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.

On June 25, the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times published a "Modern Love" column on how to use animal training techniques to fix your man. Titled "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," it almost immediately reached No. 1 on NYTimes.com's list of most frequently e-mailed articles.

No big deal. Columns about men, women, and relationships are perennial favorites. But almost three weeks later, the piece remains near the top of the NYTimes.com's constantly churning list of most-e-mailed articles and shows no sign of sinking. "Shamu's" run makes it the newspaper equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon, the Pink Floyd disc that has owned a spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart for all but a couple of weeks since 1973.

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In addition to having been e-mailed a gazillion times, the piece has been mined by the Times' own Maureen Dowd for a column ($). Early on, Salon interviewed author Amy Sutherland about the extraordinary response her piece was eliciting. And Technorati reports that hundreds have blogged about it.

When Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post asked me last week for a comment on the "Shamu" storm, I said (pardon the self-quotation), "The Shamu story establishes once and for all that men are the new women. You can now use the New York Times to write the most dehumanizing and insulting shit about them and everybody will laugh in recognition." I still hold that position, but that doesn't explain the piece's grip on the popular imagination any more than Dark Side of the Moon's trippy cover art explains its durability.

Then what does? TheSlate staff donned its collective thinking cap to help me ponder this issue and here's what we came up with.

Never underestimate the power of a terrific headline, especially a misleading terrific headline. For all the brilliance contained in Sutherland's "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," the famed killer whale never appears in it. The closest we get to Shamu is a visit to Sea World, where she observes the behavior-mod tricks Sea World's professional trainers use on dolphins. Shamu's name in isolation carries an undeniable cultural resonance, let alone when it's paired with the concept of a happy marriage. Imagine the same article titled, "What Generic Dolphins at Sea World Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." It doesn't even work if you substitute Flipper for Shamu 

So, Lesson No. 1: Editors in search of page views should emulate the Times (and Slate) and pimp their headlines to attract attention. As long as the headline is half-honest, it's OK.

Lesson No. 2: The most-e-mailable stories amalgamate the mundane to create something novel. Columns about relationships and columns about iconic animals are mundane. Columns about relationships that cite iconic animals are novel. A certain class of people love e-mailing links to such articles. The only effective way of discouraging them is to send the mail back marked with the subject head "Unsubscribe."

Lesson No. 3: "Shamu" reads like amateur night at the Kalamazoo Komedy Klub, but bad standup has moved people to send e-mail ever since e-mail was invented. Shake it like Shecky, my fellow journalists, and watch your hit count climb.

Lesson No. 4: The closer a column resembles the structure of a sitcom, the greater its appeal. Sitcoms first reflected life, then life started reflecting sitcoms. Today, journalism mimics the sitcom structure to reflect reality. "Shamu" shrewdly provides both sexes with room to grumble. I reckon that for every wife who forwarded the column with the annotation, "This column describes all the things my husband does that bug me!" an equal number of husbands sent an e-mail proclaiming, "My wife nags me with animal-training techniques like this!" See also any episode of According to Jim.

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!

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.

******

What press animals did I miss? Send species via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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