Stunned By Trump, The NYT Finds Time For Some Soul-Searching
Michael Cieply, Deadline.com, Dec 10 2016
It’s been a moment for soul-searching, and to some extent repentance, at the NYT. In much-discussed remarks to his own media columnist James Rutenberg, executive editor Dean Baquet offered a mea culpa for having missed the Donald Trump surprise, though he spoke less for the paper than for journalists in general. Baquet said:
We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than we talk to, especially if you happen to be a New York-based news organization, and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.
Public editor Liz Spayd cut closer to the bone, as she marveled at an election-night flip from an 84% Clinton-to-win assessment by the paper’s elaborate data operation, to a 95% likelihood for Trump just a few hours later. She wrote:
As the NYT begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of Pindostan the paper too seldom covers. The red state Pindostan campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken NYT readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.
Having left the NYT on Jul 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign, so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the NYT’s drift from its moorings in the nation at large. For starters, it’s important to accept that the NYT has always or at least for many decades been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. For example, the LA Times, where I worked twice, was historically a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know before the first morning meeting, every day:
What are you hearing? What have you got?
It was a shock on arriving at the NYT in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line. Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the LA bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less:
My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?
The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by NYT editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting:
We set the agenda for the country in that room.
Having lived at one time or another in small-town Pennsylvania, some lower-rung Detroit suburbs, San Francisco, Oakland, Tulsa and, now, Santa Monica, I could only think, well, “Wow.” This is a very large country. I couldn’t even find a copy of the NYT on a stop in college town Durham, N.C. To believe the national agenda was being set in a conference room in a headquarters on Manhattan’s Times Square required a very special mind-set indeed. Inside the NYT building, then and now, a great deal of the conversation is about the NYT. In any institution, shop-talk is inevitable. But the navel-gazing seemed more intense at the NYT, where too many journalists spent too much time decoding the paper’s ways, and too little figuring out the world at large. For example, I listened to one long-time editor explain over lunch that everybody on the paper has an invisible rank that might or might not coincide with his or her apparent place in the hierarchy, meaning above all his own position in a slightly backwater department at the time. He told me:
You might think I’m a captain but I’m actually a colonel, because of my experiences and influence here.
Fine. But what about the rest of the universe, that great wide world we were supposed to cover as journalists? As the years went by, it seemed to become more and more distant. One marker passed in the last decade, when the WSJ made a strategic move on the NYT by strengthening its own NYC presence. The NYT, by then firmly established as a national paper, went through a spasm of NY-centric thinking, mostly aimed at keeping the local print advertising base intact. Movie stories from far-away LA became harder to land. Theater reviews and elite arts coverage from New York flooded the culture pages. In theory, the great digital transition should have made it easier for those of us in the bureaux to penetrate the NYT’s psyche. But somehow, it didn’t work that way. As quickly as the editorial staff was trimmed in years of successive buyouts and layoffs, it re-grew, largely with a new wave of digital workers, high and low. Many of them were based inside the new Eighth Avenue headquarters, and most seemed to spend much of the time talking about that perennially favorite subject the NYT, or buzzing in a digital hive on dozens of Slack channels. It took ever longer to get stories posted or published. The paper seemed to lose interest in much that was happening on the ground even in LA, New York’s palm tree-lined sister city, never mind those forgotten spots in Pennsylvania or Oklahoma. By last summer, a LA bureau that was built to house thirteen had dwindled to four or five inhabitants. Visits by upper editors were rare or non-existent. LA stories were increasingly written by visiting New York staff members or freelance writers assigned by editors back in Manhattan, especially when they were about the entertainment business. The drift was palpable, presumably not just here but in that heavily populated heartland. Finally, Spayd said:
The NYT lost touch with the lives and the values of the people who just elected the next president.