THE PLANK FEBRUARY 22, 2009
What to make of our hometown paper's new Sunday Outlook section? As Max Fisher explained on The Plank a few weeks ago, the Washington Post shuttered its (seriously hit-or-miss) stand-alone book review section, Book World, and folded it in to the Post's version of Week In Review, moving the editorials and op-eds back to the A section.
This is only the new Outlook's debut week, but I can't say I think the new product works. It seems as though its editors took their style cues from blogs and magazines' front-of-the-book sections, creating a sort of a pastiche of the Daily Beast homepage with a bit of the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" and Newsweek's "Periscope" sprinkled in: There are buzzy, reductive, Beast-esque lists ("5 Myths About Schools That Just Can't Be Fixed," a catalogue of especially outspoken Oscar winners) and a "big idea" box (like the Beast's "Big Fat Story" tab); there are "Periscope"-style splashy pull quotes (Holder's now-infamous "nation of cowards" quip gets one this week) and interviews; and the book reviews are organized -- like "Talk of the Town"'s "Annals Of ..." -- into idea categories: "history," "art," "astronomy."
Not all of this is new: Outlook has published "5 Myth" lists before. But the new section as a whole has the splashy, chaotic, attention-deficit look of an aggregator. This look can work on a web site, where you quickly make sense of the photo-riddled, wacky-fonted, big-type-little-type homepage mess by clicking through into the item that catches your eye, but the joy of a paper media product is the coherence it can enforce: you're holding the whole thing in your hand at once, stories sit obstinately beside each other with no opportunity for you to blithely erase one and ignore the way they inform each other, and a strong stylistic and editorial consistency throughout (get your damned fonts in order, Outlook!) can make a powerful impression.
The new Outlook is a curvaceous girl trying to squeeze into Kate Moss's skinny jeans: a product that painfully senses it's out of fashion, and so tries to shove itself into the hot new look -- the splashy, quick-hit, everything-jumbled-together blog form -- that just doesn't fit its natural shape.