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In 2012, Jason Stallman, then The Times’s deputy sports editor, invited a few colleagues to join his new magazine-article discussion group, which he called Pop-up Book Club. The first rule of Pop-up Book Club was: You do not talk about books.
The name was meant to be ironic, based on Jason’s theory of book clubs. They have three kinds of people in them, he explained when I asked him recently: those who openly admit to not reading the book, those who pretend they read it but didn’t, and then one annoying person “who actually read the whole thing and is eager to ruminate on all its contours.”
(As is so often the case when someone who doesn’t belong to a book club opines on the subject, that theory was not 100 percent true, but never mind. The point was that Jason didn’t want to talk about books; he wanted to talk about journalism.)
What he proposed wasn’t really a club, either: It was open to anyone who was willing to come to work a little early and felt excited about having an away-from-the-daily-schedule conversation.
Pop-up Book Club was terrific. We listened to podcasts, read prizewinning newspaper articles, revisited classic pieces, unearthed hidden delights and slogged through long, self-indulgent, first-person magazine articles by writers who believed they were more important than the subject.
We argued about what worked and what did not.
The fun part was the talking. Benjamin Weiser, a Manhattan federal court reporter and a Pop-up Book Club enthusiast, said, “What’s great is that we deconstruct articles that none of us is involved in, and we get to think hard and talk about what we do and how we do it.”
Word got around. The group moved from meeting every morning for a few minutes to meeting three times a week to meeting once a week for maybe 20 minutes or more. People from a number of departments came, an unusual occurrence in a large, segmented newsroom.
We learned how our colleagues went about their jobs, and more. “I learned what my boss at the time, Joe Sexton” — then The Times’s sports editor, now a senior editor at ProPublica — “considered a fraud and how various people felt about the word ‘twee,’” said Naila-Jean Meyers, one of the club’s original members who is now a senior assistant sports editor at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis. (We miss Naila and Joe! But we are glad they got fancy jobs elsewhere.)
Several authors came in to talk about their pieces, including the veteran Times reporter John Noble Wilford. He presented his historic front-page article from July 21, 1969 — written under pre-internet logistical constraints that are almost unimaginable in today’s world of instant news at your fingertips. Its quiet opening paragraph was thrilling, stunning in its simplicity: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”
Then there was the urbane Gay Talese, who swanned in to discuss his legendary Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a New Journalism gem from 1966. He appeared in full Talese-ian regalia — the hat, the suit — and carried with him an arsenal of delicious anecdotes as well as the notebooks and storyboards he used for the piece.
“It was like a time capsule of journalism from the 1960s,” Naila said.
What came out of Pop-up Book Club? Romance: At least one marriage and one (that I know of) fling emerged from the excitement of those early-morning discussions. Podcast Club: a renegade spinoff whose participants switched their focus to that hot new medium. And now, This Is Good, essentially Pop-up Book Club under another name, moved to YouTube and repurposed for the pandemic era with a smaller cast of characters.
Every Wednesday, we talk to one another from our living rooms (or, in the case of Azam Ahmed, our bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, from what appears to be a series of mysterious undisclosed locations) to discuss the work at hand. Once a month, readers can sign up to watch from home. The next meeting is on Aug. 12.
(Personal disclosure: I had to bluster my way in after discovering I had been left off the original list of This Is Good participants. Jason, who is now an executive producer in The Times’s TV unit, told me not to feel FOMO-ish. When I asked him how he chose the group, he said, “I have an algorithm.”)
I miss my colleagues, and it’s nice, when the world feels so uncertain, to have this little slice of time to consider together the things that made us want to be journalists in the first place. Our group comprises writers (like me) and editors (like Jason). We bring different perspectives to the table, by which I mean that the editors are meaner, more impatient and less forgiving than the writers.
So far, we’ve listened to a podcast, watched a TV episode and read articles from magazines, newspapers and online publications. One of our favorite things was “The Watcher,” a 2018 piece from New York Magazine.
We all loved it but had conflicting views about the author’s bold decision to withhold a crucial detail until the very end. We never resolved the issue, but that was the point.