Newsroom strife at Times poses bigger questions for journalism

Does uproar over race issues reflect internet-driven move to the left? 

THE NEW YORK TIMES is increasingly beholden to the views of its left-leaning subscribers. 

It sounds like the sort of scorched-earth screed you might hear on Fox News — or perhaps on OAN or another right-wing outlet now that Fox’s full Trumpist credentials are in question. But the claim didn’t come from any of the usual suspects. It appeared in Sunday’s column by the Times’s own media critic, Ben Smith. 

The ostensible topic of his piece was the strife within the Times that led to the recent resignation of veteran reporter Donald McNeil Jr. McNeil, who has drawn acclaim for his reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, found himself the focus of condemnation over comments he made during a 2019 Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru. His use of a racial epithet and other comments McNeil made in what Smith says were a “series of heated arguments” on “the charged question of race” prompted complaints to Times higher-ups. 

McNeil, a white, 45-year Times employee, received a formal reprimand. When the internal Times communication over the 2019 incident was recently leaked to the Daily Beast, however, it led to an uproar among many Times staff members. They raised in particular the issue of whether McNeil should be covering something like the pandemic, “a crucial story with complex racial disparities,” writes Smith. The paper’s management seemed to bob and weave. Within days, McNeil submitted his resignation.

Smith dissects the many details of the McNeil saga, and says it’s just the latest flashpoint for debate within the Times newsroom, often pitting an older generation of journalists against a younger one. But it’s the broader context he outlines for the passions now roiling US newsrooms, which are themselves becoming news stories, that is the most jarring aspect of his column.

At the Times, writes Smith, “This intense attention, combined with a thriving digital subscription business that makes the company more beholden to the views of left-leaning subscribers, may yet push it into a narrower and more left-wing political lane as a kind of American version of The Guardian — the opposite of its stated, broader strategy.” 

The business model for newspapers has changed dramatically in the internet era, with advertising as a main source of revenue increasingly being replaced by digital subscriptions. In November, the Times said it had more than 6 million digital subscribers. The Washington Post has also recorded enormous digital subscriber growth. In our region, the Globe has successfully grown its digital subscription base, despite being far more expensive than the Times or Post

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Smith is asking an intriguing question: Will this tilt toward increasing reliance on subscribers for revenue shift the way newspapers cover the news? He raises interesting issues at a time when journalism is in great flux, and says it’s important that the issues be faced squarely and not overshadowed by highly-charged newsroom personnel drama, which he suggests is often just the tail wagging the dog.  

“The questions about The Times’s identity and political leanings are real; the differences inside the newsroom won’t be easily resolved,” writes Smith. “But the paper needs to figure out how to resolve these issues more clearly: Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans? Or is it trying to hold what seems to be a disappearing center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden? One thing that’s clear is that these questions probably aren’t best arbitrated through firings or resignations freighted with symbolic meaning, or hashed out inside the human resources department.”