12:27 pm Mar. 29, 2011
In his second column for The New York Times Magazine, appearing this week, Bill Keller, the top editor of the Times, ends with an analogy:
Some of our critics insist that objectivity is unattainable—or boring—so why try? To me that is like saying that because much of our children’s future is ordained by genetics, we should abandon the effort to be good parents. Impartial journalism, like child-rearing, is an aspiration, but it is a worthy one.
And unlike your children, a newspaper affords you the chance to start over, and this time get it right.
The column appeared the day before the Times' new metering system went into effect.
Much, probably too much, has been said about the paywall, which will or won't work out, but is almost certainly worth trying (though how much may be another matter). Some of the Times' own contributions to this conversation aren't helping, though.
Bill Keller's first two columns have irritated me, as a Times reader, by breaking two rules: They have sought to explain to me a paper I believed I knew pretty well already, and the explanations don't match my perception; and they sound discordant notes of apology and belligerence that make me feel embattled on behalf of this newly strange institution against a horde I never much cared to bother with before, and somewhat resent being bothered with now. I'd rather not be told what the Times is; I can read it for myself, and I plan to continue doing so every day, quite simply because I can't afford not to. For me that makes it the most important and best newspaper in the world.
But if we take Keller at his word, the metering system installed yesterday, along with various attacks on the paper, provides an opportunity to examine "first principles" about the Times' practice. Here's another first principle: The Times is a trusted brand because of the trust placed in the paper by readers, not, at least not as meaningfully, in the company's corporate leadership by its shareholders. With respect to Keller, who presently holds the position of executive editor, that trust will exist after we're both buried, so the negotiation he is attempting with me, as a reader, in this column, feels a little shallow.
Most of his column is about that trust: about whether the Times is a "liberal" newspaper, and what objectivity means. All this is old news to me.
I already have confidence that the paper will deliver as much of the important news as it can manage, and that it will face down opposition and obstruction, even danger, in pursuit of that news. Bill Keller, the Times shareholders and we, the readers, all agree that the Times needs to stick around, and even grow. And in the course of doing that, given the much-documented difficulty of the newspaper business these days, we all understand that that will necessitate them trying many things, and succeeding at some, but not all of them.
My own trust in the Times is intact and healthy. It's the Times, these days, that seems to have trust issues.
It was after all the Times, as Keller notes in this very column, that got the W.M.D. story wrong in the run-up to the war. There has no doubt been some soul-searching on this score; I think I've read some of it. But it is in the past, until it happens again. That is, there's no starting over; there's only moving on. I have, mostly, on that particular score; I share some people's questions about big media and its levels of exclusive access, and whether that compromises the ability to objectively evaluate inside information against on-the-ground reporting. This is really the problem critics have long had with the notion of objectivity: It often contains, but does not disclose, a subconscious agenda or methodology that is separate from "objectivity."
But I never believed for a moment that the Times pursued a political agenda in the reporting of the W.M.D. stories. New reporters, impressive ones, are with the paper in Washington and Baghdad and, today, throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Times (and Reuters, to be fair) are running this show. My mind did not turn to the reporting of ex-Timesperson Judith Miller when, on Twitter, I saw the story of the woman who broke into the hotel-bunker where all the reporters are staying in Tripoli, accusing Khadafi security forces of kidnapping, raping and abusing her. I opened up my browser and typed "nytimes.com," and there it was, at the top of the page. I couldn't find a complete account anywhere else, yet. Nic Robertson's reporting on the event was impressive, but just then I chose to visit the Times site instead of subscribe to his tweet stream, as my Twitter contacts were instructing me to do.
A newspaper's daily editions are not properly viewed as and endless series of second chances with belligerent or impossible readers and critics, but as a renewed instant of the responsibility to serve readers better than anyone else.
A favorite theme of those nerds (I count myself among them) who can't stop talking about how the news will make its living in the future involves "putting the genie back in the bottle." With variations, what's usually meant is that when newspapers initially went online, they should have realized that the "content" that was there already—government and legal documents, chatboard discussions, the earliest forms of blogs (original guideposts in the freaky Internet that was full of strange stuff and in which a scarcity, rather than an abundance, of useful material is what made them necessary)—was so materially different from what they produced that they should have created methods to charge people to read their newspapers there. After all, they were charging on the newsstands.
This early accession to the notion of the "free web" has placed a price-point of zero on online news, the argument goes, so now, pushing even modest prices on readers to access your journalism online seems like an offense. What's worse, the early speculation about the value of advertising on the web forced newspapers into a model where what little monetization they could manage for online material is in some ways inimical to charging customers to read. Fewer customers, fewer page views; fewer page views, fewer paying ads.
Getting the balance right is something that had taken years at The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, and which they are still tweaking and talking about. From that point of view, the Times is simply late to the party and has a lot of catching up to do. The genie, some say, won't fit back in; others act as though stuffing it back in is some kind of human-rights abuse.
Things change on the web all the time, and we are constantly asked to modify our behavior. To those who heed the call, the web puts them in a constant conversation with everybody they know, all at once, all the time. Usually but not always these new behaviors are for our benefit; they're always free, at first. But then so is your first dimebag from the new dealer on the block. The addicts always end up paying somebody for something. And I'm a Times addict, and I'll pay, eventually, as long as the Times stays good.
The particular policy the Times is pursuing seems to recognize this. They've received a lot of criticism for all the "cut-outs," the pay exemptions that seem to give advantages to certain kinds of readers. Why is it cheaper to subscribe to the Sunday print edition, with which the full digital package comes free, than it is to the digital package on its own? Isn't that paying less for more? Doesn't charging for more than 20 articles read in a month penalize the Times' most loyal readers and reward the drive-by shooters following Drudge links and either "bouncing" back off the page in two seconds or adding to page time but scrawling a worthless, nasty comment at the bottom?
Why is it that I will never be stopped from reading a page on the Times website that I've reached through a link in my social networks, on Twitter or Facebook? Doesn't that mean I can just "follow" one of those pseudopirates who has written software that tweets out every single article link from a sitewide RSS feed and read the whole paper that way? (The answer to that is: If that's how you enjoy reading a newspaper you probably aren't the customer they're after in the first place.)
The Jesuits who trained me in high school have been accused of, well, being jesuitical. The letter of the law is important to them. The law is there to guide your behavior: if the letter doesn't match the spirit, let them rewrite the letter. I don't believe the Times is unaware of what all the cut-outs mean for the business, so I plan to simply see when and how I bump up against the meter and decide what to do then.
I don't plan to make a point of subscribing to support the Times journalists who put themselves in such danger to report on Libya, and with all due respect to some very smart people who have been making very good arguments in favor of paid content, that does not mean that I don't value the work; though that straw man is real, and there are people who don't value it, these are people Keller does not need. It does mean that there is a moral case for their bosses to start making some money from it, so that they can continue their work.
What worries me about some of the cut-outs is actually something quite different, and now we're in the hazy territory of the internal business culture of the Times. You may remember TimesSelect, the last experiment in charging for content, about which much has been written, but finally about which history has rendered a verdict of failure. I'm not so sure it was a failure. Finally, back then, the editorial columnists that made up much of the material behind the paywall objected, publicly, to their isolation from the free web.
By the time management buckled and dismantled the program, it had reached its goals as they'd been set out (many believed this was cant from the directors of the company, but increasingly I believe that it met old goals but didn't promise to meet newly constructed ones, and also Maureen Dowd is powerful); it had made the organization $10 million, which is as much profit as The Huffington Post made before AOL bought it for $315 million, and had some 272,000 subscribers in two years.
So when Andrew Ross Sorkin announces, rather proudly, that his blog, DealBook, will not be counted on the Times meter, one wonders how the decision was made. The reason DealBook readers are getting to read for free? "To honor our commitment to our loyal DealBook readers."
What is the specific business constituency within the Times that is rooting for the success of this venture? On Twitter, some of the reporters were almost obnoxious in their support for it—as though anyone who objected to being charged for the Times was a greedy infant; trust issues, again. It would be interesting to know, subtly and over time, how many Times journalists feel the pain of being behind a paywall and slowly start to turn cold on it; whether they feel, as Sorkin has said he does, that honoring a commitment to readers means free news. It's more profitable for a reporter, after all, to turn cold on management than on his or her readers.
Certainly the large, and profitable, ad sales department can't be in love with the reduced pageviews the meter implies in the short term. (There are interesting developments there, of course; one argument says that with registration comes user data, with user data comes behavioral ad targeting, with behavioral ad targeting come higher ad rates, so an article behind the paywall might, in time, actually earn more advertising dollars than one reached by one of the drive-by readers.) Patience is required, though. Whether that particular constituency has the patience to wait out a longer term, and whether in the meantime management will be able to hold firm to their paywall policies against their likely objections, can't possibly be clear anytime soon.
But we do know this about the Times, thanks to Keller. Each day is another opportunity to do it again, this time the right way. And that will stand the Times in good stead, as long as they're not too quick to judge yesterday's effort a mistake.
So why is it that the rhetoric of the Times' leadership doesn't betoken courage so much as defensiveness?
When it comes down to it, it's the Times that made itself into a giant news organization capable of fielding significant teams of brave reporters abroad. There's a reason they are not a nonprofit, and it has to do with their independence.
The Times should be unapologetic about its efforts to make itself financially healthy, honest about the costs in the short-term with readers and internal constituencies alike, and most importantly, the Times should not lecture its readers about their moral obligation to pay, especially if those imprecations are also snide about the competition as a way of reminding us what we'd be left with in their absence.
Times reporters, however, should be apologizing to readers they're losing, and should get them back by the sheer strength and speed and usefulness of their reporting. The organization needs to lose its bitterness and its self-righteousness and get back to business.