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Hill Staffers Have an In on New York Times Wedding Pages

Working on the Hill has its perks. One of the more unusual ones: It’s easier to get your wedding announcement in the New York Times.

When it comes to their work in Washington, staffers are known for avoiding the limelight and working behind the scenes. But when it comes to love, they’re known for their very visible marriage announcements in the Sunday edition of the “newspaper of record.”

In the past year, legislative directors, committee counsels and those at the top of the Capitol career ladder have graced the Times society pages at an average of once every other week. And given the section’s stiff competition — it receives more than 200 submissions per week for about 30 slots — that’s an impressive showing.

For Washington power couples originally from the New York area, getting an announcement in the Times can be a statement of hometown pride.

And for couples looking to cut wedding costs (not an easy task, to be sure), it can also be an affordable option. Getting an announcement in the Times is free, while publishing in the Washington Post, by comparison, can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000.

For most Capitol Hill couples, though, it’s the section’s elite luster that’s just too hard to pass up.

“As we were thinking about announcements, we thought about hometown papers, papers around here,” said Will Kinzel, then a staffer at the Republican National Committee and now a policy adviser for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). He and his wife, Marcie — who worked at the Department of Education at the time and is now communications director for Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — were featured in the section three years ago.

They decided on the New York Times weddings section, Will said, because it’s just “an iconic kind of thing.”

It’s “the gold standard” of wedding pages, according to David Greengrass, counsel to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

And that’s how it’s been since the paper’s inception, according to Nikki Usher, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. The Times was established “as diametrically opposed to all of the other penny papers of the time,” she said.

In his 1851 prospectus, Times founder Henry Raymond promised readers that the paper would be distinctive and unlike other dailies, which were known for their sensational news coverage. It would be “decidedly superior to existing journals of the same class,” he wrote.

Reporting on the social scene helped the paper establish its exclusive image.

“Consistently throughout this time,” Usher noted, “society news would make [the] front page.” Stories about the comings and goings of presidents’ children or New York’s upper class would lead the daily headlines.

When the paper expanded to multiple sections in the early 20th century, society and wedding news moved from the front page to its own standalone section. And during the years, it’s also become more national in scope.

“This was the chronicles of the rich and famous. There has always been a weddings section,” Usher said.

And, she added, “It has always been well-designed with pretty pictures.”

But that’s not the only reason Hill staffers choose the Times. Gregg Nunziata, former counsel to the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said that he and his wife, Darpana, chose the Times because, unlike other announcements, it “treats it more like a story.”

But this isn’t the type of marriage story that you’d tell in a wedding toast. The announcements don’t tell stories of fortuitous encounters or passionate courtships. Instead, they tell stories of each partner’s professional success and presumed social stature.

As Times columnist David Brooks once remarked, they tell stories of men and women who “spent the critical years between ages 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders.”

Among the information couples must submit: job titles for each partner and their parents; company names; and degrees earned and universities attended.

The sample announcement on the Times website looks like a “Mad Libs” game for the career-oriented, with blank spaces for couples to insert information about their graduate degrees.

Robert Woletz, the editor who oversees the weddings pages, said in a 2009 column, “The basic premise is that we’re looking for people who have achievements.”

Hill staffers, of course, have a reputation for fitting this profile. All of the staffers featured during the past year graduated from well-known universities — many of them from Ivy League schools.

Most have graduate degrees, and all have landed top positions in and around the Capitol complex. Their résumés boast a covetable combination of credentials and influence.

Woletz denies that, as a group, they have any type of advantage when it comes to selecting the announcements. “It’s the same as for everyone else,” he said.

But Heather Sala, president of HJ Planners, a local wedding consulting firm, disagrees. “What we’ve found is that the best way to get your story into the Times … is to have a good angle to the story.” 

A former communications director for the Senate Banking Committee married a one-time aide to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the former Banking Committee chairman? There’s a good angle.

She added that there’s another aspect of working on the Hill that clearly helps: “A lot of times we’ll tell clients that name-dropping will help get their announcements chosen.”

Perhaps that’s the secret to the staffers’ success on the society pages. When it comes down to it, an accomplished résumé might not be enough to make it amid highbrow competition. Applicants most likely need something more. They need the panache that comes with a recognizable name.

For those who work on the Hill, that simply comes with the territory.

Despite its popularity, the New York Times weddings section doesn’t have the same appeal for everyone. It’s teased by many as the Sunday “mergers and acquisitions” section. It has inspired countless sarcastic commentators, such as Phyllis Nefler, who wrote a popular Gawker column that scored couples based on their accomplishments.

Nunziata, a Republican, noted that he received a few jabs from his friends.

“There’s apparently a contingent of men who read the New York Times wedding announcements just like they read the Sunday sports scores,” he said.

After seeing his announcement, some teased him for choosing a paper that doesn’t exactly reflect his Republican views.

Kinzel said he was teased by a few friends, as well, but that it wasn’t politically motivated. “We received some flak that the announcement was there generally.”

But a piece of advice to those who make fun: As Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Importance of Being Earnest” — “Never speak disrespectfully of Society … Only people who can’t get into it do that.”

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