NY Mag's Chris Bonanos on Daily Intel and 1940s News Photographers | MEDIA DIET

If you can't find him, he's probably reading old newspapers at the New York Public Library.

Alexander Bonanos

Chris Bonanos is currently living a dual life. By day, he’s the temporary editor of New York’s Daily Intelligencer, where he’s tasked with keeping a constant beat on what’s happening. “After 22 years on the print edition,” he tells me, almost wistfully. By night, you might find him in the stacks of the New York Public Library working on a book about a 1940s news photographer. I called Bonanos at his New York office to talk about having a foot planted firmly in both worlds.

“The biggest news site in our world, as uninteresting a choice as it is, is probably The New York Times,” he says. “They are, from a news standpoint, the chief competitor of both New York magazine and” Bonanos also monitors “increasingly” The Washington Post, “some Politico,” “some Slate,” and The Guardian “for less of an American view.” He’ll read “a little bit” of Gawker, because too much leaves him “cranky,” and is all about Atlas Obscura. “On and off, but increasingly on,” he will read The New Yorker’s website, he says. “I really liked that they got Roger Angell to be the world’s oldest blogger during the baseball playoffs, and he was superb.”

“In print,” Bonanos tells me, “I subscribe to The New Yorker, GQ, Scientific American, Harper’s, and Bloomberg Businessweek.” Whoa, that’s a lot, sir. “I also buy The Wall Street Journal a couple of times a week, but not every day, though I think I’m going to take the plunge and subscribe shortly. I read the New York tabloids in fits and starts, and lately I am interested in the Daily News’ sharp new advocacy voice, which seems to have come on very suddenly.”

So what’s the difference between working on the print edition and keeping tabs on the ebb and flow of the daily internet news cycle? “The immediacy. And the speed with which you have to put things together and edit them,” Bonanos says. “You have lots of deadline pressure on the print side, too, but it comes in waves over the course of the week, whereas the daily thing is more like a newspaper desk in some ways.”

When I ask him if he monitors any sites I might not be hip to, Bonanos shrugs. “We’re as much in the business of opinion as anybody. We try to do things in a more interesting way, and that often involves our own columnists. So there’s no particular secret sauce.”

Weegee photos at a Berlin exhibition, 2008

So, how about that book? “I’m in the middle of researching a biography that I’m writing of Weegee, the 1940s news photographer,” he says. “I’m in a strange moment where by day I’m working in the most up to the moment way of consuming news, then I go home and read a lot of newspapers from 1936.” Bonanos says that some newspapers from that era are digitally archived and he can read them remotely. Others: not so much. “They are at the New York Public Library. The best collection is in the main building on 42nd Street. Room 100! I’ve spent the afternoon there on Sunday. I was reading copies of the New York World-Telegram, which has been long out of business.”

As part of his research for the project, Bonanos has been reading memoirs and other writing about the newspapermen of the early 20th century and is currently making his way through a 1943 memoir by a news photographer named Sammy Schulman. “It’s delightful and braggy and very, very informative. He was a photographer who was always chasing FDR,” he tells me. “That’s one in a very large pile of books about mid-century New York newspapermen and photographers — written both in that period and later — that is teetering next to my desk.” He continues, “I’ll tell you something I learned, which is that old newspapers are full of very short tidbits written with a certain amount of rat-a-tat flair. Lots of them aren’t that well-written, but some are. It is a form that weirdly we see on some blogs today. I wouldn’t directly compare blogging to 1930s newspapering, there are differences for sure, but it’s been illuminating seeing how people used to do it.”

Because of work, the book, and his kid, Bonanos doesn’t frequent the multiplex. “I haven’t been consuming a lot of media outside the house,” he says. “I am a heavy consumer of MSNBC at home. Especially Rachel Maddow.” Bonanos admits that he has “a weakness” for amateur pop historian shows on the History Channel and Discovery Channel, but laments: “I just wish they’d do fewer aliens.”

Gay Talese

Getty Images

“What I find myself reading is the best older long-form journalism stuff,” Bonanos says, when I ask him about reading for pleasure. “Stuff you just don’t really see anymore. Right now I’m in the middle of reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which is just a staggering piece of reporting of the type. I can’t imagine anybody doing it now. He had the great fortune of being in the position of writing the definitive journalistic history of the sexual revolution and publishing it in 1980. The next year was AIDS. So it turned out to be about the whole history of the sexual revolution in a lot of ways. He immersed himself in the reporting of that book to a degree you don’t really see today. He went and became, for several months, a manager of a massage parlor just so he could write about it with authority. If you look it up it was somewhat scandalous at the time. From this distance it looks incredibly ballsy. I am also really loving Wiseguy, the Nicholas Pileggi book that became GoodFellas. Each is really something for a writer-editor to aspire to: incredible reporting, vigorous writing, page-turning pace. Talese’s is more ambitious in scope; Pileggi’s is maybe funnier.”

“I also make regular dips into the 28 books written by John McPhee, every one of which I own,” Bonanos concludes, in a fit of inspiration. “As I work on my own book, I have a Post-It stuck to the computer, directly in my line of sight, that says ‘WWJMcPD?’”

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