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So What Do You Do, Eric Umansky?

Slate's "Today's Papers" columnist on the column, his puns, and working all night.

By David S. Hirschman - July 15, 2003

When Michael Kinsley launched Slate back in 1996, its goal—fairly subversive for a web pub, really—was to be not terribly different from a traditional magazine. There'd be good writing and insightful commentary and everything you pick up a dead-trees mag for, and there wouldn't be online bells and whistles just for their own sake—Slate would only be belled-and-whistled when the technology actually added something to the content. One example: The "Today's Papers" column, originally conceived by Jacob Weisberg, now Slate's editor, and written by Scott Shuger. "TP," as it's affectionately known, does something that was previously impossible: It reads the five major national newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today—each night and has them summarized, with healthy doses of commentary and, often, humor, before most of us wake up. It's one of the site's most popular features, and it's reportedly emailed to more than 100,000 people each morning, many of whom have grown to rely on it as their daily, indispensable news summary. For the past year or so, the column's been written by Eric Umansky, a guy who sits by himself in a Brooklyn apartment all night, drinking coffee and reading newspapers. So it's appropriate he met mb last week at a Brooklyn Heights coffee shop to discuss his job, his jokes, and life on the night shift.

Born: November 29, 1972
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Lives now: Brooklyn, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: "If it's during NBA season, Sports."

Tell me a little about your career path up to now.
Before "Today's Papers," I was nominally freelancing. Before that I was at Brill's Content. Before Brill's, I was the editor of the Mother Jones website. "Today's Papers" founder Scott Shuger wrote a bit for Mother Jones, so I knew him through there, and I talked to him about doing a weekend fill-in for "Today's Papers." After Brill's started, um, scaling back, shall we say, I started doing "Today's Papers" a lot as a weekend person. When the war in Afghanistan started, Scott, who had been a naval intelligence officer, started writing a column about the war and therefore wanted someone to replace him. It was sort of a natural transition, I thought. Scott was doing this other thing, and it wasn't clear how long it was going to last for, because nobody knew how long the war was going to last.

What's your daily schedule like?
It depends which coast I'm on. I've been splitting time between coasts. But, on average, if I'm on the East Coast I probably work between 10:30 p.m. and 5 a.m., sometimes 4:30, sometimes 5:30. But there's a little bit of down-time in there.

So when do you sleep?
I sleep through the mornings. I sleep from 5, 5:30 to 12:30. It's a pretty hard schedule on the East Coast. On the West Coast, I tend to work from 7:30 to 2:30. Then I have the whole day to myself, and it's actually very nice.

Working at such odd hours, do you have an editor to report to?
Someone edits [the column] after it's been posted and sent out to the readers, but roughly two-thirds of the column's readers get it directly via email, and that's something I send out myself. Basically, I have a draft written by 2 or 3, and I read it three more times after I've written it. I try to catch any mistakes myself.

How do you get all the newspapers read and digested so early?
I get the front pages of some of the newspapers faxed to me, but the articles themselves, with a few exceptions, are online. I sort of match them up with what else I'm looking at. Except for the lead story, I'll just use whatever I think is most important. Or if I think something is not important but nevertheless needs to appear, I'll point that out as well. If something's on page A21 and I think it's important, I'll note that I think it's important, and I'll note that it's on page A21.

But you're a young guy, and you've never worked for a newspaper. What qualifies you to criticize newspaper coverage, to decide what does and doesn't belong on A21?
Very little. I thought that was a question you were going to ask me. I mean, I'm a news junkie, and I've always been a news junkie. You could ask me about my past or you could just look at my work and say, "Is he doing a good job on it or not?" The reality is that anybody could do it, anybody who follows the papers. If you're a critical reader or you pay attention to the news, you or anybody else can do it, to varying degrees of success. That said, I've always been a media junkie; when I was 12 years old, my father got The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the L.A. Times, so he was the same way.

What, besides the papers, do you read?
I read magazines. I even read books occasionally. What I read is so clichéd: Harper's, The Nation, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The New York Review of Books...

Do you read many blogs?
I read a lot of them. There are so many of them that it's sort of overwhelming to me, but there are definitely some that I read on a regular basis. It's all news stuff, like Talking Points Memo, all the left-of-center ones you'd imagine. And I'm finding all these random ones all the time. Frankly, to some degree, there's a circle-jerk factor to it all, but it's definitely a good way of finding important stories that go unnoticed otherwise.

But you don't really need blogs in order to write your column?
I don't need to, but even this week I linked to somebody who had up a White House transcript that I pointed out something about. And the transcript wasn't even out on the White House website. So, no, I don't have to, but I actually think that it helps me to be in the know about things. You notice the stories that aren't getting the play and the ones that are getting too much play. So I find them very helpful in that regard.

Because you're up in the middle of the night, do you feel like you're all by yourself writing? Are there other people you know who keep late hours?
At Slate, Mickey Kaus is a late-night guy, but he lives on the West Coast, and it's not the same hours. I have some buddies at other papers who are on the late shift, but it's pretty solitary. I'm the guy who calls the police in the middle of the night when I hear noises in my neighborhood.

How do newspaper reporters react to the column? Do they get upset about little things, or just that you criticized their work?
You know, they get pissed when I criticize them. Some people have said, "You've criticized me five times, and this is the only time I'm taking umbrage at it," and that's fair enough. Or some people have said, some editors have said, "You were actually right on with that point." And there are times when people have e-mailed me to say, "I think you're wrong," and I've agreed with them. And I issue a corrective of some sort in the next column. You know, it just happens.

Is there a formula to how much reporting you mix with your criticism? Does the balance of the two ever fluctuate?
No, there's no formula at all. Frankly, I think that if there's something valid to say, I'll say it. I try to make criticisms that are informing the reader. If you're not going to learn anything by reading through the actual meat of the piece itself, I try not to do it, and I try not to take cheap shots. Also, to some extent, I try not to make it industry-centric. To some degree, you can go over a story and say, "The New York Times headline hacks, the Washington Post headline breathes." And I do that, but the question in my mind remains: If I'm going to make this point, is it a substantive point or a stylistic point? I prefer to do substantive stuff, because it informs readers about the story itself. I don't want nitpicky comparisons; I understand that people don't really care about the differences between headlines unless they're substantively different headlines.

Does the level of criticism fluctuate?
It does a little, based on how tired I am. I go through different goals in what I'm trying to do with it. A lot of times I'm just trying to get at a story rather than criticize, which involves criticism, too. It could say, "These newspapers are treating this issue differently, and I don't really know what the truth is, but here's what they say and here's what they say. You either find yourself in the middle, or you give the readers a sense of the reality behind an idea, and maybe I don't know what it is, but nobody knows what it is at this point.

What did you think about the infamous White House press conference in March, where the reporters were widely criticized for not challenging Bush on key issues?
It was totally horrifying. Ultimately, that's not the only thing our media are, and people shouldn't think that. There are tougher people out there, which is the reality. But that was a pretty sobering vision of what it can be and what it often is.

Do you think there's any backlash now?
Yeah, a little bit. I'm not sure I totally buy it. Frankly, the whole storyline of what-President-Bush-told-us-then versus now-there's-all-this-information-coming-out, in my mind, is pretty bogus. Six months ago, eight months ago, very few people—but some people—were saying that the nuke claims were false, that there's no evidence of nukes, at least according to the U.N. nuke oversight agency and various CIA reports. The stuff was out there. It wasn't like, "Holy shit, you lied about it, and now we're finding out the facts and reporting it like we should." That's not what happened. It's kind of a joke. It's like kabuki theater, we're just playing it out at this point.

How do you balance serious news with humor? You do lighten it up a lot. Do you go through the article and decide that certain things need to be funnier?
Again, one of the key factors is how tired I am. I try to balance it. If there's some story where there are a lot of people who died, I can't do it. And it's a legitimate issue because, frankly, it comes up. A lot of stories are about human suffering. Where do you draw the line there? But it's just a feeling. There have been a few times when, at 5 in the morning, I really I wish I hadn't made that ill-timed joke.

Do you have a favorite punny headline from "Today's Papers?"
One of my favorite headlines got nixed the day after. It was about the anthrax attacks, when a postal worker became sick, and I did, "Ill Postino." But then a different postal worker died the next day, so it was decided that if the headline were to run, it would be legitimately sick under the circumstances.

David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and editor and's news editor.

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