Next time you wonder why New York Times people get so defensive, read this.

It may help explain.

21 Oct 2018 9:53 pm 27 Comments

The readers of the New York Times have more power now. 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.

When I say the readers have more power I mean the core readership, the loyalists, the people for whom the Times is not just an information source, but a necessary part of life. The subscribers. That’s about 4 million people out of a monthly readership of more than 130 million. More than 60 percent of total revenue comes from them.

One of the joys of having a subscription to the Times is threatening to cancel it. Which is simply to say that a Times loyalist is also a critic. It has always been that way — the Times gets a lot of criticism — but now the situation is growing more tense and anxious.

Recently the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, said something that I believe touched on this anxiety.

We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’

By “baited” he clearly meant the taunts of people like Steve Bannon and President Trump. By “applauded” he meant, I think, the pressure coming from Times loyalists. For the most part these are people appalled by Trump who want to see him further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lies. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic — and to act accordingly.

But these people are perceived as a threat by the Times newsroom. The fear is that they want to turn the Times into an opposition newspaper. This is not how the Times sees itself. The fear is that they want the Times to help save American democracy. This too is not how the Times sees itself.

Remember when the Washington Post came out with its new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness?” It put Post journalism on the side of keeping democracy alive. Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, made fun of it. “Sounds like the next Batman movie,” he said, while being careful to express admiration for the Post and its editor, Marty Baron.

The Times debuted a new marketing program around the same time, but the message was different. It went something like this: People on all sides are shouting at each other, full of zeal and certainty. Amid the claims and counter-claims of a polarized nation the truth is hard to find, hard to know. But the truth is more important than ever, and that is why you need the New York Times. Not for its defense of democracy, but for its careful distance from the cacophony, in which Times loyalists are themselves participants. Watch this and you will see what I mean:

Let’s bring these strands together. Times journalists are aware that they are more dependent than ever on their core readers. They also feel incredibly lucky to be working at the New York Times. Mostly they are institutionalists, whose worst fear is screwing something up that would injure the Times, which they love and respect. They are further aware that their most loyal readers want a more confrontational approach taken toward the Trump movement and government. And they know that enemies of the Times, including the movement that brought Trump to power, want to see it fail and lose face, lose influence, lose power.

Navigating these tensions and sensing what needs to be done— that is the job of leadership. How do you recognize the rising power of core readers and still maintain a healthy independence from them? How do you fight against a political movement that wants to destroy the Times without politicizing the product? How do you oppose Trump’s attempt to discredit the Times and the press as a whole without becoming “the opposition?”

Well, you don’t do it by eliminating the public editor. You don’t do it with a flippant, “sounds like the next Batman movie” when a rival is trying to stake out territory as democracy’s defender. You don’t do it by worrying about whether a hostile White House perceives the Times arts writers as unfriendly voices on social media, as Dean Baquet said he does. For as I wrote then, “if the perception of critics can edit the actions of his staff then he has surrendered power to enemies of the Times, who will always perceive bias because it is basic to their interests to do so.”

The rising power of Times readers has, I believe, unsettled Times journalists. They are both grateful and suspicious. They want the support, they also want to declare independence from their strongest supporters. (And they do not want to open the box that is marked Coverage of Hillary Clinton, 2016.) They are tempted to look right and see one kind of danger, then look left to spot another, equal and opposite. They want to push off from both sides to clear a space from which truth can be told. That would make things simpler, but of course things are not that simple. The threat to truthtelling — to journalism, democracy, the Times itself — is not symmetrical. They know this. But the temptation lives.

These are matters of institutional psychology, which I observe from the outside. I am sharing my impressions as a close reader, a subscriber for 30+ years, a loyal critic myself, and a watcher of Times journalists. In any relationship, a shift in power alters the dynamic between the parties. 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.

27 Comments

It is concerning when the NYT indulges in bothsiderism, to the point of farce. It makes it hard to believe that the journalists are really wanting to tell the truth, or wanting to appease the VSP and the powerful. This isn’t Edgar Morrow style reporting, it’s (won’t name names) editorializing.

Edgar Morrow is probably falling over in his grove.

EDWARD R. Murrow worked for CBS News.
EDWIN Newman worked for NBC News.
EDGAR Buchanan was on “Petticoat Junction.”
No one is moving in their graves.

Mark J. McPherson says:

I will miss Krugman. I will not miss the rest and will feel better about myself by not contributing to Freidman, Brooks, Douthat, Haberman, Stephans. . . . Nor will I recall fondly the NYT’s relentless dogging of the Clintons throughout the 90’s, their craven collapse into embedded cheerleaders for the Iraq war, their endless critiquing of Democratic prospects, their endless, fawning fascination with Trump, MAGA, alt-right, red staters. . . . . I will move on and be less sickened and more clear-headed when I don’t have to feel a party to the NYT’s pathetic preening, siddling and groveling before those that detest them and do so more each time they try and prove themselves willing and able a d pining to be useful in the guise of “fairness”.

Those who make it their business to hate the NYT from the right will always do so, no matter how many Brets and Baris it chooses to befoul its Op-Ed pages. So they might as well ditch the magisterial, passive-omniscient stance that marks their political coverage and stick with facts. First step: ban the phrase “seen as” from the style book.

Michael Michaels says:

Much less their “groves”.

Alejandro says:

Vote with your dollars. In contrast to your election votes, for which there are manifold ways to render them moot, every single dollar gets counted. Meet your customers’ needs, or fail. I’m not interested at all in their sense of entitlement.

I’m even over missing the daily crossword fix.

What I don’t get is why journalists at the Times view subscribers with such suspicion. Is it some sort of reflex that developed back when advertisers were more important to the bottom line? “We can’t let ourselves be dictated to by the folks that pay the bills.”

It’s just so weird to me to have that attitude towards the folks that read your stuff and even pay to do so. Whose opinion do you care about if not these people? (That’s not a rhetorical question.)

this is weirdly empathetic jay where empathy has not been earned. the times is about something VERY different that you deign to discuss here: it’s about institutional power, but NOT the times’ institution. it’s about power itself. the very idea of “access journalism” is to be close to be power, and to be close to it is to accede to it. I.F. Stone could have (and did!) write the same critique of the Times that i’m writing now 50 years ago. what they care about is keeping power in power, with checks and balances that aren’t about right or wrong but are about norms and what’s correct to do in polite society. this is a paper whose last two major hires for the op-ed page are bret stephens, there for the insanity of the WSJ op-ed, normalizing far right madness, and bari weiss, there for israel, normalizing a pathological hatred of anything that is defined by polite society as “bad for israel.”

as always, when people do things to define themselves, i choose to believe them. and they are DOING really loud.

The Times chose to hire a stable of columnists from the right wing and “center” (i.e., the polite right-wing). ( At its only real competitor, The Washington Post, the most left-leaning columnist is Radley Balko, a libertarian. Both papers fired their more mainstream-left columnists and never replaced them.)

Maybe the real unease of Times journalists comes from the fact that they don’t dare to acknowledge that their bosses screwed them by making their paper so blatantly right-leaning in the most liberal markets in America.

Conservatives work the ref against journalists. Journalists work the ref against liberals. The Times’ attitude toward its supporters is part of that pattern. NPR behaves very similarly.

Andrew Prutsok says:

Are white supremacists stills sauteeing garlic like normal people? It’s time for an update.

John Harrold says:

In many ways I think I’m what the times would want. I subscribe to the Washington Post, I make monthly contributions to ProPublica, and I subscribe to my local paper. But after the 2016 election, I refuse to even read the times. This bothsiderism does nothing to discourage the extremism on the right and it will eventually force the left to behave in kind. I think the Times can do journalism really well, but if they don’t pay some price for the false balance they will never change.

The NYTs admitted to holding back negative stories on Trump.
I personally believe if David Carr was alive, he would attack the Times with gusto, simply for being so duplitiously political. For me the Times sank in the mud. It is no longer “the paper of record.” It is just another flawed, political entity.

There are reporters I admire at the Times. But I won’t subscribe again, unless and until management stops holding back on negative stories about the traitorous grifter in the White House, (who, it turns out, is just another rich kid who blew through his Daddy’s money – and then failed in every business) why would *anyone* subscribe to a publication that simply refuses to print negative articles.

Which reminds me of the Times problem with Misogyny. Something Hillary Clinton was keenly aware.

Tim Schreier says:

Ha! Best comment in this word salad.

Bonnie Russell says:

Thank you! Wish I would have said it as well as you just did.

Jake Jackson says:

I chuckle at the comments from leftists who think the NYT is somehow a right-wing publication. Au contraire! They have become a leisure-time service of the Democratic National Committee, and as a result I quit them. If anyone there imagines that the NYT is somehow neutral or aspiring to objectivity, I want to know where they’ve been buying their mushrooms.

By the way, I was a D for 40 solid years. The NYT helped steer me away, to my current resolutely independent stance. What was once a really good newspaper has become a propaganda outlet. Facts are misstated, and derogatory terms (“climate denialist” is a favorite) are used in “news” stories.

The only major old-school newspaper left is the Wall Street Journal, in the sense of keeping news and opinion separate. And the regional metro papers? They are shadows of their former selves, headed for extinction within the next decade or so.

Joe Halloran says:

“In so many ways since the election, the Times has risen to the occasion and excelled.” Yeah, and in key tactical moments, before and since, it has failed miserably to tell the unvarnished truth. Too often it has played tabloid with the truth. Emails, Russian interference, Clinton Foundation, Trump corruption – I don’t need it to be Opposition, just Honest. Which too much of the time it has not been. And for too long.

christy brown says:

What the Times does not get is that every newspaper and journalist is a member of the opposition to those in power and the Times is now not doing that job by trying to be the balance scale between the political opposition and the white house. Forget about the political opposition and be the press opposition.

smintheus says:

But in this case, both sides are equally part of the problem. The NYT news pages and the NYT editorial pages are both suspect. I’ll think about reading the NYT again when they apologize for their dishonest coverage of Trump and Clinton in 2016, not before. The Times’ news *and* editorial pages told us that Clinton’s email server was evidence of deep corruption, whereas Trump’s pussyfooting with Russia was not. That’s some kind of modern standard for journalistic malpractice.

Henry Hughes says:

This puts much too fine a point on the matter of the NYT’s actions in the Trump era. The Times is ably facilitating the move to fascism. Which, after all, is one of the functions of the Fourth Estate: to render normative whatever form elite power is taking. And here we are.

I cancelled my NYT subscription not too long after Trump’s inauguration, when it became clear the newspaper would refuse to name what had happened, and would never lead the majority to resist it. Just as it did in the 1930s.

Elizabeth says:

Mr. Rosen fails to mention the elephant in the newsroom—The fact that the NYT published, one week before the 2016 election, the most misleading article in American political history with this headline: INVESTIGATING DONALD TRUMP, FBI SEES NO CLEAR LINK TO RUSSIA.

Rachel Maddow described this piece as “that incredibly consequential misleading article which may have helped sway the election because of what turned out to be a pretty wildly inaccurate implication and headline about a presidential candidate.” She double downed on her criticism of the paper earlier this month after the New Yorker published a story which affirmed that the NYT reporter & his editors knew for certain that the FBI was indeed investigating Trump’s ties to Russia.

The fact is that the NYT has been on the wrong side of the two most catastrophic events in recent history—the invasion of Iraq & the election of Donald Trump, both of which they aided and abetted, is more than enough reason for readers to fuss and fume for all eternity.

Elizabeth says:

Correction to my previous post: doubled down. (Haven’t had my coffee yet.)

Mark Caldwell says:

Though this thread seems to be petering out, I’d like to add to Jay’s piece what I see as an equally serious Times issue that exacerbates the weaknesses he lists: bad to non-existent editing, at every level from Copy to Top. Constant misused words, often in important contexts. At least one non-sentence in every piece. Pieces as a whole wildly disorganized, with ledes constantly buried, following graf after graf of irrelevant material, often the reporter’s personal take. Failure to distinguish between fact and opinion (at this point the whole paper might as well be ragged right). This is what happens when you lay off editorial staff.

I've probably asked this before says:

Looking back, at what times in U.S. history has our government’s leadership tried to whip up a war against the press, and what light do they shed on the situation of today?

It seems the comment section here is a great example of why the Times is trying to avoid its most dedicated crowd. Journalism is not reporting whatever their largest and most active user base is. Journalism isn’t like a tech company. It exists to share truth, reveal inadequacies in higher government, and share the news in order to celebrate our successes. That also means that awful people are going to occasionally do things right, and amazing people are going to slip and make a mistake occasionally. When a publisher like this leans into its main advertising base, it risks not or falsely reporting on actions that could alienate its dedicated user base. I’m highly appreciate of what the Times is trying to do. So much so that I’ve been meaning to renew my subscription, and that day is today!

Journalists are like doctors, but journalist’s mistakes we can see only after some time…

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