Aspen Times Weekly: Inside the Insider
September 29, 2016
Susan Lehman is something like an ombudsman of fun at the New York Times.
As an editor of Times Insider, Lehman looks for the most compelling stories behind the stories at the newspaper, the most intriguing behind-the-scenes bits and characters at the Grey Lady, offering a look at how the sausage is made at the paper of record.
For instance, in April, Insider put together a timeline of how the Times covered the Brussels Airport bombing — how three dozen staffers from around the world collaborated to gather information and get it out in the 12 hours that followed the explosions.
"I'm always interested in showing readers the scale of the Times operation, its scope and the velocity with which it works," she told me recently on the patio at Plato's.
Lehman was in Aspen in mid-September leading an Aspen Words Readers' Retreat — leading discussions with a small group of dedicated readers. The nonprofit has expanded its readers' retreats beyond the summer to run year-round, with three-day gatherings through the seasons. The winter is scheduled for February, with W.W. Norton editor and Words Without Borders founder Alane Salierno Mason leading.
For her readers' retreat, Lehman chose nine nonfiction pieces — modern classics ranging from George Orwell's "Why I Write" to Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," from Norman Mailer's "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" to Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That" and David Foster Wallace's "A Ticket to the Fair."
"I thought a lot about great nonfiction writing that stuck in my mind years after I'd read it, and that's what I came up with," she says of her syllabus. "Reading is kind of about connecting. So that's what we're doing. It's just a bunch of smart, interested people sharing ideas and having a good time."
That's not unlike what she does at the Times, trying to spark reader interest and connect readers with the paper's writers.
A former criminal defense attorney, Lehman has had a varied career in media including work in book publishing, magazines and television. At the Times, she was a deputy editor of the Sunday Review section from 2011 to 2013 before working on Times Insider.
Insider originally launched in 2014 as part of Times Premier, a $10-a-month subscription package that promised extra benefits for hardcore Times readers. Last year the paper folded Premier and doubled down on the behind-the-scenes content from Insider.
She and her colleages attend the paper's daily news meetings, looking for ideas for Insider features and guests for the Insider podcast, which Lehman hosts. The Times already publishes an average of 356 stories per day, so Lehman looks for alternative storytelling models like graphics and timelines.
Some recent high points on the podcast have been a conversation with Times restaurant critic Pete Wells — the guy behind the viral review of Senor Frog's in Times Square and the epic all-questions takedown of Guy Fieri — about how he does his job. When the Times posted a three-minute video compilation documenting the bile-spewing crowds and hate speech that Donald Trump has drawn to events on the campaign trail this summer, she taped a conversation with campaign editors about the decision. She also does a quick and irreverent weekly chat with editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal about the news, titled "Good, Bad and Mad."
She's guided by the kinds of questions average folks have about the Times and how it works.
"If you go to a dinner party and say you work for the New York Times, there are certain questions that people are going to ask you and things they want to know about," she explains. "My thinking, in helping to put together Times Insider, was to re-create those kinds of conversations, to answer the kinds of questions that arise in those circumstances: 'Whoa, you've covered five wars? What's that like?'"