A comment from New York Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett struck me in an email this week:
I hope you don’t despair of The Times as a whole.
I don’t despair. But I’m troubled by some things I see at the Times, and I do blog critically occasionally about journalism’s most important newsroom.
That’s not just my opinion that the Times is journalism’s most important newsroom. Our Path Forward, an 11-page strategy document published Wednesday, makes clear that the Times regards itself as the pinnacle of journalism, not just in the United States, but in the world.
I had written most of this post before reading Our Path Forward, and briefly pondered blogging first about that document. But my plate is too full right now, and I’m just going to acknowledge it here and dig into it in more depth later, maybe next week. But the opening paragraph of the document explains why the Times warrants the scrutiny of everyone interested in journalism:
From our earliest days, The New York Times has committed itself to the idea that investing in the best journalism would ensure the loyalty of a large and discerning audience, which in turn would drive the revenue needed to support our ambitions. This virtuous circle reinforced itself for over 150 years.
Another Times editor suggested earlier this year that I was singling the Times out for criticism. That suggestion came in a private email, so I won’t quote it or name the editor here, but some of this post was edited from one of my messages in that exchange. After reading Corbett’s comment, I thought I should elaborate on my view of the Times and its place in journalism and why I blog about it frequently.
No organization enjoys a loftier perch in journalism than the Times, or is watched more closely for its business strategy. Those facts demand that I comment on it more frequently than any other news organization. If you boast that you’re producing “the best journalism,” you invite scrutiny and I’m happy to oblige.
Most of my criticism of the Times comes in the context of topics I address frequently, targeting a variety of news organizations:
Commentary on accuracy
For instance, most recently I have criticized the Times on issues of accuracy, verification and corrections in posts in August and this week about the Times’ (and other media outlets’) refusal to review or correct an inaccurate 2007 story. Corbett made his comment about despair in an email exchange included in this week’s post on the topic. Accuracy, verification and corrections are common, overlapping themes on this blog. I have criticized the Times before on accuracy:
- I have ripped Judith Miller, a former Times reporter, multiple times for her errors in reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and especially for blaming sources for the accuracy of her stories.
- I blogged (after the Times Public Editor did) about the Times’ obituary for Walter Cronkite, which required correction of seven errors.
But this topic illustrates that I don’t pick on the Times or despair for it particularly. Those few posts are among 37 in the accuracy category of this blog.
I blog and write for other projects about this topic a lot. I started leading accuracy workshops more than a decade ago. I was a contributor to the Verification Handbook and wrote the first draft of the accuracy section of the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project.
I’d have to be steering clear of the Times not to address it somewhere in my accuracy commentary. And the Times has plenty of company in my criticism on accuracy and corrections: Rolling Stone, Toronto Star and Washington Post, among others.
And much of my commentary on this topic (and most) has been positive, not singling out anyone for criticism, but advocating checklists, sharing links to accuracy resources, providing social media verification tips and so on.
I can think of nothing more important in journalism than accuracy, and the Times clearly has had repeated issues in this area, so it’s a serious matter. But it’s a serious matter well beyond the Times, and I don’t apologize for challenging anyone in journalism, especially our most important newsroom, to work harder and make a higher priority of accuracy, verification and correcting errors.
I have definitely ripped the Times for its excessive use of unnamed sources. Of course, this topic applies to my Judith Miller criticism, but I’ve also:
- Called on Executive Editor Dean Baquet to get mad about excessive (and frivolous) use of unnamed sources.
- Faulted the Times for relying on unnamed sources in the botched and hurried Hillary Clinton story.
- Criticized another story this summer that didn’t meet the Times’ own standards for unnamed sources.
But again, I don’t single out the Times. I’ve also criticized use of unnamed sources by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Politico (for an unsourced hatchet job about Baquet’s predecessor, Jill Abramson, when she was leading the Times newsroom).
Much of my work on sourcing also has been positive, offering advice for journalists on using unnamed sources and on getting reluctant sources on the record, among other topics. Here again, this is a topic I wrote about for the ONA’s ethics project.
I’m going to cover many more topics than just these two. But the few examples I’ve cited about problems with accuracy and confidential sources at the Times are plentiful enough and serious enough to justify my concerns. And if the Times isn’t addressing them internally with more diligence than I can see from my external vantage point (I presume/hope that it is), then maybe my concern should turn to despair.
And please note that one of my examples under linking deals with accuracy, too.
I faulted the Times this summer and last November (twice) for its weak and inconsistent use of links for attribution and context. But I also praised the Times (including Corbett) in December for calling on its staff to provide more links.
Again, this has been a topic about which I have been posting (and arguing at journalism conferences) for years, making progress, but slowly. I first made the case for more and better linking on my blog in 2012. In 2013, I served with the Times’ Bill Connolly on the committee that wrote Telling the Truth and Nothing But. And I wrote the section on linking. Later that year, I faulted Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel for not addressing linking in Poynter’s new Guiding Principles for the Journalist (I had encouraged that in 2012). I made the same points repeatedly as SPJ updated its new Code of Ethics.
And when the nation’s sports media except Deadspin fell for the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, I noted that a routine practice linking would have exposed that BS earlier (I don’t know whether the Times fell for the hoax or just didn’t report the woman’s supposed death, but I didn’t include the Times in whatever media-bashing I did in that story).
The value of linking in prevention of falling for hoaxes (or worse) was exactly the same point I made in November about the Times’ Kanye West correction. That was a correction for taking seriously a bogus story published by a satirical website. Lots of gullible people fall for those things on Facebook, but the New York Times? Don’t tell me that my concern about the Times’ accuracy standards isn’t justified.
It might have looked like I was picking on the Times and Executive Editor Dean Baquet last year when I suggested that active use of Twitter might help him lead innovation in his newsroom. But I invited him to respond, and published his response, which drew far more traffic than my initial criticism.
Again, context is important. I had previously cited the failure of top newsroom editors (specific editors or groups of them) to use Twitter in blog posts in 2009, 2010, 2011 (twice, the second one focusing on the Times’ Bill Keller, but not exclusively). I faulted the American Society of News Editors for its social media guidelines and blogged with advice for top newsroom editors on using Twitter or arguments about why they should use it actively. Whether I’m right or wrong about whether top editors should use Twitter, it’s a question I have addressed regularly, starting when ASNE asked me to lead a webinar on Twitter more than six years ago. This is a topic I’ve addressed early and often, usually with little or no reference to the Times.
Paraphrasing the Randy Quaid character, speaking to the Jason Alexander character in “The Paper,” it was the Times’ turn.
As on the other topics, my blogging on Twitter has been more positive than critical, including a #twutorial series of advice for journalists and praise for my former Digital First Media colleagues at the Denver Post for their outstanding use of Twitter in their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Aurora #theatershooting.
I have criticized the Times for its paywall, but again, only in the context of a long history of questioning the newspaper industry’s overall strategy regarding digital revenue. I’ve also criticized paywall moves by Gannett and the Lancaster New Era.
I should admit here that the Times’ paywall has been more successful than I anticipated in delivering short-term revenue. I’ll address this more in my later post(s) on the Times’ new strategy.
I blogged last year about the importance of culture change at the Times. I have worked on culture change in dozens of newsrooms, so that’s another consistent interest of mine. In fact, over the past two years, I suspect I’ve written many more posts on changing newsroom culture (again, nearly all positive in tone) than on any other topic.
I was a guest blogger for INMA’s Culture Change blog. After my exchange with Baquet about Twitter last fall, I wrote a mostly positive post for INMA (with praise for the Times innovation committee), suggesting other ways that leaders could change their newsroom cultures. One of my posts on culture change (June 2014) positively cited Baquet’s move to a digital-first meeting as an example for others to follow, and offered advice for achieving such a meeting.
Several months later, I praised the Times when it actually adopted a digital-first meeting. I did note in the post how long it took the Baquet to accomplish that, but specifically said I was merely noting how difficult it is to change newsroom culture, rather than criticizing the Times or its editor.
Going back to the innovation committee, my first post on the Innovation report mixed praise and criticism (that was the one focusing on culture change). I later asked what it said about the Times that it didn’t publish the Innovation report itself. I also published a guest post by the Times’ Amy O’Leary, answering my question.
Other Times criticism
- I faulted Keller for his commentary about Facebook, but I also blog a lot about Facebook.
- I criticized the Times, along with other media, for failing to mention the death of Alicia Nash in news stories about the death of her husband. The couple died together in an auto accident.
- I mocked a 2010 Times style decision (announced by Corbett) that “tweet” was not “standard English.”
Praise for the Times
I also have praised the Times at least as frequently:
- I applauded Baquet’s vision for the Times’ future in January.
- I praised Jennifer Preston’s start as social media editor.
- I’ve cited Brian Stelter’s coverage of the Joplin tornado as an example of excellent Twitter use.
- I stayed up during the night David Carr died to write my tribute to him.
- I tweeted and blogged enthusiastically about Margaret Sullivan’s keynote address at the International Festival of Journalism.
- When Alan Mutter criticized newspaper stories for being too long, I cited the Times’ Snow Fall as an example of effective use of multimedia to make a long story compelling.
- I praised the Times’ beta620 project.
- I praised Daniel Victor’s quick career rise to the Times (and recommended Daniel as a replacement when my treatment schedule made it questionable whether I could keep a commitment to speak at the APME NewsTrain program in Monroe, La., next week).
Newsroom social media policies
I moved this section to the end because it illustrates my blogging about the media, and where criticism of the Times fits.
Back in 2009, when I was highly critical of social media policies of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and others, I praised the Times’ approach (but tweaked Keller for whining about staff tweets from a meeting).
I blog frequently about journalism issues, commenting on leading journalism organizations such as the Times (LA as well as NY), Post and Journal. So, when their social media policies became public, I commented on all of them. And I praised NPR‘s and the Guardian‘s social media policies, too (and a couple years later, I commented on social media guidance from the AP and ASNE). While much of my focus goes on the big players in journalism, I also commented on the social media policy of the Roanoke Times.
If you blog about journalism as often as I do (I’ve done more than 1,200 posts since starting this blog almost seven years ago), the New York Times is going to come up now and then.
The criticism of the Times I’ve expressed recently about accuracy, corrections and sources are serious concerns. These are important matters of journalism ethics and I’m bothered by what I’ve seen from the Times. But I don’t despair. The Times has excellent leadership and the best staff in journalism. I expect to see improvement. And I plan to applaud it when I see it. And continue nagging when I don’t.