The New York Times Chose Flawed Over Failed

Trump has been good for at least one business. The New York Times added 308,000 digital subscribers in Q1, with the increase helping to offset a now familiar plunge in print advertising revenue.

The Times's ability to pivot from free distribution online to a successful paywall has been tremendously impressive. It's one thing to convince a Facebook user to click on an article link, but quite another to convince said user to actually pay for one's content. How did the Times do it? Just look at the marketing on its homepage:

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Focusing on the relevant sections:

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50% off has obvious appeal! Like Trump, we all love a deal. The savvy consumer will note, however, that a digital subscription has essentially zero marginal cost. As such, the odds that the Times will run another cut-price offer next year, next month, or even next week seem rather high. I'm not convinced to buy.

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This message is more compelling. It is a call to arms. An appeal to human decency! Just as the Washington Post reminds readers that Democracy Dies in Darkness - so make sure to help Jeff Bezos keep the lights on - the Times also associates its writing with a greater purpose.

It almost goes without saying that this is all a load of pretentious rubbish.

The marketing treats the Times as a charity, not as part of a publicly traded corporation with a profit motive. In reality the owning conglomerate's top stockholder is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Mr. Slim likes money. There's nothing wrong with this, but as consumers we should adjust our expectations. For instance, we shouldn't be surprised that The Times is constantly incentivized to follow practices incongruent with journalistic ideals. To run through a few:

1. Over-Reliance On Anonymous Sourcing:

Anonymous sources have been a staple in NYT reporting throughout the Trump era. Unofficial Times critic Nate Silver has taken the paper to task on the issue:

Why use anonymous sources? For the clicks of course! Never mind that permitting such unnamed entrants obscures biases from the reader, leaves reporters vulnerable to being manipulated, and opens up the possibility of outright fabrication. A competitive media environment means that any remotely well-placed Washington insider has the leverage to request and be granted anonymity.

2. Silent Post-Publication Changes

Last year the Times published a piece on Bernie Sanders's legislative success as an independent:

Original headline: "Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors"
New and "improved" headline: "Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories"

Shockingly, the Internet noticed this unacknowledged tweak. Even excusing the potentially nefarious "agenda-pushing", this edit and others like it show the Times prioritizing speedy publication over Journalism 101 directives. At least there's a project dedicated to tracking such shenanigans.

3. Editor-Driven Reporting

From a Deadline piece covering self-flagellation at the Times immediately after the last election:

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.


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."

Obviously the Times pushes an agenda! Every media outlet has one. Stories don't simply present themselves ready for publication. Pretending that the Times reports without an agenda, or "without favor" in its own verbiage, is naïve at best and utterly deceptive at worst.

4. Generally Incompetent Reporting

The Times screws up constantly. For an organization that publishes thousands of articles per year, this is really to be expected. But lauding the Times as a trustworthy bastion of journalism increases the damage these mistakes cause. For liberals, there is the Times's pre-election Comey letter coverage. Conservatives have a laundry list of grievances, from hit pieces on John McCain and Mitt Romney to an op-ed this week that wrongly implied Sarah Palin instigated the Gabby Giffords shooting. And, to go back a few years, pretty much everyone can agree that the Times's reporting in the run-up to the Iraq War was atrocious.

The End of Fair And Balanced

A profit-seeking media outlet will never report without "fear or favor," regardless of the business model. Whether beholden to advertisers or to subscribers, conflicts of interest remain. Organizations like the Times are going to compromise their ideals to a certain extent in order to survive. Better flawed than failed.

Right-wing media is honest in this sense! Visit Breitbart's homepage and you see no patronizing moral slogan, but rather separate tabs for one's enemy of choice: Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Hollywood etc. Even Fox News is ditching the channel's "Fair and Balanced" slogan. It isn't needed anymore. As "Hannity & Colmes" evolved to just "Hannity," our desire for faux-objectivity evaporated. We accept and embrace our filter bubbles.

There is no path to a pure "objective journalism" nirvana. Media organizations need to make money. Public funding for reporters is always liable to be quashed at any moment. Wealthy private backers have their own agendas. Instead, all a publication can do is be honest and open about its own biases.

In a perfect world, each organization would publish information about the political persuasions of its own readership. What proportion of the Times's subscriber base identifies as strongly conservative? Strongly liberal? Somewhere in the middle? Data on commenters would be particularly interesting. And the data does exist (although the media organizations themselves might not always have access currently). Still, nothing says more about a site's agenda than the audience drawn to it every day.