An oral history of 'The Meh List'
The New York Times Magazine's One-Page Magazine is no more, and with it goes the Meh List, a weekly tabulation of things that are "Not Hot, Not Not, Just Meh." Recently in meh: B.J. Surhoff (Sept. 21). Book trailers (Sept. 7). The Meh List (Sept. 28). One time the list declared pizza meh, remember that?
Samantha Henig, the Times Magazine's digital editor, has been writing the Meh List since 2012. She and Times Magazine story editor Jon Kelly, the founding editor of the One-Page Magazine, discussed its life and death.
Samantha Henig: Hey Jon, remember that oral history of the Approval Matrix that we made fun of for being self-righteous? Well, I think we should do something similar to send off the One-Page Magazine, which breathed its final breath last month. As far as I remember, it was conceived by you and Hugo, right?
Jon Kelly: Yeah, three years ago, Hugo Lindgren, the editor-in-chief at the time, was playing with the idea of doing something different in the front of the book, particularly on the first page. He wanted something graphic, something with multiple parts. I'm pretty sure he was joking when he blurted out, "It would be great to make a whole magazine on a single page." But I took the mission very seriously.
As the page came together, it was clear that we needed some culture-ish component that worked with our quasi-serious tone. Adam Sternbergh, who was then the magazine's culture editor, had a funny idea. "You know how they have ‘hot lists’ and ‘not lists,’ " he said. "Well, you should have a meh list." It was an instantly and obviously great idea, so I asked Adam to do it.
SH: And Adam stuck with the job for, what, two weeks?
JK: Yeah, something like that. Then Greg Veis, who was a story editor here, took over. He had already been involved as the “additional reporter” -- a sort of bogus credit that I added on. I had worked at Bloomberg for a couple years and often delighted in the company's earnest habit of listing a ridiculous number of reporters for even the shortest article. I thought it would be even funnier to list an "additional reporter" for a column half the size of the Nutrition Facts box.
SH: Greg sat behind me, and you two used to have your weekly Meh List meeting in my ear. It was super annoying. The only way I could make the whole thing end faster was to help out. Generally my input was solicited when you realized that the list needed "a woman thing." I'm pretty sure I won you both over with "Febreze."
JK: Greg put together some amazing lists. "Rob Schneider (Except in 'The Waterboy')" is one of my enduring favorite entries. The shining moment of that first year was when we put Sierra Mist on the list and Sierra Mist sent us free windbreakers and soda.
SH: I had that Sierra Mist hat on my desk for at least a year. Right next to the Cheerwine that we got after Sam Sifton attempted to cook with Cheerwine. But I guess the awesome swag wasn't enough to keep Greg Veis.
JK: Greg had many talents. But being a columnist is a taxing job. Burnout is high and there's a natural attrition rate. I think we began to see that around the time of "Brita water filters" and "Registering for oven mitts" and "Art stores in beach towns." No one was surprised when he left to become the executive editor of The New Republic.
SH: You and I had a staredown after Greg left. I knew that you were going to try to convince me that this was my big, exciting moment to take over the Meh List -- an honor that I had very little interest in having bestowed upon me. My conditions for assuming the job were that 1) I get to do it along with my friend Libby Gery, who's a user experience strategist here at the Times (hence the addition of "user experience" to the "additional reporting" credit), and 2) that we always write the lists over martinis at Wolfgang's, the steakhouse in the ground floor of the Times building.
JK: You had me at Wolfgang's.
SH: For a while other people at the magazine and elsewhere in the building knew our Meh List Wolfgang's schedule and would drop by to make suggestions. It was magical. Do you think that was the List's heydey?
JK: Probably. I liked the addition of Libby: as a digital designer, she added a much needed anti-analog component. It somehow parallelled the course that real, multi-page magazines were taking.
SH: After a while I started recruiting guest writers for the list. Brian Stelter, Charles Duhigg, Grace Wong -- who may not be a household byline but is beloved within the Times for being the one person who knows everyone and for sending company-wide emails about people changing jobs or selling Rangers tickets or looking for a home for a dog named Mr. Charlie Ketchup. Who do you think had the most natural talent of all the newsroom contributors?
JK: Amy Chozick was a natural and she really put her heart into it. Andrew Sorkin also took the job very seriously. But no one lived it like Mark Leibovich, who developed a sixth sense for meh.
SH: Mark Leibovich and I had a heated fight recently about who deserves credit for putting Tufts on the Meh List.
JK: We got some angry tweets about that. Matt Bai, a proud Tufts alum, registered his displeasure. But speaking truth to power is part of the Meh List mission.
SH: I remember that well; most of those nasty tweets (and emails) were directed at me! If Mark’s so sure it was his idea, I wish that he had been the one to suffer the backlash. Those Tufts kids could learn a thing or two from Sierra Mist about laughing at themselves.
The crazy thing about the list to me has been its reach. I’m so used to being an editor (a fairly behind-the-scenes job) and working online that I had forgotten the power of a print byline, which really does have a different impact -- especially on my grandmother.
JK: It was a miracle that your grandmother could read the type. (No offense, Grammy!)
SH: Leaving aside the Tufts crowd, the most vociferous One-Page Magazine complaints regarded the type size. That’s part of what led to the page’s redesign in March, 2012. After the first issue with the new design, a friend of my parents’ giddily misunderstood the meaning of the increased font size. “We noticed that the typeface of Sam's byline has gone up in size!” she wrote in an email with the subject line “Promotion?” “Are we to infer a new elevated status at the NYT? or simply an elevated status on the Meh List?” (Answer: neither. Just bigger font.)
JK: Around this time, we were contacted by a real, actual publisher about turning the Meh List into a book. The meeting was flattering, but I think we were horrified by the idea of turning a one-inch column into a 300-page book.
SH: I do think a Meh List book could be a big Urban Outfitters hit. But seeing the world through a “meh” lens isn’t a great way to live, and doing it in a book-length dose seemed unhealthy. By then, I was beginning to feel the pressure that drove Greg to The New Republic.
JK: The moment you feel the pressure of a one-inch column, it's probably time to move on.
SH: From the outset, we had always agreed that the final entry on the final Meh List was going to be The Meh List.
JK: For a while, my job was to make sure you didn’t euthanize the column by slipping it in there too early. But then the time came.
SH: We always talked, in evaluating whether something was right for the list, about how long it takes to go from cool to meh.
JK: I guess now we know: three years.
Additional reporting and user experience by Jon Kelly