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Entertainment & Arts

Column: What’s wrong with the New York Times? Don’t ask its new media critic

BuzzFeed News Editor in Chief Ben Smith in 2018
BuzzFeed News Editor in Chief Ben Smith in 2018, in his office at BuzzFeed headquarters, where he worked before joining the New York Times.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The New York Times just debuted its new media critic, Ben Smith, with the headline “Why the Success of the Times May Be Bad News for Journalism” and I for one am very worried.

Not for journalism, for the New York Times.

It’s certainly a provocative headline — Ben Smith, most recently editor of the news site BuzzFeed, has just joined the staff of the New York Times and his first column is a criticism of his new employer?!? How counterintuitive! How courageous! Even “Morning Joe” was impressed enough to ask if Smith had managed to get fired on his very first day.

Why, it might even be considered a “hot take,” if Smith was not so famously anti-hot-take that he once pulled two columns from BuzzFeed because, as he said in a Tweet, “We are trying not to do hot takes.” (After near-universal outrage — both posts were critical of BuzzFeed advertisers — Smith apologized, reinstated the posts and later admitted he had bowed to advertiser pressure.)

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Hot, his new media take might have been. Courageous, however, not so much. “Isn’t it terrible that we’re so amazing no one else can even hope to compete?” is not a promising start for a media commentator.

After introducing himself via ironic meet-cute — at BuzzFeed, Smith was once so sure that he was part of a digital emergence that would “sweep aside dying legacy outlets like the Times” that he offered now NYT publisher A.G. Sulzberger a job — Smith says he will be focusing on the “consolidation of everything” including that of journalism by the NY Times.

By which he means that the NY Times has done such an admirable job of transitioning from print to digital and other forms of journalism that it now dominates the journalistic landscape. So much so that it has “absorbed many of the people who once threatened it,” including editors and reporters from Gawker, Recode, Quartz, Politico.

And, of course, BuzzFeed.

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Smith goes on to describe the NY Times’ “recent” success in many ways for many paragraphs, one of which actually describes the paper as rising “from wounded giant to reigning colossus.” Clearly, the NY Times puts journalism at risk because honestly, there is only so much self-congratulatory hyperbole a news organization can take.

No, wait, the NY Times puts journalism at risk because it may buy the podcast studio Serial Productions, potentially making it “the HBO of podcasts.” Or maybe it puts journalism at risk because even though the NY Times has (coughs self-deprecatingly) “more digital subscribers than the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the 250 local Gannett papers combined,” [ital his] it can’t hire all the journalists put out of work because … NY Times reporters start at more than a hundred grand a year? (Which is not that much when you consider the level of experience required to work at a reigning colossus.)

Actually I am not clear why, exactly, Smith seems to think the success of the NY Times makes it journalism’s Death Star because he never bothers to explain. Having been a journalist myself for lo these past 30-odd years, I have a few notions of what constitutes bad news for journalism, including but not limited to: the rising cost of paper; the precipitous decline of print advertising; the inability to build a sustainable advertising-based digital model; the creation of profit-driven, 24-hour cable news networks and then the politicizing of same; the power of search engines; the spread of digital and social media platforms; the ubiquity of smartphones; and the growing suspicion among consumers, including and especially our president, that members of the media are inherently biased. Oh, and no more classified ads.

All of that has led to the shuttering and downsizing of many fine news organizations, which does indeed, as Smith says, pose a threat to democracy, both politically and culturally.

But the ability of the NY Times to find paths to relative success despite the obstacles all news organizations face does not make it one of those obstacles. Would it be good for journalism if it had not?

Having watched the Los Angeles Times chipped, chiseled and then sledgehammered by market forces and owners who were, at best, hideously irresponsible, only to have it recently saved at the 11th hour by a local billionaire, I know that digital disruption is real and very scary.

I also know that even at legacy journalism’s darkest hour, no sentient being thought BuzzFeed was going to sweep aside the NY Times.

Deservedly, and occasionally not, the NY Times has long been the newspaper to beat. It has always cherry-picked from its competitors, and its rock-solid reputation has allowed it to survive scandal (Jayson Blair), mistakes (those weapons of mass destruction) and myopia (don’t get me started on its many near-fictitious depictions of Los Angeles) that would have felled or deeply wounded other news organizations.

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That it is succeeding in this time of transition while others fail or continue to struggle is not surprising, it’s reassuring.

Granting a few news sources outsized influence has its dangers, of course, even in the best of times (see, please, the war in Iraq). But Smith does not analyze the perils of pride, which include the time-honored belief that the northeast corridor is the center of the universe, or even the more philosophical difficulties of seeking “domination” in a profession that purports to support the common good. At some point, one hopes that Americans will tire of having every state that was not an original colony described in ways that defy reality and subscribe to or resurrect their local paper/website (hint: If you think the media is too East Coast elite, subscribe to or watch outlets originating in other places).

But Smith does not even touch on that. Nor does he offer any examples of how the “reigning colossus” has harmed journalism, either through reportorial misadventure or omission, or how its “uneasy competition of dueling traditions” has damaged the culture.

I myself can think of several specific examples, but I don’t think any of them pose an existential threat to journalism itself, and who am I to do Smith’s job for him? (I’m also very curious about what exactly “Times executives” mean when they say they are “looking for a way to help out their weaker cousins” and if any of my fellow journalists would pay, say, 20 bucks for a T-shirt saying, “Do I look like a weaker cousin?” DM me if so.)

More important, having raised what he considers a problem, Smith does not offer a solution or even a way forward. Is the NY Times supposed to stop growing? Should it buy that “small handful of news organizations scraping by on local subscriptions”? Or is “NY Times ruins journalism” just a done deal, until, of course, AT&T sues for use of “the HBO of podcasts.”

Certainly nowhere in his column does Smith suggest that readers should stop reading him or even augment their worldview by subscribing to another outlet in addition to the NY Times. Which actually would have been a very cool thing for him to do. Instead, under the guise of analysis, Smith praises his new employer in prose as breathless as an “omg you’re so stunning I hate you” Instagram reply.

The column itself, however, does support the headline. If this is what passes for media analysis, then success of the New York Times may be bad news for journalism indeed.


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