Spoofing The Times

Former journalists at The New York Times describe a parody of the paper in 1978 and the secrecy surrounding it.

During a newspaper strike in 1978, a group of literary pranksters put out Not The New York Times. It had the tone and design of the real thing.
Credit...Andrew Sondern/The New York Times

By Alex Traub

In mid-October 1978, two months after a strike by pressmen shut down New York’s major newspapers, a broadsheet bearing the words “New York Times” appeared on newsstands.

Newsstand shoppers found some peculiarities. “Sleepy Village’s Dull Anecdote Is Grist for Reporters’ Mill,” read one headline. “Universe Very Old,” read another.

The bylines, too, seemed off. “Joseph Toaster” was not quite the same as the foreign correspondent Joseph B. Treaster, and “William Satire” was one letter away from the columnist William Safire.

This was not The New York Times; and that, in fact, is exactly what the parody called itself: Not The New York Times.

Rapturous coverage in national magazines and on television credited celebrated writers of the time, including Nora Ephron and George Plimpton.

Yet an article in Time magazine gently suggested the parody’s success came from more than the literary talent of its contributors. Brief tributes published every decade or so occasionally made the same allusion.

The fact has been hiding in plain sight: Not The New York Times was an inside job.

The parody featured three full sections, 24 joke advertisements, 73 spoof articles and 155 fake news briefs, all meticulously edited to mimic The Times’s style. Even the thick curls of the font used on the front page and the neat spacing of the headlines exactly replicates those of the real paper.

Months of research and interviews led me to former editors, designers and a copy boy at The Times who had provided critical help to a parody of their own employer.

“All the Times people had to be available,” said Christopher Cerf, one of the spoof’s ringleaders.

After the strike ended and the Times journalists returned to work, they hid their satirical moonlighting from their colleagues. As the years went by, they kept quiet.

Steven Crist, 63, the former copy boy, who later covered horse-racing for The Times, wrote a memoir that discusses the 1978 strike but passes over in silence the weeks he spent working on the parody.

Mr. Crist said his fear in 1978 of a “purge” of employees who had contributed to the parody lingered into subsequent decades, even though he stopped working at the paper.

Contacted in Belgium, over 30 years after he left The Times, the designer Richard Yeend, 75, was taken by surprise.

“It was one of things I wanted to ask you,” he said to me: “How on earth you found out that I was involved with Not The New York Times.”

I found contributors like Mr. Yeend by scouring the accounts that have been written about the parody and by reaching out to a colorful array of sources, including a British comic book company, a news and betting service devoted to horse racing and The Santa Barbara Independent, a California newspaper.

The three former Times employees I interviewed seemed eager to speak on the record for the first time about their involvement.

Not The New York Times’s masthead. “We had a lot of time on our hands,” one contributor said.
Credit...Andrew Sondern/The New York Times

“There’s no code of omertà on something that’s 40 years old,” said Glenn Collins, 75, a longtime Metro, Business and Style reporter who started as an editor at The Times Magazine.

Though Mr. Collins, Mr. Yeend and Mr. Crist recalled details of their work, all spoke more vividly about the excitement of collaborating with others.

“We’d just all sit on the rug and ideas would get kicked around, and we read each other’s stuff, and laughed or didn’t laugh — but we laughed a lot,” Mr. Collins said.

A sense of urgency supercharged the banter.

“We were afraid it would all be for naught if the strike suddenly ended,” Mr. Cerf said. “We were racing against time.”

Somehow, the parody transformed from an amusing notion to a newsstand hit in just around a month.

I had hoped to learn which articles Times employees wrote and which were by luminaries like Ms. Ephron. But the frantic, ecstatic ensemble that produced Not The New York Times appears to defy conventional notions of writerly credit.

Fading memories and yellowing press clippings do connect certain writers with specific stories. Still, singular attributions miss how much everyone had a hand in everything.

How did New York writers, generally known for competitiveness, achieve such a high level of literary teamwork? Was it the fake bylines? The mad dash to the finish?

Reflecting on the freelancers, humorists and temporarily out-of-work Times employees who made up the staff, Mr. Yeend proposed a theory for what bound everyone together.

“We all had a lot of time on our hands,” he said.
Credit...Andrew Sondern/The New York Times\


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