Posts about nytimes

The Times’ ombudsman arrives early

I take it as a mildly hopeful sign that the Times’ new public editor, aka ombudsman, decided to start early so he could address the, cough, questionable news judgment shown by the paper a week ago when it played on page 37 the foiling of an alleged terror plot to blow up the fuel lines under JFK Airport and New Jersey. The story was played large on every other paper I saw; it merited only a paragraph promo on page 1 of the Times.

At the time, I saw four possible explanations:
A) An agenda — trying top play down terror’s war on us (quibble if you will about the war on terror, the war on us is real).
B) An admission that the Times is not a local newspaper. There could be no doubt that everyone in this area would be talking about this story and wanting to know more. If the Times uses that rationale to put fluffy cultural change stories on page 1, surely this story would measure up in conversational curiosity.
C) Horrendous news judgment.
D) All of the above.

I was going for D.

Clark Hoyt, the new public editor — who already shows a better ability to write than his immediate predecessor — talked with all the players at the paper and laid out who did what. And then he said:

My own view is that The Times story was very well reported and written. It quickly made clear that the accused men were a long way from action and that despite the apocalyptic comments of the U.S. attorney, their ability to carry out an attack on the airport was very much open to question.

But instead of being a reason to put the story inside, I think this was a compelling reason to keep it on Page 1. This reporting put the story in an appropriate perspective, far calmer than the day’s television coverage. Giving the story subdued play on the front page — toward the bottom, with a single-column headline — would have told readers that The Times knew what they were concerned about, that there was something real here, but that it wasn’t anywhere near happening and there was no need for alarm.

Yes. We can debate the gravity of the threat — but not if the Times doesn’t give us the facts for that debate, which they surely knew was going to go on. Isn’t that journalism’s role: contributing facts to the public debate? So as far as I’m concerned, the Times fell down on its duty. It displayed atrocious news judgment and the only reason I can see for doing so was an innate, if unspoken — and even, to the Timesman, unrecognized — agenda, a wish to downplay the story.

Hoyt did extract second thoughts from Times Managing Editor John Geddes:

Looking back at last week’s decision, Geddes told me: “If I had it to do over again, might I have started it out front? Yes.”

Why, I asked.

“I made the purest call in terms of how I view the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “But as I look at the rest of the front page that day, could I have started a small story on the front without diminution of the page? Absolutely. We second-guess ourselves all the time.”

As we second-guess you.

Hoyt also points to Suzanne Daley, Times national editor, discussing the decision online:

In truth, the decision was widely debated even within this newsroom. At the front page meeting on Monday morning, we took an informal poll and a few editors thought the story should have been more prominently played. Some argued it should have been fronted, regardless of the lameness of the plot, simply because it was what everyone was talking about.

I think Hoyt’s examination would be been even stronger had he linked to more criticism from without. The New York Post editorialized quite forcefully on the subject:

The paper’s goal seems to be getting America to lower its guard – which can only lead to disaster.

The suspects were “Short on Cash / And a Long Way From Realizing Goals,” one Times headline insisted yesterday. Regarding two of the men arrested, a second headline asserted that “Neither Seemed an Extremist.”

Indeed, on Sunday the paper barely covered the arrests of three suspects behind the plot: Its main story appeared 37 pages back. A second piece undermined the significance of that story: “Plot Was Unlikely To Work, Experts Say, Citing Safeguards and Pipeline Structure.”

OK, so these guys had no weapons or mountains of money on hand.

But they had deep, passionate intent – to do grave damage to this country.

And they represented a brand of terrorist that might be even more deadly than al Qaeda’s thugs: the kind that builds hatred toward America and takes it upon himself to vent that hatred in some deadly freelance plot. . . .

For the Times, though, the only terror plot worth worrying about is . . . a successful one.

It ought to be ashamed of itself.

I like it that Hoyt came in to work early and addressed an incident that begged examination. But I hope that he’s not so quick to dismiss motives and biases in his analysis. I’m not ready to go as far as the Post and Fox News, declaring a deliberate conspiracy to marginalize terror’s war on us, but neither am I willing to dismiss that criticism. This is a decision that can’t be made about the paper on the first day at work, I’d say. I hope Hoyt keeps digging.

When ‘best’ is not good enough

Juan Antonio Giner says the New York Times has the best of everything, except business management. I could quibble with the argument that is has the best, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s accept that.

And then I’ll argue that being ‘best’ leads to many of their problems. First and most obvious, thinking you’re the best at everything is the definition of hubris: ‘Because we’re the best, everything we do must be the best.’ Why innovate and experiment if you’re already at the top, then? The second problem is tougher to tackle: Any institution that thinks it is the best thinks it has more to protect and so, I argue again, it is less likely to stretch and risk failure.

Mind you, I’m not arguing that the Times isn’t great or that it doesn’t innovate. I’m saying that others find it easier or less risky to innovate thanks to their less-lofty positions. The best illustration of this is Gannett, which does not run formidable cultural citadels, only lots of local papers, and so it is surprisingly unafraid to blow up its newsrooms and try 24-hour, omnimedia, community-collaborative news. The Washington Post, as our second-city paper (forget Chicago), has also been hungry to innovate and try new things online. I can’t get through a post like this without pointing to London, where there’s a constant war for the title of best and one way to win in that war is to innovate.

I remember years ago, at the dawn of online, the Times felt it had to start a separate product to handle such tackiness as local entertainment listings, so as not to sully the mother brand. Others are not so prissy. The Times is less likely to link out to the world because it takes the value of its links seriously. Others are more generous.

So all I’m suggesting, Juan, is that you may be doing the Times a disservice listing the ways that you say it is the best at everything. And, coming out the other end of this argument, I’ll say that there are ways in which it is not the best or certainly could be better. I think many — though, yes, not all — in the Times newsroom would agree with that.

And I don’t necessarily buy the logic that because the Times is the best at everything, it must be the business side’s fault that its business outlook is getting ever bleaker. I’m not defending their business leadership — which certainly can be criticized (start with the disaster in Boston) — but saying that responsibility for the business fate of the institution certainly also falls to editorial. The product could be better.

So the more interesting discussion to me is: What would you do with The New York Times Company? I’ll start that ball rolling:

I’d get out of Boston while the gettin’s good (or not as bad as it will inevitably be). I’d get out of the paper business. I’d get rid of the regional papers and TV stations while there are still buyers. I’d then use that equity to try to buy more’s (too bad Primedia didn’t almost ruin more businesses like that) and other things that look very little like the Times: social businesses, commerce businesses, technology businesses. I’d look to create lots of new products unencumbered by the weight, hubris, expectations, and rules of the Times brand. I’d consider making the Times a purely national brand and do something radical locally, where it’s just not that big (for example, making metro a web product under a different brand, if need be, to make it more collaborative). I’d reconsider the Times’ role with the rest of news; it can and should be more of a guide to journalism closer to its source; someone will become a ringmaster of news and why shouldn’t that be the Times (that would require the greatest cultural shift but if any brand could have a headstart in that role, it should be the Times). I’d consider how the Herald-Tribune and Times can become a stronger international presence, but online only. Rather than establishing a lab of outsiders to try to influence the future of the institution, I’d mix in people from the inside and give them the mandate to blow up the place (see the Economist’s Project Red Stripe). I’d consider how The Times already serves a community — a wise crowd — and try to figure out how it could enable that crowd to do more, to share more information, to do more commerce. I’d stop thinking that the Times must always be the destination, the magnet, the be all and end all, and, yes, I would start asking: WWGD?

What would you do?

(Of course, I have myriad disclosures relating to this: I used to consult for the Times Company at and the Times is an investor in Daylife, where I have a role. I have relationships of various sorts with most of the other media companies mentioned directly or indirectly above; it’s a small world, this.)

Me vs NYT at OPA re WWGD

Rafat Ali just put up this video of a discussion from the Online Publishers Association in London last week: me v. Martin Nisenholtz of the New York Times Company. Unfortunately, it starts a little late (missing my start to the discussion). and ends a little early (just as Larry Kramer, ex of CBS, is talking about Dan Rather).

At the start, I reacted to a presentation by Jeffrey Rayport, high-IQ industry consultant, who tried to present a new architecture of media that on the one hand I endorse but on the other hand wanted to turn inside-out. Rayport talked about owning audiences still and I gave the predictable if obnoxious blogger argument (joking that I was daring to speak for all mankind) that we’re not an audience and we don’t want to be owned.

Rayport set up boundaries and talked about going over those boundaries — inside out, from media to us; outside in, from us to the media — and I argued against that architecture, saying that he was making the mistake of still putting media at the center when, in fact, the public is at the center and media should see itself at the edge, serving us.

I talked about Yahoo as the last old media company to look at the world this way (along with all the older media companies): ‘We control content. We market to get you to come to us. Then we feed you as much advertising as we can, until you leave.’ That’s the centralized model of media. I contrasted this with the decentralized, distributed model embodied by nobody better than Google: ‘We go to where you are and put service and advertising there. Your pageview is then our pageview. And we have enabled you to do what you want to do. And we can all do more of it.’ I argued that media companies should ask WWGD — ‘what would Google do?’ (and, yes, Google is the new God).

That’s when Martin objected; the videotape picks up there. Raftat says:

This was at the OPA Global Forum last week in London…I was sitting behind Martin Nisenholtz, the CEO of New York Times Digital, and recorded this with my Nokia N80. It is a nuanced argument, something which doesn’t really come out in this video, or Martin’s argument there. Here is my read on it: Martin thinks Jeff Jarvis is the extreme in this journalism vs bloggers debate–especially when it comes to mainstream news sites working with bloggers and aggregating and pointing to them, working with them, and bringing them onboard–and was trying to point to a middle ground, something which he thinks NYT is doing, when in fact Jarvis is that middle ground, if you peel the layers behind some of his hyperbole. Either way, it is an important argument, though some of it is pure theater, done for the sake of it.

Yes, it was theater. But Martin and I agreed (via Treo-to-Blackberry exchange right afterward) that we were also disagreeing about something more fundamental or at least refreshingly different from the old blogger-v-msm debate. We were arguing about the centralized-v-distributed architecture of media. Martin is arguing that some media brands — yes, the Times — are worth coming to. He supports the outside-in model and sees The Times as ‘in’. I say that they all — yes, even the Times — must look at new ways in which we can do more. Yes, I do think mine is the middleground for it’s about working together in new ways that were never possible before to do more than we ever could before. (And, yes, I just ignored the blogger slaps. I say on the tape that I dream of the day when I can go to a conference and not have that old spat; it’s so tired.)

: Howard Owens responds.

In it, you get to hear Martin Neisenholtz reveal just how little he understands blogs, and how trapped he remains in Big-J thinking about what blogging is and its role in the mediascape. It’s a little surprising that a major media leader would still hold those views. Martin seems fully invested in the false dichotomy that there is a bloggers vs. journalist competition, rather than seeing the ecosystem as it exists. The telling point is his comment to Jeff Jarvis that “there is absolutely no check on you.” At least Carolyn Little gets it. “Bloggers help keep us honest,” she says. And the message Neisenholtz needs to hear from that is that bloggers keep each other honest, too. In distributed media, there is no us and them; it’s all we.

: Oh, and I will respond to Martin’s stock insult in the video that I’m a blogger not a journalist and so I don’t do journalism here, only opinion. Well, while I was in London for that conference, I went out and reported this piece about the Conservative leader’s web strategy and this one about a new online talk channel and this one about big changes at the Guardian (exclusive, as we used to say, meaninglessly) and this one about innovation at the Economist and this one about the new Telegraph newsroom and structure (for the first time on video, we used to brag, in big old media).

It’s conferences that are about only opinions, often wrong.

To ombud or not to ombud

Peter Preston in London’s Observer is comparing and contrasting ombudsmanly techniques as the Guardian prepares to shift to a new holder of its position and as the New York Times debates whether it should still have one:

So there, perhaps, is one basic difference between the New York Times and the Guardian. [Outgoing Guardian Readers’ Editor Ian] Mayes, appointed by the Scott Trust (which owns the Guardian) and thus proof against sacking by notionally nettled editors, is an insider who basically aims to explain, mediate and correct rather than censure. He’s slow to anger and punctilious in his judgments. [New York Times Public Editors Daniel] Okrent and [Barney] Calame, by contrast, are outsiders: they know about journalism, but not the inner sanctums of the Times. After the humiliation of Jayson Blair’s lies, they were new brooms supposed to sweep clean.

NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has been arguing — or perhaps floating trial balloon pins — that with the new openness at the paper, there is less need for an ombudsman. I say he’s right and he’s wrong. When The Times appointed Okrent, I remember saying that this could be a crutch and that every editor should be a public editor, every journalist an ombudsman. But Okrent proved to be effective not just as a representative of the readers and not just as a critic of the paper but also as a critic of journalism. So though I think that Calame has been weak broth by comparison, I now believe that The Times should continue to have an ombudsman when his term expires. The role could, indeed, change. But I think that The Times of all papers should have someone keeping an independent eye on it — and on journalism. If The Times wants to maintain its status as the leading light of American journalism, how can it do less? And, yes, that means that others in the paper — including Keller himself — should also see themselves in the role of explaining their process; transparency should be part of their job descriptions and even part of their bonuses, for transparency is now the essential building block of trust. And The Times still needs to rebuild its trust — and I don’t just mean after Jayson Blair; I mean that every journalist must build and rebuild trust every day with every story.

And there are limits to transparency and openness as last week’s episode at the Telegraph demonstrates, when a correspondent got nicked for revealing too much about his (flawed) process and for being (too) direct with a reader. The problem in organizational journalism is that the organization abhors transparency; it wants control. And so I have come to believe that it is also necessary to have someone whose role is openness. And then let the insiders compete with their openness, with the knowledge that there is always someone who can ask the uncomfortable question and give the uncomfortable answer (which, after all, is what we expect of everyone we cover).

Is it better if that person is an insider tasked with explaining or an outsider assigned to probe? I tend to think that all the insiders need to do the explaining and that the outsider is there to act as countervailing pressure on them. But as Preston points out, times, like The Times, have changed:

What’s in the New York wind now may be a far softer, insider system. Would that be disaster on the trust-in-journalism front? Perhaps. Yet there’s also a pinch of necessary change in the mix. When Mayes began his Guardian stint a decade ago, many of today’s bloggers hadn’t bought their first PC. If they didn’t like what the paper printed, they could write a letter to the editor and maybe (one chance in 10) see it printed. But now the Guardian, like its competitors, maintains an open, and very public blogging zone, where readers can put the boot in at will. More than 80 more have piled online this week, most still unconvinced about the need to hang Saddam on a front page.

There’s a feisty scorn here for what’s seen as the old routines of journalism: sacred communicators on stage, groundlings sitting in a pit. Why wait a week for an ombudsman to adjudicate when you can burn the theatre yourself?

Why, in sum, believe that the business of holding newspapers or broadcasters to account hasn’t altered hugely in the last few years, and isn’t altering still? . . .