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.