To the New York Times: “We Thought We Knew Ye”

In 1980 we produced a report titled How to Appraise and Improve Your Daily Newspaper: A Manual for Readers, authored by David Bollier, one of our precocious interns, who had just graduated from Amherst and went on to become an expert on the Commons (See, bollier.org). I thought about this past initiative to empower readers/consumers while contemplating what is happening in recent months to the print edition of the New York Times.

The editors call it an historic revamping in the digital age that is absorbing a growing, aliterate younger generation. I call it a frantic overreach replacing serious content with excessive photography and graphics slouching toward stupefaction. (The digital Times is doing very well).

I spend serious time reading the New York Times in print – marking up at least 30 selections daily and sending them to a variety of advocates, scholars and groups. I started reading this august newspaper at the age of ten.

Until the Internet Age of verbal incommunicados, I extended my reading experience by speaking frequently with New York Times editors, reporters and opinion-writers. Many a story idea flowed from these conversations.

Many a change for a better country resulted. What, why and how the New York Times has moved so heavily into a vast visual mix of magazine styles and supplemental entertainment for its various sections. There is a daily Arts Section, but not a single weekly section devoted to Civic activities, which should invite an extensive assessment by journalism critics and serious journalists.

Also useful would be an evaluation of the many other New York Times’ commercial ventures – launched by the desperate management to make up for the loss of print advertising – (space and classified) revenues.

However, here I wish to register an objection to the very recent unseemly, inexplicable collapse of the Times’ historic editorial and op-ed pages that are arguably the most significant two pages in all of our country’s mainstream journalism.

The implosion of these pages started some months ago when I noticed that op-eds were displacing the previously sacrosanct space for the Times’ daily editorials. From the usual three editorials taking up the left half of the page (the rest of the page was reserved for letters-to-the-editor), emerged op-eds such as the tepid exchanges between professed “liberal” Gail Collins and “conservative” hawk Bret Stephens (whose earlier Wall Street Journal writings argued for illegal wars and imperial armed violence overseas). Now in addition to each having a weekly column, they engage in strained exchanges in the weekly opinion feature “The Conversation.” What is the point of using precious space in the New York Times to showcase Bret seeking agreement on current news topics with the more moderate Gail, especially compared to featuring vibrant, fresh columns the editors could be seeking from more freelance contributors? (See some little covered subjects listed on Reporters Alert: reportersalert.org).

The pages are getting more exclusive. Preference for the remaining space not occupied by regular columnists now goes to writers who have been signed up for Times podcasts and Times newsletters. This paper is pointing toward a journalistic monoculture, keeping out of its pages knowledgeable, experienced writers on many important, ignored subjects and positions.

It keeps getting worse. In the last week or so the former editorial space was taken up with a long demand for New York City to teach children how to swim. (Important, but belonging to another section). The entire editorial page was recently an artistic portrayal of the headline “The Choices My Mother Could, and Couldn’t, Make.” (Good for another section). And just this August 3, 2022, another full-page article titled “Liz Cheney is Prepared to Lose Power, and It Shows” replaced editorials with a gigantic picture of the legislator’s face.

Is it not enough that photographs and graphics have taken up huge spaces (in the Business Section, and in the various Sunday sections) where paying readers used to receive content? The editorial and opinion pages that used to be a haven of print, with no photographs taking up space for precious content, are now also losing space to gratuitous graphics – art over function.

To be sure this is a visual age. But there is such a thing as much too much. Visuals have replaced the incisive Sunday Business Section articles by Gretchen Morgenson, consumer features by Joe Sharkey and others. Now there are photographic/print articles that have some serious readers shaking their heads and asking what are they doing in the Times Business Section.

Page two of the daily Times often has reporters explaining how they got their break-through stories, including glimpses up front and personal. I may have missed it, but no such explanations were printed giving the real reasons for thinning down the editorial and op-ed pages.

I never thought that the Washington Post – owned by Jeff Bezos – would ever overtake the Times in presenting serious content. They now have, especially comparing its Sunday Outlook Section with its remodeled counterpart the Times Sunday Opinion Section. The Post readers still receive three editorials a day. The Post also devotes a full page on Saturday to letters-to-the-editor, unlike the Times.

As for editorials, I noticed one, just one, in a recent six-day period, demurely tucked in the lower quarter of the opinion page. Whatever happened to the dozen or more full-time editorial writers who robustly championed serious issues? Have they been laid off, reassigned or what?

The Times still produces remarkable, pioneering features such as its spectacular series on the illegal predations and burning of the critical Brazilian Amazon Forest. It publishes other domestic muckraking stories so good that they beg the formation of a citizen group just to extend this newspaper’s exposure of wrongdoing and to push for reforms.

But there are also bizarre forays, such as the eleven full biographical pages on Fox’s Tucker Carlson (which he used as a promotion).

There are many other regular strange journalistic misadventures, filled with over-visualizations surrounding puzzling choices of subject matter. For instance, the Times is hung up on narrative features about little-known, extreme right-wing groups and ventures. The subjects love it. They raise money off this coverage, becoming a big act for their followers. Readers are left wondering whether anything is happening on the progressive side of the political ledger in this election year.

What should be done? Open a couple of pages for long-time readers, who have a comparative perspective, to express their opinion of these changes. Have the editors give us the reasons for these changes, beyond self-reinforcing surveys.

Of course, the Times needs to react to what the new generations of readers want to read (hopefully uplifting the quality of its many such pages). Nonetheless, its most basic mission is to offer the readers what they need to know about this tormented world of ours in the far fewer print pages they are allocating for that purpose.

Years ago, it used to be said “You can always tell a Times man, but you can’t tell him much.” Please reverse your slide toward mediocrity and recover a sense of your own special significance in an unceasingly deteriorating journalistic culture of print, radio and television and social media.

Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of Unstoppable The Emerging Left Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (2014), among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.