Bad headline, small changes at the New York Times

Anxiety over the core audience's rising influence helps explain events after 'Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.'

15 Aug 2019 6:20 pm 66 Comments

Knowing the characters involved — columnist Joan Walsh and the New York Times — this announcement last week caught my eye:


Separating from the Times was not a decision she took lightly, Walsh said. “I’ve put this off for almost 3 years. They are blowing their coverage of this crisis. I’m out.”

I’m still in. I consider myself a Times loyalist. My loyalty is expressed through criticism and watchfulness, and by paying for a digital (plus print on weekends) subscription. I have no stake in the company, but in the institution of the Times, especially the ongoing journalism of it, I do feel a kind of stake, a public one. It’s not clear to me how I am supposed to protect it. So I write.

What do you do?

At this site ten months ago, I tried to explain why there was such tension between Times journalists and many of their core readers— like say, people who follow Joan Walsh! (Absorb that earlier post before this one if you really want my sense of the situation.)

The core readers have more power now. They are a bigger part of the mix. How that power should be recognized, when it might be used, how to listen carefully to it without listening too much… no one really knows yet. The digital audience itself, the Times own interconnected public, does not know its own power.

But how to achieve independence from the newest corrupting influence — the most attached part of the audience — is already a live concern among Times editors. These events lie in the background of Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, which is not just a hastily abandoned headline but the name of a public episode now.

The readers have more power:

They have more power because they have more choices. And because the internet, where most of the reading happens, is inherently two-way. Also because Times journalists are now exposed to opinion and reaction on social media. And especially because readers are paying more of the costs. Their direct payments are keeping the Times afloat. This will be increasingly so in the future, as the advertising business gets absorbed by the tech industry. The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has.

1.) Depends on readers’ support more than it ever has. 2.) Got rid of the public editor. That’s an example of the kind of disconnect that has created tension.

Meanwhile, pressures on the news system because an authoritarian got into office are exposing to public view parts of the Times that have never been strong. For example, filtering out the more lurid and unfounded criticisms to hear what concerned people are trying to tell you. The Times is not great at that.

The Times is not great at learning from past mistakes when the fuller dimensions of that mistake come into view. Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia. Or at reframing the way they approach Trump’s racism, away from a long string of deplorable incidents to a structural, load-bearing and thus central feature of his campaign and presidency.

Steven Greenhouse is a former reporter for the New York Times:

Maybe that “decades-old journalistic reflex” no longer applies. Maybe this is the kind of updated thinking people outside the Times are pushing for. James Fallows of the Atlantic said it on Twitter today:

the NYT is overall by far the most ambitious and “best” US news organization. But its framing of US national politics, “what about the emails!” onward, [is] really not at the standard of rest of the organization, or what the country needs.

The people outside the Times trying to tell the Times this are for the most part liberal and cosmopolitan, part of the core readership. They are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.

They are not wrong to want these from the New York Times. Each point can be acted upon within the rules of hard-hitting investigative journalism and a traditional check-on-power stance, adapted to the urgency of the hour. The reckoning with 2016 is something any good institution would do to learn and progress after a major failure. But the Times seems unable to get to that place.

In October, 2018 I made an easy prediction.

In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled. But it has a problem with its core supporters. Until it is put right, there will be blow-ups, resentments and a lot of misunderstanding.

The mixture I described came to a boil this week and last. Not a boil over. Just a boil. But contained movement is still movement. I will try to isolate for you some of the small changes.

It started on August 5th. Public reaction to a majestically bad headline, Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism, was so strong that executive editor Dean Baquet had to do multiple interviews to explain what happened and limit the damage. These pieces are still coming in.

On Monday, August 12, Baquet called a staff meeting at the Times to air complaints. According to reports in the Daily Beast and Vanity Fair, journalists of color and younger generations of Times journalists often led the questioning. Inconsistency and lack of logic in calling things racist were said to be some of the items on the table. Though quickly corrected, the bad headline remained a flashpoint inside the paper and out.

One of the editors on Baquet’s team explained it this way:

“I think this is a really difficult story to cover, the story of Donald Trump and race and his character. We’re in a bit of uncharted territory. There is definitely some friction over, how does the paper position itself?

A Times newsroom in uncharted territory. Uncertainty over where to stand in the triangle formed by Trump, race and American politics. These were not the confident tones the editors had been striking before Monday’s meeting, or before the wildly discordant headline. Small change.

That nameless Times editor (there are lots of them in this episode) asks a good question: how does the paper position itself toward the Trump movement, which incorporates the New York Times as a hate object and tries to disqualify Times journalism in the minds of Trump supporters before they have read it, even though Donald Trump lives and dies by what the New York Times says about him?

What kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? And what kind of actions — what range of proper motion — can its own journalists expect from the institution they have joined?

These are some of the problems that came to a boil this week. But as I said, only a mild boil.

There is still no public editor to push the discussion along. But “why did we get rid of the public editor?” is now a question on the floor at staff meetings, the Daily Beast reported. It was asked of Dean Baquet in one of his sorry-for-that-bad-headline interviews. A decision announced in June 2017 is being publicly doubted two years later. It’s like the case against it has been re-opened. Small changes.

According to Vanity Fair, an editor at the Times said this week:

Reporters on the front lines, particularly reporters of color, are really attuned to something happening in the country that is, to a lot of them, deeply scary, both personally and politically, and there’s a hunger to have a conversation about it. If this rhetoric continues, how is the Times covering it? What are the rules of engagement for a president who traffics in this stuff? How do we, as a newsroom, grapple with that?

Does it sound like they know what to do next? Not so much, right? That too is movement.

Check out this attitude among the editors, as reported by Vanity Fair. “There’s a clear feeling from the top that we’re not gonna be a part of the resistance, and how that gets translated day to day can frustrate people.” (My emphasis.)

That clear feeling came through when Dean Baquet spoke to CNN this week.

What Baquet is certain about is that The Times should not serve as a publication of the left. “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” he said, adding that “one of the problems” that would come about if the paper took that role is that “inevitably the resistance in America wins.” Baquet further explained, “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again. And at that point, what are you? You’re just a chump of the people who won. Our role is to hold everybody who has power to account.”

As a Times loyalist, I kind of resent the implication: Come join our resistance, New York Times! As if that’s what we want from the journalism, to do our politics for us. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance says nothing about how to provide less assistance to Trump’s othering instincts. We’re not gonna be part of the resistance doesn’t tell you what to do if Trump breaks through all barriers and runs a specifically racist campaign from the pulpit of the presidency.

I asked earlier what kind of public actor can readers, supporters and subscribers realistically expect the Times to be? We got an answer this week. The kind of actor that still thinks it’s just an observer. But in August 2019 there is greater pressure on that piece of pressthink than there was in July. It’s not only coming from the people who read Joan Walsh and watch her on CNN. There’s a generational divide within the Times newsroom. The source for that claim is Dean Baquet:

Baquet himself acknowledged this tension inside his newsroom. He also acknowledged that it is playing out largely across generational lines. Younger staffers generally feel The Times should be more aggressive and explicit in its coverage of Trump. Older staffers generally prefer taking the more traditional approach espoused by Baquet.

“There is a generational divide in newsrooms right now,” Baquet said. But he flatly rejected the notion that The Times has not covered Trump boldly enough, saying, “My own view is that we are covering Donald Trump very aggressively.”

I close with something you are not hearing from other commentators on these bumpy days at the New York Times .

Anxiety about the core audience’s rising influence is interfering with the newsroom’s ability to listen to its environment. A segment of the most attached readership has been vocal about its dissatisfactions. That’s good; it means they care. The editors have been adamant about hearing this criticism as a call to abandon journalism and do politics instead: join the resistance.

But now there’s a new factor. Some of the same dissatisfactions are shared by a younger and more diverse generation of Times journalists, people the organization cannot succeed without. The restiveness of this cohort changes the equation some. Instead of “we do Times journalism” vs. “please do resistance politics,” which is Baquet’s way of framing the choices — and dumbing down the debate — the next generation have made it about different ways to stand toward the staggering reality of Trump’s racism.

That’s a small change for now. But it could turn out to be big.

Update: The Transcript, August 17, 2019

Shortly after I posted this piece, Ashley Feinberg of Slate published a lightly edited transcript of the staff meeting between Baquet with his top editors and the rank and file. “The New York Times Unites vs. Twitter” was the headline Slate put on it. Feinberg wrote:

The problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.

Exactly! (My italics.) Here are some quotes from Times staffers that show what I meant above by a generational divide.

Unnamed staffer: “I am concerned that the Times is failing to rise to the challenge of a historical moment. What I have heard from top leadership is a conservative approach that I don’t think honors the Times’ powerful history of adversarial journalism.”

Unnamed staffer: “Wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know?”

Unnamed staffer: “A headline like that simply amplifies without critique the desired narrative of the most powerful figure in the country. If the Times’ mission is now to take at face value and simply repeat the claims of the powerful, that’s news to me.”

Unnamed staffer: “One of the reasons people have such a problem with a headline like this—or some things that the New York Times reports on— is because they care so much… They are depending on us to keep kicking down the doors.”

Meanwhile, David Roberts of Vox, who normally writes about climate change, put it this way in an exasperated thread reacting to this post:

What frustrates people is not that they want to see the word “racist” in the paper. What frustrates them is that the country’s core institutions are under assault by a radical ethnonationalist minority and the sense of crisis is not being conveyed.

It has always struck me that while the people at the New York Times consider it the apex of journalism, the highest the ladder of excellence goes, they have not extended that reputation for quality to the acts of listening, receiving criticism, sorting signal from noise, and changing their work. It’s like they know they can’t do it well, so they don’t even try. And being the best in the world at listening and evolving isn’t even an aspiration there. “We are not the resistance” is a crappy read on what people are trying to tell you. But this is one area where mediocrity and worse — incompetence — is tolerated at the Times. Responsibility for that has to flow to Dean Baquet. There is no other place it can pool.

 

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, August 2019

These are the things I spend the most time puzzling about. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

6 Aug 2019 4:28 pm 20 Comments

1. The entire system for covering the Trump presidency is wrongly conceived. It needs to be rebuilt, faulty premise by faulty premise. But there has never been such a rebuild while the story is running hot. No one knows how it can be done. Reporting what he said today amplifies his falsehoods and hatreds, which is unacceptable, but ignoring what he said pretends it never happened, which is unacceptable in a different way.

(Here’s my thread about that problem. Here’s an article about it. This podcast is also good.)

2. Explicitly or implicitly, it seems likely that Trump is going to run a racist re-election campaign in 2020, in which “othering” (not a word I like, but it’s the best I can do…) is basic to his appeal to voters. This goes way beyond noisy controversies like whether to use the term “racist.” Is the press ready for a campaign like that? Does it have the people and practices in place to respond? Is it willing to break with precedent to meet a threat without parallel? I doubt it.

3. If there somehow arises among American journalists a determination to assume a more forceful role within the atmosphere of civic emergency created by Trump, what are the best sources of inspiration — from press history, from journalists in other countries, or from adjacent fields — that can be drawn upon to guide, shape, justify and delimit these efforts?

4. So far the debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach in covering the 2020 election. An alternative to the horse race model does exist. It’s called the citizens agenda. It starts by asking the voters you are trying to inform, “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” But how do we get more newsrooms to give it a try?

5. Something has gone awry in the relationship between New York Times journalists and core readers of the Times, a category in which I include myself. I tried to describe the problem here. As far as I can tell, no one in leadership is concerned about it. And there’s no longer a public editor who can inquire. The Washington Post seems far more agile and fluent in adjusting to new conditions. The Times is still great, still essential, still (for now) the flagship in the American fleet. As a business it has recovered its bearings and it is doing well. But the newsroom and the editorial page are having trouble navigating the culture wars. They seem to think that backlash from their most loyal readers is proof of a job well done, or something they must ignore— on principle, as it were.

6. Now in its 14th year, the collapse of the news industry’s business model is still unresolved, leading to an especially acute crisis in local news. Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market because they own the data required to target individual users. Among legacy producers like the local newspaper, the consensus strategy is to push for digital subscriptions. But there are huge problems with that. These are companies accustomed to monopoly conditions in a manufacturing business. With a handful of exceptions, they are unprepared for technology-rich, data-centric and customer-first models. Many of the professionals in these newsrooms believe that people ought to pay them for the same journalism they have always practiced. That attitude is not going to get it done.

7. Membership models are an alternative to subscription plays but people in journalism tend to group them together as rough equivalents. In fact they lead in opposite directions and imply different requirements for newsrooms. Subscription is a product relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership means you join the cause because you believe in the work. If you believe in the work you want it to spread, even to non-members. Therefore membership does not require a digital paywall. Subscription does. But for membership to work, there first has to be a cause worth joining, as well as opportunities for members to participate. Again, that is unlike a subscription business. Grouping them together just fuzzes everything up.

Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage

What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?

12 Jun 2019 3:47 pm 15 Comments

Part of a call to action for an alternative direction in election coverage, originated by the newsroom improvement company, Hearken, and the research project that I direct, Membership Puzzle Project

Last month I visited WBUR in Boston to talk with station leadership and the politics team about how they could bring something different to their 2020 election coverage. I was invited by WBUR’s senior political reporter, Anthony Brooks, who had read some of my descriptions of the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage.  He wanted to explore how it might work at an NPR station that reaches across greater Boston and into New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation draws the major candidates.

Politics is a busy and important beat for them. WBUR collaborates on election coverage with New Hampshire Public Radio, which attended the meeting as well. For an academic, the opportunity to float an alternative model to people who could soon put it into practice is not something you turn down.

Here’s the whiteboard I used. On it, the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage is broken down into steps. These are the key steps:

  1. Identify — especially to yourselves — the people you are trying to inform. Your community. Your public. Your crowd.
  1. Ask the people you are supposed to inform a simple question: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
  1. Keep asking it — what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? — as you find new ways to explain the project, and new people to reach with it.
  1. Interpreting what you heard, and applying your knowledge as journalists, synthesize the initial results into a draft agenda, a priority list that originates in an act of listening. (Need an example? Go here.)
  1. Test, question, and revise the agenda with the people you made it for, plus any help you can get from polling. “This is what we think we heard. How did we do?”
  1. When confidence permits, or circumstances require, you then publish the citizens agenda as a “live” product on your site. Launch and promote. Gather reactions. Synthesize and improve.
  1. Now, turn the citizens agenda into instructions for campaign reporting that connects with the issues people care most about. Around the top priorities you can do in-depth journalism. Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda. And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm. At every turn, you can ask yourself, “How does this align with our citizens’ agenda?”
  1. Press the candidates to address it. When they do, tell the voters. In a way, you have “won” at campaign journalism when this happens.
  1. Build your voters guide around it. Down the left side of the grid, the candidates for office. Across the top, the items on the citizens agenda. Fill in the grid with what the candidates have done, said, or proposed; that’s a public service.
  1. Keep listening for revisions to the agenda until the campaign ends. I called it a published product. I also said it was live. That means you change it when the ground shifts, or choices narrow. Maybe there’s a a few per election cycle, or a new one every Monday. 

Notes:

WBUR has not made any decisions yet. This isn’t their plan, it’s mine.

You can have it, by the way. The plan, I mean. Just let us know how it turns out.

WBUR has a pollster who joined the meeting. He said with internet polling it’s plausible to poll for, What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? (This was the most interesting thing I learned that day.)

The citizens agenda style is my dorky name for it. You can call it whatever you want. The active ingredient is not “citizen’s agenda,” but that question, “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

The agenda is an editorial product, a synthesis. It involves art and judgment, not just data. You should be prepared to explain your thinking and take responsibility for what you included and left out.

Look, it’s agenda-setting. You will draw critics if you do this. Ask them to join and make the listening project better.

When people suspicious of your campaign coverage say in a threatening tone, “what’s your agenda?” just send them the URL.

Good design is critical to making this work. Obvious, but I’m saying it anyway. Graphic design, interaction design, task and workflow design are among the forms required. I’m sure you can think of others.

Finally, a note about 2020 for those who will be reporting on it: You cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform.


Read the series:
Part One: A call for a different kind of campaign coverage after 2016
Part Two: Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage
Part Three: Case Study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019

Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

7 Apr 2019 2:05 pm 17 Comments

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy” style remains in place. Its practitioners are confident that they can prevail. They are probably right.

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy.

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful in isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will probably see more of it.

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that is only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda machine. But it is also true that the Trump government is like a cable channel— with nukes.

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this development.

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer, which counts as progress.)

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re falling behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. We know how it works with subscription, as well. For membership, we do not yet know what that contract is.

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of that work matters.

“Hate movements” are the mobilization of resentment against a particular group of people for political purposes. When journalists are the group targeted, those of us who believe in a free press have a right to be worried, and a duty to understand.

I am going to focus on the hate movement against journalists that President Trump is leading in the U.S. But I am not saying this kind of movement originated in America. I am not claiming that it is anything “new.” Or that Trump’s methods are some kind of innovation. I’m not saying we in America have the worst case of it; we do not. I am simply describing the situation in my country because I know it best. Our purpose today is to compare.

So here are some of the features that stand out about the hate movement against journalists that our president is conducting in the United States. Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

Trump’s campaign to discredit the press comes disguised as the criticism of bias in the news media. Defenders of Trump’s attacks on journalists routinely tell me: “you brought this on yourselves.” They mean by being so biased. But what they mean by bias is not cases of unfairness or blindness that can be highlighted and corrected. They see a complete evacuation of public responsibility by journalists. From their point of view, American journalism is not reformable. It is corrupt and dangerous.

Within the frame of this movement, no distinction is made between professional journalists and political opponents. Rather, journalists are political opponents, and that is the only thing you need to know about them. It is routine within the conservative movement in the US to describe journalists as “Democratic party operatives with bylines,” or “progressive activists with press credentials.” This was common before Trump. He has weaponized it.

Hate objects need names. Before Trump, the object’s name was “the media” (or mainsteam media.) Trump has been slowly changing it to “the fake news,” but The Media is still common. That term, The Media, doesn’t refer to specific institutions like the Washington Post or the AP. It’s like saying “the banks,” or “the deep state.” The Media has no address. It is a mental construct, not an institution.

Hating on journalists the way Trump and his core supporters do is not an act of press criticism. It’s a way of doing politics, often called populism. In populism, you aggregate and mobilize for political gain people’s resentment of elites, who are described as corrupt and dangerous because they operate behind the scenes using unearned power. The leader promises to deal harshly with this despised group, and deliver justice to “the people.”

When Trump points to the reporters and camera men at his rallies, he is presenting the hate object to his fans. It doesn’t matter who the journalists are, where they work, or what their recent performance has been. Again, this is not an act of criticism. It is a potent form of symbolic politics. Like putting 20 bankers in a cage, dropping the cage into the middle of a political rally, and then pointing at the people inside. “There they are. The banks!”

The Republican Party has been practicing this form of politics since at least the time of Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964. It is not new. What’s different now is that mobilizing resentment is increasingly what holds the party together. And there’s another factor. The Republican Party increasingly takes positions that guarantee conflict with fact-checking journalists doing their job. The clearest example is climate change denialism. When that becomes an orthodox position within the party, conflict with the press is guaranteed— unless, of course, journalists retreat from truth telling and evidence-weighing into he said, she said reporting.

That dynamic — forcing conflict with a fact-checking press — was there before Trump. But he has weaponized it. Every day he makes false claims that are easily checked— thousands of them so far. Recently he announced on Twitter that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in hurricane aid from the USA. The actual figure is $11 billion and Puerto Rico is the USA. The conflict with the press is therefore structural, built into the Trump presidency. If journalists do their job, and point out the truth of the situation, what his supporters will see is The Media attacking their guy again. This enrages them. The only way to prevent this reaction is to abandon the job and just pass along whatever Trump said, even if it’s disinformation.

Previous presidents struggled with the press, of course. They sometimes thought journalists as a class were “against” them. Obama thought reporters were preoccupied with trivialities. Nixon hated the press, but he mostly kept it private. Whatever their problems with it, previous presidents also saw the press as a crucial part of American democracy, like free and fair elections, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Trump attacks all these institutions. He undermines trust in all of them. But his hate movement against the press has a special intensity and tempo. It is basic to the way he governs, even though, as many White House correspondents have pointed out, he cares deeply about his coverage in the press, calls journalists at all hours, and can be friendly and charming to them in person.

It is true that there is disgust and resentment at the press on the American left too. Some of this criticism can be quite totalizing and dismissive. The difference is that the Democratic Party has never incorporated that rage into the way it does politics.

“We’re not at war, we’re at work.” This sentence from Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, captures perfectly how journalists think about this situation. Don’t let Trump provoke you. Remain calm. Don’t play his game. What Baron’s remark does not do is address the problem I have described here. If you do your job, then you’re playing the role of hate object and participating in Trump’s political style. If you don’t want to be a hate object, sorry— then you cannot do your job. Detachment loses its meaning in this system, which incorporates journalists whether they like it or not.

Why does it matter? It matters because one third of the American electorate has been isolated in an information loop of its own. For this group, which mistrusts the mainstream press on principle, and as a matter of political identity, Trump has become the major source of information about Trump, along with Fox News, which has slowly been merging with the Trump government. An authoritarian news system is up and running, in the country that was once known for having the strongest free press protections in the world.

Yep. The Correspondent screwed up in its communications with members. Here’s how.

A decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language site in Amsterdam, has drawn criticism from supporters.

28 Mar 2019 2:20 pm 26 Comments

By request, here’s my post explaining how I view The Correspondent’s decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language operation in Amsterdam. (I am an advisor, and the Membership Puzzle Project, which I lead, is partners with The Correspondent.) You can find the background to this controversy in Mathew Ingram’s report for CJR.

First, it’s entirely understandable why people thought The Correspondent would be based in New York. At one time, that was the plan. The plan made its way into communications in a broad variety of ways. As I told Nieman Lab, “That’s not anyone’s fault but The Correspondent’s.”

Here’s how Founding Editor Rob Wijnberg put it in a letter to members that was sent today. (Bold lettering in the original.)

Members who read about this decision elsewhere have shared with me that they feel misled because they had a reasonable expectation from our crowdfunding campaign that we would open an office in the US. I am truly sorry for this. As an organization built on a commitment to transparency and trust, we recognize how serious this is. We should have communicated with you as our thinking evolved and you should have heard this from us first, rather than on Twitter or via other news outlets. We will learn from this, and do better in the future.

Now to the question of how it happened. I have some knowledge of this — and of the mistakes we made that led to today’s apology — because I was part of the campaign.

Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York. I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom. At some point in 2018 we mentally shifted from “New York, probably” to “location: undecided” but (and in retrospect this was an error…) we didn’t think to announce this to the world because in our minds we had not announced “newsroom in New York” to the world. But we were mistaken.

Instead of announcing “we have changed our default location from New York to Undecided, so please be aware…” we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself, which ran from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, 2018. We spoke about expansion to the English speaking world. In our minds, shifting the way we talked about the expansion during the campaign so that we referenced the globe and the English language, rather than New York and the US, brought our campaign communications in line with “location: undecided.”

But we know now that this was a failure of imagination, especially for a site that talked about “optimizing for trust” and working collaboratively with members.

To illustrate what I mean by “we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself” see this paragraph from the Guardian’s story, which ran the day the campaign started:

Wijnberg, a former newspaper editor in the Netherlands, and his co-founder, Ernst Pfauth, have been based in New York City for a year planning the launch, working with media experts and researchers at New York University. If the Correspondent reaches its fundraising goal, it will hire five to six full-time correspondents focussing on specific beats, Wijnberg said. Instead of a traditional office, the Correspondent’s journalists could be based around the globe – wherever their focus may be.

But for every careful reference like that, there seem to be three more — in news reports, prior messaging, or from the team itself — supporting the impression that The Correspondent would have a newsroom in the US and become part of the American press.

Some other things that were going on might make this a little more explicable. It’s in the nature of a crowdfunding campaign with a do-or-die target and a 30-day run that all sorts of questions are put off while you are working on the campaign, because only if the campaign succeeds will there be any cause to examine those questions. That’s not an excuse for what happened, but it is part of the context.

Similarly, you can try to estimate from Amsterdam what the true costs of running a newsroom in New York are, but for the founders of The Correspondent it was the experience of moving their own lives to the US, establishing a campaign office in the city, hiring people to staff it, paying for their health insurance, getting visas to work in America and a hundred other, smaller real-world discoveries that slowly, and bit-by-bit weakened the case for a New York newsroom.

It made sense then to consider other American cities (Detroit? Pittsburgh?) but did it make sense to try to decide on newsroom location before you even knew if there would be a newsroom to locate, or what the budget would be? The feeling was that it did not make sense to decide that now. Instead we would practice message discipline during the campaign itself, so that no one felt misled about an HQ decision that was very much up-in-the-air. (Not saying it happened that way. I am saying this was our thought.)

Another factor was uncertainty around who the members would turn out to be. There is no way to know that until you run the campaign. The US has the most native English speakers, so one would expect most of the members to be Americans. But we did not know how well The Correspondent’s origin story and principles would resonate around the world, or how a Dutch-born site would be received. When the campaign concluded and the numbers were analyzed they showed about 40 percent of The Correspondent’s founding members are from the US, 40 percent are Dutch, and 20 percent are from the rest of the world.

What location does that argue for? To me it makes for a tough call.

An additional factor, of course, is costs. My sense was that a member-funded newsroom needed to put as much as possible into the journalism, especially at the beginning. This was doubly true for The Correspondent, which ran a campaign based entirely on its founding principles and its success (60,000 paying members) in Dutch. As Emily Bell wrote Dec. 16, “Particularly admirable about the Correspondent’s campaign was that it raised membership without publishing a word. It asked people to buy into the idea of journalism created in a transparent, non-hierarchical way.”

Having bought into the idea, members, I felt, are going to want to see the journalistic goods as soon as possible, not the bill for rent and health insurance. So as the prospect of a New York City office gradually shifted to “location: undecided,” I began to feel good that we would have more money to spend on the journalism, even though I had no idea where The Correspondent would eventually be based. I didn’t think we were misleading members; I thought we were respecting their hard earned cash. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.

On top of that there was another decision to make. Should there even be a central newsroom, or did a distributed model make more sense? Why not base the correspondents where it made sense for them to live and work? Why not widen the talent pool by allowing for remote work? This was particularly important because the kind of correspondents we would be looking are journalists excited about the challenge of treating members as a knowledge community and routinely integrating them into the reporting in crowdsourced (or David Fahrenthold) fashion. They aren’t that easy to find. This too argued for a distributed model.

When in January 2019 the founders of De Correspondent told me that a one newsroom strategy was the leading option, with headquarters in Amsterdam and the new correspondents working remotely, I was initially taken back. I would not have come up with that idea. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, especially when it came to the talent search, and to the aspiration to one day be a global brand. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how many of our supporters had assumed there would be a US newsroom, probably in New York. Now I am.