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Talking about oneself: The New York Times paywall

Talking about oneself: The New York Times paywall

Publishers of course want their papers to be profitable, but also journalists working for a paper should take the paper's robustness to heart, shouldn't they? If a paper is profitable, it could invest in higher quality reporting, as well as in hiring other journalists.

This prelude is to suggest that a newspaper covering news about itself is not easy at all. Conflicts exist. "Reason of state" exists. How can a journalist cover a story regarding the company s/he works for, especially when this story involves financial and economic aspects of the company itself? There could be biased introduced by the journalist, or perhaps the journalist might report on something counterproductive to the success of the paper.

Arthur S. Brisbane, public editor of The New York Times
, wonders about this very thing, writing about why the paper didn't publish any article (except for an initial story 14-months ago) about The Times' own paywall, which is going to be launched.

The news has had wide coverage in the majority of other newspapers, from Bloomberg Businessweek to The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, along with web sites and blogs such as Mashable or Jeff Bercovici's Forbes blog. But at The Times readers didn't find anything.

"From my own experience as an editor and publisher--Brisbane wrote--it is awkward and difficult to cover your own news organization.... The risk of looking self-promotional is real."

Brisbane asked other media experts or senior journalists what they think about this lack of coverage and they agreed that the paper should cover itself on high profile issues like this.
Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, underlined that in the past The Times didn't fail in covering itself, even with burning issues like the Jason Blair scandal in 2003 (which, indeed, led, with other aftermaths, to the hiring of a public editor).

However things change when it's about business strategy.

Could the paper have found a way to cover the story without being blamed as self-promotional, and without falling prey to issues of conflict of interest?

The company could have hired an outsider to write about the issue (the idea underlying this is the same as in hiring a public editor, one who writes for the paper but who also benefits from total independence, as expressed by contract), or it could have merely told its journalists to deal with the story as if another company was involved, assuring the most editorial independence as possible, McBride suggested.

"Of these approaches, this last one seems most workable to me. In a way that's visible internally and externally, The Times should commit the media team to covering The Times itself more aggressively. This would yield stories that readers want to read and blunt criticism that, when it comes to covering itself, The Times has a blind spot," Brisbane concluded.

There are other examples of journalists at The Times writing about news at the paper, as happened when David Carr asked interviewees about the fate of the paper and then decided to address some of the main issues, as the paper's owner, even if he underlined that he does not have access to information from "the people in charge."

There was also another precedent set, when previous public editor Clark Hoyt, urged by readers' complaints, wrote about how the flagship paper handled the story about its parent company was closing The Boston Globe. Many papers reported the news of course, but The Times dedicated to it only a short article inside the business section.

"When the story involves the most revered company in the industry--and it happens to be yours--I think there is a special obligation to be aggressive," Hoyt commented.

The case about the paywall is probably more difficult than others. Firstly, because it's the paper that's on focus and not just the company or a sister publication. Secondly, because it deals with a business strategy that could have an impact on the paper's readers themselves.
The example of using the public editor anyway has its limit - while his/her job is to deal with matters that involve the paper, sometimes what is written could be seen as counterproductive to the paper itself.

Journalists should do their jobs, and the company's primary interest should be in letting them. Business and editorial should remain always separate. Or is this something of the past?

Sources: The New York Times (1), (2), (3)



Federica Cherubini


2011-03-09 13:50

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