By James A. Kidney
[Ed note: The New York Times plans to lay off hundreds of copy editors, a sign of financial pressure and a management strategy to beef up digital resources — they say. The Times also eliminated its Public Editor — the person who entertained reader complaints about reporting and posted occasional columns assessing the Times reporting, sometimes critically. In its place, the Times is offering up something called the Reader Center to receive comments on these changes. You can send your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is our comment (edited somewhat) sent to the executive editor through the Reader Center email site.]
Dear Mr. Baquet,
I am a nearly life-long subscriber to The Times (lately, the digital version), a former reporter (UPI, U.S. News) turned lawyer. I was married for 38 years to the late Sara Fritz, who I believe you knew from your LA Times days. So I have some bona fides. I also have been around nearly 70 years, but still operate my own blog site, so I also have some very modest tech savvy.
When I was a state bureau chief and later Supreme Court reporter for UPI, I envied daily newspaper reporters. They had all day to report and write stories before sending them off to editors. That seemed such a luxury to wire service hacks like me! Talent is always a factor in producing a well-reported story in a fashion that both interests and informs the reader. But having time to do so is important, too. Newspaper reporters like The Times’ Leslie Oelsner, Warren Weaver and Linda Greenhouse, in my day, had that luxury and used it well.
That time advantage has been significantly reduced or eliminated today, as you well-know. “We are all wire service reporters now” could be the modern beat reporter’s cry. Not only is speed critical, even if not yet, as it was for the wires, paramount, but so are click-throughs, which adds pressure to apply “the needle” to the news.
Today’s “paper” and yesterday’s cable news coverage are an example. Today’s top news section in the digital Times contains at least four well-positioned stories about the Trump-Morning Joe brouhaha, although the whole thing shed no new light on the president’s behavior. Worth reporting? Sure. A story or two. Ahh, but the click-throughs. Gotta get more of those. Gossip beats policy, and Trump tweet stories sound more in grocery store tabloid journalism than serious stuff. Plus it’s a cheap story to cover — you can do it from your desktop — and it gets precious clicks.
Meanwhile, other news, such as the beginning of new immigration limits and two House bills on the subject, were demoted or ignored, despite the fact that they were both important and timely.
There was no report I could find in the digital Times on Trump’s speech to energy executives promoting his frightening fossil fuels, drill baby drill agenda. The Post at least gave the speech dismissive play on page A-15, and required a search on its website to find it, suggesting the new proposals to gut the earth were not dramatic enough to warrant better coverage. If the professional news response to the speech is “nothing new here,” why does the same not apply to tweets – same old Trump? Nothing new there or, as the Boston Globe editorial once headlined about Jimmy Carter, “More Mush from the Wimp.”
You are not alone, of course. CNN carried the speech. I heard it in the car. Then Jake Tapper totally ignored it. So did everyone else on cable. Everyone was obsessed with tweets. Immigration and health were squeezed into coverage, but little else in print, online, or cable.
Is that because the energy policy speech was not news, or that tiresome climate change stories don’t draw viewers or click-through? I suggest the latter.
Is The New York Times becoming the old New York Mirror? So is everyone else. But you represent The New York Times. You should aim higher.
This is a round-about way of saying the main thing that might keep the NYT from becoming just another news blog platform glomming on to the daily shiny thing is good editors charged with reviewing copy critically before it is posted (even UPI had editors who reviewed copy before it went on the A-wire) and senior editors whose job it is, among others, to make sure the lead stories are about the important news, prominently displayed, with the click bait taking less prominence (except maybe one story, to be accommodate this era). Times editors should be telling the reader what is important, not follow the readers. It is a duty that distinguishes your institution.
I know you will respond that all of this is being taken care of, but it is not. It is not all Trump derangement, on the part of readers and the Times, like the tweet stories. It also is the fast-moving demand that we be entertained, rather than informed. That demand is soon to overwhelm us. It has already started overwhelming The Times. Don’t destroy what few barricades protecting serious journalism already are in place and have been for a very long time.
Democracy can die in darkness, to quote the Post. It also can be buried in entertaining drivel.
Please reconsider the copy desk layoffs and the role of such editors in today’s challenging news environment.
Thank you for this opportunity.
James A. Kidney