Just in time for the long weekend, the New York Times came through with its latest hate-read to power the blogosphere through a particularly slow holiday lull. This time, the Grey Lady’s real estate section introduces us to a flock of Upper East Siders opting to buy second apartments below 14th Street. Some of these apartments are crash pads so their owners don’t have to make the onerous trek uptown after eating dinner in the West Village; some are future homes for their high schoolers, in case they choose to go to college in New York; all are infuriating to read about. Surface-level outrage at the 1%and those who write about them aside, though, there’s more to be angry about than a group the Times memorably refers to as “Muffys and Thurstons.”
Part of the problem, of course, is that the total tone-deafness of reporting “New York’s Beau Monde Finds Downtown” (as if Christopher Street were some uncharted wilderness, not home to as many multimillion-dollar apartments as any stretch of Park Avenue) is hardly an isolated incident. The Real Estate section is also home to “The Hunt,” a column following various well-to-do New Yorkers’ search for the perfect place. A recent, easily parodied dispatch tracked a jewelry designer and a video game executive as they looked for a space that had “plenty of room for their prosciutto slicer.” And the biweekly Styles section is downright infamous for its tendency to publish pieces like Henry Alford’s ridiculous “How I Became a Hipster,” in which the writer sets out to “embed” himself in the “bohemia” of Williamsburg by spending a weekend holed up in the $300-a-night Wythe Hotel.
At this point, the only thing more predictable than a New York Times trend piece that’s equal parts out of touch and condescending is the backlash that follows. For the most part, said backlash is made up of exasperated tweets and the occasional snarky blog post from Gawker, Gothamist, and other sites that keep tabs on the city and the media that covers it. These responses are fully justified, of course: when an article includes a quote from a socialite comparing the Village to a weekend trip to Milan, it’s practically begging to be called out. But because “New York’s Beau Monde…” is only the latest in a flood of cringe-inducing Times articles, most write-ups stop at labeling the article “hilarious” and letting the most outrageous excerpts speak for themselves. There’s no longer anything exceptional about the Times careening into self-parody, and thus little point in dedicating precious headspace to a particular article when an even more ridiculous piece is bound to show up sooner rather than later.
Yet the collective eye-rolling that greets “New York’s Beau Monde…” and articles like it obscures the more serious implications of the city’s (and country’s) most well-regarded daily paper setting itself up as a chronicle of Rich Middle-Aged People Problems, Rich Middle-Aged People Minor Inconveniences, and Things Lots of Rich Middle-Aged People Happen to Be Doing Right Now. Though widely reviled trend pieces make sense in the short term — all those infuriated Facebook posts and reblogs stack up to plenty of pageviews — in the long term, every Hunt column and did-you-know-Williamsburg’s-a-thing-now article turns the stereotype of Old Media into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By catering to the wealthy and the 40-plus, the Times alienates exactly the readers it needs most to survive: young people.
As members of a generation that’s crippled by student debt, faced with an impossible job market, and priced out of the very downtown neighborhoods Upper East Siders are just discovering, we millennials (and yeah, we hate that term, though we’re apparently stuck with it) get a few messages loud and clear when we read New York Times trend pieces — or, more likely, hear about them from the blogs that are now the paper’s competition. One is that the paper largely isn’t particularly concerned with what we’re up to; it’d rather cover its core constituency, Park Slope townhouse owners and West Village prosciutto slicers. The other is that when it finally deigns to turn its gaze towards us, it’s as quaint fodder for condescending stories that go something like this: “The dazzling hotel and night life complex… has finally washed up on Brooklyn’s hype-friendly shores, bringing with it the kind of crowds eager to finally explore the Next Big Thing. And what are they finding across the river? Communal tables, artisanal beer, saltwater pools and a cast of characters right out of the HBO series Girls.”
Of course, it’s in a venerable, old newspaper’s DNA to be biased towards the establishment and behind the times with the young’uns. And previously, millennials would simply have grown up, aged, and wealth-accumulated their way into the demographic that reads (and writes) the Times, and another generation would emerge to complain about the Styles section. But The New York Times doesn’t have time on its side anymore. If it fails to convince my generation to fork over its dollars to get past its paywall, we’ll continue doing what we’ve done for most of our lives: reading free, increasingly high-quality, and certainly way more on-the-pulse alternatives, from The Billfold (a website that is explicitly geared towards people who have to worry about money) to Bedford + Bowery (a new project that gives North Brooklyn the serious coverage it deserves).
The Times isn’t entirely devoid of quality reporting on issues that people my age care about — it’s the freaking New York Times, after all. Flip over to the News section and we find ample coverage of the ongoing legislative battle over student loan rates; a N.Y./Region section article published just a day after “New York’s Beau Monde…” chronicles the effects of the very gentrification that article covers with an uncritical eye. But by both expressing its subjective taste and garnering much of its publicity, the Times’s cultural reporting plays a crucial role in shaping casual readers’ perceptions of the storied paper. And with every article that acts like adding a Tribeca loft to one’s list of properties isn’t heinous at best and revolting at worst, The New York Times only isolates itself further from the generation that could make or break its survival.