Ben Smith: Inside the Identity Crisis at the New York Times

From a story on semafor.com by Ben Smith headlined “Inside the identity crisis at The New York Times”:

This August, a former New York Times reporter named Riva Atlas called to ask me some questions about The Times on behalf of an unnamed institutional investor.

“Is the Times always going to be fundamentally a news company expanding into these ancillary tech products?” she asked. “Or is it trying to morph into something like a tech company with an ancillary news product?”

My caller was raising one of the great questions hanging over the Times: What do they want to be?

And she wasn’t just any former Times reporter. Times executives told me her questions closely matched the interests of a major activist investor, ValueAct, which revealed a 6.7% stake in the media company in August.

Ben’s View

The Times, they say, is a great place to have worked. Like Atlas, I’m a former Times reporter. I left this January, after almost two years as the media columnist.

I arrived there a bit skeptical. The headline of my first column was that “the success of the New York Times may be bad news for journalism.” I quickly came to admire the deep commitment my colleagues had to the institution, and the durability of its folkways. But I also thrived in part because I heeded a colleague’s warning before I started: “Do not, under any circumstances, try to change anything.”

The Times is, as a former executive said to me once, “a business wrapped around a church,” not a place that morphs easily. That means ValueAct may struggle, as investors have before, in its push to transform the 171-year-old company, which is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

ValueActs Goals

ValueAct, which manages about $16 billion and has a reputation for constructive, if intense, pressure, approached the company well before its stake became public in August, Times executives told me. The investment is led by a young Canadian who used to work at Goldman Sachs, Dylan Haggart.

The Times was already proceeding, in its stately way, in the direction of digital bundling. ValueAct’s move got its target’s attention. CEO Meredith Kopit Levien used the word “bundle” three times on the company’s first quarter call. After initial conversations with ValueAct, she used the word 40 times on the second quarter call.

Her acquisitions of Wordle and The Athletic are part of a strategy of broadening the audience beyond people who want news. Now the core stress inside the company is whether her marketing team can find a way to convince consumers to pay more for more, and to see the Times in a new way. Can the Times become something like the online liberal elite’s answer to an old cable bundle like Comcast — not just a news site with some extras?

In an interview, publisher AG Sulzberger brushed aside questions about what it means to be a “tech company.” In his view, the bundle is something far more familiar: “It’s not a shift away from news — it’s a shift back toward the newspaper.” The Times for decades offered the occasional recipe and the daily crossword. Now it offers thousands, but the package serves a similar purpose. (Mr. Sulzberger spoke to me off the record, and his spokesperson then approved my use of the quotes, a common practice that is banned at The Times.)

Behind Wall Street’s push toward the bundle is a sense that the Times should be more highly valued. It currently trades like a high-risk venture that could go out of business in the next decade or two. The people who accumulate its stock are hedge funds, not relatively cautious institutions like Fidelity.

Better execution of the bundle might fix that. But there are pressures going in the other direction, too. Meta (AKA Facebook)’s latest spasm cost The Times an absurd but appreciated slug of $21 million in pure revenue through a licensing deal that did not succeed in buying the tech giant any goodwill. (The Wall Street Journal will lose a deal worth $18.5 million annually, the Washington Post $14 million, according to a person familiar with the numbers).

What hazy words like “tech company” really mean these days are, simply, higher profit margins, which is the source of its own squeeze. The Times’s pre-tax operating margin was 13% last year, and 9% in the first half of this year. Wall Street would prefer it be closer to 35%. Employees would like a larger share of those profits. All that, while the economy is teetering.

Holy Wars

The high-pressure dynamism on the business side also risks running aground on a moment of caution within the church itself, the Times newsroom. Journalists and the company are currently locked in a bitter contract fight, but the convulsions of COVID-19 and the surge of racial justice activism in 2020 left deeper divides.

Two high-profile moments from that period continue to define the paper’s public brand for many readers: The firing of opinion editor James Bennet over a column by Senator Tom Cotton that called for sending the military into cities to suppress rioters and looters; and the company’s broad embrace of the 1619 Project’s provocative reinterpretation of slavery’s place in American history.

The culture wars are playing out in the newsroom now in far subtler ways these days. And in classic Times fashion, management is pushing them in two directions at the same time. They’re trying to deliver some staffers’ hopes from the summer of  2020 of a more progressive workplace and broad-minded journalism, while also doing what they can to ensure that the insurgency of 2020 never happens again.

But nobody seems entirely to know where the place is headed, ambitious internal figures are hedging their bets, and what began as a civil war has slid into a kind of frozen conflict, a distracting identity crisis at the heart of a company that Wall Street would like to transform.

On the progressive side of the ledger, the Times has installed a new administrative layer in the newsroom aimed at implementing a modern workplace culture. The new roles are neither reporters nor editors, but university-style administrators, focused variously on culture, careers, trust, strategy and DEI.

People I spoke to in those jobs find their own mandates confusing, however, in classic Timesian fashion. Their roles amount, as one told me, to trying to enact radical cultural change at the institution — from an old, white conservative institution to a progressive, inclusive one  — as slowly as possible.

On the traditionalist side, dull memos announced changes to policy for Slack and social media aimed at ending freewheeling internal debates. That seems to have worked. When the linguist John McWhorter wrote in a column this Saturday that accounts of “especially stark and unfiltered racist abuse” are often hoaxes and should be taken “with a grain of salt,” there was no visible internal protest.

And editors have assigned a set of skeptics to write about some of the most sensitive issues in the American arguments about race and health and identity. Some were insiders, like Michael Powell, whose work has often contrasted rhetorical concern with racial justice and the realities of class. (Powell’s presence on an internal panel at a newsroom meeting last Tuesday signaled, in Times Kremlinology, masthead approval of this line). The former books editor Pamela Paul became a blunt object on the opinion page, whacking away at conflicts over cancel-culture and appropriation that had burned their way through Twitter.

“There’s a lot of stuff I’m reading in Bari Weiss and then I’m reading in the Times,” said one Times journalist, referring to the former opinion editor who quit amid the internal conflicts of 2020 and started her own outlet, Common Sense.

For now, regular programming has resumed, with the promise of a transformation just around the corner. Choire Sicha, the former Style Section editor who was among the progressive insurgents, told me simply that “everyone’s sort of given up.”

Room for Disagreement

Many Times staffers I spoke to believe the cultural conflict has been displaced by the labor struggle, and that the biggest challenges for management will be demands from journalists and tech workers for a bigger share of the profits.

Times coverage has a mixed record of understanding class division, but the newsroom itself is up in arms over the pace of contract negotiations.  “Timesian sansculottes who spend their days publishing editorial series like ‘the inequality project’ are now talking about their young proprietor as if he’s the Marquis St. Evrémonde,” Shawn McCreesh wrote in New York, capturing the furious internal mood.

The View from James Bennet

Times management has clawed back its ability to run conservative points of view without facing a newsroom revolt. But has anyone noticed?  It’s hard to walk back high-profile grand gestures, like Bennet’s firing and the marketing of the 1619 Project, with quiet bureaucratic changes, columns and beat reporting.

One skeptic that the Times has an easy path back is Bennet himself. The former Opinion Editor and onetime heir apparent to run the Times spoke to me Saturday in his first on-the-record interview about the episode.

Bennet believes that Sulzberger, the publisher, “blew the opportunity to make clear that the New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality. That was a huge mistake and a missed opportunity for him to show real strength,” he said. “He still could have fired me.”

Bennet, who now writes the Lexington column for The Economist, signed off on an editor’s note amid the controversy that the column “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”

“My regret is that editor’s note. My mistake there was trying to mollify people,” he said.

The Times and its publisher, Bennet said, “want to have it both ways.” Sulzberger is “old school” in his belief in a neutral, heterodox publication. But “they want to have the applause and the welcome of the left, and now there’s the problem on top of that that they’ve signed up so many new subscribers in the last few years and the expectation of those subscribers is that the Times will be Mother Jones on steroids.”

Bennet, who spent 19 years of his career at the Times, said he remains wounded by Mr. Sulzberger’s lack of loyalty.

“I actually knew what it meant to have a target on your back when you’re reporting for the New York Times,” he said, referring to incidents in the West Bank and Gaza.

“None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to AG. When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me,” Bennet said. “This is why I was so bewildered for so long after I had what felt like all my colleagues treating me like an incompetent fascist.”

The Times declined to comment on Bennet’s words. The publisher told colleagues at the time that he was most upset that the Times seemed to have been blindsided by a series of controversies coming out of Bennet’s section. One thing that is clear in retrospect: while The Times sought to cast the firing into a question of performance, process, and Bennet’s ability to lead after the controversy, the move was widely perceived as a political gesture.

After we got off the phone, Bennet texted me a final note: “One more thing that sometimes gets misreported: I never apologized for publishing the piece and still don’t.”

Notable

  • The executive editor has typically been the most important of the Sulzbergers’ hired hands. That might be changing, Dylan Byers wrote earlier this year in Puck, suggesting that “the most important person” at the company is in fact Kopit Levien, whose ambitious shopping spree has made her the most dynamic actor in the building.
  • The Times “doesn’t just want a building, we want a neighborhood, and we think a neighborhood attracts more people in a lasting way,” Kopit Levien told the analyst Ben Thompson in a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview this summer. She used the word “bundle” 13 times.

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