July 15, 2024

Coming Next Sunday: The Latest Evolution of the Review

The first entry was an account of wrangling between Franklin D. Roosevelt and House Democrats for control (and thus pork-barreling rights) over the president’s $4.8 billion work relief program. The anonymous author seemed to relish his cheeky, slightly un-Timesean kicker, which quoted a Republican on the state of the House: “a supine, subservient, soporific, superfluous, supercilious, pusillanimous body of nitwits.”

Over the ensuing three-quarters of a century, the name has been shortened (to The Week in Review in 1967; to Week in Review, no “The,” in 1994). Those digest items grew into essays and acquired bylines. Designers using photos and graphics and cartoons and creative typography made the section easier on the eye. But the Review remained a place where a writer could do something a little different from the daily news report.

The writers — reporters and news editors, mostly — developed a form that was more analytical and less formulaic than the just-the-facts reports in the rest of the paper, but distinct from the more polemical writing of the opinion pages — the editorials, columnists and invited advocates sequestered in the back pages, after a wall of advertising. The Review proved successful enough to win a special Pulitzer citation in 1953 for providing “enlightenment and intelligent commentary.”

Next Sunday, the Week in Review will make another evolutionary leap. The name will be shortened yet again to Sunday Review, the last vestiges of a weekly summing up replaced by a more general timeliness, and that dividing wall breached, so that argument (which will be labeled Opinion) can appear alongside explanation (which will be labeled News Analysis.)

It is not the end of the world as we know it, or even, really, the most dramatic turn in the long history of the section. In the 1990s the Review was very nearly killed off, on the ground that it no longer did anything the rest of the paper wasn’t doing.

“The section even then seemed to have little reason for being, given that so many news stories came with their own built-in analysis,” recalls Daniel Lewis, the editor who earned the section a reprieve by infusing it with imagination.

Dan and his successors found virtue in the section’s weekliness, which allowed time to discover “buried treasure — the interesting stuff on the minds of writers and editors that could be drawn out and developed only in the course of relatively leisurely conversations.” His first issue featured a piece by Maureen Dowd, then a Washington correspondent, on a subject the editor and reporter had been batting back and forth, the shaky foundations of Americans’ self-esteem.

The section published first-person accounts like Jeffrey Schmalz’s memorable 1992 account of living with AIDS while covering AIDS — this “at a time when ‘I’ in place of ‘this reporter’ was still a bit of a shock,” Dan recalls.

At any point in the last 20 years, you could start a lively argument in the Times newsroom by asking: What’s the point of this section when so much of The Times — including the front page — is now hospitable to analytical writing and stylistic novelty?

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

Susan Chira, another Review alum (now foreign editor), says the Review can be more playful, even satirical. Dave Smith, the current (and last) editor of the iteration you are now reading, says the Review “tends to go deeper into the past for historical context and is able to speculate about the future in a more relaxed way.” It can frame questions more broadly: How should black politicians speak to white voters to be effective? Can the America of the 21st century be compared to the late stages of the Roman Empire? It can be experimental, as in last year’s interactive feature, “O.K., You Fix the Budget.”

“Writers tell us, over and over, that they feel unleashed, stylistically, when they write for the Review,” he says.

This latest change is about proportion and display. The Sunday Review will devote somewhat greater space to columnists and outside writers, while preserving the flights of analytical writing and back story by news journalists. The opinion writers will be liberated from the back pages. So you may find Maureen Dowd on the cover again — this time in her capacity as Op-Ed columnist.

You may feel it goes too far. Or you may feel, as Dan Lewis suspects, that it “might not go far enough.” Either way, just wait. The one sure thing is that eventually it will change again.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=36771e2ba3ccf33607c9888ce536852a

Speak Your Mind