Making News at The New York Times

Making News at The New York Times

by Nikki Usher

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Making News at The New York Times is the first in-depth portrait of the nation’s, if not the world's, premier newspaper in the digital age. It presents a lively chronicle of months spent in the newsroom observing daily conversations, meetings, and journalists at work. We see Page One meetings, articles developed for online and print from start to finish, the creation of ambitious multimedia projects, and the ethical dilemmas posed by social media in the newsroom. Here, the reality of creating news in a 24/7 instant information environment clashes with the storied history of print journalism, and the tensions present a dramatic portrait of news in the online world.

This news ethnography brings to bear the overarching value clashes at play in a digital news world. The book argues that emergent news values are reordering the fundamental processes of news production. Immediacy, interactivity, and participation now play a role unlike any time before, creating clashes between old and new. These values emerge from the social practices, pressures, and norms at play inside the newsroom as journalists attempt to negotiate the new demands of their work. Immediacy forces journalists to work in a constant deadline environment, an ASAP world, but one where the vaunted traditions of yesterday's news still appear in the next day's print paper. Interactivity, inspired by the new user-computer directed capacities online and the immersive Web environment, brings new kinds of specialists into the newsroom, but exacts new demands upon the already taxed workflow of traditional journalists. And at time where social media presents the opportunity for new kinds of engagement between the audience and media, business executives hope for branding opportunities while journalists fail to truly interact with their readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035960
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 05/28/2014
Series: The New Media World Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 294
Sales rank: 1,224,682
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nikki Usher is Associate Professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University.

Read an Excerpt

Making News at The New York Times

By Nikki Usher

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Nikki Usher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12049-9




What was remarkably different about The Times in 2010 is that reporters were not, on a day-to-day level, concerned with losing their jobs or seeing the paper go out of print, unlike those at many other major newspapers. As Bill Keller said on Pulitzer Day in 2010, when the newspaper took home three prizes, "We are here to take note that the death of journalism has been greatly exaggerated. It is alive and well and feisty, especially at The New York Times." And then a celebration began, complete with champagne in plastic cups, as the newsroom stepped back in a moment that reveled in the collaboration among print, online, and digital innovation. This was not a newsroom consumed with self-pity, fear, or concern about its fate in the future. Occasional jokes were made about the dismal price of Times Co. stock (actually, people were excited when it climbed back above twelve dollars, down from a past high in recent memory of fifty-one dollars in 2002, and up from its extreme low of four dollars in 2009). As journalist Jennifer Anderson told me:

It's popular when I'm at dinner parties for people to ask me how it feels to work when journalism is dying. I don't think about it. I just do my job every day. I don't have time to think about it. And I don't think that's the case here.

The Times still has resources unlike any other newspaper in the country, with over one thousand people on its editorial staff. This fact alone brings comfort to many journalists I spoke with. Thus, my fieldwork tells a story principally about digital change, rather than one about journalists coping with economic desperation.

However, it is important to provide the appropriate setting and context for this study of The Times. Why 2010? Why this moment in journalism? Thus, this chapter offers a brief review of what many observers of journalism know too well — a tale of the decline of traditional newspapers. But this is not one more "death of news" story, though there are certainly potential economic costs and benefits associated with The Times being able to adapt to the digital age — and with how immediacy, interactivity, and participation become part and parcel of newswork. Thus, to ground the book as a whole, it is important to give you a sense of the economic state of The Times when I entered the newsroom, though unlike most other newsrooms, journalists were largely oblivious to management objectives.

But how did The Times even get to this point in 2010? There has been no real Web history of the news organization; it remains a scattered story, with bits and pieces held by various members of the newsroom. When conducting final research on the Web history, I had a few questions, but after a round of thirty buyouts in 2013, I was told that a lot of institutional memory had just walked out the door. Thus, I preserve in one place what we know about The Times' transition to the digital age as a jumping-off point for the larger study.

The Dark Times for News and New Chances for Innovation

Newsrooms, particularly those of print newspapers, are in serious trouble. Print circulations have been declining for decades, but the acceleration has increased to the point where the newspaper industry has seen circulation dips ranging from .7 percent to seven percent in the past half-dozen years. On one level, this is just an economic problem facing news. On another level, this is a serious problem for the state of American democracy. When newspapers lose circulation, they not only lose subscribers, but are also forced to charge less for advertising. The decline in profits reverberates to the very core of the capacity of newspapers to do original news reporting. With less money in, there's less to spend on the kind of public service journalism that takes time, effort, labor, and resources.

News organizations thought they could make up print declines through online advertising, but this is a strategy that has proven remarkably unstable. The online ad numbers we see now, which go up and down each quarter, are misleading. Online ads are often bundled with print ads, and once those print ads go, the online ads go as well. Online, advertisers know exactly how many people are paying attention to their ads, thanks to being able to track clicks. In the print newspaper, advertisers really can't track who is seeing what ad; if you get the paper, you presumably are counted as seeing the ad. Perhaps worse for newspapers is the fact that advertisers have realized they don't need newspapers to reach customers: they can reach consumers directly online. The middleman — the news organization — is then left out of the picture.

The recessions of the 2000s — the first blip at the beginning of the decade and then the second, more crushing recession following the 2007-8 financial crisis — have been particularly harsh for newspapers. Advertisers had less to spend and were less willing to experiment with online ads, and as a result, newsrooms (like many other industries) have suffered a great deal. The difference between the news industry and other industries is that the problem does not go away when the economy gets better; rather, there's a systemic problem with the core financial model of print newspapers. Print newspapers are running out of time, as Times media reporter David Carr notes:

Between operational fiascos and flailing attempts to slash costs on the fly, it's clear that the print newspaper business, which has been fretting over a looming crisis for the last 15 years, is struggling to stay afloat. There are smart people trying to innovate, and tons of great journalism is published daily, but the financial distress is more visible by the week.

Leaders from across the news industry, academics, and those concerned with civic affairs — from big-name billionaires to tech entrepreneurs — are deeply worried about the future of news. Academics like Paul Starr of Princeton have pointed out that our "civic alarm systems" are in great danger, given the steady erosion of local, state, national, and international reporting. Major reports have noted the decline of newspapers, long seen as the source of the bulk of original news reporting. The top twenty-five American newspapers have all seen declines in circulation for consecutive years; even The Wall Street Journal, which added paid online subscribers to its circulation numbers, has seen a small dip.

Newspaper newsrooms are 30 percent smaller than they were in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media Report. One industry analyst, Ken Doctor, estimates that, with all the newsroom layoffs, journalists are producing something like eight hundred thousand fewer stories a year. News stories themselves have pointed out even more jarring details: A Times story reported that, over the course of 2009, the San Francisco Chronicle had lost 20.6 percent of its circulation. It was not uncommon for former journalists like Alex Jones, now of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, to mourn the loss of the "iron core" of investigative reporting — a core that has faded as newsrooms have tried to do more with less and appeal to readers with softer, tabloid-style news.

And as C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky write in their report Post-Industrial Journalism (referencing the fact that we have now entered a stage where the old "industrial" model is now finished):

The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news in the United States. On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.

Despite all we might say about the problems with traditional news — from journalists being too close to sources, to journalists writing with too much (or too little) regard for objectivity, to a lack of interest in and coverage of a myriad of social and economic issues — traditional news outlets are still important. Newspapers continue to provide the bedrock of original news coverage for most communities, the source for the more highly watched local TV news. Wire reporting from the AP offers some distinctive, useful work, but a steady supply of specific, local-interest reporting has never been its strength.

Thus, it is significant that the number of reporters at state houses and in Washington, in particular, has been downsized by newsroom chains looking to save money. The journalists at The San Diego Union-Tribune who won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting covering US Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham's trail of corruption no longer have a Washington bureau. The number of journalists covering New Jersey's state capitol of Trenton has declined from thirty-five in 2003 to just fifteen in 2009. In Texas, state house reporters dropped from twenty-eight to eighteen; in Georgia, from fourteen to six. With fewer eyes representing local communities to pay attention to the actions of those in power, Starr is right to sound an alarm about failure to catch corruption.

There's also a graveyard of newspapers — some closed, others bankrupt, still others anemic shells of their former selves. The two sorriest tales might be the 2009 deaths of the print dailies the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-I signed off after 146 years (and is now only online). These, at least, were in two-newspaper towns. The Philadelphia Inquirer, after being sold following the breakup of Knight-Ridder newspapers, has been bankrupt and passed along through four owners over the course of five years. Great newspaper chains have collapsed: the Tribune Company, sold in December 2007 for $8.2 billion to real estate tycoon Sam Zell, went bankrupt amid mismanagement and poor economic fortunes. Still, not all is lost, and journalists are still able to do some amazing work at these places. In 2012, The Philadelphia Inquirer managed to take home top honors from the Pulitzer committee with the prestigious prize for public service for its work on Philadelphia public schools.

The disturbing part about all of these stories of decline is that no one seems to have any answers for how to fix the traditional journalism model, though these businesses are trying. Newspapers that were once dailies have cut back to publishing three times a week or just online-only to save costs. In a move that prompted outcry from employees (two hundred of whom have since lost their jobs) and community members, Advance Publications made the decision to cut the still-profitable The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) to a three-day-a-week print paper. In this, Advance was following the path set first by the Detroit Free Press. The Christian Science Monitor and The Capital Times in Wisconsin have both pioneered an online-only publishing strategy. Whether any of these moves were cost saving or destructive is hard to tell. Newspapers get most of their revenue, still, from the print newspaper advertising and subscription base, but print also constitutes a tremendous expenditure of capital resources.

As I write this book, we are at the dawn of the "new" paywall era in news organizations — sites where you have to pay to access content. The Wall Street Journal has always had an online paywall — in part because it could reliably target a class of business professionals (who could likely expense their subscriptions). But until recently, few general-interest newspapers had tried the experiment. The New York Times had an aborted effort from 2005-07 with TimesSelect, a for-pay subscription to read columnists online, along with some other features. They canned it, according to a letter to readers, as an effort to preserve the news ecology's demand for debate and discourse.

The Times was considered fairly revolutionary when it introduced what was called the "metered paywall" on March 17, 2011. Each visitor would be given twenty free articles a month (reduced in 2012 to ten), and then asked to pay for a digital subscription (which could be coupled cheaply with a print subscription). The paywall was intentionally porous: articles sent via social networks were free and didn't count toward this number. As The Times' spokesperson Eileen Murphy put it, this was so The Times could remain "open to all and an integral part of the social Web." The Times has been able to gain subscribers in print and digital. Other organizations have followed suit, although with different models: Gannett newspapers (with the exception of USA Today), the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe all employ some hybrid paid model for their online content. Since I studied The Times, 450 American newsrooms out of 1,380 dailes have launched paywall editions.

However, early reports back on paywalls suggest that only the largest news organizations are likely to see gains from them. A number of different models exist, from The Times' incredibly porous model to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's paywall (in place since 2002), where readers are charged to read anything that appeared in print in the newspaper. For some local news sites, this may stop the slow but inevitable bleed as their newspapers decline. Ryan Chittum has declared in the Columbia Journalism Review that the paywall is over, suggesting that there is no evidence that it will work and that newspapers are unlikely to gain additional revenue. The Star Tribune (Minneapolis) has reported that only a small percentage of its readers have subscribed to the paywall.

These changes to the news industry were set in a time of both economic collapse and incredible innovation. The year 2010 brought with it the birth of the iPad, which revolutionized tablet computing. The social Web continued to grow, as Facebook expanded its membership to include approximately one-sixth of the world's population, going "public" in a functional sense long before it did so as an investment vehicle. Broadband expansion continued to boom, and wireless and mobile communication was cheaper than ever before (though data storage had become an increasing problem). Search, aggregation, and peer-produced content had made information increasingly accessible.

And amid all these sorrowful tales of foundering traditional news outlets, there were also exciting areas of news innovation. We are seeing the results now, as online news organizations are reaching bigger audiences than ever before on sites like Buzzfeed, which, despite regular streams of animal photo slideshows, has embarked on a massive hiring spree to boost original content. The Huffington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2012 for a ten-part series on severely wounded veterans. The site leverages a combination of celebrity news and commentary with original content for massive traffic. Niche online content is also doing well. Politico, which does have a print newspaper, offers a select, for-pay version of political news. Talking Points Memo, which began as a start-up blog, provides leftist political coverage, and its blend of political news and opinion keeps the site able to provide in-depth coverage of national politics. The Atlantic is touting Quartz, a Web-native site, attracting journalists from The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere to participate in the experiment. Other niche blogs, like SCOTUSblog, which monitors the Supreme Court, have gained avid followings.

Foundation-supported newsrooms have begun to supplement the news ecosystem, at least in some ways. The Texas Tribune, an outfit funded by a venture capitalist that has now attracted corporate sponsors, provides detailed news about Texas, tackling subjects from politics to immigration. Its work appears not only online but also in The New York Times, among other partners. ProPublica, first financed by the Sandler family with a $10 million grant, operates much the same way. It, too, has won Pulitzers and has made crowdsourcing public documents a regular part of its reporting. Smaller nonprofit ventures like the MinnPost and the Voice of San Diego are supported by philanthropic institutions like the Knight Foundation, memberships, events and other revenue streams but still lack backers offering major funding for the moment. Their impact, while widely touted among the news-about-the-news community, remains small within the general audience for news. Matthew Hindman has noted that traffic to these sites is so small that it does not even register on sites that measure Internet traffic.


Excerpted from Making News at The New York Times by Nikki Usher. Copyright © 2014 Nikki Usher. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Times in the Digital Age 1

1 Setting: News about the News: The Times in 2010 30

2 Three Days in the Lives of New York Times Journalists 49

3 The Irony of Immediacy 87

4 Immediacy: To What End? 125

5 Interactivity: What Is It? Who Are These People? And Why? 150

6 Participation, Branding, and the New New York Times 186

7 Prelude to What? 216

Methods 242

Notes 247

Bibliography 257

Index 275

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