In Defense of The New York Times

Something rather amazing happened this week.

On Monday, two months after The New York Times wrote a brutal exposé on Amazon’s workplace culture, Jay Carney, former White House press secretary for President Barack Obama and current Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon, wrote a blistering piece on Medium entitled What The New York Times Didn’t Tell You:

When the story came out, we knew it misrepresented Amazon. Once we could look into the most sensational anecdotes, we realized why. We presented the Times with our findings several weeks ago, hoping they might take action to correct the record. They haven’t, which is why we decided to write about it ourselves.

The Times got attention for their story, but in the process they did a disservice to readers, who deserve better. The next time you see a sensationalistic quote in the Times like “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”, you might wonder whether there’s a crucial piece of context or backstory missing — like admission of fraud — and whether the Times somehow decided it just wasn’t important to check.

It was really something: Carney’s accusations were strong, disturbingly detailed (Amazon presented presumably confidential employee performance data), and perhaps most curiously of all, out of nowhere.1 The fact the response was on Medium was interesting as well: the placement helped guarantee attention from a certain segment of the public without tying it too explicitly to Amazon.

Then, a few hours later, something even more surprising happened: the Executive Editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, responded, also on Medium:2

In response to your posting on Medium this morning, I want to reiterate my support for our story about Amazon’s culture. In your posting — as well as in a series of recent email exchanges with me — you contested the article’s assertion that many employees found Amazon a tough place to work.

As the story noted, our reporters spoke to more than a hundred current and former employees, at various levels and divisions, over many months. Many, including most of those you cited, talked about how they admired Amazon’s ambitions and urgency even as they described aspects of the workplace as troubling…and any reading of the responses leaves no doubt that this was an accurate portrait.

Both pieces were remarkable for reasons that had little to do with their content.3

Amazon Goes Public

The importance of Amazon’s response is obvious: unlike days of old, when corporations or individuals in the news had to resort to letters to the editor (which may or may not have been printed) and angry calls to the editor-in-chief, Amazon can go straight to the public with their complaints; it may sound cliché to say that “everyone is a publisher” but for the fact it’s true. Moreover, like anything else on the Internet, Amazon’s response was immediately available to everyone in the world: we take that for granted today, but compared to not that long ago when distribution required printing presses and delivery trucks this is truly an astounding development.

The New York Times Response

Even more important, though, was the fact that Baquet responded, and on the same (small-m) medium as Amazon to boot. An unfortunate side effect of owning said printed presses and delivery trucks was that newspapers held themselves as the oracles of truth, none moreso than The New York Times. Consider the motto printed on every paper: All the News That’s Fit to Print; I criticized the mindset behind this motto in Why BuzzFeed Is the Most Important News Organization in the World:

It’s important to appreciate that this was more than just a slogan and [the front-page meeting was more than just a] meeting; there are important assumptions underlying this conceit:

  • The first assumption is that there is a limited amount of space, which in the case of a physical product is quite obviously true. Sure, newspapers could and did change the length of their daily editions, but the line had to be drawn somewhere
  • The second assumption is that journalists, by choosing what to write about, are the arbiters of what is “news”
  • The third assumption is that the front page is an essential signal as to what news is important; more broadly, it’s an assumption that editors matter

My point then was that none of these assumptions held on the Internet: there is an unlimited amount of space, news can come from anywhere or anybody, and that the front page is a lot less important in the age of social media. And, I noted, as long as The New York Times held to these assumptions, they would slowly but surely fall behind.

This is why Baquet’s response is so significant:

  • His response was public, not private, and why not: an extra web page is free
  • His response was on the same medium as Carney’s post, which is fine, because Medium is just as accessible and potentially newsworthy as nytimes.com
  • His response was a part of a conversation, not a pronouncement

Baquet actually made this conversation point himself in an interview with Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka at Recode’s Code/Media conference in September:

The construct was, “It was true, it was important, we made the case there was something anomalous about Amazon.” And most importantly, and this to me is what the best journalism does, it sparked vibrant debate about the workplace.

A vibrant debate about the workplace? That is journalism? Not printing the truth?

The Nichification of the New York Times

In fact, this was one of a whole host of very interesting things Baquet said in the interview. Several minutes prior he had attacked another journalism shibboleth, that of the necessity of a “wall” between the newsroom and the business side of the paper.

I think our relationship with people outside the newsroom is different…in the world I grew up in, and in the world that created The New York Times…I think that that rule that there was a big fat wall between the news room and everybody else doesn’t make sense anymore in the modern era…I think that we now understand that that’s sort of nuts…I think that that was a comfortable position when we had a 30% profit margin, but it went on too long…

I think of myself as primarily the executive editor whose job it is to ensure the quality and the integrity of the report. But I also think of myself as somebody whose job it is to preserve The New York Times which means I do think about advertising, I do think about The New York Times as a business. That does not mean that I drop the wall and sell ads. But it does mean that I think about the whole of the enterprise.

Regular readers will know just how important I think this is. I wrote last month in Popping the Publishing Bubble:

Publishers going forward need to have the exact opposite attitude from publishers in the past: instead of focusing on journalism and getting the business model for free, publishers need to start with a sustainable business model and focus on journalism that works hand-in-hand with the business model they have chosen. First and foremost that means publishers need to answer the most fundamental question required of any enterprise: are they a niche or scale business?

What is exciting about the Amazon story is that, at least according to Baquet, it came from embracing the nichification of The New York Times.

I think that people know that the Amazon story came from The New York Times. I think my job is to ensure that the percentage of stories we do is very different. My job is to do as many Amazon stories as possible and to do fewer and fewer of the traditional stories that don’t work as well as the bundle disintegrates. My job is to produce a lot of Amazons.

In other words, the job of The New York Times is no longer to produce “All the News That’s Fit to Print”; rather, it is to invest in stories that make a difference — stories that start a conversation — and trust that readers will be willing to pay for quality. The content follows from the business model.

Will the Niche Model Work?

Of course, while this all sounds good on paper, the proof is in the numbers. And, it turns out, the numbers are pretty encouraging. Baquet wrote earlier this month:

We recently passed one million digital-only subscribers, giving us far more than any other news organization in the world. We have another 1.1 million print-and-digital subscribers, so that in total, we have more subscribers than at any time in our 164-year history. Many news organizations, facing competition from digital outlets, have sharply reduced the size of their newsrooms and their investment in news gathering. But The New York Times has not.

In the piece Baquet lists the qualifications of the New York Times’ reporters: a Yale-educated lawyer covering the Supreme Court, a former soldier covering abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, a former Federal Reserve employee who wrote about income inequality. Sure, he’s almost certainly cherry-picking, but the broader point about a focus on quality and impact stories supported by readers directly is very much spot-on: it’s the exact approach niche publications need to pursue.

To be clear, I don’t use the word “niche” as an insult, and it would be absurd to do so: the New York Times remains the most influential publication in the world. Rather, I’m referring to the choice all publications must make: to go broad and cross-platform with a goal of maximizing readership and monetizing through advertising, or to instead focus on maximizing revenue from the customers who actually care about your brand. To be niche.

Encouragingly, there is more evidence beyond this interview that The New York Times has embraced this approach: the company released a strategy memo earlier this month that made clear the company’s goal was to double its digital revenue (from $400 million to $800 million) primarily through a niche strategy:

“Many of our competitors focus primarily on attracting as many uniques as they can with a view to building an advertising-only business,” the memo said, referring to unique visitors to websites. “We see our business as a subscription service first, which requires us to offer journalism and products worth paying for.” That engagement, it said, will also help attract advertisers.

Twelve percent of Times readers, the memo said, deliver 90 percent of its digital revenue. “To double our digital revenue, we need to more than double the number of these most loyal readers,” it said. “We will need to develop them increasingly from younger demographics and international audiences.”

It’s not certain this strategy will succeed, to be sure, but it is a strategy that is at least coherent, and one that I celebrate.

Journalism and the Search for Truth

The fact of the matter is that The New York Times almost certainly got various details of the Amazon story wrong. The mistake most critics made, though, was in assuming that any publication ever got everything completely correct. Baquet’s insistence that good journalism starts a debate may seem like a cop-out, but it’s actually a far healthier approach than the old assumption that any one publication or writer or editor was ever in a position to know “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

I’d go further: I think we as a society are in a far stronger place when it comes to knowing the truth than we have ever been previously, and that is thanks to the Internet. It’s a good thing that Amazon can post to Medium, and it’s healthy that Baquet responded. My alma mater the University of Wisconsin declared back in 1894:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

The New York Times doesn’t have the truth, but then again, neither do I, and neither does Amazon. Amazon, though, along with the other platforms that, as described by Aggregation Theory, are increasingly coming to dominate the consumer experience, are increasingly powerful, even more powerful than governments.4 It is a great relief that the same Internet that makes said companies so powerful is architected such that challenges to that power can never be fully repressed,5 and I for one hope that The New York Times realizes its goal of actually making sustainable revenue in the process of doing said challenging.

So You Want to Change the World

Note that I haven’t said much about the Amazon article in question; in fact, as I wrote at the time, the article bugged me quite a bit not because of its description of the environment (which, according to both my friends who work there and the company’s general reputation in the Seattle area, was broadly correct) but rather the article’s dismissive tone towards what Amazon has accomplished: the company is fundamentally changing enterprise IT, with all the knock-on effects that entails from disrupting tech companies to real estate to venture capital; changing commerce; and even changing how we consume ideas. There is an argument to be made that this sort of impact doesn’t happen if you only work 9-5.

That’s why I’m an optimist though: all kinds of people did make that argument — this site, former employees, even Amazon itself — and the net result is that we are collectively closer to the truth than we were before that article. So it was good journalism, and given the increasing importance of technology, we as an industry should embrace it: you can’t claim you want to change the world and not appreciate that the more ambitious your goals, the more necessary the challenges to exactly what you’re trying to change, and how you’re trying to change it.

  1. Why is Amazon resuscitating this story? Is it hurting recruiting? Is there another story coming from The New York Times soon (my guess)? Do they simply want to send a message to journalists generally? []
  2. Unfortunately, Carney disabled the display of responses, which is pretty weak []
  3. Carney responded to Baquet’s response here []
  4. I still worry more about government’s collecting data though: they are the only institution capable of throwing you in prison []
  5. This is why my number one concern is about regulating access to the Internet; the Great Firewall is the most frightening thing in the world []