This past weekend saw the latest eruption in a long-running campaign to shame the New York Times into no longer publishing trend pieces in its Styles section. It’s a tradition that goes back more than a decade—remember Jennifer 8. Lee’s canonical “man date” story or Warren St. John’s paradigm-shifting “Metrosexuals Come Out”?—and one that owes its longevity to the tantalizing sense of superiority many readers of trend pieces experience when scolding the often lovely and exuberant reportorial form as an affront to serious journalism.
The occasion for this latest round of Times-bashing was a story that sought to answer the following question: What happens when members of the millennial generation start running companies rather than merely working at them, and how do they deal with subordinates who share their strange ideas about authority and their lack of interest in professional boundaries? It was a wonderful premise, and the piece, which focused on a New York–based news website called Mic and was written by former New York Daily News gossip columnist Ben Widdicombe, delivered the goods with style.
The knives came out on cue. “NYT continuing to report on 80 million millennials as if they are one horrible person,” wrote one champion of rigor on Twitter, hoping to telegraph her brave opposition to generalizing. “I’d much rather read a NYT story about ‘millennials’ of color or the working poor or those with no or little college education,” tweeted a socially conscious user at pains to remind her followers of how deeply invested she is in the plight of the underprivileged.
Get off your ponies, people! Trend pieces are wonderful, and we should all be thanking the editors of the Times—and of the Styles section in particular—for continuing to publish them despite the inevitable sanctimony with which they're greeted.
The Mic piece was an exemplar of the form, an exquisite bit of soft-focus portraiture, full of terrific anecdotes, details, and laugh-out-loud funny quotes. The opening alone, about a stressed-out worker who lied to his boss about a friend’s death in order to build a treehouse behind his childhood home—and then blogged about it on Medium—was worth the price of admission. And while many readers seemed to think the point of the story was merely to indulge the tired notion that millennials are entitled and irresponsible, the actual takeaway lay in how the treehouse-builder’s boss, 28-year-old Mic CEO Chris Altchek, reacted to the situation: He was “taken aback” and admonished his employee, but he did not fire him.
The anecdote clearly encapsulated the thesis of Widdicombe’s piece: that when millennials are confronted with the foibles of their own species, they may become flustered, even frustrated, but they don’t abandon their core principles. Altchek, understandably, doesn’t want to be lied to—nor does he want to impose the kind of creativity-killing rules and regulations of the traditional workplace. As a reporter, I would have been over the moon to get something as good as this anecdote into my notebook.
Still, readers were incensed by the Mic piece, which they felt trafficked in generalizations and was thus unfair to millennials. Weren’t there plenty of baby boomers and Gen Xers who, in their day, told their bosses what to do in meetings? Surely only some of Mic’s 106 employees ride hoverboards around the office and use megaphones to make announcements. And aren’t there plenty of car washes, hair salons, and grocery stores in middle America run by 28-year-olds who don’t think like Chris Altchek even though they belong to the same demographic group?
My counterargument to all this is: Sure, fine, probably—but really, who gives a shit? Widdicombe’s piece illustrated an original idea by telling a true story about a specific place. Did it contain some stereotypes? Sure. But so does the actual world. Do you really believe that people who belong to the millennial generation don’t have certain traits, traits that are distinct from those of previous generations? Can you point to specific facts in the Times piece that are inaccurate? Sure, the details are incredible. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true.
But look at the headline, you say: “What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?” Clearly this was intended to be read as a comprehensive study of a national phenomenon—a broad indictment of an entire generation! Come on. No it wasn’t, and to read it that way is to assume a willfully dense and humorless stance. Instead of complaining that the author didn’t take into account that every individual is his or her own special flower, why not enjoy this lively, charming sketch of a workplace for what it is? An impressionistic and lighthearted rendering of a clever, mildly provocative idea. In other words, a trend piece.
People who despise trend pieces tend to condemn them for three reasons:
1) They think it’s bad form for a journalist to use a handful of examples and testimonials to make grand claims about shifting attitudes and behavior that aren’t backed up with hard data.
2) They think it’s dishonest to describe behavior practiced by specific groups as a “trend.”
3) They think it’s embarrassing when journalists report on minor changes in the way affluent people live as if they were “news.”
Those are the complaints I’ve heard most often, anyway, since becoming personally invested in the issue as a reporter at the New York Observer in 2007. Back then, the Observer staff took great pride in identifying new wrinkles in the culture and producing athletically reported trend pieces about them. Some favorites of mine from that era include:
—“Man Flab, It’s Fab,” by Sara Vilkomerson, about New York women circa summer 2006 who were finding themselves attracted to men “carrying an extra 10—hell, maybe 15—pounds in the midriff,” and were enjoying these men for their “soft but not squishy” physiques.
—“The Spokes-Models,” by Gillian Reagan, about the “bicycle babes of New York” who in the fall of 2007 paraded through “the pot-holed alleys of SoHo and the boutique-lined bike lanes of the West Village,” with “their long legs flashing” and their “flowing frocks and gigantic sunglasses” leaving “a trail of swooning male pedestrians in their perfumed wake.”
—“The New Victorians,” by Lizzy Ratner, about a species of twentysomethings who had, in pre-recession New York, declined the “recklessness and abandon” associated with being young in the big city in favor of “embracing the comforts of hearth and home with all the fervor of characters in Middlemarch.” “This prudish pack—call them the New Victorians—appears to have little interest in the prolonged puberty of earlier generations,” Ratner wrote. “While their forbears flitted away their 20’s in a haze of booze, Bolivian marching powder, and bed-hopping, New Vics throw dinner parties, tend to pedigreed pets, practice earnest monogamy, and affect an air of complacent careerism.”
How can you not love this stuff? Because it’s not about the gravely important issues of the day? Get a life, you babies! Sure, these pieces weren’t dispatches from the front lines of a war or investigations into municipal corruption. But each one got at something true about the ever-evolving predilections and mores of a great city’s denizens, and described them with verve, intellect, and a good-natured wink. No sensitive reader could leave one of these stories thinking that all women preferred men with a “dough mattress” for a stomach or that all young people in New York had taken up gardening and stopped going out to clubs. The point was that there was something new in the air, and these reporters had noticed it. Armed with journalistic energy and their gifts of perception, they engaged in small-scale acts of cultural anthropology to create work that was no less true for being imaginative, daring, and, sure, even a little absurd.
Life would be better if we had more such pieces to read today, which is why it’s so hard for me to understand why many people—including my colleagues at Slate—insist on being sourpusses every time we’re blessed with a new one. In an age when bloodless data journalism and somber personal essays dominate the media landscape, the joyously reckless and rascally trend piece should still have a place in our hearts. And we should trust ourselves and other readers to understand these pieces for what they are, and what they’re not.
Of course, the Times is not the prankish Observer of old, with its vastly larger readership and its perfectly understandable inclination toward the sober and straightforward. But that’s exactly why it’s cause for celebration that the New York Times is still willing to publish something like Widdicombe’s story about Mic. In fact, there’s a special pleasure in reading such journalism in the Times—like seeing your parents get drunk at a party and make a bunch of jokes you’d never expect them to make.
I, for one, was delighted to learn that UPS deliverymen had become sex symbols. This story about fashion-conscious New Yorkers trying to figure out how to dress during fall in the age of global warming was an incredible work of dark comedy. So was this one, about how potpie had gained a “strong following among the city’s high fashion set.” These stories were worth reading for the same reason candy is worth eating; to find such confections tucked inside a paper that is otherwise full of in-depth reporting on issues of grave importance is a reminder that journalism can be fun as well as informative and that being the paper of record doesn’t mean only Very Important Stories are fit to print.
To be sure—as they say in the boring, overly cautious stories you all seem to prefer—there are lame trend pieces. Half-hearted ones that aren’t animated by a new idea or that fail to bring their premise to life with expressive characters and memorable details. There are stories that do rely exclusively on established clichés instead of articulating new ideas, which I guess is what some people—including the author of this dutiful parody on Fusion—thought Widdicombe’s Mic piece was. Those people are wrong. This was not just a lazy old guy making fun of young people; it was a precise and focused romp that started with a fresh observation about a new workplace dynamic.
I hope the Times never stops publishing ridiculously entertaining pieces like Widdicombe’s. You want graphs, statistics, and mealy mouthed hedging about how only some men are wearing man buns and only some women are swearing off thongs? Go read an academic journal. Honestly, have a ball. I’ll be over here reading the paper like an adult, learning about my changing world in Technicolor and laughing my little head off.