Dynamist Blog


I'll let Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, and, of course, Romensko flood the zone with all the charges, countercharges, and ongoing angst roiling the NYT. I write for the Times, so I have a sort of conflict of interest, and, more important, I haven't got any more clue than you do what's going on. I just know what I read on the Internet (that, and the fact that Times staffers are having a very hard time getting any work done these days).

I'll just add a strategic point, the kind of thing they teach in business school. If you are going to adopt a strategy to be a national newspaper, you must add the capabilities to be a national newspaper. That doesn't mean parachuting in reporters from Manhattan to interview a few natives and report back on their peculiar habits. It means having lots of well-staffed bureaus and, if necessary, credited stringers. It also means breaking out of a worldview that considers Manhattan normal and every other place weird.

The truth is that the NYT is not a national newspaper. It is the New York Times (more accurately, The Manhattan South of Harlem Times). It assumes its readers have the prejudices of well-educated, affluent Manhattanites, and it staffs, writes, and edits accordingly. To take an apolitical example, from a national perspective, the Times business pages grossly overcover the media business. From a Manhattan perspective, that makes perfect sense.

There is nothing wrong with this strategy, but it is a different strategy from the stated one of being a national paper. The mismatch between strategy and capabilities seems to account for many of the paper's current managerial problems, including the seeming inability of editors to keep track of exactly when and where reporters travel.

A "national" newspaper written for Manhattanites inevitably has blindspots, which show up particularly in its feature coverage. The great Lileks put it oh-so-well in yesterday's must-read Bleat:

Right before I woke up I dreamed I had an assignment: write a bad feature story in the style of the New York Times. When I woke I had the last sentence still in my head; I stumbled next door to the studio, woke up the Mac, and typed this sentence:

Over in the field, a hound was hunched over excreting a "striver," the local's [sic] term for the hard, elegantly tapered stools for which the wild dogs are renowned.

It has it all! It has a field, which is always a sign that the urban reporter is braving the flat & empty lands of America. It has a word known only to the locals, and the locals are always the real subject of the piece. Every East Coast story on Midwestern people feels like they're writing about pygmies. Doesn't matter if the story's about clothing, or music, or nose-bones; beneath it all is the writer's underlying inability to forget that these are pygmies, for God's sake. And they're so cute!

As a friend of mine said when serving as a southern bureau chief for a real national newspaper, New York editors tend to want only stories about "racism or eating dirt." Out of L.A., they want wacky California stories and Hollywood. Out of the Midwest, they apparently want Heartland nostalgia.

Which brings me to the mostly unrelated question of why so many Times watchers are harping on Rick Bragg's relation to Howell Raines as a "fellow southerner." Are there really only two southerners at the Times? If so, there's something wrong with the paper. (Southerners have, if anything, a disproportionate tendency to pursue journalism careers.) If not, there's something wrong with the people who harp on that connection. Would they have written "fellow Jew" or "fellow Irish Catholic," or "fellow Harvard grad"? Ethnicity can be a common bond, but only to a limited degree. There are millions of people in the South. They don't all know each other or even get along.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed