What set me off was an article titled "An Apartment With Guest
Potential." It's a harrowing 1,100-word tale of a 26-year-old
Columbia grad's struggle to buy a $700,000 Manhattan apartment with
her parents' money. Time was of the essence. As was space. Because,
as she said, "something very California is to have friends over to
your home where you can host them."
There's an old right-wing joke that suggests in the case of
apocalypse, the Times headline would read, "World Ends, Women and
Minorities Hardest Hit."
But the fact is, people are facing the apocalypse every weekend
in the pages of The New York Times. You just have to thumb over to
the Real Estate or Fashion & Lifestyle sections. There, you'll
find a broad range of sufferers. If by broad, you mean middle to
upper class and, as often as not, white women.
This, in turn, drives a certain sort of person (me) absolutely
bonkers. And that's the secret recipe behind a perfectly viral New
York Times article: a little bit of reader "service," a little bit
of passable writing. And a heaping handful of trolling.
In fact, I've now convinced myself that The New York Times has
an Editor-in-Trolling. How else to explain all these 1,000-word
pieces featuring New York Times bubble dwellers that so outrage
those who can't stand The New York Times' bubble dwellers?
Take the Modern Love section. It's rife with disaster visited
upon well-meaning women of certain means. Even if you don't read
Modern Love, you've probably read Modern Love. Who can forget
"What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy
Marriage," from 2006? A more accurate title would have been
"How I Reprogrammed My Husband with Tricks from Exotic Animal
It was well-written and humorous. But one had to assume that if
a man had written a piece about how to apply animal-training
tactics to his wife, the Times wouldn't have run it. (And may well
have commissioned a trend piece on rampant misogyny in
Either way, women with oafish husbands shared out of delight and
oafish (or even non-oafish) men shared out of outrage. Blogs of all
stripes picked it up. Slate used it as an example of how to write a
killer internet story. And the Times won the internet.
Back to the Real Estate section.
It takes a certain mastery to get buy-in from all involved, so
that you can offer an almost service-y piece to an article's
primary target -- and give everyone else a stroke. (Or, from an
advertiser's perspective, a piece that features and targets a
really desirable demographic -- and gets bonus views from a few
thousand angry people who, on some level, likely aspire to be in
that demographic. Win-win!)
Exhibit A: The aforementioned piece about the Columbia grad.
Exhibit B: The "Relocation Therapy" story from
January. Allow me to quote: "Legions swear by retail therapy as
a way of dealing with a bad day at the office, a bad-hair day or a
really bad number on the bathroom scale. But people who are going
through more substantial life crises ... may be able to work
through the pain with the aid of real-estate therapy."
But for my money, you can't top the 2008 "Regrets Only" piece. The article
found homeowners bemoaning the fact that they can't get friends to
visit. "The house may be geographically or socially undesirable.
Perhaps it's a bit too rough-hewn or lacking in essential creature
comforts like Frette linens and an en suite bathroom, or essential
amenities like a Jacuzzi."
Did I say homeowners? I meant second-home owners. That's right:
1,500 words about poor, hopeless folks who have a second home but
sometimes find it hard to get friends to visit.
If that's not trolling, I don't know what is.
In the end, everyone gets something out of it, right?
Second-home owners feel recognized. The rest of us can feel
outraged and smug. And the Times gets a traffic spike, even if many
of these stories are so shameless they wouldn't be allowed to run
in the classified section of an alternative weekly.
Ken Wheaton, Ad Age's managing editor, is the author of
"The First Annual
Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival" and the upcoming "Bacon and Egg Man."