Newsroom strife at Times poses bigger questions for journalism

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

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.” 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

City Council President Kim Janey of Roxbury is about to make history by stepping into the Boston mayor’s office.

Some promising signs on COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout, which run counter to the current narrative espoused by pols and pundits. 

The Baker administration is offering hefty rebates on very expensive trucks.

Opinion: Andrew Jennings of North Billerica says the MBTA should be experimenting with commuter rail during this COVID-induced down time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Beacon Hill officials already missed the first deadline for appointing representatives to follow-up panels charged with helping to implement the state’s sweeping new police reform law, scrambling to list their picks only after asked by a reporter. (Boston Herald

Gov. Charlie Baker signs a bill requiring more notice of sewage spillovers into public waterways. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Up to $8.275 billion in direct aid to state and local government in Massachusetts from President Biden’s stimulus package could be on the line as Beacon Hill lawmakers begin the process of building the next state budget. (State House News Service)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Movie actor Guy Cooper is running for mayor in Haverhill. (Eagle-Tribune)

MassDOT is reviving its plan to update a roundabout at a Northampton site, which the landowner has protested, saying it will disturb Native American artifacts. (MassLive)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A new “vaccine equity” coalition is forming to demand greater access to COVID vaccines among hard-hit populations, amid criticism of Gov. Baker’s vaccine rollout. (Salem News) The Boston Herald says the state will add moderate-to-severe asthma to the list of “comorbidities” that can make someone eligible for a vaccine. 

Massachusetts’ congressional delegation calls for the state to institute a vaccine pre-registration system. (Eagle-Tribune)

Methuen officials are furious that after holding two successful vaccine clinics, the state says it won’t give them any more doses this week. (Eagle-Tribune)

A nurse at the Eastfield Mall mass vaccination site in Springfield tests positive for COVID-19 but saw an estimated 200 patients for several days before she got her test results back, due to a lag time in Curative’s reporting of test results for employees. (MassLive)

The first case of the South African COVID-19 variant is identified in Massachusetts. (MassLive)

A new vaccine supersite opens at Worcester State University. (Telegram & Gazette)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Biden says he wants most K-8 students back in school within his first 100 days in office — as much as five days a week. He says teachers should be given priority for the vaccine. (NPR) Biden’s stimulus package could mean $8.3 billion in state and local aid for Massachusetts. (State House News Service)

Former president Donald Trump calls Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” following McConnell’s sharp condemnation of Trump’s role in the Capitol riots. (Washington Post)

New York is suing Amazon over what it says is “flagrant disregard” for health and safety requirements during the pandemic. (NPR)

IMMIGRATION

Seven asylum seekers are reunited with families in Massachusetts after President Biden rescinds President Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which had required asylum seekers to stay in dilapidated conditions on the Mexican side of the border. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A state audit says the Convention Center Authority needs to do a better job overseeing MGM Springfield’s management of the MassMutual Center. (MassLive

Auto sales were down significantly last year due to the pandemic. Even as demand rebounded following the shut-downs, car dealers weren’t able to get new model cars due to manufacturing slow-downs. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

A UMass union representing resident assistants and peer mentors took a vote of no confidence in UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy in the wake of the recent COVID-19 outbreak on campus. (Daily Hampshire Gazette) Amherst police officers issued $700 noise tickets to UMass Amherst students who partied in violation of a campus sequestration order. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

A Globe editorial says the MCAS test being administered this spring will provide crucial information about pandemic-driven learning loss. 

ARTS/CULTURE

The Lynn Museum opens an exhibit featuring black historical figures from Lynn. (Daily Item)

Firefighters say they have been unable to determine the cause of the fire that destroyed a performance center at Jacob’s Pillow. (Berkshire Eagle

TRANSPORTATION

20,000 citations issued under distracted driving law in 2020. (Patriot Ledger)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Vox explains why the Texas power grid has not been able to cope with the cold that has blanketed the state. 

The Conservation Law Foundation filed suit Tuesday in federal court against the town of Barnstable, saying its water pollution control facility is in violation of the Clean Water Act and is polluting Lewis Bay. (Cape Cod Times) 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Former Boston prosecutor Gary Zerola is indicted on rape charges. (Associated Press)

MEDIA

Maryland becomes the first state in the nation to assess a tax on digital ads displayed inside the state by Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The Maryland legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact the tax, which will raise about $250 million initially for schools. (New York Times)

As part of a deal allowing Alden Global Capital to acquire Tribune Publishing, Tribune Publishing is selling off several newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, to a nonprofit operator. (Baltimore Sun) More on the Alden deal here. (Chicago Tribune)

The government in New Zealand pledges $55 million to fund public interest journalism. (RNZ)

PASSINGS

Dr. Bernard Lown, a towering figure in cardiology who invented the first reliable defibrillator used to save countless lives but who became equally known for his global activism, founding an anti-nuclear war physicians group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, died at his Newton home at age 99. (Boston Globe)