In the Times Magazine, a Flat Souffle

Remember, many a good story is ruined by an overdone ending. Underdone, too.

Perhaps the must-read story in New York today is the cover story in the Times magazine about the troubles at “The Today Show.” It’s an okay piece, not much more. Writer Brian Stelter had some access, got some good gossip; the anecdote about poor Ann Curry having to stand in line to get admitted to 30 Rock, and to have to spell her name to a security guard after having worked in the building for a dozen years, is a striking item, no doubt the best in the piece. It is placed early in the story, on the first page of the text; after that, the soup starts to thin. One wonder how many readers gave up when they got to the jump at the bottom of the fourth page. (Online the piece ran nine pages; it would be instructive to see how the readership held up over all nine pages.)

What’s really missing is analysis. Why, if producers had such misgivings about making Curry co-anchor, were they so concerned about the possibility of losing her to another network? And given that chemistry between the anchors is so-important to viewers, could we not see some examples from actual programs where chemistry worked and why and where it didn’t and why? You’d think by now there would be an old TV hand or a tweedy professor who could point out to a reporter moments from the Tom Brokaw-Jane Pauley or Matt Lauer-Meredith Viera or David Hartman-Joan Lunden partnerships and explain how positive chemistry manifests itself, and how bad chemistry rears its ugly head? Are the producers looking at any metrics? After fifty years of morning television, is there no science?

Also, the ending is a disappointment. Here’s the finale:

`Earlier this month, Lauer sought advice from his former co-host Meredith Vieira. On April 3 they met for lunch around noon at Park Avenue Spring, an upscale restaurant on East 63rd Street. They swapped stories about their children and then, according to another diner, talked about work in hushed tones. Vieira urged Lauer to tough it out, promising that the bad press would subside. Dessert arrived at the table by 1 p.m., but they lingered until 1:40, bantering the way they used to on television. Lauer held the door for her as they walked outside, and she embraced him, rubbing his back reassuringly and saying in his ear, “It’ll be O. K.”’

That’s it? A hug and a cliche? It’s hard to imagine how that anecdote wandered into Stelter’s notebook, let alone clawed its way out. The kindest thing I can conclude is that this was a production requirement. Occasionally a production editor will show up late in the magazine-construction process and will announce that an ad came in or an ad dropped out or some story was swapped, and now you, the writer, must add twenty lines to your heretofore perfect story. Very occasionally, the production editor will then add, “And they all have to be on the last page.” That would explain it.

In magazine feature writing, nothing is more important than the lead; nearly everything depends on it. Endings are less important, if only because it is possible for a writer to avoid disaster simply by stopping. Oh, I can hear heads shaking now; no, you’re saying, a great piece needs to end with a flourish or a striking image or a telling anecdote, something with real impact. Surely that is desirable, and if you do have a great piece on your hands, you really should finish strongly if you are hoping to complete your triumph. But many a good story is ruined by an overdone ending, where the writer swings for the fences and instead pops out, or by an underdone finish, where the souffle fails to rise and you end up with something that underwhelms even the dog. You’d be surprised how many disasters have been avoided simply by having the writer

Just so.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.