How to write a hit article.

Media criticism.
July 13 2006 6:05 PM

How To Write a Hit Article

The New York Times "Shamu" essay shows the way.

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Lesson No. 5: Animals, animals, animals. Let me repeat: Animals, animals, animals. Readers so love animal stories that Slatepublishes regular dispatches about dogs and cats from two experienced writers. One of them, whose last name is actually "Katz," now contributes to a separate column about roosters, cows, etc., titled "Rural Life." The traffic generated by these pieces makes possible the publication of poorly performing columns about the press.

Lesson No. 6: Thehuman need to anthropomorphize has made for extended Hollywood careers for Lassie, Flipper, Willy of Free Willy, Babe, Francis the Talking Mule, Mr. Ed, Beethoven, Benji, Ben, Air Bud, and Clint Eastwood's orangutans, just to name a few. But an equal urge to ascribe animal attributes to human beings—to theriomorphize—exists. After all, many women refer to their men as dogs, and some men have called women bitches for a long time. Sutherland exploits the gender symmetry of theriomorphism in the last sentence of her piece (spoiler alert), where she describes her husband practicing the animal-trainer technique of "least reinforcing syndrome." On her! Now she's the whale! Hahaha!

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I intend to directly apply these lessons to my own work by writing about press animals only: Wolf Blitzer, Fox Butterfield, Fox News, Robert Trout, Robin Wright, Scotty Reston, Shepard Smith, Kai Bird, Tom Oliphant, Tom Wolfe, Naomi Wolf, Michael Wolff, et al. I'll rename the column "Litter Box." And to promote the column's relaunch I'll even give away a cuddly animal mascot.

Let's call him "Jackal."

Addendum 1, July 14: Readers corralled a few more journalists for my "Litter Box" bestiary. Please welcome Jeffrey Lyons, Brian Lamb, Katty Kay, and Ray Ratto to the list. (My thanks to the respective nominators: Leon Freilich, Todd Bunce, Michael Globetti, and Mark Romoser.)

Also, reader Neil Golightly notes similarities between "Shamu" and a 2001 Ashley Judd movie titled Someone Like You, based on Laura Zigman's 1997 novel Animal Husbandry. Judd plays a jilted female TV-show producer who studies the mating habits of cows in her quest to understand what men want. Judd leverages her ev-psych findings by writing a column for a men's magazine on the topic under a pseudonym. "If there is potential humor in this conceit, Someone Like You does its utmost to avoid it," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

Addendum 2, July 14: Karen Salmansohn writes in to claim credit as one of the earliest proponents of the men-are-trainable-animals school of thought. Long before Sutherland or Zigman had compared men to dolphins or bulls, she recognized them as educable canines. Her 1994 book, How To Make Your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less Using the Secrets of Professional Dog Trainers, is still in print.

She writes:

It's gone into 15 printings—and been sold in eight countries—even in Korea, where they eat dogs. Go figure.

Addendum 3, July 14: Jeff Sweat points me to an earlier treat-your-mate-like-a-manimal document, 1962's If a Man Answers, starring Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin. The IMDb synopsis states that a "mother gives [Dee] a book that will solve all her problems about how to treat a husband—namely a book on how to train dogs." Go figure, Karen Salmansohn! Meanwhile, Skip Berger invites us to contemplate the lesbian context hidden in the headline of the New York Times article. He notes—and Wikipedia confirms—that the original Shamu was female.

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