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:

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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.

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