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So What Do You Do, Sewell Chan, New York Times City Room Bureau Chief?

This prolific journalist goes on "autopilot" with breaking news and engages readers on Twitter

By Noah Davis - April 29, 2009

-Photo by The New York Times
When Sewell Chan came to The New York Times from The Washington Post in 2004, he immediately made an impression on the Gray Lady's famed Metro reporting staff with his prodigious work rate and nearly daily bylines. It didn't take long for the New York media world to notice the efforts of the Harvard graduate, as well. In a 2006 New York Observer story, Gabriel Sherman wrote, "At a paper populated by reporters with sharp elbows and brazen ambition, Mr. Chan's singular, nearly inhuman work ethic stands out." Three years later, he's the bureau chief of the Times' local news blog, City Room, one of the paper's most-trafficked portals. With his blog nearing its two-year anniversary, Chan spoke with on the 14th floor of the NYT's headquarters about working with the boss' son (Times scion Arthur Gregg Sulzberger), his paper's efforts on the Web, and why Times reporters go on "autopilot" when news breaks.

Name: Sewell Chan
Position: Metropolitan reporter; City Room bureau chief
Resume: The Washington Post, reporter (2000-2004, intern in 1997 and 1999); The Wall Street Journal (intern in 1996); the Philadelphia Inquirer (intern in 1995)
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Education: Harvard University, B.A. in Social Studies, 1998; Oxford University, MPhil in Politics, 2000
Marital status: "Single (Is this really relevant?)"
First section of the Sunday paper: "Hard to answer. I alternate among Week in Review, the Magazine, and the Book Review."
Favorite TV show: Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: Dim sum
Last book read: Antony Beevor's Stalingrad

In general, high blog traffic is often event-based. Heath Ledger's death was huge traffic-driver for City Room, and also the Obama election comes to mind. Do you have any thoughts about that?
It gets to a bigger question of what is a blog. The whole blogger versus journalist debate that might have existed around 2004 is dead. Over. Stale. Uninteresting. I couldn't care less -- it's a meaningless debate to have. What's more interesting to me is what a blog means now. There's the traditional, which is one voice of one person, like Firedoglake or Andrew Sullivan, that's coming from a single point of view. Then there's the very, very popular group blog model, the Huff Post model, that I think in some ways is one of the most successful, because it's got a bunch of people with something that ties them in common. You know where the whole site is coming from, but you definitely get a multiplicity of voices.

The blog that I work on is called a blog, but it's not what most people would think of when they use the word "blog." For one thing, it's group-written, but it's not group-written with people who share any predilection or point of view. What they share is that they cover metropolitan news for The New York Times. They definitely bring their individual perspectives or interests to the table. David Dunlap, for example, writes about architecture and public space and photography and the quirky changes in the streetscape of New York City. Jenny Lee will often write about food and cultural trends. She has an eye for the wacky and weird, and definitely a lot of strong interest in ethnicity and immigration. Corey Kilgannon, who is one of our most amazing roving bloggers/multimedia journalists, wanders around with a camera and a video recorder and shoots video and does audio and takes photos, and he's mostly trolling around boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn looking for these outsize or hidden personalities who are wonderful New York stories. They are bloggers in a sense, but they're also just doing what traditional great journalists have always done -- but with their own strengths.

"We kind of run on autopilot when news breaks. I'm not saying reporting on a plane taking off from LaGuardia and dropping engine parts over Queens and then making an emergency landing in JFK is child's play, but it's pretty clear how to do it."

The days with Heath Ledger or the plane crashing into the Hudson or the crane collapse, those are the rare days. Those are days when we can be positioned very, very prominently on the homepage because the news is major -- major subway shutdowns, odd weather, major news, including political news. But that's less than a third of our days. Most of our days, we keep up traffic by supplying a steady stream of varied features. And that's the key to keeping the blog alive: You can't just rely only on the breaking news. You have to also have blog posts that are going to engage people in discussion and get people talking and chatting, and I think that's what we spend a lot of our time focused on.

I'm not saying the breaking news is easy, but we kind of run on autopilot when news breaks. This is a pretty well-honed organization. All our instincts kick in. We've dealt with 9/11 -- there's not much that can faze us. I'm not saying reporting on a plane taking off from LaGuardia and dropping engine parts over Queens and then making an emergency landing in JFK is child's play, but it's pretty clear how to do it.

Well, you have a model for that.
There's a model for that; it's easy to do. City Room was a new model in a sense, because we were never doing it this quickly. When the steam pipe exploded near Grand Central, our first blog post initially was, "There's been an explosion near Grand Central. We don't know what it was. Stay tuned." We would never have done that even two or three years ago. We would have waited probably half an hour to an hour until there was some sense of what happened. It's not that way now, and the blog really gets readers more involved. We had readers immediately writing in from the scene, and the eyewitness points of view; amazing photos from this reader who loves The New York Times and was shooting photos from the Empire State Building. It's just a much quicker report, and that higher metabolism has been new when it comes to breaking news.

You made your name as a metro reporter. How do you feel about it not existing as a standalone section anymore?
I don't feel particularly strongly about it; I wasn't thrilled, and I think most of my colleagues weren't thrilled either, but the space allotted to metropolitan news has essentially stayed the same. We get too hung up on the print edition and how it's sort of organized. It's important still. The printed product is beautiful, and I think it's here to last. It's an important part of my day. But there are very valuable arguments to be made that actually having a lot of serious metropolitan news in the A section, which is the place people turn to for serious news outside of the business section, makes sense in a lot of ways.

I think the main area where I was most unhappy is that it imposed some restrictions in terms of displaying photographs and having it look visually and graphically as nice as it did before. But, you know, it's a hard time right now.

The New York Times recently launched The Local, four citizen journalism sites. Do you have any involvement with that?
I helped consult with them, and I know and work with and have worked with Tina Kelley and Andy Newman, the reporters, as well as Mary Anne Giordano, who's the editor overseeing The Local. I think it's a really exciting new venture. It is very different from what City Room has been about and what it can accomplish.

City Room launched in June 2007, and we didn't really know how granular we could get. We got on a lot of community board mailing lists and a lot of business improvement district email lists, and obviously every local politician knows how to find us, and they do. But it's not meant to be a blog that covers every planning dispute, liquor license renewal application, zoning permit questions -- the really nitty-gritty, like what's happening to my local subway station. That's beyond our capacity, but also beyond the focus. It goes back to the famous question, how do you cover a city of 8.2 million people? On one level, it's impossible. What our blog does is try to pick out some of the most salient or interesting issues of the moment. That means by definition that we're going to leave a lot of things uncovered.

I think The Local is a wonderful complement to that. The question that everyone has quite frankly is how much we can scale that. Does every neighborhood need a version of The Local? I think we picked a few initial communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey to work with that are interesting just to see it as a model for what might come.

Any early feedback on how it's working?
It's been received really positively by neighborhood residents, and it definitely involves so-called citizen journalism a lot more than anything we've done. City Room wasn't a revolutionary concept. The challenge wasn't conceiving of it. It wasn't some brilliant idea necessarily. To the extent we've succeeded, it's been by just making it a high-quality product. I think The Local will do that. The question is how big it can get, or what the demand for it will be and how many neighborhoods it should expand to.

"City Room helps to pull back the curtain on the news, because you often see an early version of what runs in the print edition the next day. Twitter allows you to pull back the curtain even more and perhaps discuss -- to an extent that doesn't tip off your competitors -- what you're working on."

What's it like working with the boss's kid?
Arthur Gregg Sulzberger joined the Times staff as a reporter, and he's been working continuous news. He's already been working with metro, and he'll continue to work with metro. He has been absolutely impressive, gracious, smart as a whip, hardworking, full of energy, full of ideas, and has a great sense of language. His writing sparkles, and he's a charm and a pleasure to work with.

Obviously money is one of the biggest issues facing newspapers today. How does that affect your day-to-day job?
The answer you probably expect me to give is, well, we're completely insulated and that's a good thing -- and that is the answer. I've never been asked, and would never expect to be asked, to cover something because it would be either especially popular with readers or, God forbid, advertisers. It would never come up.

Look, do we know that if we write a post about dog owners in Chelsea versus poverty in the Bronx that one topic might get more readers than the other? Sure. That never factors in. Again, it's always about a mix of stories, and we try to mix the morally significant with the somewhat frivolous but enjoyable, because that's what people want to read on a blog. They want a steady news diet, a varied news diet.

That said, I think the Times has gotten a little bit more bold about asking journalists, especially the younger journalists, in this building about their ideas for making money -- not in any way that would interfere with our editorial mission, but just sensing how we feel about things, all the ideas that have been discussed, from micropayments and voluntary contributions from readers to so-called crowd sourcing and more reliance on citizen journalists.

I've definitely been part of meetings where myself and other younger journalists here have been solicited for ideas. And that's been a really, really good thing and hasn't been in any way to the detriment of what we actually do editorially.

Have you noticed any tightening of the purse strings at the Times?
No, the main thing I've noticed is that we have been using freelance journalists a little bit less. And we've had a general hiring freeze. There's been very little movement on the staff. The first two or three years I was here, it felt like a new reporter was hired at least every few months, if not more frequent[ly]. And now it's been quite a while since we've had anyone brought in from the outside. So it's like there's internal movement within the paper, but very, very little hiring from outside right now.

You're on Twitter [@sewell_chan]. How do you use it?
Twitter is a major sort of point of weakness for me. I don't think I've nearly begun using it frankly well enough, and I think I do understand it. In some ways, I was an early adopter in that it was in May of 2007 when I set up my account, not too long after the South by Southwest event at which it became big among tech people. But then for awhile I didn't Twitter at all, and I've really failed so far to exploit it for its potential. And I'm trying -- I want to use it more.

I've had to think about it a lot, to be honest. This is almost a little bit of a confessional, but I think it has a different purpose for me than a Facebook status update would. I've made a conscious decision that I'm going to use my Facebook status updates more for personal things that would be of interest to my friends who know me and my tastes, and to really limit Twitter to my public role and my public face as a New York Times journalist. I do think there's a lot of potential of getting tips from readers, but also sharing with them and helping to pull back the curtain a little bit. City Room in general helps to pull back the curtain on the news, because you often see an early version of what runs in the print edition the next day. You get news very quickly. We've been much more open about our uncertainty if we don't know something on a breaking news story. But I think Twitter allows you to pull back the curtain even more and perhaps discuss -- to an extent that doesn't tip off your competitors -- what you're working on. Or to have some musing about things that you've seen in the city that you're interested in writing about, or to pose questions to readers about what they'd like to see more of. And in a way, that's much more dynamic than what you can get through the comments section or emails from readers, which are valuable means of feedback, but not nearly as direct as Twitter.

Where do you see City Room in two years?
Well, I think it's got off to a great start. We're going to celebrate our two-year mark in just a few months, and I'd like to see it grow a little bit. I think there's still some capacity for more posts. We feel we have a natural limit of around 18 to 20 a day. There are some blogs like Gothamist that do more -- and I love and respect Gothamist -- but I think that their model's a little bit different from ours. A lot of their posts are shorter and simply link out. Our limit of 16 to 18 to 20 posts a day feels about right given that we just don't blog all day and night, which I think also makes sense. I mean, we could blog all day and night, but there are really meaningful questions about whether that's wise.

And where are you in two years? Are you happy if you're still the bureau chief of City Room in two years?
It's a fabulous job. I think I'd be happy to do it as long as they want me to. There are definitely a lot of other things I'd be excited about doing here, as well, so I guess time will tell.

Any specifics?
Just time will tell.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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