The hermetic and arrogant New York Times

By Felix Salmon
May 8, 2011

The NYT employs some of the smartest and ablest users and analysts of social media: it’s probably the most sophisticated newspaper in America on that front. And then it has dinosaurs like Bill Keller and Arthur Brisbane, whose respective columns this weekend betray the fact that the people with the bully pulpits are stuck in a completely different world, seemingly ignorant of some of the biggest stories in social media.

Brisbane is the NYT’s ombudsman, and today he describes the way that the paper broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Well, he can’t do that, because the NYT didn’t break the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. But he ignores the people who did break the news, and just tells the story of how the official NYT machine worked. His story starts at 10:34 last Sunday night, when a source told NYT reporter Helene Cooper that Osama had been killed. By 10:40, an alert was up on nytimes.com. Then, by Brisbane’s account, Twitter got involved:

One minute after Ms. Cooper’s news alert was posted on the Web, Jeff Zeleny, The Times’s national political correspondent, posted on Twitter: “NYT’s Helene Cooper confirming that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. President to announce shortly from the White House.”

At virtually the same time, Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor, sent a similar Twitter message. Next to come was an automated Twitter post generated by NYTimes.com, regurgitating the original news alert.

Those links are all Brisbane’s, by the way, including the rather hilarious link to the homepage of the very site his column is on. All of the links are internal; none are to the actual tweets in question. But here’s the first tweet that Brisbane mentions, from Zeleny. As Brisbane says, it was posted at 10:41pm.

For a very different look at how the Osama news broke check out SocialFlow’s exhaustive analysis of 14.8 million tweets on Sunday night. As far as Twitter is concerned, the news was broken by Keith Urbahn at 10:24pm. But it really got momentum from being retweeted at 10:25pm by NYT media reporter Brian Stelter, who added the crucial information that Urbahn is Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff. Urbahn, here, gets the goal, but Stelter absolutely gets the assist:

5693449522_57353dd78a_o.png

Stelter’s 55,000 followers are extremely influential people in the US media scene, and until Monday’s physical newspaper started landing on subscribers’ doorsteps, Stelter’s tweets were the single most important thing that the NYT published on Osama. Note the timing here: at 10:34pm, when Cooper still thought that Osama had been captured, Stelter had already retweeted Urbahn; had then tweeted that “the whispers about bin Laden are getting louder in Washington circles”; and had then come out with a pretty definitive third tweet, at 10:33pm:

CBS News producer reports: RT @jacksonjk: House Intelligence committee aide confirms that Osama Bin Laden is dead. U.S. has the body.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


How come Brisbane is ignoring all this? Stelter was way ahead of the rest of the NYT, but Brisbane incomprehensibly discounts his excellent work. That might be because he doesn’t consider tweeting to be part of a NYT reporter’s job; it might be because he doesn’t consider retweeting to be reporting. But Brian Stelter is a prime example proving that neither is true. Brisbane should have taken this opportunity to congratulate Stelter on a job extremely well done. Instead, he is completely overlooked, in favor of tweets from Zeleny and Roberts which came out more than a quarter of an hour after Stelter had publicly jumped onto the case. Which, of course, is an eternity in the twittersphere.

Meanwhile, Bill Keller, the NYT’s editor, has devoted his magazine column to the subject of the newspaper’s war reporters, both staffers and freelance, who are killed or injured in combat zones. Again, anybody conversant with social media knows that there’s an important debate going on around precisely this subject — and that if the NYT doesn’t handle it well, then, in the words of Paddy Hirsch, it “could threaten the company’s brand”.

The debate started on Facebook, between war photographers Teru Kuwayama and Mike Kamber, who wrote a “muted eulogy” in the NYT for photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros; it then moved on to a discussion board called Lightstalkers, and although that debate seems to have disappeared for some reason, it lives on, for the time being, in Google’s cache. Meanwhile, Teru has put his side of the debate here, at Gizmodo.

Teru’s point is that the NYT spends vastly more money, effort, and resources on Americans and Europeans with names like Tim and Chris than it does on locals with names like Mohammed or Ali or Raza. Paddy puts it very well:

For years there’s been rumbling discontent among journalists about the way media organizations take pains to look after their staffers when they’re caught in the line of fire, but often fail to provide support to the locals who make it possible for those staffers to get the story.

The support those locals give is considerable and invaluable. Anyone who has ever reported overseas knows this. Most reporters who arrive in a conflict zones are like newborn babies. They can’t speak the language, they don’t know what to eat, how to find shelter, or how to get around. They are utterly vulnerable. If they’re lucky, and news people have been in-country before, they’ll have a network of support on the ground: so-called fixers, whose job, on the face of it, is to arrange interviews and get the reporter to the story.

But fixers do a lot more than that. They translate, they find safe accommodations, they know where to find gear. And batteries to power that gear. They find the least dangerous routes to drive, and then they often drive those routes. They know who can help and how to get them to provide that help. They are, in short, architects of an entire network of support for the reporter.

And providing that support is dangerous. Not just because they’re often in the line of fire with the reporter, but because they have to live in the country when the reporter’s job is over. That makes them uniquely vulnerable: if the story the reporter files is unpopular, the local will go after the fixer. If the country the reporter comes from is unpopular, the fixer is regarded as giving help to the enemy.

Fixers are vital to the creation of a good story, and therefore essential to a news organization’s coverage. Shouldn’t the news company therefore treat fixers and their ilk with the same care and attention that they provide the company’ support staff at home? That’s the argument that’s going play out in blogs and stories over the next few months. My question is, as the debate plays out in public, what should news companies do about it?

Keller, in his NYT column, wades into this debate in the most high-handed way possible. He talks at length about Hetherington and Hondros, and about other photographers, like Joao Silva, who parachute in to war zones, meet fixers, get their shots, and then move on to the next job — if they don’t get their legs blown off in the process. He writes movingly about NYT photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, who were brutally treated in Libya but survived; he doesn’t mention their driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, who almost certainly didn’t.

Keller quotes his colleague Greg Marinovich as saying that “sometimes we fail our own moral compass, our own emotional compass.” It’s a resonant quote, for people following Kuwayama’s accusations that the NYT has short-changed the families of people like Raza Khan, who was killed driving Kuwayama and Lynsey Addario in Pakistan:

Raza’s family had modest hopes for compensation or support—they were hoping to get enough money to replace the used Toyota he died in so that his oldest son could carry the family business of driving for foreign journalists. In a single sentence mention, in a blog post about Addario’s recovery, the NY Times mentioned that it was “gathering a fund to give to the six children of the driver, Raza Khan, for whom he was the sole provider”. That fund seems to have amounted to about a thousand dollars, which probably as much was being spent on an hourly basis to provide red-carpet medical treatment to their American photographer, who’d broken a collarbone.

As the debate about the NYT’s responsibility to these fixers rages, Keller’s response is to ignore both it and them entirely, as though neither the debate nor the fixers even exist. Just like Brisbane, Keller makes sure that every single link in his column is an internal one, to some other NYT web page — I count 26 different links between the two columns, which implies that in the eyes of the New York Times, the 26 most important online resources to link to when writing those columns are all NYT stories or pages. It’s as arrogant as it is hermetic.

All of this has to be extremely demoralizing for people like Brian Stelter, who do great work on and with social media and who take pride in linking to news and information wherever it can be found. They’re greatly appreciated outside the company, by people like me. But inside the company, it seems, at least when it comes to the important and visible weekend columnists charged with writing about the NYT itself, anything discussed or reported outside the NYT’s own hallowed pages is probably best ignored.

24 comments

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I’m curious, are we approaching a point (still relatively distant) where aspiring (and already-successful) journalists seriously question whether the cache of working for the NYT is worth it, given their pathetically close-minded and antiquated views, policies, and methods?

Posted by Anal_yst | Report as abusive

Felix
No rational human is going to take you seriously when you refer to accomplished journalists – a Pulitzer winner in fact – like Bill Keller as a “dinosaur.”
Do something substantial in your own career, Felix, before you even think of slurring someone else. It just makes you look small.
Fact is, if the NY Times didn’t exist, this entire site wouldn’t exist.

Posted by ariznem | Report as abusive

“…if the NY Times didn’t exist, this entire site wouldn’t exist”

Really.

Well, that rather confirms the “arrogant” part of the hed.

When the NYT is finally gone–vanished in a cloud of biased, navel-gazing irrelevance–we’ll see if there’s still a Reuters.

If not, I rather suspect this blog will be hosted elsewhere.

Posted by MaggieL | Report as abusive

Maggie
Yeah good luck with that prediction. The NY Times will outlast your bitter, jealous self that’s for sure.
Hey Felix (and Maggie): if the public thinks the NY Times is so out of date and awful, can you tell me why their website draws traffic among the top 25 sites in the whole world currently?

Posted by ariznem | Report as abusive

@Ariznem: “Fact is, if the NY Times didn’t exist, this entire site wouldn’t exist.”

Since both the New York Times and Paul Reuter’s first telegraph company were founded in 1851, that’s highly unlikely.

“(I)f the public thinks the NY Times is so out of date and awful, can you tell me why their website draws traffic among the top 25 sites in the whole world currently?”

That would be interesting if factually true. However, I note you give no source. Alexa currently ranks nytimes.com at #82 in world sites ( http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/nytimes.co m ). They also report traffic to the site has dropped by 15% in the last month — ie, since the NY Times put up their paywall. So it seems you’ve discovered a new meaning of the word “currently”: “As of the last time I could be bothered to check.”

Posted by hbobrien | Report as abusive

I’m not sure Stelter is feeling unappreciated, but your broader point seems valid: To the NYT time begins when they’ve done their reporting. I’m also not sure that isn’t a bad argument for any publication which prides itself on basic journalism tenets. I’ve yet to see an alert along the lines of (using the Reuters training example) “Lincoln Shot — Twitter” and I’m not sure I ever do.

Look at it another way: As it happens, Urbahn/Stelter were ahead of a correct curve. How many false curves have there been on Twitter? How many of us RT things without checking them out? Who knows who Urbahn talked to? Or what agenda he might have? Or who else has access to his account?

This is a tale of two cities. Twitter circulates information faster than anything we’ve ever seen, but has no claim to de facto accuracy. Journalists — Like Stelter — need to understand how important a source Twitter is. But it is where journalism begins, not ends.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

@Ariznem: Oh, and a minor style quibble: You probably mean “envious,” not “jealous.” Or, perhaps you really are as illiterate as that makes you sound.

Posted by hbobrien | Report as abusive

@johncabell: “Twitter circulates information faster than anything we’ve ever seen, but has no claim to de facto accuracy.”

And neither does traditional journalism — at least if one is paying attention.

“Journalists — Like Stelter — need to understand how important a source Twitter is. But it is where journalism begins, not ends.”

Just like any other single source, in any other medium. In other words, you’ve made a distinction without a difference, and have laid a damning indictment at traditional journalism’s door… Not that you write as if you realize that.

Posted by hbobrien | Report as abusive

New media, old media, yawn.

Posted by GlibFighter | Report as abusive

ariznem:
Bill Keller is a dinosaur. If you can’t see that, you are as clueless as he is these days.

Posted by PhilPerspective | Report as abusive

I’m a monkey.

I like old media.

I like new media.

Can’t we all get along?

-E

Posted by EricVincent | Report as abusive

who really cares if one source was ahead of another by 12 minutes? only journalists, not me. The story is what matters, to readers anyway. Have your awards ceremonies at your own conventions.

Posted by napablogger | Report as abusive

@hbobrien, are you saying that “jealous” can’t be used to describe someone who’s feeling envy?

Posted by BxF | Report as abusive

@napablogger
“who really cares if one source was ahead of another by 12 minutes? only journalists, not me….”

I think you missed the point of Mr. Salmon’s piece. The 12 minutes does not matter, what matters is the ombudsmen publishing a piece that completely ignores the 12 minutes in order provide a faulty picture that gives more weight to the NYT and select journalists.

Posted by dmagady | Report as abusive

but – the NYT has always been hermetic and arrogant. A little while back I was reading Benchley’s old New Yorker columns of news criticism. They NYT then sounds much like the NYT now. However, considering that the financial world has resurrected the 1920s, why not the press-criticism world as well?

Posted by mrtoads | Report as abusive

@ariznem

Perhaps you missed it, I’ll link to it for you:http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmo n/2011/05/06/where-the-public-turns-for- real-time-news/

Fact, NYT is not even in the top of 5 news sources online. Even Google news gets more traction and Yahoo gets 7x more news traffic – so much that the NYT is not even close to being relevant to the top sites.

The NYT is on a downwards spiral to irrelevance, most people under 40 never even look at it. Felix is pointing out that resting on your legacy is part of the problem.

Oh yeah, and the Pulitzer Prize has SO much credibility – cf. Janet Cook.

Posted by ChrisMaresca | Report as abusive

felix, you’re right that the NYT (and many other outlets), don’t see certain tweets from their reporters as part of the paper’s official “work.” but you’re ignoring the other, positive side of the coin: if stelter’s and other influencers’ tweets were subject to the NYT editorial process gauntlet, the news never would’ve gotten out when it did.

it’s good for them to have their official story process, and it’s also good for an unofficial, grey area news ecosystem to exist. they’re not mutually exclusive (tho i do agree that the ombudsman’s article was totally delusional and, really, unnecessary).

Posted by alexSch | Report as abusive

@BxF: “(A)re you saying that “jealous” can’t be used to describe someone who’s feeling envy?”

It can, but not about the same topic/item/possession/what-have-you.

Jealousy is the desire to protect a possession from being used (or owned) by others.

Envy is the desire to have what someone else has.

Somewhere the two got conflated — indeed, “envy” has almost fallen off the mental map in usage. It’s almost as bad as people who think “loan” is a verb (it’s a noun — the verb is “lend”).

Posted by hbobrien | Report as abusive

Believe it or not, there are many tens of millions of us out here that read articles and blogs and do not follow any tweets, zero — that much I can surmise, just from various social circles and talking with people. The open question is what is the rough percentage of people that follow news daily and also follow zero tweets.

Posted by HalHorvath | Report as abusive

You evidently are not aware that Arthur Brisbane is considered to be a joke in the newsroom. He’s regarded as the 3rd worst of the public editors, worse only than that nitwit Barney Calame.

Posted by arfy6 | Report as abusive

And the Pulitzer Prize for retweeting goes to…

Posted by bigyaz | Report as abusive

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