It’s been a moment for soul-searching, and to some extent repentance, at the New York Times. 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. “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,” Baquet said.
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.
“As The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers,” wrote Spayd.
She continued: “The red state America 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 Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.”
Having left the Times on July 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 Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.
For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times 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. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times 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 Los Angeles 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 Times 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 Times 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 Times building, then and now, a great deal of the conversation is about the Times. In any institution, shop-talk is inevitable. But the navel-gazing seemed more intense at the Times, where too many journalists spent too much time decoding the paper’s ways, and too little figuring out the world at large. I listened to one longtime editor explain over lunch, for instance, that everybody on the paper has an invisible rank that might or might not coincide with his or her apparent place in the hierarchy. “You might think I’m a captain,” he said, based on his position at the time in a slightly backwater department. But, he continued, “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 Wall Street Journal made a strategic move on the Times by strengthening its own New York City presence. The Times, by then firmly established as a national paper, went through a spasm of New York-centric thinking, mostly aimed at keeping the local print advertising base intact. Movie stories from far-away Los Angeles 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 bureaus to penetrate the Times’ 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 Ave. headquarters; and most seemed to spend much of the time talking about that perennially favorite subject, the New York Times, or buzzing in a digital hive on dozens of Slack channels. It took ever longer to get stories posted or published. More, the paper seemed to lose interest in much that was happening on the ground even in Los Angeles — New York’s palm tree-lined sister city — never mind those half-forgotten spots in Pennsylvania or Oklahoma.
By last summer, a Los Angeles bureau that was built to house 13 had dwindled to four or five inhabitants. Visits by upper editors were rare or nonexistent. Los Angeles stories, especially about the entertainment business, were increasingly written by visiting New York staff members or freelance writers assigned by editors back in Manhattan. The drift was palpable — presumably not just here, but in that heavily populated heartland. And finally, as Spayd said, the paper seemed to lose touch with “the lives and the values of the people who just elected the next president.”