NEW YORK—A feature on the New York Times' website that lists the stories most e-mailed by readers is destroying morale and escalating tensions among the once-dignified and professional Times staff, sources within the newspaper of record said Tuesday.
This week's most frequently e-mailed story, titled "In Manhattan, Even Felines Have Therapists," which detailed the growing phenomenon of clinical depression among indoor urban cats, provoked a fresh round of envy and dismay among reporters still stinging from last week's top article, "Do You Really Have Time For Your Time-Share?".
"Your reputation is everything here at the Times, and if you want get known, you've got to deliver what readers want: differences between men and women, and photos of cats," national political reporter Adam Nagourney said. "I suppose I could be most e-mailed, too, if I sat in front of my computer all day making up cutesy names for government officials, like some redheaded Wednesday and Saturday columnists I know."
Along with most of his Times colleagues, Nagourney is convinced that online readers instinctively overlook harder news for the eye-catching Most E-Mailed box, making the pressure to craft articles with those magical "click and send" qualities that much more intense.
Executive editor Bill Keller said he believes that the Most E-Mailed list is causing "troubling" changes in the Times' editorial focus, as reporters increasingly neglect less attractive assignments.
"I've always encouraged our journalists to follow their instincts," Keller said. "But now I'm considering a more hands-on approach, especially since I've received no fewer than four 800-word pieces on 'man dates' in the past week alone."
According to Times insiders, nearly two dozen staffers, including four Pulitzer Prize winners and Baghdad correspondent John Burns, have requested transfers to the Times' Home & Garden and Travel desks.
Nagourney, currently stuck covering Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Minnesota, said he's been trying to make his stories more e-mail-friendly. But so far, success has eluded him.
"I thought my Elizabeth Edwards breast cancer article the other week had a great chance, as it was at the intersection of politics, health, death, and family—and had the word 'breast' in the headline—but it didn't even make the top 10," Nagourney said. "Whatever."
White House correspondent David Sanger recalled his anger last month after seeing New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. compliment a first-year reporter who had gotten two stories on the Most E-Mailed list despite only having worked at the paper part-time for three months.
"I know I write some boring stuff, but I'm forced to: It's my job," Sanger said. "I've been here for almost 25 years, and Sulzberger hasn't said that many words to me the whole time."
Restaurant critic and Most E-Mailed list darling Frank Bruni dismissed the inter-office grousing, saying, "Some people have it, some people never will." Bruni's work topped the Most E-Mailed list eight times in the past year.
Other mainstays of the Most E-mailed List, such as columnist Frank Rich, experience the stress of having to maintain their success every week. While there are definite perks, such as sharing a lunch table with other widely e-mailed columnists, like Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman, Rich said that the "once laid-back and carefree" working environment of the Times' midtown Manhattan offices has been replaced with suspicion and backbiting.
"Yesterday I was working in my cubicle, and I could hear some reporters at the water cooler a few feet away talking in stage whispers about how I was 'obviously' getting my friends to e-mail my columns around to artificially inflate their ranking, and it was very upsetting," Rich said. "Sure, some of my friends may have e-mailed them, but that's because they honestly liked them and people have the right to do that."
Columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former editor who has covered Asia and Africa for the Times, claimed not to be aware that his work frequently appears on the Most E-Mailed list, saying he "never so much as glances" at it.
"Who cares—lists are stupid and arbitrary," Kristof said. "Only shallow morons pay attention to them. As if an article is inherently better just because more people happen to read it. This isn't a popularity contest."
Kristof returned Thursday from the Sudan after a six-week-long investigation of the plight of displaced house cats in the genocide-ridden Darfur region. His findings will be published in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine.