Slaving Away on the Post’s In/Out List

How an In/Out List Is Made

It’s Monday and the newsroom staff of the Washington Post is at least half not here. The people who are around seem to be surfing the Web with a hunger for … what? Presents? News? Plane tickets? Sex? The phones aren’t beeping much. I hear more mouse-clicks than actual typing, and occasional bursts of laughter from somewhere. It’s strange about newsrooms at Christmas—what if something big happened? We’re in defiance of the breaking-news gods, who may choose at any moment to rain calamity upon us, even those of us who dwell back in the “Style” department.

Don Graham, the CEO, has already made what I hope will become an annual visit to my desk to torment me with his garish, glittery Christmas sweater. I bought the sweater last year because I was writing about the kind of person it takes to wear a sweater covered with teddy bears and candy canes, and I needed insight. I needed to hold it, feel it, ponder it. (The story I wrote antagonized some readers, who saw it as unseasonably Scroogey, rather than as the brilliant social comment it was.) As a joke, the Post’s editor, Len Downie, then gave the sweater to Don, who now wears it with rapturous, slightly deranged glee. This is high newsroom humor around here, and frankly, with what passes for a CEO at most corporations these days, I’ll take it. (I’m almost certain the sweater came from the plus-size gals’ department at Hecht’s. Does Don need to know this? A dilemma.)

So. Another newsroom Christmas, and I have a deadline hanging over me that is so important I waffle on whether or not I should even reveal it you: It falls to me this year to produce Style’s annual “In/Out” list, which will run on Jan. 1.

The “In/Out” column, known around here as “the List,” was conceived and tended to by Nina Hyde, who was the fashion editor for years. As best anyone can tell, she started the List in the mid-’70s. From the beginning, it had some useful prognostication in it about what was hip and happening and what had faded out. But over the years, Hyde’s creation began to have a lot more going for it subtextually—odd wordplay between the “out” and the “in” items, covert commentary on matters politic, economic, athletic, cinematic. It rolled around in Schadenfreude, took delight in falls from grace, and celebrated the innovative edge. It rose above the dreck of most New Year’s trend stories. It’s one of the things that made the Style section the Style section.

The trick was (and very much is) that a certain percentage of the List should be somewhat opaque and mysterious to the wider readership. If everyone gets it, the thinking goes, it can’t be truly cool. Hyde died in 1990, and the List has been handed around to reporters in the Style room ever since, who then set about begging everyone to collaborate, contribute, or otherwise write it for them. Depending on who gets saddled with it, the List has been known to stray more into a parody of a list than an actual guide to this year’s and next year’s trends. I was assigned the List three years ago, when I was new to the paper, and I volunteered to have another go at it this year. I was feeling confident this time—smarter, wiser, more able.

The List again humbles me. For days I’ve pored over the Web and through magazines (everything from Us Weekly to Wizard to Psychology Today to the Economist) and old newspapers. I’ve walked around stores, watched too much TV. I’ve pestered—even begged—people across the newsroom’s many sections and departments for possible items. From my comrades in Style, I keep hearing the same excuse: Many of them think they’re too unhip to contribute to the List. In a sad way it’s true. (I have to give mad props, as the kids say, to those who have rallied to the cause: Robin Givhan, our fashion writer, and Robin Groom, who coordinates pictures that go with our stories. Marc Fisher, the metro columnist; Mike Allen, who covers the White House. Deb Heard, the deputy editor, called up her teenage nephew to help us, too.)

I’ve got a day or so to finish my first draft. I’ll need about 75 outs and 75 ins to go with them. I’ve got maybe 200 pairs at this point, but a great number of them feel like the exact kind of thing you’d expect to see in the newspaper—which is to say they are clunky, unfunny, predictable, lame.

I spend most of Monday scrolling up and down the List on my screen, tweaking here and there, cutting this, pasting that. My ace in the hole is my dear friend, Tim Flannery. He works as an advertising director for Neiman-Marcus, at the store’s headquarters in Dallas, and there’s hardly anyone I’d rather talk about music, movies, fashion, comic books, and the general absurdity of life with—especially now. Tim generously gave me some of his time this morning, and in a swirl of gossip and topical hyperspace travel, we begin to lift my List toward some glimmer of greatness.

Tonight, leaving the Post, past the lobby’s enormous and allergy-inducing Christmas tree, I feel drenched in the goo of pop culture. Michael wants to drive out to Tyson’s Corner so he can buy his baby nephew a present. When we get there, every last thing in the mall looks Listable to me: In? Out? I feel bloated with the very thing-ness and emptiness of our trendy, trendy world. (A world I normally support.) We have one glass of wine at the Ritz-Carlton and then I’m the one who’s out. My brain is juiced, and I hardly say anything on the drive back to D.C. Tomorrow I’ll whip the List into shape. The fate of the world is in my hands. As sleepy as I am, I lay awake and try to come up with more items.