Let me see if I've got this straight: Frank Rich is leaving a weekly column at the nation's most important daily newspaper for a monthly column at the second best weekly in the country.
If Rich's move is about wanting to spend more time with his family, gain greater distance from Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, free himself to pursue his HBO projects more aggressively, or to work once again with New York Editor Adam Moss, with whom he has a mind-meld, I understand. But unless the deal came with Bloombergian bags of cash, it makes no sense.
I'm not suggesting that Frank Rich will disappear when he departs the Times for New York magazine, but the switch will transform him from the fat man in the biggest room in the oversized mansion of newspaper journalism to just another high-profile scribbler at a magazine. Oh, the New York press release says Rich will be editing a special "section anchored by his essay," and be commenting on the magazine's Web site, but it's a step down. Today, Rich's column appears in supersized format in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, which has a print circulation of 1.35 million, and more than 34.5 millionunique monthly visitors to its Web site, compared to New York magazine's 405,000 circulation and 8.5 million uniques.
One of the charms of working weekly—or daily, for that matter—is that your readers know where and when to find you. But with Rich going monthly for a much less prominent publication, he'll get lost. In this new venue, there will be no obvious cues—Sunday morning bagels and coffee, for example—that it's Rich time. He'll just be floating out there in the journalistic ether.
He won't be the only one. Howard Kurtz, one of the iron men of journalism, has been floating in the ether ever since leaving the Washington Post for the Daily Beast last fall. He's writing prolifically about the media and other topics for the Beast, as he did for decades at the Post. But Kurtz's copy used to be hand-delivered to my front door step. Now, even though I've got Kurtz's RSS feed in my Google Reader, he's sorta vanished on me.
It's not my fault that I don't read Kurtz as much anymore, and it won't be my fault if I start missing Rich's copy, either, even though I read every copy of New York that another Slate staffer doesn't steal from my mailbox. I just won't read him with the same frequency I did in the Times. But let's say that New York magazine pays somebody to put Rich's column in front of my face every month—something I encourage them to do. Will his monthly pieces about politics and culture be as timely as his weekly pieces, or will they puddle out like old Lewis H. Lapham essays in Harper's without that discipline?
The problem with leaving the Times is that nobody is bigger than the paper. Oh, journalists have left it for other big things—books of their own and TheNew Yorker, for example. But only a few of them—Seymour M. Hersh, Gay Talese, David Halberstam, for instance—become as big a deal outside the newspaper as they were inside it. That's not because the talents inside the paper aren't great; they are. It's just that there is no better real estate in all of journalism, nor is there a brand name in the biz that makes sources pay greater attention. You could quadruple the journalistic skill of, say, the Chicago Tribune's best reporter, by letting him begin all of his cold calls to potential sources, "I'm a reporter with the New York Times."
Rich is so far beyond having to lean on the Times nameplate to 1) do good work and 2) get noticed for it that I feel a little stupid even having to say it. But is he prepared to learn how much he relies on the Times platform, its continuity, and its audience to be Frank Rich? I hope he doesn't get lost on the cab ride from the Times to New York.
I've always admired Rich for how generous he has been in giving credit to other journalists, not a particularly Timesian trait. Give me credit for giving him credit with an e-mail to email@example.com or just follow me on Twitter, goddamnit, so I feel as though I've fulfilled my social media obligation for the day. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)