Opinion | The New York Times’ Obsession with Itself
Defying the journalistic maxim that reporters should never be the story, “The Story Behind the Story” frequently chronicles the mundane mechanics of assembling the Times. Recently, the space has featured a first-person piece by a Times reporter about how she got her story about the things people stand in line for these days; how its book critic read and reviewed Prince Harry’s Spare in a day; how its reporter found sources for a piece about young people and personal finance; how its reporter covered the recent 5.6 magnitude earthquake in West Java; inside commentary on the paper’s crossword; a profile of the paper’s photography department; and a profile of a food-truck proprietor who vends on the street outside the Times’ offices.
Other days the feature runs Q&A’s with reporters in which they regurgitate the facts they’ve already conveyed in published pieces about classified documents, Ticketmaster, and the recent German coup plot. (Some of these Q&A’s are double-dribbled from the Times’ “The Daily” podcast.) Then there have been retrospectives on the influence of the paper’s “Snow Fall” feature from 10 years ago and a history of the guest book at Times headquarters. It would be one thing if any of these pieces broke ground or were great reads, but they don’t and they aren’t. Most days’ entries have that tossed off quality that passes for insight when applied to podcasts. The reading experience is like soaking your brain in brackish well water. Perhaps nobody has ever attacked these columns because nobody ever reads them.
The feature swells with such clueless self-regard some days that it recalls former New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley’s jokey response to a colleague who asked him to concoct a magazine title that would appeal to hardcore New Republic readers. Kinsley pitch was New Republic World: The Magazine for Readers of the New Republic. By giving the Times readers re-tastings of pieces they’ve already read, the paper accomplishes the ouroboros design Kinsley imagined.
In theory, a continuing Times feature that critically examined the paper’s output could be salutary for both Times readers and journalists. At a time when radical transparency is in vogue and the need to demystify journalism to a skeptical public has never been greater, “The Story Behind the Story” could be an essential campaign to reading the Times. But in its current form, the project does not come close to serving any real function. It’s unworthy of an institution like the Times.
In theory, an enterprising editor could raise the standards and demand work that is as newsworthy as other Times stories. In fact, the paper has a recent tradition of critical self-reflection. For 14 years, the paper hosted the public editor column that, with varying success, X-rayed and fanny-whacked the Times’ coverage. But the paper spiked the exercise in introspection in 2017, with Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offering that the “watchdogs” of social media and “readers across the Internet” could fill the void left by the public editor’s departure.
Even after the vanquishing of the public editor, the paper still ran its barbed media column, launched by the late David Carr and continued by Jim Rutenberg and Ben Smith, which occasionally made the Times its subject. But the paper has yet to replace Smith, who departed about a year ago for his Semafor venture, which means that just about the only place in the Times to read about the Times is this soft, accommodating feature that denies its writers the freedom to be fully honest about how their stories come together. Trust me, reader, sometimes the process can be very ugly. Other times, as we’ve seen from the Times feature attests, it’s as exciting as going grocery shopping.
Properly reconstituted, the Times insider feature could take up the slack created by the cashiering of the public editor and the failure to replace Smith. If the paper’s true objective is to reveal “who we are and what we do” and deliver “behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together,” “The Story Behind the Story” could do just that by engaging in Maoist self-criticism exercises that confess the paper’s miscues and goofs and state the paper’s case against its critics.
You could successfully argue that griping about the misuse of a valuable Times print perch in an era when most people engage the paper in its online incarnation is a wasted complaint. But setting the feature’s placement aside, you’re still left with the reality that the world’s top newspaper thinks running an extended, onanistic public relations campaign for itself is a good use of its journalists’ and readers’ time. The first question of any act of journalism is, does the story matter? The second is, who cares? In the case of “The Story Behind the Story,” the answers are “no” and “nobody.”
Public Editor Daniel Okrent was, by far, the best of the Times’ public editors. Get his collected columns, Public Editor #1, for $4.50 on Abebooks. Send brackish well-water to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed needs a public editor. My Mastodon account has marked my Post account for death. My RSS feed blankets itself with the print version of the Times for its afternoon naps