The success of the failing New York Times

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 13, 2017, 3:02 PM | comments: 0

I saw a really excellent session yesterday at SXSW called "Covering POTUS: A Conversation with the failing New York Times." Snarky title aside, this was a conversation between Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Media Columnist Jim Rutenberg about the role of the press in democracy, the evolving business model of newspapers and the quality of journalism. It was pretty fascinating stuff, and I walked away feeling that the institutions are actually in pretty good shape, even if not everyone sees it that way.

Baquet started by talking a bit about the business of having a newspaper, which is less about the physical paper every year. It has been reported elsewhere (along with broader implications of its evolution), but the NYT has been making a slow and painful transition from an advertising driven business to a subscriber driven business. That's a pretty terrible situation to be in, because a great many people are so used to stuff online being free. But Baquet insisted that they would staff the right amount of reporters when and where it mattered. The structure of the editorial staff looks a lot different now (most notably a lack of mid-level editors), but they've turned a corner and right-sized it.

Naturally, they have to talk about Trump, and how to report on him. It's not surprisingly complicated, in their eye. You report what he does, truthfully. I was amused by the audience question about bias, because as Baquet pointed out, the paper was accused of the same harsh treatment by the Sanders and Clinton campaigns last year, more even than the Trump campaign. Indeed, using the press as a scapegoat is not the exclusive domain of the right.

Baquet seemed to be particularly proud of their investigative work, and mentioned that they've hired several "well known" investigative journalists in the last year. The Times was the paper that found the only public record of Trump's taxes, the questionable dealings of his charity, and a number of stories about his interactions with women. They went the deepest over email and Benghazi as well (without finding particularly damning stuff, because it didn't exist).

One of the things that really stuck with me was that he was asked about how journalism is defined, and despite saying he was uncomfortable being the authority on that subject, he generalized that it was the careful pursuit of truth. In that context, he named BuzzFeed News (their news division, not the link bait farm), as the real thing, but definitely not something like Breitbart, which deals only in self-serving propaganda. I don't think that goes far enough, as the pursuit of truth is the guiding principle, but there's more to it than that. Perhaps a related issue is that a lot of journalism gets buried inside of punditry, which is frankly not useful at all.

Since my degree is in journalism (double-majored in radio/TV and journalism), I've always had a love for the profession even if I never practiced it professionally. Newsworthiness and attribution is the thing that I feel news, or things being called news, get wrong much of the time, and not having the broader editorial systems of the past I think are part of the problem. But to suggest that there isn't "real" journalism going on is false. The NYT doesn't get it all right, all of the time, but the intent is correct and solid.

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