For a Master Class in Trolling, Just Turn to The New York Times

Forget BuzzFeed or Gawker, Times' Real Estate and Lifestyle Sections Have the Formula Down

By Published on .

It's become fashionable to complain about the state of online "journalism" as various sites do what needs to be done to boost page views and goose the most-emailed list. Even as we envy all that sweet, sweet traffic, we castigate. We roll our eyes at Gawker's latest hit job on a beloved pop-culture icon. We tut-tut BuzzFeed's latest slideshow, a Frankenstein's monster of memes and photos cribbed from elsewhere.

But as I was angrily banging the Facebook share button recently, I realized something. All these Johnny-come-latelies are rank amateurs compared with The New York Times.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

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 Trainers."

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 animal-training circles.)

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."

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