New York Times: Help us find America

Jeffrey Denny

I love the New York Times, especially on Sunday mornings when I hear that fat load thud on my front walk and delight in wallowing in some of the best and most interesting, important, compelling and often confounding reporting and writing on this, our planet. I remember driving miles to find the last copy when distribution was more limited. Along with my first coffee, thick enough to tar highways and eat with a spoon, I need my Sunday Times.

Yes, sometimes I’m irritated by Sunday Times pieces that indulge the well wrought but laughable hothouse obsessions of the self-focused, self-indulgent and voluntarily sheltered who turn their personal issues into broader matters of the human condition. (“My foot fungus, my boyfriend’s revulsion, my courage.”). But in all, the Times is the best, and I hope it succeeds well beyond my years.

So I was cheered that, to its great credit, the Times recently completed, published and reported on a soul-searching internal study, “Journalism That Stands Apart.” The project probed where the venerable Grey Lady has fallen short. But more important, it detailed how the Times could and should survive, thrive and move forward to continue to lead journalism and serve the public and the nation.

“The Times is uniquely well positioned to take advantage of today’s changing media landscape,” the study notes, “but also vulnerable to decline if we do not transform ourselves quickly.”

Good start. In this era of fake news and “alternative facts,” disdain for the mainstream press, the new president’s extraordinary use and abuse of the media, and the popular skunk-eye toward the educated, expert and elite, we need respected media leaders more than ever. Few have greater ability — and thus, responsibility — to guide the Fourth Estate out of the woods than the Times.

But the Times report missed, and I hope the paper considers, its unique opportunity to address a serious gap in American journalism: The demise of the local press.

The Pew Research Center noted last June that, heading into the 2016 election, local newspapers faced their biggest decline in circulation and ad revenues since the 2008 recession. The national economy has mostly recovered. The local press has fallen back.

We all know it: Our hometown papers are getting smaller, thinner, and more reliant on wire copy and drugstore coupon inserts as newsrooms shrink and struggle to go digital. The days of fiercely competing local papers, with morning and evening editions, are long gone. For sweet nostalgia, cue Lou Grant, who went on from Mary Tyler Moore’s local TV news boss to city editor of a fictional Los Angeles daily and fought the best fights in journalism. While fantasies of the writers’ imaginations, Lou Grant’s battles evoked our respect and appreciation for the journalist’s role and job.

Today, those days truly are fantasies. Lou Grant’s local press is dying. Worse, the big national papers and networks — far from taking up the slack — completely muffed the election and misunderstood the electorate, leading to the shock of November 9.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, a former Times ombudsperson who began her career as a local beat reporter at the Buffalo News, got it:

To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it.

They didn’t get that the huge, enthusiastic crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies would really translate into that many votes. They couldn’t believe that the America they knew could embrace someone who mocked a disabled man, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and spouted misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism. It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn’t happen.

Journalists — college-educated, urban and, for the most part, liberal — are more likely than ever before to live and work in New York City and Washington, D.C., or on the West Coast. And although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt, we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.

Let’s not overindulge our schadenfreude in seeing smug-certain reporters, columnists, TV commentators and political experts get the comeuppance they richly earned. And of course, the best and brightest in journalism are not solely to blame for the Trump Surprise or the blind-siding of the Clinton campaign. Many blame modern polling that still relies heavily on land-line calling when most Americans cut the cord long ago (although pollsters insist they were right — their results fell within the narrow margin for error). Others suggest Trump supporters lied to pollsters to avoid being tagged as racist, xenophobic, ignorant yahoos. Media critics say the elites who couldn’t fathom a Trump win simply doubted the polling — there must be “noise” in the numbers, a bug in the machine.

I wonder about the new-toy thrall with Big Data science and analytics that — like a tech dystopia storyline from Netflix’s Broken Mirror — override the humans that created them. As a Democratic National Committee source told US News in a story headlined, “DNC Staff: Arrogance Cost Clinton the Election,” “It was all about analytics with them. They were too reliant on analytics and not enough on instinct and human intel from the ground.”

Same with the big media: A friend who provides polling and survey analysis to a major network pleaded with editors to send reporters to the counties that were turning from blue to red. He thought they should talk to people and find out why. The editors demurred, maybe because of the cost, or arrogance, or a blind side. Let’s hope it was a lesson learned. Data journalism might be a thing, but data analytics are a tool, not a solution, for journalism. Reporters can’t sit in their cubes, wrangle some numbers, make some calls for comment, and then tell us what our nation is thinking.

Which brings me back to the Times report. One recommendation is, “We should rethink our approach to freelance work, expanding it in some areas and shrinking it in others.” Ok. Problem is, the Times’ definition of freelance is outside contributors who submit op-eds, travel pieces, book and arts reviews. When it comes to retaining “stringers,” local reporters who dog or dig up daily coverage, the Times regards their work as more trouble than it’s worth. Their offerings, the report says, “too often does not surpass the quality or speed of the wires and … requires considerable effort editing and coordinating.”

Huh. That seems to suggest local reporting is just not good or interesting enough for the Times and its readers. But the problem with local press is the business model, not the journalism.

Example: On the same day the Times published its study, it also headlined a story about local media, “Voice of Politics in Nevada Media Starts a News Website.” It featured a respected (and feared) old school political reporter and columnist who decided to challenge the state’s leading paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, after its purchase by casino magnate and major GOP donor Sheldon Adelson and the paper’s subsequent burial of stories that were sensitive to the gambling industry. (FYI, we saw Adelson an awful lot during CNN’s coverage of the inaugural talking with Trump and applauding from the special seats.)

Also consider that four of the last 14 Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism were local papers — oddly, all in Florida: the Tampa Bay Times (twice), Sun Newspapers of Charlotte Harbor, Fla., and the Sarasota Herald Tribune. They won for stories about “escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals [that] laid the blame at the door of state officials” … “a local school board’s culpability in turning some county schools into failure factories, with tragic consequences for the community” … and “fierce, indignant editorials that demanded truth and change after the deadly assault of an inmate by corrections officers.”

I also think about Chris Powell and the Journal Inquirer, a daily tabloid in Manchester, Conn., covering the central part of the state. The JI treated all 14 towns in its footprint like they were the old ward-heeler Chicago. The paper once made national news when it investigated and broke stories about its own publisher and his involvement in a sweetheart land deal with a local official. As editor in chief, Chris would have quit before pulling his reporters back. The JI was my second reporting job out of college, and perhaps elevated my standards for journalism impossibly high, even as I certainly failed them. To this day, Chris is still plugging away, taking rich pleasure in journalism’s charge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (He also seems to like afflicting the afflicted if he smells BS.)

One of my JI colleagues, the exquisitely brilliant reporter and writer, Dan Barry, went on to share a Pulitzer at the Providence Journal and now writes the “Our Land” column for the New York Times, which “takes readers beneath news stories and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States.” Dan was trenchantly hilarious, and it was a delight to work with and learn from him how to make journalism human and funny as the human condition can be.

We need more Dan Barrys not just at the Times but everywhere, reporting every day from every corner of our nation, wool-dyed journalists who know our communities and capture them because they live there and people know, trust and confide in them.

Granted, the Times can’t afford to have physical bureaus dotting our towns and counties, and even a virtual network of staffers is too costly — and unnecessary, if the Times invested in building a stringer system of trusted local reporters at good local papers. Most, I daresay, would welcome the national exposure. If the Times is worried about ensuring the stringer reporting and writing are up to its high standards, then perhaps it could set aside a regular full section of the best local stories and disclaim with the necessary caveats.

Not to single out the Times. If the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, etc., the networks — CBS, NBC, CBS, CNN — and every major media company that considers itself a leader and standard-setter in journalism today tapped local reporting, perhaps they wouldn’t be so surprised by elections like this one.

Perhaps the mainstream media will come to better understand the millions of Americans who rely on other sources of news and views, and even re-earn some of their lost trust, respect and readership/viewership. Perhaps the urban elites and the flyover folks would learn more about and understand each other better, even if their worlds and worries are different, and they disagree on most things. At least they’ll know why.

One more, perhaps more provocative thought: The Times study called for greater newsroom diversity. That’s great. But for the sake of journalism that understands and reflects our country, shouldn’t diversity be defined broader than race, gender, etc.? Geographic, economic, educational and yes, political diversity couldn’t hurt in understanding the people and places that went for Trump — and how they feel about him as president. Polls will never tell you as much as people who know and trust you will. Elite backgrounds, educations, experiences and resumes that the mainstream media competes for don’t always translate well into reporting that truly understands people not like them.

The Times might be fine with being an elite newspaper that serves as a feedback loop for its elite readership, instead of our best hope for journalism in its time of maximum danger and duty. If not, then it needs to set aside the elite resumes and try locating, recruiting and training some red county conservatives who have exceptional reporting and writing potential, as the Times also taps the wealth of talent that grind it out covering our towns.

I wasn’t a complete Bernie Sanders fan, but his powerful campaign ad brought chills of resonance because, perhaps especially post-election, we’re still looking for America. The Times has the passion, mission and power to help us find it.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington communications professional and writer.

A Pullet Surprise-winning writer who always appreciates free chicken.