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Meet the (Meta)Press: Cynthia Cotts

The Village Voice 'Press Clips' columnist on her paper, her column, and her alter ego.

By Jesse Oxfeld - October 28, 2003

Just shy of five years ago, Cynthia Cotts took over The Village Voice's media-criticism column, called "Press Clips." It was only her second staff writing job, but she's certainly held her own. Cotts's column is different from most media writing: Heavily reported and often concerned with issues important to workaday journalists at New York's papers and magazines, it's less interested in the highflying issues—what Si's up to, how Sumner and Mel are getting along—that so many media writers care about. Cotts covers the newsrooms of the city's tabloids, and she homes in on media labor issues you'll rarely find covered elsewhere—all of which seems about right from the Voice. She spoke to about the traditions of her column and her paper, and about her alter ego, Tainty Scotch.

Birthdate: "I anticipated this one. I'm in my prime."
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
First section of the Sunday Times: "It depends on what catches my fancy."

The "Press Clips" column has a certain heritage—Alex Cockburn and Jim Ledbetter and so forth. How do you view the tradition, and how does it affect what you do?
When I started writing "Press Clips," I got a very good piece of advice from an editor at the Voice. He said, "Don't try to imitate any of your predecessors, be yourself, that's the best thing you can do." I took that to heart, and I think that served me well. Everyone brings something unique to writing "Press Clips." Since the days of Alexander Cockburn, the Voice has changed, the political world has changed, the world of media reporting has changed, and so I would never put myself up in competition with Cockburn. I can't be Cockburn; he is a unique legend. Jim Ledbetter had this kind of moral authority that he brought to the column. I've tried to make it my own.

If the goal is to be yourself, what's your background? What did you do before you started the column?
I've had literally a checkered career. By that I mean I spent a lot of time working as a fact-checker at such places as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. This was my introduction to New York journalism, and it was really one of the best introductions anyone can have, because as a fact-checker at one of those magazines you get to work with some of the best writers in the country and get an insider's view of both how they do their writing and their approach to journalism and storytelling.

So where did you move after your fact-checking days?
It was a long and circuitous route that brought me to "Press Clips." Essentially I spent most of the early '90s working as a freelance fact-checker and freelance writer, which is a period that taught me quite a bit and made me sensitive to the plight of freelancers in this economy. I wrote numerous articles about drug policy and criminal-justice issues. On the basis of those, I got a fellowship at Yale Law School called the Knight Fellowships in Law for Journalists, which consists of taking the classes the first year law students are taking. My next gig was staff reporter at the National Law Journal. This was my first job as a staff writer.

I spent one year roughly at the NLJ writing news stories. Jim Ledbetter left "Press Clips" to go work for The Industry Standard. I was fortunate enough that I had some good people backing me for this position, and Don Forst, the editor-in-chief, hired me. I think it was a bold move when he hired me and I'm totally grateful for it—it wasn't immediately clear that I would be the right person to do this job. But the summer before I got hired, I had been writing short media pieces for "Media Circus," which was then Salon's division of media coverage, and that had brought me to the attention of some people who were helping recruit potential successors to Ledbetter.

By the time you arrived at "Press Clips," as you said before, the world of media reporting had changed a lot since Cockburn's time, there's so much of it now. How do you think your "Press Clips" fits in among Michael Wolff or Keith Kelly or Howie Kurtz or Matthew Rose?
When Don Forst hired me, he gave me some basic ground rules for what he was looking for. He wanted it to be a reported column, not an opinion column. He wanted stories with a New York angle. And he wanted me to break news. Those are all essential things to understanding how I've approached "Press Clips." And I'm looking for news that haven't been reported somewhere else. That becomes a pretty tall order when you're competing with all the other media reporters working today.

My own personal formula for what I do with "Press Clips" generally is, my goal is to be both entertaining and a champion of truth and justice, and to try to prove that those two are not mutually exclusive. And I think that's a real trick. It's hard to be clever and earnest at the same time. It's hard to have really serious political convictions or to root for the underdog and still appeal to readers who are weaned on a really heavy diet of ironic and sensational material. I try to find a way to take serious subjects and write them in a way that's successful enough that people are going to have some sort of access to them. People are going to find some way to access them without feeling like, "Oh, I'm being lectured to," or, "I'm reading another predictable Village Voice ideological rant."

But, at the same time, you must recognize your audience. You're going to write things that are more from a lefty perspective than if you were writing for, say, Forbes. I mean, the recent column about the National Writer's Union—that's something you're not surprised to see in the Voice.
One of the great challenges of my job is to define and communicate with the audience. If you were to draw the diagram of the audience for my column, there are different overlapping groups. Some people are going to read it because it's in the Village Voice, and they expect to get a certain political approach. Some people are going to read it because it's providing some insider view in the media industry. Some people are going to read it because it's hitting on a subject that is of extreme topical interest at the time. I'd like to think that some people read it—and some people told me they read it—because they've come to think that reading Cynthia Cotts is something worth doing. To me the question is more, who is your target audience? I don't see myself writing to the fans of Alex Cockburn. I think my audience is the U.S. media industry, and, the subset of that, the New York media industry. I don't have a mandate to have a sort of predictable Village Voice ideology.

Do you intentionally try not to do that?
It's just not my mandate. To me, my mandate is to compete in the world of media reporters. Writing for The Village Voice, I've been given a tremendous amount of editorial freedom and very few sacred cows. I think that it's very clear, to people who study this, that there are certain subjects that reporters for other publications will never touch. Say, some of the things I've written about Nikki Finke vs. the New York Post.

Right, Keith Kelly is not going to do that.
Not just Keith Kelly. It's a peculiar story—most New York publications are very careful about what they're going to write about the New York Post. The New York Post is a sacred cow for a lot of publications because of its unique power, extreme power. There are pieces that I've written about The New York Times that I think you're just not going to find elsewhere. And sometimes it's because they're about, say, labor issues. I will take the point of view of the underdog. So if there's a struggle between the rank and file and management, that's something I'm interested in covering and I know that the Voice will support that. It's also unique because this kind of story you're going to be hard pressed to find covered by other media reporters until it becomes that sort of hurricane that was the Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg story.

How much leeway have you had to cover the antitrust stuff with Voice Media and New Times. Is that something that they've allowed you to be as free as you wanted to be to write about?
No one at the Voice tried to control what I wrote about it. Personally, my judgment was that when your company is the subject of a justice department investigation, it's wise to withhold judgment.

What have been some of your favorite stories during the time that you've been doing the column?
I actually find, when I think back on my favorite columns, my favorite ones are pieces on matters of writing style and editorial style. Every Labor Day, for the past few years, I've written about comparing lede paragraphs in magazines that were on the newsstands at the time. Twice I've done pieces on words that are abused quite heavily at The New York Times—examples being the words bitter and ironic—that I've looked at over the course of a year. I do a Nexis search and reduce it to a handful of examples that reveal these are words that have come into vogue. And then really my favorite column of all time was the one that I did on the use of pseudonyms.

What prompted me to write it was that I had learned that Joel Stein, at Time magazine, was writing as "Calendar Boy" for Vanity Fair. It was just a silly piece of gossip, that Joel Stein was Calendar Boy. I started making some calls to people and asking them about other pseudonyms that either had been exposed or had not. I was trying to make it like a New York Times Arts & Ideas story, "what is the role of a pseudonym in journalism today?" I talked to some people who really got me going on the notion that pseudonyms had many positive uses in journalism.

What positive uses, other than covering your ass?
Some people turned me around. I started with this kind of typically prosecutorial, "This is a bad thing. Pseudonyms are always used to hide." But then, for example, some sources pointed out that when you write under pseudonym, you are freed from your conventions or your routines of writing. You're also freed from the consequences if you're writing something negative about somebody. So, there's a kind of freedom and playfulness that's encouraged by the use of a pseudonym. And as one of my sources was telling me this, he said, "In fact, you should try it. You should try writing this column under the use of a pseudonym and see how it goes." So, I decided that I was going to use a pseudonym and I came up with one, which was an anagram of my name.

I had learned that The New Yorker has the guy who answers letters to the editor, and his name is Owen Ketherry, which is an anagram of "The New Yorker." So I came up with this anagram for my name, Tainty Scotch. And some people were fooled. I had two people; one inside the Voice and one at Vanity Fair, who asked me afterwards who wrote that column. So I was very pleased by that, and it kind of revolutionized my thinking about pseudonyms.

That's funny.
I'm also proud of my accumulated contributions to reporting on The New York Times. I think I've done some pieces that were very difficult for me and for my sources to get out. A story that I wrote sometime in March, with the headline "Republic of Fear," about Howell Raines's management style, what it was doing to the Times. It really preceded and foreshadowed the events of last summer.

My biggest regret about having taking this job as a media critic is that I will probably never be allowed to write for the Times, and that would be a goal of mine. And this is just a funny thing. I get a lot of e-mail feedback from readers and one recently joked with me that the first time he will read my name in the Times will be when they print my obituary. It's not a concept that I like to entertain but I thought that you might be amused by it.

Jesse Oxfeld is editor-in-chief of Photo credit: Staci Schwartz/The Village Voice 2003.

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