The New York Times: from “We are not American Idol” to “We are not resistance” (which is gone, too).
The news validation within a certain value system is the only remaining function of news business that might have relative use-value for readers. The need for the business to survive forces the media to shift its operational emphasis from news to values. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
The real symbol of the Trump bump is the New York Times. The Gray Lady made unprecedented progress during the first year of Trump’s presidency. At the beginning of the campaign, the New York Times had slightly over 1 million digital subscribers to its news products. The paper almost doubled this number by the time of Trump’s inauguration. As of December 2017, the New York Times had 2.2 million digital subscribers for its news product; by August 2020, this number had reached 4.4 million. All these numbers set the world records for digital subscriptions to the news media product.
Figure 1. The New York Times: news product digital-only subscriptions (in thousands).
Source: The New York Times Company’s press releases. It is also necessary
to take into account that marketing efforts, such as discounted offers,
might have impacted the dynamic of subscription, too.
For many in the industry, the business reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post created an illusion that there is a magic recipe for digital transformation — you just need to find it. Many newspapers and online news outlets have been trying to introduce paywalls (frankly, they have not many other options left) in attempts to replicate the success of the New York Times, but all have been in vain.
The stark divide between the few successes and the majority failings quickly became evident. In December 2017, Mathew Ingram wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that, “A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats — some will be swamped.” He explained this by stating that, “Just from a purely financial perspective, there are not going to be enough people who are willing to pay for subscriptions to multiple outlets.” The other reason proffered was that many local newspapers had lost “touch with their local markets after decades of chain ownership” and were not able to solicit support in the form of subscriptions from local communities.
It appeared that what the New York Times and other mainstream media were doing was a specific sort of business that could not be replicated in other conditions or at the local level.
In July 2019, Joshua Benton from NiemanLab attempted to analyze why digital subscription numbers for Los Angeles Times happened to be far below expectations despite the fact that the newspaper had “limitless” support from billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, LA’s richest resident who had bought Los Angeles Times in 2017.
Twenty years ago, in print, Los Angeles Times was a worthy rival to the east coast capitals’ papers. Benton drew up an interesting table which demonstrated that whilst the large metropolitan dailies were once comparably similar in terms of print circulation, their digital formats were drastically different: all bar the New York Times and the Washington Post, suffered dramatic falls.
Figure 2. Source: Joshua Benton, NiemanLab;
Benton made a reservation saying he was as generous as possible in interpreting
some numbers, as they may include double-counted subscribers.
Benton tried to analyze Los Angeles Times’ marketing strategy to find an explanation for the disappointing numbers. But a glance at the table he posted suggests another answer for the metropolitan papers’ decline amid the New York Times and the Washington Post blossoming: too much local news, too little Trump. The chart best explains the correlation between business outcomes and engagement with the Trump bump.
After switching from ad revenue to reader revenue, the business of the media has mutated from news supply to news validation.
What many subscribers pay is becoming, in fact, a validation fee, not a subscription payment. For example, for the New York Times, the very idea of reading the ‘newspaper of record’ is, essentially, the idea of news validation. This peculiar ‘validation demand’ gives the New York Times a significant advantage over its competitors. As the significance of the news is validated by the scale of its dissemination, a paper with a larger circulation and broader coverage is the better — the most authoritative — news validator.
Studies are increasingly revealing the phenomenon of so-called ‘subscription fatigue’ — people are tired of online-businesses’ endless attempts to get them to subscribe to their services. Specifically in the news industry, studies also show that the majority will subscribe to only one news source, if at all; which suggests that this is a competition in which the “winner takes all.” This is good news for the New York Times (and a few like them) and bad news for all others. The more the validation function moves to the leader(s), the worse are the chances of all others. The demand for news validation causes the swarm effect: readers seeking to validate news join a larger swarm: significance is best validated by a larger quantity (larger dissemination). The news-validation function is a business factor that is driving media concentration.
The news-validation service is an important step of the media towards the membership model, as it makes people regard the media as a source of values, not news.
People want to see already-known news to be covered from the right angle; they also want others to see the news covered from the right angle. People want to make sure they have joined the right cause and, equally important, that many others have joined this cause, too. The news must be validated within a certain value system. This unavoidably pushes the news-notary service of the media towards political biases.
Thus, to a large extent, this shift is not the fault of the news media. It is the digital environment, composed of both new and old media, that creates the conditions for the membership motives to infiltrate subscription, despite the transaction still looks like traditional subscription (a payment for the access to news). As the news is predominantly delivered through social media, the news media must guide and validate people’s appropriate reception of the news. The news validation within a certain value system is the only remaining function of news business that might have relative use-value for readers.
The leading mainstream media ‘got it’; maybe, intuitively. Increasingly, media outlets are soliciting subscription as a donation to a public service of checking news against values. The value checking needs a strong value foundation. The need for the business to survive forces the media to shift its operational emphasis from news to values.
As a result, the former transactional mechanism of subscription is mutating into a membership, i.e. supporting a cause. When subscribing to a newspaper or a magazine, people are not buying news as they already know the news. They are paying for the appraisal of the news’ value, and therefore for the impact this news might have. They pay from below but with motives from above. They pay for the confirmation of the proper attitude toward the news and/or for this attitude to be delivered to others.
Thus, subscribers are gradually turning into two new categories of payers:
1) those who pay the validation fee for the news validation service of the media and
2) the donating audience contracting the media to influence others.
Both types pay the media not for news but rather for impact.
The paywall is increasingly becoming the mechanism for collecting the validation fee and soliciting subscription as donation.
Those media selling news to the audience are doomed. Those selling the audience to the public will survive, as long as Trump and Trumpism are in the spotlight (or as long as some other equally triggering things keep happening after Trump is gone).
The internet and social media have changed the distribution of power in meaning production. New media platforms have empowered those previously voiceless, “the people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen). In their turn, the news media became dependent on reader revenue. These two factors — the voicing of the formerly voiceless and the media’s growing financial dependence on them — has resulted in a new way of disciplining the news media, the grassroots flak.
Here is how Herman and Chomsky defined flak in the past:
“Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action. It may be organized centrally or locally, or it may consist of the entirely independent actions of individuals.
If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 , p. 26.)
The internet emancipated authorship, including that of flak. Flak is no longer the prerogative of the elites having access to opinion-making. Everyone has this access. Additionally, the internet and specifically social media have empowered flak with the reach and speed of viral distribution. In the past, no elite possessed the power of flak now held by the Twitter activist core.
Social media created an environment filled with people contributing their time, efforts and expertise for finding, editing and distributing content for the sake of self-actualization. As people are more sensitive to risks than to opportunities, negative information is generally more valuable. Allied to the thirst for response and hence the virality pursued on social media, the negativity bias of info consumption creates an environment that inevitably incentivizes the search for and sharing of outrageous and insulting content.
With limitless attempts, everything can and will be found; and if the Viral Editor deems a negative piece of information interesting (or if it is persuaded to deem it so), it will do what is needed to provide bad publicity, shaming and oftentimes even threats. The outrage regarding improper thoughts or opinions provides fuel that keeps the entire system running.
Journalists and the media are among the best targets for this constant search for insulting and inappropriate content, principally because they are still one of the main sources of political discourse as well as pressing and polarizing issues. The media’s publications are in the high-risk zone. Social media create ideal conditions for grassroots flak to thrive. No article or column that fails the purity test will go unnoticed by the Twitter progressives’ or conservatives’ politburo. Watchdogs have ended up being watched by a bigger and nastier collective big brother.
Alongside that flak improvement, a new factor of flak emerged related to the new economic setting. In the ad-driven media system, flak was initiated by the elites, but the value of flak was formed separately by advertising (contract withdrawal) or by the cost of defense in court or the cost of reputational repair. In the reader-driven media system, the source of flak and the cost of flak are embedded in the same group — the donating audience. This flak can act directly and immediately; for example, when readers cancel subscription if they decide that a media outlet regularly fail to validate news in an expected manner, or if the cause of donation is not worthy or maintained improperly.
This is how Jay Rosen characterized this newly emerged relationship between the audience and the New York Times:
The readers of the New York Times have more power now. <…> The Times depends on its readers’ support more than it ever has. <…> One of the joys of having a subscription to the Times is threatening to cancel it. Which is simply to say that a Times loyalist is also a critic. It has always been that way — the Times gets a lot of criticism — but now the situation is growing more tense and anxious.
This is not to say that this is the reader’s money that talks. Flak often comes from those who are not even subscribers. Perhaps, the fear of readers being repelled by content that does not comply with their expectations impacts agenda-setting even more than actual subscription cancellation (which, by the way, at a statistically significant scale, rarely follows the outrage expressed by readers). It is the media’s self-accepted dependence on the real and imaginary audience that made the media so unusually susceptible to the criticism of the public. The power of this new flak rests on the news media’s own fear of the audience.
In terms of growing pressure on the media, donation-based business model is the path to the dark side. Donations lead to expectations, expectations lead to demands, demands lead to flak, flak leads to suffering.
On January 17, 2018, the New York Times published the letters of Trump supporters on its opinion page. Introducing the brave initiative, NYT wrote that,
The Times editorial board has been sharply critical of the Trump presidency, on ground of policy and personal conduct. Not all readers have been persuaded. In the spirit of open debate, and in hopes of helping readers who agree with us better understand the views of those who don’t, we wanted to let Mr. Trump’s supporters make their best case for him as the first year of his presidency approaches its close.
The fact that the leading American newspapers gave a pulpit to the president’s supporters was met with outcry from its audience. Readers and the Twitterati, as NYT executive editor Dean Baquet called, obviously, a liberal faction of Twitter, were outraged. “The New York Times is in bed with Donald Trump!” sarcastically summed up the reaction of Jim Warren from Poynter. The New York Times was forced to defend its decision. Editorial page editor James Bennet took responsibility and said, “It’s my fault”.
When readers buy content for themselves, they can be judgy; the public is always judgy. But everyone understands that subscribers cannot impose their requirements upon concrete editorial decisions. Consumers can be unsatisfied, but they cannot dictate what the news media cover and how they cover it. Transactional news retail more or less protects newsroom autonomy from the audience’s encroachment upon content control. But when the readers’ motives are not to get news but to join a cause, the readers become the patrons. And the readers embrace this — they feel that they should have a say and can impose their will regarding the coverage of concrete topics. The audience becomes a “normative reference organization” instead of advertisers.
The discontent of readers regarding the content of the media outlet is now not expressed via consumerist behavior such as the refusal to consume a disliked product, but rather via the ideological diktat of readers’ collective patronage over the media. The grassroots flak is articulated and cumulated by the passionate Twitterati, whose platform power now exceeds that of individual journalists, entire media organizations and the traditional elites. If, in the past, the media had to comply with the worldview of the ruling elites, now not just the media but the ruling elites themselves must behave with an eye to the Twitterati.
Grassroots flak has become the most powerful form of flak. The power of grassroots flak was handed to it by the news media themselves. They need to seek the audience’s support amid the vanishing sustainability of the traditional business models and end up seeking the audience’s approval, which they never receive. Flak does not work through approval.
In October 2018, in analyzing readers’ power over the news media, Jay Rosen distinguished the New York Times from the Washington Post, implying that the Times tried to withstand the pressure of the audience. The pressure came from both political sides. Rosen quoted the NYT ‘s publisher, Arthur G. Sulzberger, who said that,
We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition.’ And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition.’
As Rosen clarified, “By ‘baited’ he clearly meant the taunts of people like Steve Bannon and President Trump. By ‘applauded’ he meant, I think, the pressure coming from Times loyalists.”
People who paid for Times’ journalism were readers, not advertisers. And they were readers from a certain social stratum. As Rosen characterized the most demanding NYT readers,
They want the Times to be tougher on his <Trump> supporters and more relentless in calling out his lies. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic — and to act accordingly.
As of 2018, the New York Times had resisted. Rosen wrote:
But these people are perceived as a threat by the Times newsroom. The fear is that they want to turn the Times into an opposition newspaper. This is not how the Times sees itself. The fear is that they want the Times to help save American democracy. This too is not how the Times sees itself.
Rosen compared the stances of NYT and the Washington Post, bringing up the WashPost’s motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. He quoted Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, who once made fun of the WashPost motto, saying that it “sounds like the next Batman movie.”
The New York Times tried to remain the national ‘paper of record’ and represent a spectrum of opinion, at least in op-ed. In a November 2019 interview with BBC, Dean Baquet said:
I make it very clear when I hire, I make it very clear when I talk to the staff, I’ve said it repeatedly, that we are not supposed to be the leaders of the resistance to Donald Trump. That is an untenable, non-journalistic, immoral position for The New York Times.”
But the most demanding part of the readership thought differently. In 2018, op-ed editor James Bennet managed to defend his decision to publish the letters of Trump’s supporters. In 2020, he was forced to resign after picking the wrong columnist, republican senator Tom Cotton, who called to “send in the troops” in a column on the op-ed page during the protests against police brutality and racism.
Interestingly, the publication of an opinion from a Taliban leader just three months before (February 2020) on the same op-ed page did not cause such a huge backlash as the publication of an opinion from a sitting US senator, despite the fact that the columnist from the Taliban, as CNN wrote, was acknowledged as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the FBI, which was offering $5 million for information leading directly to his arrest. Justifying the op-ed appearance of an author from the Taliban, the NYT’s spokesperson told CNN that,
…our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We’ve actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict…
What happened to James Bennet is logical: in a polarized environment, it is possible for the American ‘paper of record’ to cover all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, but not the American one.
Amid Bennet’s resignation, some media critics tried to carefully remind Baquet about “we are not the resistance”, but polarization in the media has shifted much further, to the degree that the very concept of ‘all sides’ has become effectively banned by flak. “The spirit of open debate” and “better understanding of those who disagree” that NYT tried to promote as far back as in 2018 could not withstand flak in 2020.
Soon after James Bennet, another staff editor and NYT op-ed writer, Bari Weiss, resigned too, finally having had enough of the atmosphere and accusing some colleagues of bullying her in the company Slack channels and on Twitter for having different views. In her resignation letter, she recollected that the Times hired her and some other authors after the paper admitted its failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election, which meant NYT “didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers”. The idea was to hear the voices of the centrists and conservatives on the opinion page and learn to understand “other Americans”.
Epistemologically, this new approach might look sound. In the understanding of Trumpism, it was hard to find something more useless than the conventional and publicly approved take on Trump. Nobody knew which nonconventional understanding of Trumpism would work, but what was known exactly was that the mainstream view did not work at all. So, any alternative was worth a shot.
However, the lesson has not been learned, according to Weiss. She wrote:
Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
“Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times,” she concluded. “But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”
NYT’s publisher Sulzberger said in 2018 that the paper would be neither “baited” nor “applauded into becoming ‘the opposition,’” meaning, most likely, baited by Trumpists and applauded by the loyal audience. But it nevertheless started happening, though in a slightly different way — the paper was pushed by the audience and without much applause. Without any allocateve control, which would be the intermediary of advertisers’ influence in the past, the grassroots flak started directly impacting the newsroom’s operational control over topics’ and authors’ selection.
Considering the significance of the New York Times, it can be said that the career cases of its opinion editors, whatever individual specificities they had, set an example for the industry, which is another effect of flak. At a systemic level, the chilling effect of these cases will narrow the spectrum of voices in the media, as everyone saw what might happen to them individually when flak takes over journalism.
Eli Pariser, the author of the term ‘filter bubble’, saw the instant and unmediated accommodation of the news supply to people’s reaction as one of the prerequisites for the filter bubble. He compared the newsroom of Gawker, the then-skyrocketing tabloid-type new online media outlet (the late 2000s), and good-old the New York Times. In Gawker ‘s newsroom, there was a Big Board, a huge screen showing the top posts by page views. “Write an article that makes it onto the Big Board, and you’re liable to get a raise,” reported Pariser. “Stay off it for too long, and you may need to find a different job” (Pariser, 2011, p. 32).
The New York Times at the time held a completely opposite stance, disregarding the instant reactions of the audience. Pariser appraised this as an advantage and even the dignity of journalism. His account of it deserves a longer quote:
At the New York Times, reporters and bloggers aren’t allowed to see how many people click on their stories. This isn’t just a rule, it’s a philosophy that the Times lives by: The point of being the newspaper of record is to provide readers with the benefit of excellent, considered editorial judgment. “We don’t let metrics dictate our assignments and play,” New York Times editor Bill Keller said, “because we believe readers come to us for our judgment, not the judgment of the crowd. We’re not ‘American Idol.’” Readers can vote with their feet by subscribing to another paper if they like, but the Times doesn’t pander. Younger Times writers who are concerned about such things have to essentially bribe the paper’s system administrators to give them a peek at their stats. (The paper does use aggregate statistics to determine which online features to expand or cut.) (Pariser, 2011, p. 32.)
The editor whose newspaper is funded predominantly by advertising can allow themselves to say that “Readers can vote with their feet by subscribing to another paper if they like”. The editor whose newspaper depends solely on reader revenue cannot.
After the reversal in the business model from ad revenue to reader revenue, the relations between “our judgement” and “the judgment of the crowd,” as NYT editor Bill Keller called it in the quoted fragment, have reversed, too. In 2020, just 10 years later, “our judgment” can no longer allow the risk to be too different from “the judgment of the crowd” vocalized on Twitter. “We’re not ‘American Idol’” went the same way as “We are not resistance”. These are not the right mottos for the media business based on soliciting subscription as donation. Journalism surrenders each next “We are not…”.
Some might be tempted to accuse the leadership of the New York Times of this surrender, as the ‘paper of record’ has suffered from it, perhaps, the most. But such are the environmental conditions, including those related to the fading business, not someone’s individual fault. It has impacted journalism in general.
 The New York Times company reports 2020 second-quarter results. (2020, August 5). https://investors.nytco.com/news-and-events/press-releases/#data-item=The-New-York-Times-Company-Reports-2020-Second-Quarter-Results.
 The New York Times Company’s press releases. http://investors.nytco.com/press/press-releases/default.aspx.
 Rosen, Jay. (2018, October 21). “Next time you wonder why New York Times people get so defensive, read this.” PressThink. https://pressthink.org/2018/10/next-time-you-wonder-why-new-york-times-people-get-so-defensive-read-this/.
Originally published at http://human-as-media.com on November 2, 2020.