|The Agony and the Anxiety of The New York Times|
Despite a historic run, unease is now gripping the paper as a large-scale reorganization (physical, personnel, and psychic) looms. “The mood at the paper is poisonous in a way I’ve never seen it in the past 15 years,” as one editor put it.
July 24, 2017 6:08 PM
New York Times employees during a temporary strike against downsizing and dismissal plans for the paper's management outside of New York Times building in New York, June 29, 2017.
Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
The first six months of the Trump administration have been one of the most glorious eras in the history of The New York Times. The paper, in addition to its rival The Washington Post, has been at the absolute center of the culture, a bastion of sanity, a daily reminder of why journalism is necessary and why dead-tree media is best equipped to supply it. The Times is clearly doing something right when it can register 130,000 new digital subscribers in a month and political reporter Glenn Thrush is being portrayed on Saturday Night Live by Bobby Moynihan.
And yet, in many corners of the Times’s Renzo Piano- designed building at 620 8th Avenue, the glory is hollow. As one editor put it, “The mood at the paper is poisonous in a way I’ve never seen it in the past 15 years.” The ostensible reason is that the Times is undergoing yet another round of buyouts, set to be finalized on Thursday. “Every buyout is tense,” the editor continued, “but there’s something really demoralizing about this one that’s been worse than any before.”
Unlike past buyouts, though, the human toll is now only part of the sinking mood. A major newsroom reorganization is upending a time-honored method of producing the Times’s signature journalism while simultaneously making an entire class of employees feel obsolete. Additionally, the Times’s midtown Manhattan headquarters is itself being upended, shrinking by eight floors and leaving all but the highest of editors without private offices. Open floor plans have long been increasingly popular among publishers, particularly given how important cross-desk collaboration has become in the social-media age, but this, too, amounts to a decisive and, for some, painful break with the news organization’s past.
At its core, the Times’s internal transformation focuses on upending the paper’s copy desk. And while this might seem like a rather small innovation, it is poignant and fraught in a distinctively Timesian manner. For decades, the copy desk has been an all-seeing, all-powerful enforcer of Times standards and verbal peculiarities. As much as the reporters, writers, and editors, it’s what makes the Times the Times. The traditional desk structure allowed for multiple eyes to be placed on every story—checking, tweaking, standardizing, changing “dads” to “fathers” and discouraging the use of “launch” unless it involved a rocket, or perhaps a boat. For reporters, the process could be agonizing. The system, after all, was conceived during a bygone pre-Internet age when so much copy hit the desk at a single time and certain standards and shortcuts needed to be applied. As executive editor Dean Baquet recently noted at Recode’s Code Conference, referencing the late David Halberstam, the system may have occasionally formalized the copy of more elegant stylists, but it undoubtedly elevated the prose of less lyrical reporters. And most reporters, aware of this trade-off, knew that it ensured the preternatural assiduousness, in matters factual and grammatical, that readers counted on. The copy desk was a deeply conservative, church-like institution at the core of the Times.
In the reorganization, the copy desk is being eliminated as a freestanding entity. A smaller number of copy editors will be absorbed by different departments such as culture, metro, sports, etc. The Times’s 109 copy editors were invited to re-apply for jobs under the new system, and those who didn’t make the cut were encouraged to apply for buyout packages that also were offered to reporters and other editors. “Our goal with these changes is to still have more than one set of eyes on a story, but not three or four,” Baquet wrote in a Q&A with readers earlier this month. “We have to streamline that system and move faster in the digital age.” (Despite the dozens of positions that are being eliminated, the paper’s headcount of around 1,300 won’t change much. The money saved will be used to create 100 new positions for reporters and visual journalists. Investigative reporters will be a priority, according to the Times.)
The streamlined system has been given the somewhat Orwellian-sounding designation of “strong editing,” in which “strong editors” will be the chief cooks and bottle-washers, responsible for every aspect of an article from structure to social-media presentation. Essentially, it’s a New York Times version of the editing process that has evolved at most Web-first news organizations, where editors have to be jacks-of-all-trades. For the Times, however, it’s a complex and nuanced shift. Someone intimately acquainted with the process boiled it down for me like this: in the old model, each story got two-and-a-half edits; in the new model, each story gets one-and-a-half edits, with more emphasis on a story’s digital presentation as opposed to its placement in the print edition. (Of course, highly sensitive stories will undergo more laborious roads to publication.) The Times has pronounced itself to be a digital-first news organization since at least the Jill Abramson era, but part of the current anxiety is that the organization appears to finally be acting like one—it is ostensibly slipping free the anchor of the physical paper, becoming more free-floating, fast-moving, ad hoc. The changes may be necessary and inevitable, but the course is uncharted, and the paper will move forward without a central part of its D.N.A. “This is a very big deal,” said someone who’s worked there for decades. “They’ve never done buyouts as part of a huge restructuring like this. It’s a significant moment.”
As the Times re-engineers the newsroom, the office itself is being restructured. Its physical footprint is shrinking from 20 floors to 12, freeing up valuable leasing space that could help offset a dramatic print-advertising fallout that’s been plaguing the Times for the past 10 years. The design, conceived by the architecture firm Gensler, which has worked on projects ranging from Incheon International Airport to the Shanghai Tower, will increase the amount of heads on each floor, while maximizing space in an open plan. Only eight editors will have private offices, including Baquet, managing editor Joe Kahn and the Times’s four deputy managing editors. Some sections are already adjusting to the new layout, but it has yet to encompass the building’s populous third floor, which houses the main news department and leadership. “That will be the real test,” a seasoned Times journalist told me.
Simultaneously, a generational change is looming. Insiders say the baton pass from longtime publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to his 36-year-old son, A.G. Sulzberger, is beginning to feel imminent. Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Sulzberger has been working as deputy publisher since last October, after being groomed in the newsroom for a few years. Sulzberger became publisher in 1992 at the age of 40, when his father, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, stepped down at the age of 65, the standard retirement threshold for senior Times executives. (Sulzberger Jr. will turn 66 in September.)
The other succession, that of the executive editorship, isn’t expected anytime soon. (Baquet has more than four years to go before reaching the retirement age.) But don’t let that spoil the parlour games. When James Bennet rejoined the Times last year as director of the opinion section, after an extremely successful turn running The Atlantic, it was generally assumed that he was being groomed for the big chair. (Bennet’s arrival, after all, coincided with the departure of legendary Times opinion editor Andrew Rosenthal, as my colleague Sarah Ellison noted one year ago.) The latest betting, however, has the odds in favor of Kahn, who appears to have gained the edge in the perceived bake-off against Bennet. “Bennet is out of the running,” the aforementioned seasoned Times journalist said. “I think it’s a different era from Howell Raines”—whose two-year stint as executive editor, following a near-decade run leading the editorial page, came to a screeching halt following the Jayson Blair scandal of the early aughts—“when you could bring someone from op-ed into the newsroom. I just don’t think you can do that anymore.”
In past years, staff buyouts at the Times—and the involuntary layoffs that often follow—tended to cause the biggest stir when they involved an exodus of high-profile reporters and editors who’d been with the organization for decades. This time, the buyouts have been particularly contentious because of the way they’ve targeted a loyal underclass of newsroom employees, seen by many as the staunchest defenders of the Times’s rigorous standards.
The buyouts have also revived talk, as one source put it, about “the puzzling lack of African-Americans in the management ranks at the Times under Dean,” who became the Times’s first black executive editor in 2014. The buyout offers were not limited to copy editors, and an announcement that senior editor for digital transformation LaSharah Bunting had taken one got people buzzing. She follows the departures last year of prominent black journalists like Lydia Polgreen (editor in chief of HuffPost), Dana Canedy (administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes) and Simone Oliver (editor of magazine & lifestyle publishers partnerships at Facebook). “My effort to diversify has been intense and persistent,” Baquet said in December. “I have a commitment to it and . . . it’s gotten better in the past year.”
An aggressive P.R. campaign orchestrated by the NewsGuild, a union that represents many Times journalists, has put the hubbub on the map outside of journalism circles. There was copious news coverage of a June 29 demonstration in which hundreds of staffers walked out of the Times’s newsroom in a show of solidarity. A brutal letter from the copy editors to Baquet and Kahn was circulated far and wide: “[W]e feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. . . . [Y]ou have turned your backs on us. We abhor your decision.”
Among many Times journalists, there’s palpable concern that Times content will lose some of its Timesean-ness as a result of the new editing system. But there are also those who believe it’s a perfectly reasonable and progressive step, and that the change will actually be an improvement. (It’s not hard to find Times reporters who’ll kvetch about over-editing.)
But the one point on which there seems to be consensus is that the process could have been handled much better. Multiple people I spoke with criticized the internal messaging and communication about the buyouts, describing it as “cold.” Copy editors were incensed by the following line contained in the findings of a newsroom study published in January: “Every story feels like a fire hydrant—it gets passed from dog to dog, and no one can let it go by without changing a few words.” After learning they would have to re-apply for their positions, copy editors felt demoralized being referred to as “candidates.” Having been told there would be two interviews, many felt blindsided when they were informed during the second meeting that there wouldn’t be jobs for them in the new structure. “People got calls and got very excited that they got a second call thinking they were safe,” said Grant Glickson, president of the NewsGuild. “But then they were told their services actually weren’t needed.”
Baquet and Kahn have been holding information sessions with individual departments, perhaps as a way to soothe feelings. A Times spokeswoman said the restructuring “has been a more complicated process than in the past because it involves voluntary buyouts and changing long-standing internal processes.” She also defended the company’s handling of the process, sayings that “communications have been open, transparent, and deliberate,” and that the Times has set up “a major training program to help each desk transition to the new system.” As for the cuts: “Saying goodbye to colleagues is always difficult and we regret losing some talented people on our staff. However, we are hiring at a more rapid rate than we have in the past and are diversifying the newsroom staff as a result.”
As of Monday afternoon, 70 of the 91 buyout applications that were submitted by last Thursday’s deadline had been approved by management, according to the NewsGuild, and 64 of the 109 copy editors had been offered new positions. That’s more than the 55 or so that the Times originally said it expected to be able to keep. But that bit of good news is small solace. It’s possible that additional involuntary layoffs could be implemented, although the Guild has so far not received any such notice. Among the departed, there’s a deep feeling of bitterness, and a sense that in the new media age, the paper is becoming something less august, more frivolous, increasingly unrecognizable. “I thought we had something special, but it turns out she never really loved me at all,” one departing copy editor wrote in a cryptic, metaphor-laden missive that was e-mailed to the NewsGuild last week and shared with Vanity Fair. “[S]he’s trying out a new lipstick each week. . . . Today she’s doing a Facebook Live from the Fidget Spinners Convention. Yesterday it was a 360-degree video of a Pokémon Go hunt (sponsored by Samsung). She’s even been seen on Snapchat. And the latest desperate move to run with a younger crowd: She’s having a few layers removed. . . . [A] word to the wise: Watch your back—she’s not as loyal as she used to be. Now excuse me while I go cease to exist.”