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July 15, 2009

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Behind the New York Review of Ideas

So, I was happy to discover the New York Review of Ideas a few days ago, and since then, I’ve torn through several of the stories—and all of the reading lists.

But a question lingers: What is this thing?

Turns out it’s the project of a class at NYU’s graduate school of journalism. I was curious to know more, so I did a quick email interview with Derrick Koo—an NYU grad student as well as the site’s designer and developer. Here goes:

So, you mentioned that the site was the project of a class at NYU’s graduate school of journalism. Which class? And did the project set out to create a website, or did that format coalesce somewhere along the way?

The class was Robert Boynton’s Journalism of Ideas, so that partially answers the second question. The aim of the course was for each student to create a small body of ideas-based, magazine-style work and to compile the publishable pieces into a blog or website at the conclusion of the class. So the idea for a website was there from the beginning; but how far we took the project was left entirely up to the students.

The title—“New York Review of Ideas”—seemed to really resonate, instantly, with a lot of people. I read some comments along the lines of: “Wow. I want to read every single thing on this site. Right now.” Could you talk a little bit about the thinking behind the title, the tone, and—most importantly—story selection?

The title was Professor Boynton’s idea, and seemed like a natural fit for the type of ideas-based reporting we were doing. Almost all the stories we wrote began with questions of personal interest. Professor Boynton put it something like this: explore an idea you’re interested in but most people would know next to nothing about, then find the people who are best qualified to explain it or embody it in a meaningful way. I think this approach allowed us to explore a really wide variety of issues, while forcing us all to adhere to a very specific purpose. As for the tone, we owe a great debt to the late magazine Lingua Franca—the ideas in some of the stories reach an almost academic depth, but they’re meant to be as universally interesting as possible. I’m glad to see that readers like this choice.

For the nerds: what tools are you using to run this site? What’s the CMS? Any crucial plugins?

It’s really simple, actually—the whole site is built in WordPress, which I thought would be the quickest and easiest platform to publish with. The basic concept revolves around multiple category-specific loops for the simple reason that I didn’t want to design just another reverse-chronological blog. Very early on, I decided that basing the design around the categories (profiles, reviews, Q&As, etc.) was a good way to keep the site focused on the ideas rather than on the “latest story,” since it was never meant to be a news-oriented project. No special plugins were used aside from a “print friendly” function (added on request).

I’m always interested in the way that journalism students’ vision of the kind of work they want to do matches up—or doesn’t—with the way journalism really works in the world today. Were your fellow students generally excited about the prospect of publishing an idea-rich website? Lukewarm? Unmoved?

It’s tough to parse out the feelings of 15 very different students, some of whom I know better than others. But most of us probably chose to take the course because of its focus on ideas-based journalism. It promised to immerse us in a much different type of research and writing than what we’d find in your average news-writing course, or even your average post-grad first job. So I’d venture to say most of us were pretty excited about working on the site—everyone pitched in to write, edit and produce it. This was the kind of work we wanted to do—and if it doesn’t match up to professional opportunities, well… people want to read it, right? So maybe the way journalism really works right now isn’t how it should work.

This was a one-time, stand-alone project. So, you’re telling me I will never get anything new on that RSS feed I subscribed to? Seriously, nothing?

It was conceived as a one-time project, since we had no idea what kind of response we’d receive or where we’d all be after the semester ended. But just because we don’t plan to update monthly doesn’t mean your RSS feed will go completely unused—especially since the feedback we’ve received so far has been so positive.

I can’t promise anything, but I bet there are a lot of current and future students who would be interested in contributing ideas-based stories in semesters to come. I, for one, am definitely open to maintaining it beyond the original scope. I really do hope it turns into something ongoing.

Posted July 15, 2009 at 8:03 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Interviews, Journalism, Media Galaxy


I really liked "Canon Fodder," the story on the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

I think there's a lot of room in both the print publishing and blogging spheres for a good digest of what's happening in the humanities, inside and outside of the academy. The NYRI (which awesomely sounds like a train to Providence) actually hits that sweet spot pretty well.

Yeah, you know... Derrick mentions this explicitly... and the pitch you just laid out... maybe Lingua Franca just had the wrong format? Forget the print magazine; focus on the web.

Great site, thanks for introducing it! I do wish it was a little more accessible and less high brow. If there's a place very niche content can thrive it's the Web, but I do wish there were more sites out there that had the ideas from our best minds with more of a collaborative twist. Cool find in any case.

That's a fair point, Melody. For my money, that's often what a great interviewer can help with -- I think of Terry Gross on NPR, for instance. Also, as far as content goes, interviews are pretty easy to produce. Where's the Charlie Rose of the web, anyway? There's totally a market there.

New York Review of Ideas is interesting project. I hope they update it more often and also to continue existing (not dumping it after graduation)

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