Posts about nytimes

The tchotchkefication of The Times

I won’t mince words: I hate the new and expanded news summary The New York Times introduced today on pages 2 and 3. It’s inefficient, wasteful, and ultimately insulting.

It’s not hard to see where this comes from. I’ve sat in no end of whither-newspaper meetings in companies and conferences in which the alleged shortened attention span of the American public is lamented. This is the most common cure. I’m sure the updated rationale includes blaming the internet: People read short things on the screen so they must want it in print.

But this is nothing new. In 1976, I was assigned — kicking and screaming — to be one of two editors to create the same news summary on the back page of the first section of the Chicago Tribune. Daily Briefing, it was called. Editors have tried putting them on the front page, on page 2, on the back page, everywhere. Never works. The Tribune’s feature died (after I quit in frustration and went to the San Francisco Examiner).

The problem with The Times’ latest effort is first that it’s inefficient and inappropriate to the form. They forget one of the still-great advantages of the interface of the paper: As I browse, I see every story and I get to decide then and there how deep to dive in: the headline or caption may tell me enough, the lede may, the first five grafs may. The beauty is that it’s all right there. If instead, I see a story of interest on The Times’ new page 2, I have to go shuffling through the paper to find it and keep reading.

The second problem, I think, is that it’s wasteful. As newspapers lose space and staff, I think they should be using both precious aassets to go deeper, not shallower.

Third, I do not think it’s true that our attention spans have shorted. Our choices have increased. And that means that our selectivity is greater. So we may give shorter attention to the stories newspapers fed us when they controlled our media choice. Now they don’t and we read what we want to. Indeed, we can dig deeper into a topic of interest and follow it longer. In that sense, our attention spans are longer when and where it matters to us.

While I don’t like The Times’ summary, I do like its new page 1 promos — reefers, we call them in the biz — because they use the unique value of a front page to give us more of a sense of what’s inside and what to look for; they are like links.

The other big change is a big promo box for NYTimes.com on page 4. I’ll also quibble with that, for it ghettoizes digital (as do most such boxes in newspapers and magazines everywhere). The Times has already been doing a better job of merging the two by printing meaty chunks of the Bits, Caucus, and other blogs, bringing a new journalistic voice into the paper. I say do more of that and less tchotchkefication of The Times.

Playing the race ace

The New York Times op-ed page has now crossed the line I was hoping would not be crossed in a piece by Orlando Patterson that makes criticizing Barack Obama or questioning his qualifications — both the essence of campaign debate — tantamount to racism. We have crossed into a land where political discussion is politically incorrect. He says:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

Oh, for God’s sakes, the images could also remind me of Peter Pan and children being protected from the youthful scamp by the shaggy dog.

Oh, and what would solve this problem in Patterson’s view? Not casting a blonde child. Being blonde is a problem.

He concludes:

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Yes, and as I read this sorry piece again and again and saw its clear intention of painting Hillary Clinton as a racist, I could not help but think that it is a sad day when a Harvard professor and the New York Times sink to playing the race card in this election, turning political debate into victimization.

In this, the age of offense, let me say, I’m offended.

A challenge from the Times

In a comment under my post about restructuring the Times Company below, someone calling him or herself Timesman says that indeed Bill Keller of the Times does want to work collaboratively with his readers, the question is how:

But what, specifically, should journalists at the Times ask its users to do? Let’s hear some very concrete next steps. We’re listening.

OK, friends, let’s take up that challenge. I’ll start the bidding. Please add your ideas of how the Times and its public can work together to perform concrete acts of journalism. (And spare us the kneejerk Times-bashing; those sentiments are stipulated.) Some suggestions:

* Put large amounts of data or documents online and ask the public to help find the stories there. The Dallas Morning News did this with the just-released JFK documents. The Ft. Myers News Press did it with a FOIA on a botched hurricane-relief effort. The Sunlight Foundation has us exposing earmarks in spending bills. Someone, I can’t recall who, did it with Alberto Gonzales’ testimony before Congress. Use your access to get such data and then ask us to help dig into it because we know what’s going on or simply because you want the help. I’d start with Congress and get help from Sunlight and bloggers to strategize that.

* Ask the public to help gather data points around a story. The quickly classical example of this was Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show asking listeners to find out the prices of milk, lettuce, and beer to find out who is being gouged where (which then enables the journalists to ask why — put their price maps against maps of income and race in New York and stories emerge). This should work particularly well on a local level: Ask people to tell you the price they pay for drugs and doctors and map that. Ask them to tell you just how late or dirty their trains are. And on and on. If you get enough data, you can pay attention to the center of the bell curve; the outliers are either mistakes are damned good stories.

* Get the public to help file no end of FOIAs to birddog government. Create a FOIA repository where you can help train them how to do it and record the responses (that bit’s a great idea from Tom Loosemore in the UK) and collect what’s learned.

* One of the great ideas that came out of my entrepreneurial journalism class — inspired by an idea from an intern I worked with at Burda last summer — is to have the public help assign reporters. Now that could get unwieldy quickly. But my CUNY student, Danny Massey, came up with a very smart structure for capturing what the public wants to know so news organizations can allocate at least some of their resource accordingly. I’ll introduce you.

* Establish communities of experts to help on stories, their reporting and checking and even their assignment. This could take the form of Jay Rosen’s beat-blogging idea or of the Ft. Myers panel of experts. Of course, every reporter has such panels in their Rolodexes. But Ft. Myers has learned that people want to be of service before the reporter happens to call. The Times’ crowd is very wise and filled with experts and so why not use the networking and linking power of the internet to help harness that to help with reporting? Imagine a social network around expertise.

* Hand out camera and recorders and ask citizens to capture meetings, lectures, events of all sorts and turn those into podcasts. Most of the time most of them will not get much audience, but the resource that went into each one is minor and the opportunity to spread a wider blanket of coverage on a community is great.

* Get the advertising side involved in supporting curated, quality blog networks: New York, political, business, and so on. The Washington Post has networks for travel and other topics, the Guardian for environment, Reuters for financial blogs. The Times could support the very best of these blogs and benefit from having a wider net of content and reporting at a low cost and risk. And this is the part they’ll like: They can set the definitions of quality. The Times also has an in-house advantage here because About.com knows how to manage and pay large, distributed networks of contributors based on ad and traffic performance.

These ideas work for most any news organization. As I’ll point out in a post I’m writing now: collaboration to create real value is the next generation of interactivity.

To get started, I’d hire a collaboration editor charged with getting such projects going all around the newsroom. But I’d make sure that job gets phased out as journalists collaborate on their own self-interested initiative.

So what other ideas do you have for how the Times — or any news organization — could work together to create journalism?

The Times better change

The other day, when I noted that the hedge fund breathing down the necks of the NY Times Company board and management had acquired as much stock as the Sulzberger family, I said that strategic change in the company is inevitable and I asked you what you’d do with the business. Here are some of my answers:

* I fear it’s too late to sell the Boston Globe (which just announced more buyouts). Bet they’re kicking themselves now. Jack Welch was interested in taking it off their hands in 2006, when it was valued at $500-600 million — down from the $1.1 billion the Times Company paid for it in 1993; the Times just wrote-down the value of the Globe and a sister company by more than $800 million. Whoopsie daisy. I doubt they can sell the thing today.

So I would make the most radical restructuring of a newspaper anywhere in the world and use that as a laboratory for the Times itself and for other newspapers (see how new Tribune Company boss Sam Zell is using his smaller papers as “petri dishes“). I’d follow Dave Morgan’s advice and cut the newspaper company into four: production, distribution, advertising, and content. I’d sell the first two (getting rid of huge amounts of staff and shutdown obligation) and free up the advertising company to sell any local media, starting with a collaborative, distributed hyperlocal network the Globe must start to complete with the local papers that ring the city and strangle the Globe (papers the previous owners should have bought but didn’t). This sales effort has to work in radically different ways, setting up high-volume automated systems that members of the network itself can sell into. The old structure of well-lunched sales people who didn’t really sell but just handled lists of inherited clients won’t work anymore; Google is about to eat their lunch locally.

The content arm, meanwhile, needs to get rid of anything that does not focus on local news. More radical, it needs to start to aggressively drive readers from print to online, leapfrogging to the future that publishers dread, past paper. The Globe should become a testbed for reverse syndication, handing readers over to the Times for national and international coverage and perhaps also for national business and sports and even entertainment (and getting a revenue share for the new traffic the Globe sends Times’ way). The paper should take a hard look at whether to make sports a separate product and whether that should be in print or digital (a decision driven in great measure by ad sales). The print product should be ruthlessly local and anything else in it should be well-supported by advertising. Such a denuded but focused product may need to be free.

The Globe should then define itself first and foremost as a digital company and, more important, as a community company, a relationship network. It should become a platform for local news, information, and action and for new local sites and companies. That’s what comes after being a content company. This means that the staff must change radically as roles evolve from producing content to organizing, enabling, and educating collaborative and distributed networks.

The Globe that emerges should be of a radically different size but I fully believe that if the Times Company showed the balls to be the first to completely and radically reinvent a newspaper, its value would increase.

* As for the New York Times itself, I’d cut bait and turn it into a national newspaper — international in their dreams. The Times is not now and has not been for sometime a New York paper. So I’d either spin off or kill metro coverage. It could become a new local online collaborative journalistic network in the mold of the new Globe. Or it could die and I firmly believe a new and more nimble local network can emerge and take up the slack left. With that spinoff goes the Times production and distribution arms, in the Morgan model.

The New York Times itself should focus on what it does best and wants most to do: national and international coverage for a national audience. Either the Times will succeed at being the premiere American national news brand or . . . well, there is no “or.” That is the Times’ only choice; it is the box into which it has boxed itself.

What form does that take? It clearly should be more online than print — soon or immediatley exclusively online. It must focus on great reporting. It should be open to all media. It should become the host of opinion and discussion about all issues — which will be tough for them. The Times will have hearty competition from both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal but it should bravely leap ahead and recognize that Dow Jones management is scared of change (thus their mewling and successful efforts to convince Rupert Murdoch not to take down the pay wall . . . for now). It will also have competition from international news brands coming to America: the Guardian, the BBC, and possibly others.

I think the Times should explore the reverse syndication model I propose above and have the ambition to be the source of national and international reporting for every metro and local news site in America. If those sites send them enough traffic that generates enough revenue, the Times could expand its news coverage. By sharing revenue with those sites, it would beat the other competition in the old syndication business: wire services. But they’d better watch out: Reuters could be right behind them.

The Times should create and sell quality collaborative networks and expand the brand around its value: reporting. It should invest heavily in digital innovation and learn well from work that is going on elsewhere, especially London. And it has to become the product of collaboration with networks and independent professionals and its audience. I agree with Fred Wilson here: “I’d make the NY Times all about their audience. Let the people who read the paper have a much larger role in the content that gets published, both online and offline. The best thing about the NY Times is their readers. The only way they can fix their problems is by leveraging them as the other half of their newsroom.”

* Some — including the hedge fund pressuring the company — would sell About.com but I’d hold onto it. (Disclosure: I consulted there for about a year and a half.) About is the one bright-spot in the Times P&L. It has brought understanding of online, SEO, and new means of content creation into the company and had an influence on the paper. It is, for now, the company’s only real digital asset. The reason to sell it, I think, would be to recognize profits and to set up the company’s balance sheet to go private if it chooses. But I think that’d be a strategic cop-out.

* I agree with Fred Wilson that I’d sell other assets. They are a distraction and management has enough on its hands. This includes the Herald-Tribune, which I’d probably fold into the Times operation and brand.

* Yes, and I’d sell the building.

At the end, the company can concentrate on rebuilding and extending its core asset, the Times’ reputation, and build a new relationship with its public.

The Times will change

So now the hedge funds pushing New York Times Company management own about as much as the Sulzberger family. I don’t know whether they’ll win their effort to elect directors to the board, but I do think this has reached a critical mass and that the family and management will be forced to make strategic changes. So I’m curious: what would you change? The hedge funds are urging the company to divest some assets and concentrate on the Times, investing in digital. What do you suggest? (And please refrain from the obvious Times-bashing. There’s plenty of opportunity for that in the post below about the McCain scandal. This is about the business of news and media.)

What is the Times thinking?

The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I’m not sure whether he’s isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.

I was gobsmacked reading the story when it came out. I didn’t blog on it because Jay Rosen did a great job succinctly dissecting its issues and implications and so I linked to him.

But I was even more astounded reading later that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is surprised at the reaction to the story. In the paper’s effort to respond to its many, many critics, Keller says they “expected the reaction to be intense” and he tries to dismiss and discredit that reaction as “a time-honored tactic for dealing with potentially damaging news stories” rather as than righteous denial. But then he goes on:

Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing….

How could he possibly be surprised at the reaction to the Times all but accusing John McCain of having an affair with a lobbyist? How could he credibly be amazed at the reaction to the Times doing this without evidence except for the views of anonymous and admittedly disgruntled former aides saying they were convinced — convinced is the word the Times used — of an affair without them giving evidence? Can the editor of the Times possibly be this blind to the implications of what the paper did?

But Keller tries to tell us that we’re concentrating on the wrong thing here, that we don’t see what the real story is. He says it’s a narrative about McCain’s life. Keller’s deputy, Jill Abramson, also lectures us about missing their point:

Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship. It was about a senator who had been embroiled in scandal, then rebuilt his career as a reformer and concern among his aides that his relationship with Ms. Iseman was putting that career at risk.

Do they have no news judgment? The lede in this story was obvious to everyone but the Times:

Paper of record hints that Republican presidential candidate has affair with lobbyist with no evidence other than statements attributed to anonymous sources, who the papers admits are disgruntled former associates of the candidate.

That is the lede. That is the story. That the editors of the Times don’t see that is incredible — that is to say, not credible. They can’t be that clueless, can they? They can’t be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story — the sort of thing these high-fallutin’ journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids — is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can’t thing we’re that dumb. Surely, they’re not that dumb.

That’s what throws me about this story. I can’t figure out what these Timesmen are thinking.

In any case, there can be no doubt that the Times doesn’t just cover the story, it is part of the story. Its coverage of not only McCain but also of Clinton (whom the editorial page and publisher may have endorsed but whom the newsroom clearly can’t abide) is material to the story itself. So we deserve to know more about how the Times is covering the campaign. We need to know what they’re thinking.

: LATER: In Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s appraisal of the metascandal, Keller once again tries to tell us what the story is when what he really has done is tell us what the story isn’t. Keller:

If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members. But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.

Hoyt:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap….

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

The real elephant in the room: This was bad journalism.

: LATER: JigSaw sees some silver in the cloud over the Times (I’m rush, so please follow the link for more links):

I think some the impact of the Siegal Reports can be clearly seen here.

* When, in the history of the NYT, has it been held publicly accountable by thousands of readers using its own publishing tool (web site)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, has its editors and journalists engaged their readers in near-real-time two-way conversation?

* When, in the history of the NYT, could any interested reader engage its editors and journalists authoritatively using the NYT’s own publicly available Reader’s Guide, Confidential News Sources Policy, internal memos (Assuring Our Credibility) and accounts of their internal debates (More Flexibility and Reality in Explaining Anonymity)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, was there a NYT insider who would publicly tell its readers that the Executive Editor got it wrong?

The NYT should be embarrassed by the McCain story, but take pride in their public engagement.

Times whispers

Damned good post from Jay Rosen about the Times’ odd effort to imply and not report a McCain affair.

What does the Times have against Hillary?

I was amazed that on today’s New York Times front page, I couldn’t find a mention of Hillary Clinton’s victory in Florida — not even a reefer (jargon for a promo box), not a by-the-way paragraph inserted into the Republican story, not a news peg added into a story about 527 groups advertising on behalf of Obama (a positive story for him, nonetheless, since they say he’s working hard to repudiate them while they say Clinton is not). It’s the same story online: other than a line in the chart of results, there’s a mention of Clinton’s win only below the fold (that is, the first screen), in smaller type, under the label “more politics.”

I went to the Times Square newstand to look at the Washington Post. Clinton’s victory is right at the top of the page aside McCain’s. I would call that proper news judgment.

Yes, it’s true that Clinton officially won no delegates because the Democratic Party is punishing Florida. But that, itself, is a story: There’s a huge turnout in Florida for votes that supposedly don’t count. Where’s the outrage about disenfranchising these voters; it’s an undemocratic, unDemocratic, unconstitutional, and — considering Florida’s importance in November — just plain politically dumb move by the party. But the Times relegated the story to the bottom of page A16.

If I were a communications student, I’d be doing an analysis of the Times’ coverage of Clinton. There is a pattern here.

(Disclosure: I’ve said before and will repeat that I’m planning to vote for Clinton on SuperTuesday.)