Modern Technology Reporting: The New York Times Is Now a Pundit Platform

August 14, 2020

I was not sure if I would document my reaction to the August 13, 2020, page B5, as “Instagram Reels? No. Just No” and online under the title “We Tested Instagram Reels, the TikTok Clone. What a Dud.”

I reflected on an email exchange I had with another “real” journalist earlier this week. With plenty of time on my hands in rural Kentucky during the Rona Resurgence, I thought, “Yeah, share your thoughts, you Brontosaurian Boomer. “Real” journalists working for big name outfits need to have a social agenda, insights, wisdom, and expertise no other human possesses. Absolutely.

In my 50 year work career, I worked for three outfits with publishing interests. The first was CRM, the outfit which owned Psychology Today (edited by the interesting T. George Harris), Intellectual Digest, and a number of other properties. I did some project work for a marketing whiz who coined the phrase “Fotomat Where your photo matters” and John Suhler (yeah, the Suhler of Veronis Suhler).  At meetings in Del Mar, Calif., a select group would talk and often drag in a so-called expert to hold forth on various topics. However, the articles which were commissioned or staff-written would not quote those at these meetings. Why? I have no idea. It was not a work practice. For me, it was how a reasonably successful magazine company operated.

Then I worked for Barry Bingham, Jr., who with his family owned most of the Courier-Journal & Louisville Times Company. There were other interests as well; for example, successful radio and TV stations, a direct mail operation, one of the first computer stores in Kentucky, a mail order business, and — believe it or not, the printing plant which cranked out the delightful New York Times Sunday Magazine. Plus, the NYT was then a family-owned operation. In my interactions with the NYT, my recollection is that the New York Times shared many of the old-fashioned work processes in use at the Courier-Journal. Was that the reason the Bingham papers won awards? One example is that the editorial writers wrote editorials. These were opinion pieces, personally vetted each day by Barry Bingham, Jr. The news people covered their beats. The reporters listened, gathered, analyzed, and wrote. No one quoted the man or woman across the desk in the alternately crazy and vacant newsroom. Also, the computer people (some of whom were decades ahead of systems people at other companies) did computery things. The printing people printed. Sure, there were polymaths and renaissance men and women, but people stayed in their lane.

My last publishing experience was in the Big Apple. I am not sure how I ended up on Bill Ziff’s radar, but I knew about him. He was variously described to me as a “publishing genius” and “Satan’s first cousin.” Dorothy Brown, the human resources vice president, eased my transition into the company from the Courier-Journal, telling me, “Just present facts. If Mr. Ziff wants your opinion, he will ask for it.” Good advice, Ms. Brown, good advice. (I heard the same thing when I did some consulting work for K. Wayne Smith, General, US Army.) The point is that management did management, which at Ziff included sponsoring a company race car. Advertising people collected money from advertisers dumped money in front of the building on Park Avenue South who wanted to appear in PC Magazine, Computer Shopper, and properties like PC Week. Once again, like the Ziff racing team, everyone stayed in their lanes. That meant that top flight reporters would report; executives dealt facts like Blackjack dealers in Las Vegas.

In these three experiences, I cannot recall an occasion on which the news people at these organizations interviewed one another.

The New York Times’ Brian X Chan interviewed the New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz. Now that’s interesting. Instead of picking up the phone and calling one of the wizards of punditry at a consulting firm, a firm developing short form video content, or an attorney monitoring Facebook’s interaction with regulators — the two ace reporters of “real” news interviewed themselves. Wow, that’s “real” work! Imagine. Scheduling a Zoom meeting.

It is one thing for a blog writer to take shortcuts. It is another thing for a newspaper which once generally tried to create objective news related to an event or issue to repeat office opinions. Was I annoyed? Nah, I think it is another indication that objectivity, grunting through the process of gathering information, sifting it, and trying to present a word picture that engages, illuminates, and explains is over.

In 2020, the New York Times runs inserts which are like propaganda posters stuck to the walls in my second grade classroom in Oxen Hill, Maryland, in 1950. The failure to present an objective assessment of the new Facebook knock off of TikTok was pure opinion. The reason? The New York Times’ “real” journalists see themselves as experts. Even the arrogant masters of the universe at an investment bank or a blue chip consulting firm try like the devil (maybe Bill Ziff) to get outsiders to provide “input.” A journalist may be a reporter, but the conversion of a reporter into an expert takes more than someone saying, “Wow, you guys know more about short form video than any other person within reach of a Zoom call” is misguided and a variant of what I call the high school science club management method. Yes, you definitely know more about Facebook’s short form video than anyone else within reach of a mobile phone or a Zoom connection.

I want to float a radical idea. Do some digging, some work. I think I can with reasonable confidence assert that John Suhler (my boss for my work at Veronis Suhler), Barry Bingham Jr. (the Courier-Journal owner), or Bill Ziff (the kin of Satan, remember?) would have the same viewpoint.

Just a suggestion, gentle reader: If a person wants me to respect their newspaper work as objective, informed, and professional, don’t replicate the filter-bubble, feedback loop of co-worker lunch room yip-yap: Research, sift, analyze, synthesize, and report.

Just my opinion, of course, but even Brontosauri can snort but that snort takes more effort than the energy expended presenting oneself as a wizard. Sorry, you pros are not in Merlin’s league.

Stephen E Arnold, August 14, 2020

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