The New York Times innovation report provides an inside look at the paper of record in the US—and fanned the firestorm of coverage in a week that saw the dramatic exit of top editor Jill Abramson.
What’s shocking to me about the report—having conducted a five month ethnography of the newsroom over 700 hours for my book, Making News at The New York Times—is, the way it reveals how little, really, the Times has changed in the four long years since I was there in 2010.
And ironically, the report, for all its merits, actually misses some of the good innovations and practices that actually are already happening at the Times and which the report suggests it should get started on right away.
So here is some cultural and historical context for the report based on my newsroom observations.
First, the report’s discussion of social media and how to promote the paper sounds in 2014 an awful lot like it did in 2010—basically a mix of bravado from the top and confusion among the rank-and-file.
In 2010, Arthur O. Sulzberger told an audience at the London School of Economics that The New York Times was the “most social” company in the world, ahead of even Google and Facebook based on the number of accounts and the number of followers at the company.
By 2011, at South by Southwest, Jill Abramson was talking about the Times’ successful development of “sub-brands,” namely star reporters. The Times pointed to people like media reporter Brian Stelter, who had by then carved out a name for himself (and found himself an object of newsroom envy) mainly because of his many bylines and high profile across social media.
Times brass pointed to Stelter, tech reporter David Pogue, media bigfoot David Carr, and foreign correspondent par excellence CJ Chivers to demonstrate what was going right at the paper. The problem is, in 2014 Stelter and Pogue are gone, and the Times hasn’t really added to, or advanced much beyond the names it had held up as shining examples four years earlier.
Another example: In 2010, I asked standards editor Phil Corbett for a copy of any formal or written standards the Times might have governing social media policy for its reporters. He declined. In 2014, the innovation report turns up the fact that in fact there actually were none, and that explains why journalists have often come across as confused about what is and isn’t allowed.
In 2010, that meant Hiroko Tabuchi tweeting her frustrations about covering Toyota was a no-go, at least sort of. She had been covering what seemed like a never-ending stream of stories about Toyota’s faulty brakes from Japan, working on New York time, and finally got fed up with the company’s harsh media restrictions. She tweeted about her frustrations, and got a lashing from the public editor. Flash forward to 2014: Reporters still don’t have a sense of what is ethically appropriate.
Next, there’s the problematic dominance of print concerns over digital ones. In 2010, I watched as top editors, including Jill Abramson, authoritatively ran the editorial meetings with solid, insightful questions, but focused far too much on the print paper at the expense of the Web.
In my observations of Page One meetings (about a month’s worth), I almost never heard anyone mention the homepage other than Jim Roberts, who was then the assistant managing editor, who gave a very quick briefing about what had been up throughout the day. The section editors rarely commented, if ever. Roberts explained to me:
It has happened [discussion about the Web in Page One meetings], but it doesn’t happen that often. We go into that meeting and … the website is displayed in larger-than-life fashion. If someone had an issue, I’m pretty sure I would hear about it. I think some of it is just a matter of just their own interest, and some of it is a matter that they seem to think that we are doing okay.
In the end, though, print, Roberts told me, was what still mattered.
My spot in the newsroom as an ethnographer was primarily on the business desk. But I was given largely free reign to spend as much time as I wanted observing the entire newsroom, as long as I didn’t reveal sources or competitive advantages, from business decisions to story tips.