Economic Pressure on the Newspaper Business Model and Elitism at the NYT

by lizard

Political reporting in Montana is abysmal. Don Pogreba has been writing that beat for awhile, and he’s right, for the most part (though his criticism is more focused on disparities that negatively impact the candidates he supports). Still, Lee Enterprise’s various fish wraps (newspapers) continue to struggle in the changing media landscape with a business model that has absorbed personnel cuts while slowly trying to shift from a reliance on advertising revenue to shaking down readers for access to online content.

The result: a tepid, pro-business slant that doesn’t fully inform its customers.

There are bright spots, like John S. Adams (you can read his piece on Dispirited Democrats here) but for the most part the constraints of the business model are painfully apparent.

The slant is by no means new. The difference is the competition. When content can be so easily created and shared, the monopoly on information the business model once enjoyed is challenged. How newspapers choose to respond—paywalls, staff cuts, etc.—is interesting to watch. And to write about for free on a Sunday morning.

This particular Sunday morning I read an op-ed about the obvious appeal to the wealthy from the New York Times, and the quote from Executive Editor, Dean Baquet, is priceless. But before the quote, here’s a bit of the framing from Margaret Sullivan, the NYT’s Public Editor who wrote the piece:

DAVID Gonzalez approached the South Bronx street-corner preacher and said he was from The New York Times.

“He had just been shouting fire, brimstone and eternal damnation,” recalled Mr. Gonzalez, at that time, in 1991, the Bronx bureau chief. But when the preacher heard the Times affiliation, his face brightened. “He told me that he really liked our opera coverage.”

It was a lesson in not making assumptions about just who reads The Times — a topic that I often hear about from readers who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.

It’s not hard to see why they feel that way. The featured apartments with their $10 million price tags and white-glove amenities seem aimed at hedge fund managers, if not Russian oligarchs. The stories on doughnuts at $20 a half dozen are for those who are flush with disposable income, not struggling to pay the rent. Many of the parties, the fashions, even the gadgets are well beyond the reach of the middle class.

The NYT features an elitist slant with a thin liberal veneer. Some people who identify as liberal get defensive when this is pointed out. But maybe, just maybe the elitist assumptions are wrong, as the anecdotal story this op-ed leads with highlights.

Sullivan goes on to ask the question, not just to readers but to Dean Baquet himself, and his response is quite telling:

So who is The Times written for — the superwealthy, or for citizens of all income levels? Is the paper trying, in the axiom about journalism’s mission, to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”? Or is it plumping the Hungarian goose-down pillows of the already quite cozy?

I asked the executive editor, Dean Baquet, whom he has in mind when he directs coverage and priorities.

“I think of The Times reader as very well-educated, worldly and likely affluent,” he said. “But I think we have as many college professors as Wall Street bankers.”

What a smug son of a gun.

The NYT helped the Bush administration manipulate the American public to lead us into a disastrous war that’s cascaded into the whole region being destabilized, producing more extremism as a brutal side-effect. The NYT also withheld James Risen’s story about Americans being spied on, saving the Bush administration from answering tough questions before the 2004 election.

Liberals shouldn’t be defensive of the NYT, they should be angry and weary of a newspaper with that kind of power and track record.

Both locally and nationally, it’s important to recognize the voices of those impacted by the recklessness of Wall Street and the complicity of our elected officials continue to be marginalized. The op-ed goes on to try and defend the NYT times, but the perspective of the Executive Editor pretty much says it all.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote traced back to Finley Peter Dunne about the role of newspapers:

“It’s the job of the newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

  1. The job of journalists as I see it is to find out what powerful people are doing and report to us about it. They don’t see it that way. They see Objectivity as a virtue, which conveniently allows them to avoid confronting power.

    But liberals in the early 20th century were more in tune with the role journalism in the shadow of power: its role is engineer consent of the masses for the goals of the powerful.

    They may lie to themselves about their role, or even be clueless about it, but that’s all they do.

    • JC

      Even Taibbi is quivering right now, as he escaped from Omidyar’s grasp. Greenwald is not so lucky, or is content where he is.

      Of course, Pando’s story is another in a long running feud between Pando and First Look and Taibbi.

      • lizard19

        thanks for that link, JC. I think Greenwald is right at home in the hypocrisy, but obviously Taibbi and Wheeler couldn’t take the ick factor of working for another billionaire trying to be king maker in places like India.

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