Monday, November 14, 2005

What next for the New York Times?

So in the wake of Judith Miller's resignation from the New York Times, just what is in store for America's "newspaper of record"?

The debacle over the Valerie Plame incident--and Miller's role in it--brought a great deal of criticism on the heads not only of Miller, but also those who run the New York Times - including its executive editor, Bill Keller and its publisher, Arthur Salzberger. But the focus of the criticism was on Miller herself--and some of it came from within the paper. It was clear that Miller had become an embarrassment for the paper. The Times's own public editor, or ombudsman, Byron Calame, opened up on his web site a public comments section that was inundated with submissions from outraged readers; he did this after penning his own stinging rebuke to Miller and the Times ("The Miller Mess: Lingering Issues Among the Answers")--a rebuke that included a call for Miller to quit. Maureen Dowd, another Times columnist, also more-or-less called on Miller not to go in a separate column the same week.

Elsewhere, the Times has had criticism heaped upon it from all sides. Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell called for Miller's head. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has stated in his influential Pressthink site that the paper is now only the second best paper in the country, after the Washington Post (and only just in front of the Wall Street Journal). In an interview with Howard Kurtz on CNN's Reliable Sources on Oct. 9, Rosen said that the Times
    has lost the capacity to tell the truth about itself in this story. It’s completely overidentified itself and the majesty of the institution with Judy Miller and what its own people describe as her personal decision making… It isn’t the First Amendment drama that they think it is. It’s a much more complicated, darker and ultimately dubious tale.

Glenn Reynolds and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, also appearing on that show, seemed to agree.

So just how much trouble is the Times really in? Well, the paper's not about to shut up shop and shuffle off into history - it's still far too important for that. The Times remains financially healthy, both on its own terms and as the core of a significant media mini-empire that includes nineteen newspapers (including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune), as well as eight TV stations and the widely syndicated New York Times News Service. Certainly it's true, as Slate's Jack Shafer points out, that this latest scandal - "like Jayson Blair's journalistic malfeasance and the embarrassments of the Wen Ho Lee episode before it - has sent the old gray palooka down to the mat once again, where we find it wheezing, bleeding, and struggling to find its feet." (The Jayson Blair incident, btw, also led to the resignation in 2003 of the Times' previous editor, Howell Raines in a cloud of uncertainty that seemed to infect all journalism for a while.) But the paper will get back up again, shake itself off, and keep going. Still, I note Rosen's position that the Times is no longer America's number one paper. I'm still pondering that one; but I am sure that the paper is in a continuing downward spiral, so if it's not number two - or three - yet, it could well slip down there before much longer. The New York Times has almost 110 years of accrued status, respectability and economic success - going all the way back to Adolph Ochs in 1896 - that keeps its stock high. But it can't keep taking hits like this forever.

American Journalism Review Editor Rem Reider, in a piece for his journal ("Life After Judy"), notes that, as far as the Times is concerned, "Now comes the hard part." The Times has to put its house in order . . . again!

Last word to AJR's Reider, who, among other things, compares the Times unfavorably to USA Today.
    Not long ago a journalism savant I respect a great deal made a very interesting point. He said he thought that USA Today had absorbed the painful lessons of the Jack Kelley scandal and implemented necessary changes. He wasn't sure the Times had been as successful in learning from its mistakes.

    So now it's up to Executive Editor Bill Keller to put the pieces back together. His handling of the Miller affair wasn't what you would call nimble. But he's a top-flight journalist and a respected figure in the newsroom (if not the world's most gregarious guy).

    One common thread runs through the Times' debacles: breakdowns in the editing process. Putting safeguards in place and applying them stringently will be key.

    It's also important that the Times level with its readers, consistently. While it did publish that extraordinary (and merciless) reconstruction of the Jayson Blair saga and – belatedly – weighed in on the Miller episode, it took far too long to address the WMD problems, and didn't address them all that well when it finally did.

    As for Times Publisher (and Times Co. Chairman) Arthur Sulzberger Jr., two of the major messes – the Raines selection and the paper's awkward Miller "entanglement" (to borrow a Bill Kellerism)--are on him.

    One thing's for sure. The Times is going to be one closely scrutinized news outlet for quite some time.

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