Posts about nytimes

Tearing down the news-opinion divide

Nick Denton — who’s doing his best to destroy all journalism, of course — goes after the most sacred of cows (at his most profane website) arguing that it is time to for The New York Times abandon the false divide between news and opinion.

What’s really happening at The Times, in my view, is that its blogs have been a Trojan horse for the invasion of voice and opinion into the news columns. I say it’s a most welcome shot of blood into those old, gray veins. Nick gives plenty of examples, starting with:

When Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo fell through, hotshot reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin produced a scathing analysis of the deal-making skills of the Redmond software giant’s boss, Steve Ballmer. ‘Microsoft has tried to spin its reversal as a show of “discipline” and “self-control.” But what it really shows — painfully — is Mr. Ballmer’s indecisiveness about this deal.’ Ouch! And fun! But you won’t find Bill Keller and his fellow editors boasting about Sorkin’s punchiness: because they’re still in denial about the blurring of news and opinion, and so much else.

I’ve also valued finally getting Saul Hansell’s opinions (call it analysis, then) in the Bits blog. And I like hearing the voices of the other writers in the other blogs. This, as Nick points out, is one way for newspapers to battle the commodification of news: “An intelligent or provocative slant is one way that a newspaper can differentiate its story from the thousand other rehashes of the same information. British hyper-competitive newspapers have made an art of such spin; as America’s media becomes more competitive, outlets are following Fleet Street’s example.”

So opinion crosses a media divide: How can you write a blog without a human voice? And once you import stuff from that blog, even a Times blog, into print, you’ve brought in a human voice — that is, one with a stated perspective — into a publication that has prided itself on having no perspective. Heh.

There’s another divide to consider here, an organizational divide. Don’t forget that at The Times and many American newspapers, there’s a wall between business and editorial and another wall between the newsroom and the editorial page. The silly conceit of this is that opinion can be relegated to and imprisoned in the walls and pages of an editorial department: They own opinion and nobody else is allowed to have any — and that is the inoculation that has, historically, preserved the news department’s own conceit that it is objective: See, we don’t do opinion, those people over there do.

So one has to ask what the difference is between Andrew Sorkin and Paul Krugman except that Sorkin is paid to spend more of his time reporting with more sources. So — no offense to Krugman; I just picked the most convenient beat — but what whose opinion/perspective/viewpoint is more useful? If we take the argument that newspapers make against blogs — they just have opinions; they don’t report — that would give the contest to Sorkin, now that he is allowed to have opinions. So what’s the point of having opinion-page columnists? Why not just have reporters who can also share their perspective?

There’s another opinion divide to consider: inside v. outside. What about those bloggers? As newspapers get relationships with them — The Times has taken Freakonomics under its wing and the Washington Post today announced it is syndicating TechCrunch onto its side (as it syndicates my PrezVid) — one need wonder about their opinions. They have them. Michael Arrington certainly has them — including opinions about mainstream newspapers, we should remember. So how does that fit with the news-opinion divide? I was surprised to learn recently that Freakonomics is under The Times’ Opinion section. Why? The Post put TechCrunch stories on its technology news page. What’s the difference: prissiness, as Nick says, or turf battles? (And by the way, in all these cases, I think a network relationship is smarter than a syndicated relationship — but that’s the subject of another post another day.)

Nick concludes:

You know what? Screw the news-opinion divide. When the Times was still pure, reporters would simply trot out some tame expert to give the story the slant they planned; it’s less convoluted–and wordy–for writers like Sorkin and Stanley simply to express their own views. Readers can get raw information from wire services and press releases; the only value the Times can add is time-saving summarization–and attitude.

The Times is the closet-case of newspapers. Everybody knows that the political bent is liberal; that the newspaper’s reporters have opinions; and that they’re hungry for a juicy story, even if the rush to publish can introduce mistakes. None of these are crimes; they only become embarrassments because of the paper’s official position. Bill Keller needs simply to come to terms with the nature of modern newspapers. He and his colleagues will feel so much lighter if they do.

Of course, I agree. But I think The Times will be the last to admit it’s human. So if I were the editor of another paper in the U.S., I’d take down the divide and say that we’re all about our perspective with facts; that’s our value. The check on us is you and your opinions out there in the public, now that they can be heard (if the paper will listen).

Rupert’s pincer movement around a trapped Times

I doubt that Rupert Murdoch is quite monomaniacal in an effort to destroy the New York Times — since he’s just too smart a businessman to get too carried away; money is his check and balance — but if you were sitting on 43rd Street Eighth Avenue, you’d be forgiven for feeling paranoid and sweaty right now. As CJR points out today, Murdoch is tightening his strategic grip on the shape of the future of the Wall Street Journal with the imminent reported departure of Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli (damn, just when I learned to pronounce his name). And there are reports that Murdoch’s about to snag Newsday for $580 million. Add the New York Post, of course, and Fox News — not to mention the Times of London — and you have the New York Times cornered. Murdoch can attack from above — national and international — and below — local — and the the right flank — ideological — and the future — TV and digital.

But I think what really has the Times cornered is its tradition, its sense of history and preservation. Is the Times willing to reinvent itself? That’s what’s really necessary. But I fear they will treat their past as sacred and put preservation over reinvention. I don’t say that dismissively; they certainly do believe they are preserving the finest tradition of journalism in America and that’s a laudable goal. But preservation is not a strategy for the future. I’ve had my suggestions for the company but let’s reexamine the Times’ options as it faces Rupert to the right of them, Rupert to the front of them.

They could finally decide to be America’s liberal voice. But they won’t. My friends (and employers) at the Guardian stand in a better position to grab that title since they are unafraid to be liberal (hell, they trumpet it: “The world’s leading liberal voice,” that’s their mission).

They could decide to become the great American marketplace of opinion, except HuffingtonPost and the Guardian each have a robust headstart on them.

I don’t think there’s a future in local for them (no, not even the blessed hyperlocal). They will be loathe to cede New York to the competitors but their audience here is tiny. I still think that metro should become a separate business.

The battlegrounds will be national and digital. There the Times is strong, thanks to the good work of NY Times Digital; they are a leader. But online, it’s easy to supersede leaders (see: AOL, Yahoo, MSN, MSNBC, MySpace, Friendster….). This is why I think the Times has to decide on radical reinvention, a new architecture. You can guess my starting points: a networked structure, a distributed strategy, a community plan. I’m not sure where I’d start but I do think they are all the more vulnerable today. I wonder how much they know that. And I wonder what you would do in their sweaty shoes.

: LATER: Nick Denton, media mogul, on why fellow mogul Murdoch is in such a hurry.

Here’s my appearance on the topic on the Brian Lehrer show:

Do I smell smoke? Is that a fiddle I hear?

The New York Times Monday media report completely buried the report of the worst newspaper ad revenue decline since 1950, when the NAA started measuring the number (which is to say, the worst decline ever). It’s on page C-7, given a mere four paragraphs. Granted, the news is a bit stale, having come out three days ago. Still, you’d think that the media section would have decided to give this more perspective.

I think the proper perspective is that we are at a full-blown, slippery-slope, accelerating-fall, watch-out-below crisis for the newspaper industry and professional journalism with it. It’s time for drastic thinking.

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.