From Commenter To Columnist: The Atlantic's 'Cynic' Yoni Appelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate in history from Brandeis University, was procrastinating on his dissertation. Instead of writing, he would spend his time commenting on a blog under the pseudonym, "Cynic." Eventually, it got him a job writing for that website — The Atlantic.

From Commenter To Columnist: The Atlantic's 'Cynic'

From Commenter To Columnist: The Atlantic's 'Cynic'

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Yoni Appelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate in history from Brandeis University, was procrastinating on his dissertation. Instead of writing, he would spend his time commenting on a blog under the pseudonym, "Cynic." Eventually, it got him a job writing for that website — The Atlantic.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Daily blogs attract lots of comments from the general public. They're usually anonymous and often inane. But Bradley Campbell from Rhode Island Public Radio reports on one masked writer whose comments are earned him a job at one of the country's top publications.

BRADLEY CAMPBELL, BYLINE: Years ago, a writer was clicking through various blogs online. The writer stumbled his way to The Atlantic website. And on their Web page, he found a blog of a senior editor whose name the writer couldn't pronounce. The editor was Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his blog at The Atlantic impressed the writer. He chose topics off the beaten path, examining everything, from Alexis de Tocqueville to "Iron Man 2." And the writer says something else about Coates' blog was surprising.

YONI APPELBAUM: His comments sections were actually worth reading. Comments sections are the cesspools of the Internet. They're the fetid sinks into which we throw the things that we'd rather not acknowledge we produce.

CAMPBELL: But this comments section expanded upon ideas rather than going tit for tat. The writer couldn't resist. He posted a comment, but he was careful not to reveal his true name. He thought it could pose problems. So he chose a clever pseudonym: Cynic. At the time, he had no idea this would change his professional life forever. He just liked it.

APPELBAUM: Commenting can be cathartic, particularly if you enter into it without the expectation that anyone will ever read or respond to it.

CAMPBELL: But plenty of people did respond to Cynic.

APPELBAUM: And I went on commenting because when I posted a comment, people seemed interested.

CAMPBELL: Cynic was an original. His comments provided historical context to each blog post. His tone was civil, especially when he talked about Ulysses S. Grant. And down in New York City, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates took notice of his words.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, any sort of debate that we would have, and he was just great at making it bigger--you know what I mean--and making it, you know, fuller and having some, you know, sort of meat to it. He was just like the master mold for what I would have wanted a commenter to be.

CAMPBELL: Coates knew he had a talented writer on his hands. So he began talking to the editorial director of The Atlantic, Bob Cohn. They discussed ways to bring Cynic out of the shadows.

BOB COHN: We just began talking. And as I say, I was so eager to find ways to pluck out the great commenters from Ta-Nehisi's blog and bring them forward and present them to Atlantic readers.

CAMPBELL: Coates reached out to Cynic. And with Cohn's blessing, Cynic soon appeared as a guest writer on the blog. It's a select honor that's been bestowed to other, more notable writers, like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. But readers still didn't know the true identity of Cynic, so the guessing games began. Readers thought he was everyone from President Obama to actor George Wendt.

COATES: There was a guy who still posts on the site. And every time Cynic would post, he would post in all caps under him: WHO ARE YOU?


CAMPBELL: After about three years since Cynic's first comment, Cohn offered him the gig as an Atlantic correspondent. But it came with a catch: Cynic had to disclose his true identity. That made Cynic leery. He wasn't Superman or even the Escapist, just a graduate student in history at Brandeis University.

Cynic was nervous about how his prolific commenting would play with serious academics. He was in the thick of completing his dissertation. But in the end, Cynic agreed. And to his relief...

APPELBAUM: Overwhelmingly, the reaction I got from my fellow academics was encouragement.

CAMPBELL: His de-masking and official entry came with more celebration on the blog. As Coates put it, sometimes among the chorus, a singular voice rises above. Cynic has been writing at The Atlantic for about a year now as a correspondent, in addition to his studies. You can find him under his byline: Yoni Appelbaum. For NPR News. I'm Bradley Campbell in Providence.

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