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Monday, October 09, 2017

Is the NY Times a good product?

It's interesting to see the NYT Magazine's recent "Fractured Lands" mega-feature through lens of magazine trying to find its unique niche.

The NYT mag for many years has been a bit of a mess, considering how clear and good a product the broader paper is. (The real ad money is in the Times's "T" fashion magazine, if you can believe it.)

New York Magazine, meanwhile, has become the greatest local magazine in the world. And the "potpurri of random semi-newsy stuff that wouldn't belong in a newspaper" role has been decisively taken over by the internet. In contrast, "Fractured Lands" seems like a perfect example of work that the NYT Mag is uniquely equipped to do. I have plenty of my own criticisms of the NY Times. I subscribe to Noam Chomsky's criticism in Manufacturing Consent that mainstream media companies tend to approach truth through the lens of the powerful and through the lens of existing reader worldview, which are mutually reinforcing.

The Awl's terrific parody, “The Most Emailed ‘New York Times’ Article Ever”, nails that point perfectly.

I've also observed that the more I've known about a story in real life, the more wildly wrong I've seen mainstream publications, including the Times get it. Around 2010, Chuck Schumer's office decided to vilify an obscure, fairly inconsequential, and totally voluntary form of stock market trading called "flash trades", and decry high-frequency trading companies for taking advantage of them. I won't get into why I think this was 100% performance art and 0% consumer protection; my point is that not only did the Times run these stories on the front page multiple times using precisely the line of attack that Schumer was advancing, the pieces made little effort to explain the aspects of flash trades that brought them into existence, and little effort to identify anybody who was ever hurt by them. The coverage was a revelation to me in its combination of ignorance and cravenness.

On the other hand, the coverage of the former Soviet Union was pretty great, and I'm a huge fan of one of their longtime foreign correspondents. The more rarefied New York Review of Books, in contrast, has been pathologically dovish on Russia since the Cold War.

Despite the Times's not being quite the paper I wish it would be, the quality of reporting and writing is generally high, the coverage is reasonably comprehensive, and the output is fast. That execution--150 articles a day or something, many of which are the best reporting in the world on their topic--is incredible.

NB: Twitter and FB also fall short of being what I wish they were, but like the Times, they do a great job of being the product that they are.

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