresh air and scoring some fresh coverage.
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