Scaling Back

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The New York Times’ Penelope Green has a helpful but inconclusive primer on how to choose a new desk for a home office now that we’ve been laid off. These past few months I’ve been tracking the state of the American economy by noting the thematic shift in feature stories in the Times. Gone are the opulent photo spreads of 10,000-square-foot apartments in the Plaza Hotel or the Hamptons kitchens that look as sparklingly high-tech and nonfunctional as the set of Fox NFL Sunday. Since Lehman Brothers went belly up on a dark day in September, NYT staff writers have switched to a more confessional and domestic mode. No more peaking into the lives of the Masters of the Universe. They’re now keeping an eye on things at home.

The trend started with Mark Bittman’s offhanded remark in his blog about his tiny Manhattan kitchen (above), a revelation that colleague Tara Parker-Pope called “shocking.” In news that was more startling than the demise of a 150-year-old Wall Street firm, we found out that one of the most famous cooks in America labors in a home kitchen too small to store a food processor or any cookbooks in. Surely Martha Stewart had a bigger kitchen when she was in prison—for insider trading, a crime that now seems quaint. The Times now has a semi-regular feature called Tiny Kitchen. My favorite entry so far is this spirited attempt by a staff recipe tester to make a salad in her minuscule home kitchen.

Perhaps this new emphasis on life on severance pay isn’t simply an editorial decision. Apparently the New York Times itself could disappear by summer. The danger isn’t particularly acute, but staffers seem to be taking personal inventories, just in case. (But who isn’t these days?) In a way, the turn to the personal isn’t so surprising. Newspaper writers have long chaffed under their employers’ slow adaptation to the Web. Some, like the founders of Salon, jumped from print to Web at the first opportunity. Others, like Bittman and film critic A.O. Scott, have gradually redefined themselves as one-man multimedia enterprises. It’s not hard to imagine Bittman moving into a prime-time slot on the Food Network, or Scott raising his thumb for Batman Drives a Hybrid.

Which is why Penelope Green is searching for a new home office desk. Her favorite is an elegant Herman Miller desk, but she doesn’t buy it or any of the other sleek and modernist desks she considers. In the end she realizes that what she needs is a desk “you could build a fort out of and hide underneath [. . . ] if times get really tough.”

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