The New York Times Reckons With Itself

From New York Magazine:

* In the Trump years, the New York Times became less dispassionate and more crusading…

* The dustup laid bare a divide that had become increasingly tricky for the Times: a large portion of the paper’s audience, a number of its employees, and the president himself saw it as aligned with the #resistance. This demarcation horrified the Old Guard, but it seemed to make for good business.

* The Trump era forced a rushed period of reflection. “I was part of the discussion with Dean when we first described Trump as lying on the front page,” Carolyn Ryan, one of 14 masthead editors at the Times, told me recently. “It took 45 minutes.” The incident happened in September 2016, when Trump renounced his own birtherism, then falsely accused Hillary Clinton of starting the conspiracy theory. “It feels kind of quaint,” Ryan said of the decision. “But at the time, it was a shattering departure.”

It was also a shattering departure for Times journalists to walk into the newsroom after Trump’s 2016 victory and find their colleagues in tears. A neutral objectivity had long been core to the way the paper saw itself, its public mission, and its business interests (Abe Rosenthal, a legendary Timesman, had the words HE KEPT THE PAPER STRAIGHT carved on his tombstone), even if it was an open secret that the Times was published by and for coastal liberals. In 2004, the paper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, answered the headline above one of his columns — “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” — in the first sentence of his story: “Of course it is.”

The whiteness of the paper has sometimes been a problem because it makes a bunch of nonwhite people run around like Cassandras.
At an all-staff meeting shortly after the 2016 election, Baquet told the paper’s staff that it could not become part of the “loyal opposition” to Trump. The Times would report on Trump aggressively — the paper earmarked an extra $5 million to cover the administration in 2017 — but fairly, so that the paper could maintain its “journalistic weapon,” as one of its star writers put it to me, meaning the ability to publish something like Trump’s tax returns and have them be viewed as unbiased truth.

* But the paper’s claim to holding the independent center was already slipping, as the staff came to grips with an increasingly polarized audience. Journalists were caught between the desire to appear objective to right-leaning readers and sources — while avoiding backlash from left-leaning ones — and wishing they could get back to the job they thought they had signed up for. Most of the pressure to serve as the loyal opposition was coming from the outside: A Pew poll found that 91 percent of people who consider the Times their primary news source identify as Democrats, roughly the same as the percentage of Fox News viewers who identify as Republicans.

* By Monday morning, [James] Bennet was out. To those who saw the [Tom Cotton] op-ed as one in a series of screwups, Bennet’s ouster was a long time coming. To those who believed his effort to present occasionally controversial views for public consideration was core to the Times’ mission, the decision was a retreat from principle. “I call it a fucking disgrace,” said Daniel Okrent, the former public editor. “I think that James’s firing was as meaningful for how the paper is perceived as Jayson Blair was.”

* The Times had long been a relative monoculture: Ivy League–educated white people writing for their cohort. Some blamed this bubble on the paper’s dismissal of Trump in 2016 — not that any other mainstream media outlets had done any better. Since then, as business boomed in the Trump era, it had gone on a newsroom hiring spree, with a particular focus on trying to diversify its ranks: 40 percent of newsroom employees hired since 2016 have been people of color.

* “The fundamental schism at the Times is institutionalist versus insurrectionist,” a reporter who identified with the latter group told me. (Almost all of the dozens of Times employees I spoke to for this story requested varying degrees of anonymity; one told me, “You can refer to me as a ‘woke millennial reporter’ or whatever.”) The institutionalists were willing to play the internal Game of Thrones required to ascend the masthead because they never wanted to work anywhere else. The insurrectionists, meanwhile, had often come from digital outlets or tech companies or advocacy groups and could imagine leaving the place at any time. (The newsroom noticed that some employees of “Wirecutter,” the most capitalist arm of the Times’ editorial operation, appeared to be the most socialist on Slack.) “I love my job. I  like my co-workers. But it has not been my goal since I was 12 to work for the New York Times,” the “woke millennial reporter” told me. “I’m not so blinded by how great the place is that I’m going to ignore the problems.”

* After Trump’s election, in 2016, subscriptions grew at ten times their usual rate, and they have never looked back. The Times has gone from just over three million subscribers at the beginning of the Trump presidency to its record of more than 7 million last month. It has hired hundreds of journalists to staff a newsroom that is now 1,700 people strong — bigger than ever. Its stock has risen fourfold since Trump took office…

* Identifying as a reader of the Times has become a marker of resistance, and parts of the paper amount to service journalism for participatory democracy — even if the journalists doing the work don’t see it that way. “There’s still this huge gap between what the staff and audience and management want,” one prominent Times reporter said. “The audience is Resistance Moms and overwhelmingly white. The staff is more interested in identity politics. And management is newspaper people. There’s an impulse to want to be writing for a different audience.”

What the audience wants most of all, apparently, is “Opinion.” On a relative basis, the section is the paper’s most widely read: “Opinion” produces roughly 10 percent of the Times’ output while bringing in 20 percent of its page views, according to a person familiar with the numbers… Now that the paper has switched from an advertising to a subscription-focused model, employees on both the editorial and business sides of the Times said that the company’s “secret sauce,” as one of them put it, was the back-end system in place for getting casual readers to subscribe. In 2018, a group of data scientists at the Times unveiled Project Feels, a set of algorithms that could determine what emotions a given article might induce. “Hate” was associated with stories that used the words tax, corrupt, or Mr. — the initial study took place in the wake of the Me Too movement — while stories that included the words first, met, and York generally produced “happiness.” But the “Modern Love” column was only so appealing. “Hate drives readership more than any of us care to admit,” one employee on the business side told me.

* Twitter presented innumerable headaches, with reporters having to be chastised for being overtly political, or simply for sounding un-Timesian in their pursuit of likes and retweets. “There’s a very sad need for validation,” one Times journalist who has tweeted tens of thousands of times told me.

* Some of the trickiest jounalistic questions have centered on what the Times is or isn’t willing to say. After Bennet’s ouster, Sulzberger met with a columnist for the “Opinion” section who had expressed consternation about the decision. Sulzberger promised the columnist that the Times would not shy away from publishing pieces to which the Times’ core audience might object. “We haven’t lost our nerve,” Sulzberger said.

“Yes, you have,” the columnist told Sulzberger. “You lost your nerve in the most explicit way I’ve ever seen anyone lose their nerve. You can say people are still gonna be able to do controversial work, but I’m not gonna be the first to try. You don’t know what you’ll be able to do, because you are not in charge of this publication — Twitter is. As long as Twitter is editing this bitch, you cannot promise me anything.”

While Bari Weiss’s description of a young woke mob taking over the paper was roundly criticized, several Times employees I spoke to saw truth to the dynamic. They scoffed at the idea that Cotton’s op-ed had put Black employees in danger, and were annoyed that the paper’s union had presented a list of demands that included sensitivity reads on stories before they were published, wishing that the union would stay out of editorial issues and focus on its upcoming contract negotiation in the spring, when it hopes to reap some benefit from the company’s financial success. This summer, several union members started compiling examples of Times journalism they deemed problematic, intending to present them as evidence of the issues that came with a lack of diversity — only to abandon the effort when someone pointed out that their fellow union members were the ones doing this work. Solidarity was hard for millennials and boomers alike.

But the insurrectionists had plenty to complain about as well. The paper didn’t cover class half as well as it did race, they said; a proposed LGBTQ+ newsletter was considered “tiptoeing into advocacy or activism.” “I have been told, straight up, that I can’t have racist and Trump in the same sentence,” Wesley Morris told me. “Or maybe I can in the same sentence, but not right next to each other.”

The ideological turf war at the Times had become most heated around “The 1619 Project,” a special issue of the Times Magazine focused on centering American history around the lingering stain of slavery, which was then developed into a podcast, a book, an elementary-school curriculum, and the centerpiece of a Times campaign. The ground-breaking project had won a Pulitzer Prize, but had since come under attack, with some questioning its historical accuracy and others probing its ideological intentions—while President Trump used it as a political cudgel. In October, Bret Stephens published an op-ed critiquing the project from within the Times itself, which prompted the paper’s leadership to both approve of Stephens’ attempt at self-critique while backing the project and Nikole Hannah-Jones, its architect, with defensive notes from Sulzberger and Baquet, who called it “one of the most important pieces of journalism The Times has produced under my tenure as executive editor.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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