Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.
Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."
Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.
Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)
Question: How has journalism change since you started?
Calvin Trillin: Well, when I started it was not totally print. I mean I guess you’d tell there was television as well, but around the time I started was a transition time for the big the magazines – Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers; all of which eventually went out of business presumably because television could bring those sort of images to people faster and better more immediately than they could, although I sort of miss Life. I liked the idea that at the end of the week whatever sort of grainy picture you saw in the newspaper or maybe one you hadn’t seen in the newspaper would be a full page in Life, and you could actually see what happened. The one I saw closest up was Life because I was working for Time then in the Atlanta bureau mainly, and they sort of flailed around trying to find various ways to avoid what was really I think a foregone conclusion. One of the things that I found I did a book of some years ago on a college classmate of mine who was a sort of golden boy who we all expected to be president, and Life had covered his graduation, and Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed his graduation. And when I went back to look at that issue of Life, I was surprised because I hadn’t remembered how many just consumer ads there were, almost supermarket ads, for Ketchup and Jello and things like that, so that whole business has changed, and it’s changing again obviously.
It doesn’t seem that long ago when papers were thought of as sort of cash cows. I can’t remember the wonderful euphemism they had for the legislation that made it possible essentially to have a monopoly in a city. It was something like failing newspaper act or something like that. It gave people just sort of a license to print money, and even when they started to get in trouble, they got in trouble even though they were making profits, but Wall Street said they weren’t enough, and then unfortunately, many of them decided that the way to save themselves was to cut down on the service that they had. So they cut people who were doing news stories, cut particularly people who were doing stories that took some time, and I think that’s the part that’s not gonna be replaced, I mean I think that’s the really dangerous part. Even though there’s a sort of inside blogosphere kind of culture that leaks stories and has whistleblowers and everything; the reporter spending weeks or months on a story finding out something I think is soon going to be a thing of the past. And I mean the statistics you read some paper I don’t know I think it was the Philadelphia Inquirer used to have this many people covering City Hall; now they have that many, a tiny fraction of that, so their stories are gonna escape those few people that can’t possibly do them, and they can’t spare those people to work weeks or months on a story. So I think that part’s gonna change, and I don’t think it’s a good change.
Question: How can journalism be profitable down the road?
Calvin Trillin: The last person to ask about that is a reporter. Anybody on the editorial side of journalism is usually the last to know about anything. I suspect that the people when Gourmet folded who were the last people to know were the people working there. The day it folded I had a beautifully engraved thick invitation to a party celebrating the editor’s 10th year as the editor. It’s always done sort of surprisingly. I don’t know. I guess somebody’s gonna figure out how to make out of the Internet and maybe niche magazines. I think the people are in trouble are often say for instance the news magazines which I mean it’s hard to remember the Time was founded; it was an invention really Time like the Reader’s Digest; it was an invention, and the idea was to compartmentalize the news so that these busy executives could read it fast. In the beginning, they didn’t even have reporters. I mean they just took from what they got from newspapers and the AP wire and all that; put in a easy to read fast format and invented actually some coverage that otherwise wasn’t really being done right – religion, medicine; things like that, the press. And maybe 20 years ago Time briefly had a motto or a advertising slogan make time for Time. In other words the opposite of the original intention of the magazine because Time was then considered then a long read. It’s like sort of it became like make room for Proust or something like that, and you know you can actually somebody, somewhere, probably at some journalism school keeps track of the sound bites of speeches run on television, and they’ve shrunk over the years. So these magazines that were really invented to save people time now are considered sort of a burden to read, so then they have to reinvent themselves some way or go under.
Question: How do you feel about editorial and sales being integrated?
Calvin Trillin: I don’t feel good about it. At Time it used to be called church and state that you didn’t cross the line between church and state; although in fact you might argue that they did sometimes cross the line. At The New Yorker one of the Fleishman’s, Peter Fleishman, I think was then the owner of The New Yorker or the family that owned The New Yorker always said that when he saw the editor in the elevator or in the hall or ran into him somewhere he never complimented him on a piece because that would imply that there were pieces he didn’t like or he did like, and he thought that was none of his business that if he didn’t like what the editor was doing he could hire another editor. And in those days for instance The New Yorker never had a party. There was an annual anniversary party that we were told was the business department’s party and we were invited to it, but it wasn’t our party. We didn’t even a Christmas party ‘til the office boys finally started throwing a party themselves which we were invited to, and maybe the management finally gave in and sent the office boys some scotch or something for their party, but basically, we didn’t have parties.
Well, now you have I don’t mean at The New Yorker but in general you have these people sponsoring things, having events that are really promotional. I mean there’s been in the last 15 or 20 years a lot of blurring. I mean there was a piece in Columbia Journalism Review about 20, 15 years ago probably showing how the covers of Vanity Fair matched the advertising of the fashion industry, and this obviously is not a good change I mean from the point of view of people like me.
Recorded on: October 8, 2009