An Open Letter to Nicholas D. Kristof ’81

Robert F Worley

Nicholas D. Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, discusses the challenges of journalism as an industry and an social tool on Tuesday at the Institute of Politics.

Dear Nicholas D. Kristof ’81,

As a current editor of The Crimson I am alarmed that you have dropped your middle initial from your byline. You recently wrote that your middle initial is an unnecessary relic from your days at The Crimson and is no longer necessary for your career as an established journalist at The New York Times. As a Crimson editor it is my duty to reach out to you and correct this egregious stylistic error.

So I’m here to say that you can’t get rid of your middle initial. I’m sorry, but you can’t just drop the D. It goes against everything in The Crimson’s Style Guide. Once you break one rule, what’s next? Maybe you will start writing “first-year’s dean’s office” instead of “Freshman Dean’s Office.” Worse, you might start writing “am” instead of “a.m.” If you set the precedent of no middle initial soon the Crimson Style Guide will have no authority; all 15 pages in our Google Drive will be completely meaningless and arbitrary.

I understand where you are coming from. I too had a rebellious phase and tried to delete all of the Oxford commas from an article about strange bequests from alumni. Not only did I quickly learn that additional punctuation is necessary for clarity, but also that editors should not be working drunk in the newsroom. There are reasons for these rules.

But it’s not just about the guide. Despite what you think, the middle initial is valuable on its own. You say that it is unnecessarily formal when journalism is becoming more casual. You even go as far as to write that its “gravitas” or seriousness creates a barrier between the author and the audience.

There are a few issues with this argument. First of all, according to Crimson style, the word gravitas must always be italicized as to draw attention to how big a word it is. Secondly, journalism is casual only on Fridays, after nine p.m., when all of your festive neckties are at the dry cleaners, and even then it is still business casual.

You also completely overlook the most important benefits of the middle initial. It is engaging. It is mysterious. With the decline of the attention span and the end of high school current event assignments, the mysterious middle initial is the only thing maintaining readership. Why did people read the Crimson’s expose on grade inflation or your analysis of foreign aid in Haiti? It was because they wanted to know what the full middle name of the author was, what the “D” in your byline stood for. Is it Darien? Is it Drew? No. It’s Donabet. I just Googled it.

That brings me to my final point. You might be the only Nicholas Kristof out there who also happens to write for the New York Times, but some of us, especially us college writers, might not be distinguishable from our namesakes. This is why we need the middle initial. It is not so that we sound like experts in our field. It is deeper than that. It is about identity. It is so that when we Google our names regularly our work is the first thing that pop-ups and we don’t have to scroll down.

Sincerely,
Nicole J. Levin
Magazine Editor at Large, former Executive Editor, and future Pulitzer Prize potential nominee.

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