A goodbye to teary newsroom scenes? Why Friday’s wake at the ‘Times’ was undercovered

The New York Times building. (wallyg via flickr)
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My former colleague Doree Shafrir has a smart post on BuzzFeed about The Way The New York Times is Covered Now.

Case in point: While I and other media reporters were scrambling to keep track of and break news on every single buyout-taker whose name was leaking out of 620 8th Avenue in recent weeks, we all missed the more colorful scenes that were unfolding in the newsroom last Friday:

Late Friday afternoon, inside The New York Times building at 40th Street and 8th Avenue, around 100 staffers gathered on the second floor to bid farewell to sports editor Joe Sexton, who, in a speech that lasted around 45 minutes, quoted Irish poetry and, it was observed, teared up more than once.

It's possible there were several others in the crowd who felt like crying too. Friday was a grim day at the paper: An email had gone out telling everyone where and when editors who were taking the buyout would be saying their good-byes, and more than a few staffers trudged loyally from the Business desk toast to departing editors David Gallagher and Winnie O'Kelly to assistant managing editor Jim Roberts' farewell speech in the Page One conference room to Sexton's, and finally to news editor Paul Winfield's. (In between was a private, Culture desk–only good-bye to culture editor Jonathan Landman.)

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Absent from our dispatches, Shafrir notes, was a "real glimpse inside the newsroom ... what the rank and file are feeling ... temperature-taking"—precisely the type of narrative-friendly material that's always been expected from those covering the paper of record.

Instead:

The articles about the buyouts have been focused mostly on the news of who's taking them, with a few boilerplate quotes in each from editors saying things like "the time had come" (often with quotes from Twitter about the departures), or a reproduced memo about the buyout.

(And yes, the following line refers to me, although Doree was kind enough to omit my name: "At one publication, the reporter covering the buyouts freelances for the Times." Of course I can't argue with her that the fact I recently did two freelance pieces for Styles is "hardly an ideal situation when covering the paper." Perhaps neither is the fact that BuzzFeed has collaborated closely with the Times on video coverage, but really the bottom line is that certain things just aren't as black-and-white as they used to be.)

Shafrir continues (and I stress here that it's worth reading her article in its entirety):

Until very recently, the Times was the towering institution in American media, the object of endless fascination and obsession. (At the New York Observer, former editor Peter Kaplan was fond of saying that reporters should cover the Times as though it were the Pentagon.) Just a few years ago, the opening paragraphs of this piece might have been the beginning of a story in the Observer, or WWD, or Gawker, or a number of other publications who covered the inner workings of The New York Times like it was their job — which, in many cases, including mine for a time, it was. When I worked at Gawker in 2006 and 2007, we were obsessed with everything the Times did, and when I got to the Observer in the fall of 2007, the media desk was soon focused on the still-developing story of the Wall Street Journal sale to News Corp — and what it would mean for the Times. At the Observer, media reporters were essentially on the Times beat, channeling Kaplan's laser-sharp focus on the paper of record. But those days are long gone. Now, Kaplan is the editor of men's lifestyle quarterly M, former Observer media reporter John Koblin — who broke many of the paper's biggest stories about the Times — is writing about sports at Deadspin, and if Gawker writes about the Times at all, it's usually just to discuss a low-hanging-fruit story in the Styles section. Now, the best we can hope for is a New York Magazine post-mortem three months from now.

I'm not sure I agree that there is no longer any "laser-sharp focus" on the Times. ("@doreeshafrir noticed that nobody covers the New York Times anymore," BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith summarized on Twitter, which is no more reductive than Twitter always is, but is reductive nonetheless.) There are still great media reporters (like Edmund Lee, Dylan Byers, Michael Calderone, Erik Maza, Keith Kelly to name just a few among others I've surely overlooked!) covering the minutiae of the Times to the extent that Jill Abramson spilling her milk in the cafeteria might just pass as news. Arguably, the focus has become much more "laser-sharp," which is to say, scenes that show the emotional fallout of all these big changes have to take more of a backseat to make room for an endless stream of hard newsbreaks; and then the stories that would use those anecdotes have no news in them—they feel too old and everyone seems to have moved on, by the time they can be put together nicely and published.

In my own coverage of the Times since becoming Capital's media reporter a year and a half ago, I've made a feature out of cornering Abramson in an Irish pub; broken news about company strategy initiatives and done a deep dive on the paper's digital pay model. These are not exactly what Shafrir is talking about, I don't think. But similar to the more behind-the-scenes nugget she uncovered in her own reporting on the buyouts, I've also reconstructed emotional newsroom gatherings in which well-loved staffers have bid farewell or even been mourned. Nor am I above good old-fashioned gossip, such as my chronicling of the love life of Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

But this is not a defense. Shafrir is absolutely right: the coverage is not as obsessed or exhaustive as it was back in the days when the Times was to Peter Kaplan's young proteges as the State Department was to, well, the Times.

Shafrir's explanation for the sea change is right on the mark:

Media reporting has itself changed: The pressure to be first has only gotten more intense, and often that breaking of news, particularly in media, is taking place on Twitter. And for a young reporter, what used to be the rewards of the media beat — getting to know everyone in media very quickly, often because they're calling you up to yell at you, and then gaining their respect, and then eventually moving on — seem less vital in the age of the at-reply.

But the importance and prominence of our media institutions have shifted too. The intrigue behind the walls of the old-school media giants that I was obsessed with back in 2006 and 2007 — the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast — seems much less, well, intriguing when the narrative hinges on layoffs, not innovation. So maybe that's why no one reported on last Friday's wake; it was just another depressing sign of an industry in the throes of wrenching contraction.

I'd add one other notable development, which also owes to the new media reality: These days, there is simply so much more ground to cover, and, generally speaking, fewer media reporters at any one given publication to cover it.

I worked with Shafrir at the Observer during the not-very-long-ago era she describes in her piece. Back then, to use the Observer as just one example, there were three editors for the media columns (Capital co-founder Tom McGeveran—who also happens to be editing this post—Alexandra Jacobs, and Hillary Frey); a separate media editor for the web (Matt Haber) who also blogged all day long as well as writing features; a print media reporter (John Koblin); a TV news reporter (Felix Gillette); a digital-media reporter (Gillian Reagan, now Capital's public editor); a publishing reporter (Leon Neyfakh); other general reporters like Shafrir who would contribute media coverage when needed or when they had a great story idea; and a small army of interns who could usually be counted on to do news briefs or buttonhole media figures at events when Koblin's Off the Record column, Haber's blog or The Transom had a hole to fill. 

Maybe two of those positions still exist there in any useful analogue. But moreover, it's hard to remember that when Reagan started on the digital-media beat in 2009, it still felt entirely novel to be covering publications like The Huffington Post or The Daily Beast or even the Times' own digital goings-on. In fact, in terms of finding readership, it was downright risky.

No more! Today, those topics are just as ripe for relentless reporting—if not more so. And that's not counting Reuters and Bloomberg and Atlantic Media and Gawker Media and Business Insider and all the other once-overlooked news brands around which media reporters are increasingly expected to develop sources and expertise.

One more thing to add about those Friday farewells: We did know about them, because the Times' own reporters were tweeting and Instagramming them themselves. A funny thought is the possibility of self-reporting these scenes from newsrooms. In that model, the highly-trained and experienced staff of the New York Times become, for moments at a time, citizen journalists themselves, robbing the bread from the hungry media-reporting mouths of places like us and the Observer and New York and WWD. Whether that is a good or bad thing, it's true. One wonders if the teary newsroom scene isn't a better Storify than an Observer piece for the front page, the following Wednesday.