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Oct. 13, 2020, 10:32 a.m.

The fired New Yorker writer who helped birth Media Twitter has died (and I’m sure he’d apologize if he could)

When Dan Baum started spooling out the story of his ouster on Twitter in 2009, the media world was entranced — and a new kind of digital serial storytelling seemed possible.

The journalist Dan Baum died last week. I haven’t found an obituary anywhere, but it’s been confirmed by friends and former employers, like Harper’s.

You may know Baum from his “New Orleans Journal” series covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for The New Yorker. Or you might know his skeptical reporting on the war on drugs, or his unexpected enjoyment of guns. He was an idiosyncratic writer over a long stretch; I only met him once, mumbling some thanks, as a Louisiana native, for his Katrina coverage.

But I confess that I’ll remember him for something very specific: the day he gave birth to Media Twitter.

And if that sounds like a curse more than a plaudit, allow me to reframe: I’ll remember him for the day he helped show that Twitter could be a medium for something more complex than 140 characters — for the combination of personal storytelling and real-time unfolding that have marked some of the best that the newsiest social media platform can offer.

On May 8, 2009, when Baum’s Twitter account @danielsbaum had only 25 followers and long before Twitter figured out that tweets should be threadable — he answered Twitter’s open-ended prompt with these three tweets:

Now this was some real media dish. The New Yorker, the ne plus ultra of American magazine journalism, was an opaque pinnacle; those without a point of entry could only view it from afar, amateur Kremlinologists. And here was someone who’d been inside saying he was ready to reveal its secrets to the unwashed.

Not many people noticed those first few tweets initially; Twitter still lacked a native retweet function back then, forcing people to manually write “RT @danielsbaum…” in order to amplify a message beyond its initial audience. The first person to do so, as far as I can tell, was then-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, followed shortly thereafter by us here at Nieman Lab. (Manning the @NiemanLab Twitter account that day was, I believe, Zach Seward, now CEO of Quartz.)

From there, the momentum grew. Soon a significant chunk of 2009’s digital media universe — chronically distracted by the carnage the financial crisis was bringing to their industry — was laser-focused on this still-young platform and what Dan Baum was saying. (Here’s a full transcript of his New Yorker tweets; I’ll assemble them into traditional sentence-and-paragraph form from here.)

It took me seventeen years to break into the New Yorker. I’d been a freelance journalist that long, and had sent in proposals from time to time. I never even got rejections. The New Yorker doesn’t send them. If they don’t want the story, they simply don’t respond, so filing to the New Yorker is like filing to the dump. You send in a proposal, and if you’re smart, you forget all about it.

Baum detailed stories he’d written, pitches that had been rejected, and what he felt was shabby treatment. He spooled this all out first on May 8, then further on May 11 and 12; he adapted his formatting along the way, no longer breaking sentences across multiple tweets. (“Several bloggers suggested — yea, demanded” the change, he said.)

It’s much more pleasant to write for one magazine’s sensibilities than many. Especially if that one is the New Yorker. The editing is as superb as you’d imagine. And it’s lovely to have all the time and resources you need. I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn’t had, found crucial sources I hadn’t interviewed. It’s like having a team of back-up reporters. They work like soldier ants, and are invariably cheerful. Their boss, Peter Canby, is a calm and competent gentleman.

I must say, though, the office itself is a little creepy. I didn’t work there. I live in Colorado. But I’d visit 3-4x a year. Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles. And from around the stacks of review copies that lie everywhere like a graveyard of writers’ aspirations.

It always seemed strange. Making it to the New Yorker is an achievement. It is vastly prestigious, of course. And the work is truly satisfying. Imagine putting out that magazine every week! Yet nobody at the office seems very happy. The atmosphere is vastly strained.

It may be hard for a young journalist in 2020 — by now used to staff writers spilling interoffice color on Twitter, quotidian disputes elevated to industry issues — to understand what a rare view this was in 2009. There was an entire shelf of memoirs written by retired New Yorker editors at your local Barnes & Noble that could offer a glimpse inside — but the glimpse always lit up an earlier generation’s magazine. This was unfolding in real time, and journalists were entranced.

It was also one of Media Twitter’s first true navel-gazes, as dozens of journalists thought Baum’s experiment was interesting enough to write about. His tweets made the Los Angeles Times (“It reads like a short essay that’s been chopped into 140-character bits”), The Huffington Post (“Without any regard for Twitter conventions, he dumped some sixty odd tweets, which, if read in the wrong order, come across like one long surrealist tone poem”), New York (“kind of anticlimactic…but it’s still pretty fun to read, even in backwards chunklets”), CJR (“oddly compelling”), Canada’s National Post (“This is the future of journalism, folks”), and more.

“I was riveted,” said a blogger at LAObserved. “This was The New Yorker, a publication with no masthead, that does not reveal its deep pool of staff writers, and here was Baum, naming names.”

“What a fucking waste of time,” wrote a less-riveted commenter at Metafilter. “There’s a reason for paragraphs, asshole.”

The New York Times, three years later, remembered Baum’s tweets fondly enough to rank them among more traditionally defined “New Yorker memoirs” by James Thurber, Lillian Ross, and Renata Adler. (“It offers a unique portrayal of the magazine’s personality, which Mr. Baum admits he failed to grasp.”) It is still today, somehow, the subject of one entire paragraph in David Remnick’s Wikipedia entry.

The most prescient writeup came from the bible of that Internet moment, Gawker. Here’s “The Cajun Boy,” a.k.a. Brett Michael Dykes:

When you really stop to think about it, this is sort of a watershed moment for Twitter, and storytelling in general, isn’t it? I mean, here’s a guy, a widely respected writer, using Twitter’s 140 character “tweets” to weave a bit of an epic story, a story I can easily see aspiring journalists turning to for years to come as a resource and for inspiration. I certainly can’t recall anything else of the sort happening previously.

And indeed it was a watershed moment. The personal publishing revolution ushered in by the Internet was initially about small content — blog posts, not articles; links, not narratives; tweets, not stories. This was one of the first moments when those atomic units were assembled into something bigger. It was one of the first times when something was happening on Twitter, an editorial event you could tune into as it unfurled. (And that was even before Baum’s former New Yorker colleague Susan Orlean started pushing back.) And it happened at a time of tremendous growth for Twitter as a platform; in 2009, it went from 2.4 million tweets a day in January to 26 million in October.

One Twitter user called the whole Baum tale “undignified, but fascinating” — and has a better description of Twitter ever been written?

By the time it was all over, Baum had gone from 25 followers to 2,201 — hardly the sort of thing that merits a “check out my SoundCloud” today, but big numbers for 2009. Baum did an exit interview of sorts with The Rumpus explaining his thinking.

I was intrigued by the idea of micro-serialization. Serialized stories have long been popular. This takes the form to a ridiculously atomized state. My story is of interest to media types, who also seem to be a population tuned into Twitter, so form fit function. If what I’m reading is correct, many people try Twitter for a short time and then give it up. That tells me it may not be around long, so this was a chance to try this while the art form still existed.

He was wrong about Twitter’s lifespan — but the rest of that is an astute analysis of what Twitter does, both formally and socially, to “media types.”

Baum never again tried to capture the media world’s attention with a performative spree of tweets. In 2009, he had 2,201 followers; on the day he died, he had 2,397. In between, in 2015, he had one more Twitter lesson for us all: He stopped tweeting altogether, presumably feeling he had better things to do. Rest in peace, Dan.

Early sketch of a Twitter bird in 2009 by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 13, 2020, 10:32 a.m.
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