A big op to upgrade op-ed at New York Times
While the op-ed pages of the Times aren’t shabby in comparison with the rest of the American press, this statement unfortunately damns the Times with faint praise, given the weariness (and wariness) of the opinion sections at most other papers. But here’s the problem:
The faces, voices and outlook of NYT’s regular commentators not only are universally NY/DC-centric but also reflect the sensibilities of wealthy, well-educated, middle-aged individuals who are all white, all Americans, mostly men and evidently each come from Judeo-Christian traditions.
With the exit of Frank Rich, who is all of the above, and Bob Herbert, who is all of the above save for being African-American (his departure Saturday means there is no non-white columnist in the line-up), this is the time for the Times to aggressively open its opinion pages to a breadth of commentators from around the world. Here’s why this matters:
Unlike the typically cubicle-bound and increasingly self-referential Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristoff do venture beyond the Beltway and Times Square. But even their views are shaped by the fact that they are readily identifiable outsiders in the places they visit, who necessarily must depend on fixers, translators, bodyguards, U.S. diplomats and other intermediaries to interact with indigenous populations who probably have no idea what to make of these would-be chroniclers of their hopes, fears and pain.
For all the skill and gravitas they bring to the their tasks, the Bubble Boys and Girls of the op-ed page haven’t the faintest idea of how the world really looks and feels to people in La Crosse, much less Lanzhou, Lagos, Lahore, Latakia or La Paz. Yet, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are the places where the stories are brewing that will shape our times – and should be shaping The Times, too.
How could it be that no one on this side of the world knew that unrest was so profound in recent years that many brave people in Myanmar, Thailand and Iran were willing to risk life and limb to defy their authoritarian governments? How could it be that no one had a clue that Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria were about to explode? And where will it happen next? China? Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? North Korea?
The Facebook revolutions we have seen – and the ones that may be afoot as I write this – could not have been possible without tens of thousands of people getting together to voice their frustrations, share their aspirations and make daring and elaborate plans in the global chat room enabled by the digital media. So, how was this missed by the richest and most sophisticated news organization in the richest and arguably most sophisticated country in the world?
Simple: The Times (and for that matter, our government and most of the rest of us) wasn’t listening.
This could have been forgiven in the days of samizdats, the secretly typewritten missives smuggled at great risk among dissidents in the Soviet Union. But nowadays, it’s all hanging out the web, 24/7. You just have to look for it.
As the New York Times reconstitutes its op-ed pages and moves forward with its previously announced plans to retool the Sunday Week in Review section, the editors should leverage the web and the prestige of their brand to seek out and host the most diverse and unfettered opinions they can find.
Tapping into the global conversation is Journalism 101, i.e. asking knowledgeable people enough questions until the answers start to make sense. If the 1,100 or so newsfolk at Big Orange are stumped, a world full of activists, journalists, academics and others will be glad to show them around. All they have to do is ask.
Rather than viewing itself strictly as a gatekeeper of official news written by official journalists (though it would be a disastrous mistake for the Times to pare back the authoritative reporting that is fundamental to its formidable brand), NYTimes.Com should become not only a showcase for the work of the Times but also the world’s go-to place for the development, dissemination, discussion and debate of news, ideas and opinions.
Instead of dedicating the bulk of its limited and precious op-ed space to another generation of slightly more diverse Pooh-Bahs, the Times should publish the best of the online conversations in its print editions.
This would be both good journalism and good business.
It would be good journalism, because the Times rapidly would become a leading destination for cutting-edge information from primary sources about what’s really happening in the world. Today, it is more of a compendium of comments about what officials in Washington, who cannot be identified because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive matters, think is happening in the world.
This initiative also would be good for business, because it would support the digital pay scheme about to launched by the Times by making its web and mobile media significantly more unique and compelling than they are today, particularly for the vast English-speaking offshore audience that only can access the Times electronically. For proof of the commercial value of a lively and well-trafficked digital forum, look no further than the bodacious $310 million that AOL paid for Huffington Post – and compare the value of NYT (only 0.6 times its revenues) with the 10x premium on HuffPo.
A diverse and intelligently curated opinion space at NYTimes.Com would pay dividends for all of us citizens of the world. With U.S. intelligence activities still being run essentially by the same type of bureaucrats who brought us Curve Ball and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction to justify the unjustifiable Iraq War, it would be nice to have a realistic view of what lies beyond our borders.
The Times is uniquely equipped among all American journalistic institutions to do this. How about it, folks?