Renovating The New York Times Op-Ed Section

The New York Times recently named Trish Hall its next op-ed editor.

She’s going to call the shots regarding who gets a guest spot in the nation’s premiere opinion pages, which typically feature brilliantly written, sharply argued, and perfectly edited commentaries on sometimes dry yet always inarguably important topics.

Despite the emergence of the blogosphere and new outlets such as HuffingtonPost, the Times‘ op-ed section remains a go-to place for the latest angle from prominent thinkers and policy-shapers on arms control, the Middle East peace process, climate change, and health care, along with other things that really matter. You can get your fix on those topics elsewhere, but you might end up having to ponder the personal lives of Angelina Jolie and Brett Favre in the process. Besides, it’s home to Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, two of the columnists I most admire.

Hall is a mind-boggling choice. She has worked at the Times for most of the past 25 years, aside from a stint as Martha Stewart Living’s executive editor. Her most recent job? She was the paper’s assistant managing editor responsible for its Dining, Home, Thursday Styles, Travel, Real Estate, and Sunday Styles sections. As Dave Barry (another of my favorite columnists, but one who traditionally wouldn’t be serious enough for the section Hall will soon run) would say, I’m not making this up.

I’ve had my own unusual career twists and turns. But as hard as I try, I just can’t understand the logic here. How can the same person be capable of bringing readers the best home-decorating and dinner-party-throwing tips as well as the sharpest analysis on New START and the “birther” movement? If I were her, I’d be happy to focus on the tea party instead of tea parties, but where’s the evidence that she harbored that desire? I scoured a Q&A with her from 2007 and found no sign of those aspirations. In response to a question about how the Times‘ Living section picks the right topics to pursue, however, she did assert that lifestyle journalism takes the same kind of inquisitiveness as all other forms of the trade:

“It’s that great eureka moment we all love, when we hear a phenomenon mentioned that we have never before heard of. It’s the thrill of the new, and we are all then consumed by the same drive: to find out what, and why and how, and to write a story. That’s why we’re journalists, and no matter what we cover, it’s the same process.”

One of the paper’s most prominent writers in the six sections under her control will be making a similar move. Mark Bittman has ended his “Minimalist” column after 13-years and will write instead a column in the op-ed section in which he plans to “advocate, essentially, for eaters’ rights” as well as a column called “On Food” for The New York Times Magazine. That’s a change that makes perfect sense to me, as it will to fans of OtherWords’ food and farming section. Presumably, there will be more op-eds on these issues as well. I have to admit, those commentaries are much more fun to edit than all those dry yet important topics. Hey, if Hall doesn’t pan out, maybe the New York Times can give me a call.