New York Times Suffers a Leak of Its Own

new york timesThe New York Times (NYT), long a publisher of leaks about other institutions, has now suffered a leak of its own in the wake of the sudden departure of former executive editor Jill Abramson, the first woman ever to hold that post, after only three years on the job. The leaked document is a 96 page report entitled “Innovation,” which was subtitled “NYT Innovation Report 2014,” when it was published on the BuzzFeed Business website yesterday. The document is purportedly a compilation of the findings of a team of NYT reporters, headed by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, son and presumptive heir of New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who were given the task of investigating the newspaper’s own “digital strategy.”

Confidence in the legitimacy of the documents has been bolstered by the appearance of an in-depth summary of the report’s findings on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s website, which is a subsidiary of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, home of the prestigious Nieman Fellowship program for journalists. The Journalism Lab’s mission is to bridge the gap between traditional print journalism and the new “digital” journalism. The Innovations report clearly champions the cause of digital journalism at what is sometimes called, “the paper of record,” making it required reading for the Journalism Lab’s clientele.

Appearing just one day after Ms. Abramson’s “summary execution” as executive editor, there appears to be a clear correlation between the Abramson termination and the appearance of the document, which seems to discredit the widespread belief that Abramson’s abrasive personal style and her rigid journalistic policies caused her dismissal. Instead, the sudden appearance of a closely held internal document on a website devoted to the promotion of digital news media may have been timed to give the management of the newspaper some cover against an expected backlash over the dismissal of the first woman to serve as executive editor as a case of gender bias.

Rumors have been circulating for months about the extreme dissatisfaction and internal tensions in the managerial offices of “The Gray Lady,” as the paper is often called, over Abramson’s management of the paper’s affairs. Much of that dissatisfaction has been coming from the New York Times “digital team,” reporters whose work is published almost exclusively in digital version of the newspaper. Some reports about the firing suggest that were gender biased compensation issues, others claim the dismissal stemmed from bad blood between the publisher and the editor, but there is widespread agreement that Abramson was not on the same page with the rest of the newspaper’s management about the increasing role that the digital publication will play in the future of the company.

A review of the leaked report appears to confirm that belief because the report, edited by the newspaper’s heir apparent, criticizes itself by comparison with new digital competitors, ignoring comparisons with the newspaper’s traditional competition: other newspapers. The mostly younger reporters who were responsible for compiling the report cited the widespread belief that the executive editor placed too much importance on producing news for the front page of the print edition, and focused the paper’s resources on preparing stories according to the evening deadlines for the morning edition of the paper. The biggest complaint in the report, which New York Times spokespersons claim is only a draft and not the final product, was that most of the senior editors were not familiar with “the web” and did not know how to evaluate articles written for a website rather than a newspaper.

In one of the most telling quotes, the report asserts that, “The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content: ‘We must push back against our perfectionist impulses. Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.’ (p. 31)”

This is the smoking gun because it clearly delineates a dramatic rift between the Times as a newspaper and the Times as a digital content provider, and identifies the source of the discontent as the degree of polish required for the newspaper’s “other efforts.” The clear implication is that the mean old busybodies in the City Room were objecting to the laissez-faire attitude that the “digital cowboys” have toward the prim and proper, buttoned down newsroom’s insistence on such variables as grammar, punctuation and the finer points of reporting, such as corroboration and documentation.

Unlike a real ink and paper newspaper, which has a limited number of editorial inches available for each edition, and rigid deadlines that have to be met in order to make sure that presses start rolling according to schedule, a digital edition has no space constraints and no deadlines. Digital publications do, however, have a greater urgency to get stories onto their websites.

In the new world of digital journalism, there is a greater necessity to “scoop the competition” because most news stories today are generated from the same sources, including press conferences, press releases, and “spot coverage” from broadcast news media, which are now often the first news organizations to “break” a story. To an ever-increasing extent, it appears that written journalism, whether it is printed on sheets of newsprint, or posted online, are actually rehashes of stories that have been broken by broadcast journalists.

When reporters are working from the same sources, the first reporter to get a story online gets more than the credit for breaking a story; they also get protection from “copyscaping.” Copyscaping is a generic term for the automated plagiarism checkers (one of which is, indeed, called that compare anything published online to everything else that has been published online to identify potential acts of plagiarism.

Therein, as the saying goes, lays the rub, because, when journalists are working off the same source materials, they are very likely to have written very similar articles so that, after the first one gets published, following articles must be rewritten over and over again so as to avoid “copyscape hits.” Thus, while it might seem as if digital journalists have all the time in the world get their stories edited and published, they actually do not have more time to spend polishing their writing. On the contrary, they are under the gun, all the time, 24 hours a day, to get stories out faster than the competition.

This is where the battle lines are being drawn between traditional journalism and digital journalism, where the finer points of proper copy editing are less important than gaining a few minutes advantage over the competition. In their haste to get their articles online, however, digital reporters are often haphazard about the niceties of grammar, punctuation, fact checking and story corroboration, all of which are the hallmarks of a great newspaper.

In the days before digital printing, when everything was set on hot lead Linotype machines and the slugs of type produced by the Linotype operators were fitted into the galley forms one line of type at a time, mistakes were very costly both in terms of time and money. That is why every single article appearing in a daily newspaper was given anywhere from 15 to 20 “reads” by at least 10 different people before it “got into ink,” as the saying used to go.

Today, more often than not, digital stories are only read by three, two or one other person, and occasionally by no one other than the author of the article. As a result, stories are finding their way into digital publications that have not been vetted properly. In self-defense, digital media reporters are quick to point out that corrections are easily made to digital materials….and that is precisely the problem for the old-fashioned print journalists who still control most of the newspapers in America.

In a scenario reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, today’s digital journalists are perfectly able, and capable, of rewriting stories when errors of fact are pointed out, without leaving any paper trail behind. They are also capable of deliberately distorting facts to create a certain effect, and then deleting the distortions after the desired effect has been achieved, just as Winston Smith, the protagonist in Orwell’s novel does, rewriting previous written news articles to reflect changes in Big Brother’s policies. (During World War II, Orwell’s wife, Eileen Blair, actually worked in the Censorship Office of the British Ministry of Information, where she performed precisely the same services that Winston Smith performed in the novel, editing newspaper articles to reflect official British policy.)

Anyone who grew up in the days when Linotype machine still clattered away in newspaper composing rooms cannot help seeing the obvious analogies between Winston Smith’s fictional occupation and the very real, yet surrealistic, world in which digital journalists operate today. Here is a secret: everyone who is old enough to have been around back then has read Orwell’s novel and is therefore unable to escape the obvious parallels between Orwell’s fictional Ministry of Truth and the modern digital newsroom that produces today’s online journalism. Here is another secret: most of them are scared to death by what they have seen so far, and terrified about what may be coming around the bend.

The conflict between traditional and digital journalists is heating up all over the world as more and more pointed questions are being asked about the quality of the reporting that goes into the news, and the quality of the editorial supervision over the product that news organizations produce. A recent case in point has been the coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 which, after two months’ worth of intensive 24 hour news coverage, degenerated to the point where one CNN report suggested that the missing aircraft was a victim of alien abduction.

The conflation of news with entertainment has become an increasingly serious issue, with several comedy programs masquerading as news programs, to the point where some of them have actually become sources of breaking news before becoming news stories in their own right. Digital publications, which rely heavily on video advertising for revenue, are increasingly supported by clips from entertainment programs that appear at the beginning and sometimes in the middle of news stories….and most publications have little or not control over what appears on their digital pages, because those advertising slots are managed by third-party entities.

The summary conclusion among digital editors surveyed about the leaked report is that it may be an artifact of a popular rebellion by a group of Young Turks against the entrenched leadership of a group of older, more traditionally trained editors. The Young Turks are just not happy about working under the entrenched leadership of digital Luddites who do not want to learn about the new technology. The older folks are not happy about the changes that the digital revolution has wrought upon the newspaper industry, nor are they sanguine about betting the New York Times’ future as the paper of record for the entire world on those newfangled inventions. Stay tuned for further developments. This story is going to be around for a while.

By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner

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