Sherman: The New York Times Parties for the Obama Economy

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Look! They're laughing at us!
Look! They're laughing at us! Photo: Getty Images

Down on the Bowery last night, the New York Times hosted an inauguration party at the New Museum to fête Barack Obama's nascent presidency. At around six o'clock, guests began arriving in the museum's cavernous ground floor and were handed straw top hats and American-flag pinwheels. At the rear of the lobby, bartenders mixed drinks including the"Hail to the Chief," a cocktail of Krome vodka, pomegranate juice, seltzer, lime juice, and blueberry garnish. A D.J. played sixties pop songs, and a projector displayed historic images of past inaugurations onto the bare white walls. On the other side of the room, guests lined up to enter the Facebook photo booth and have their photos beamed online.

When I arrived at the party, an attendant instructed me to wear a red, white, and blue pin showing an illustration of Obama in profile with the date 01/20/09 stenciled in white, all floating above the Times' logo. The gift bag contained a twelve-inch by twelve-inch poster of the same image. The marriage of the Times' flag and Obama's silhouette was jarring. One guest remarked that the poster looked like something put out by Pravda — state-run liberal media. (Except with less red and more blue.)

Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis explained that the Times' marketing department, and not the newsroom, staged the event. "The items in the gift bags — UTZ chips circa the era of Mad Men, discounts at Public restaurant because it's for the "people" — were chosen to celebrate the new era in politics and to allude to [the] time of Kennedy when the nation seemed to have a similar sense of hope and excitement," Mathis wrote in an e-mail. "The food was retro as well: pigs in a blanket, mashed potatoes, mini-burgers, etc." (Funny, we thought sliders were a painfully modern invention.)

Though the Times hasn't taken a pronounced pro-Obama line (the paper endorsed Hillary, after all), it certainly has found many synergies with the new administration. For one, Obama is a Niebuhr-quoting intellectual who provides the most powerful possible endorsement for the paper's cerebral sensibilities. The return of an ardent reader and a published author to the White House reaffirms what the Times stands for — as a Columbia grad, he's steeped in the values of the Upper West Side.

But there are also economic benefits to an Obama presidency. The Times — like most media outlets that saw traffic spike during this campaign — stands to gain, at least financially, from an Obama presidency. His celebrity, and power to inspire the audience, is even a profit center — selling papers ($29.95 for the "Inauguration and Election Newspaper Set") and photographs ($1,129 for a 20-by-24 Damon Winter image) — at a moment when the paper must find new ways to market itself and make money. (For readers who want their Obama first thing in the morning, there's a $24.95 set of Obama "Victory Mugs," part of a extensive collection of Obama memorabilia available at the paper's online store.)

Hence the party. But for a paper with the Times' long-held journalistic values, hosting a party for a political candidate is far from seemly. "I don't know how to explain it," one Times staffer said. "I don't know what the thinking was." These days, there's a growing chasm between the Times' print edition and its more creative, evolving website. While Maureen Dowd's party on Sunday evening in D.C. was an A-list event for the paper's print establishment and Official Washington, the Times' New Museum inauguration party was the destination of choice for the Twitter crowd.

As the Times untethers itself from the physical print product, inevitably the values and mores will evolve too. The question is whether the party is a minor hypocrisy propagated by an overeager marketing department, or the outward sign of an inward evolution, a sign of where the power increasingly lies at the paper. On the web, of course, political identity is a traffic magnet. Just look at the Huffington Post and Drudge. One future for a muscular Times presence online might be modeled after the Guardian, or, as Michael Hirschorn suggested recently in the Atlantic, the Huffington Post — whose pre-inauguration ball was infinitely more glamorous than that of the Times.