Monday, March 28, 2011

A big op to upgrade op-ed at New York Times

The departure of two heavyweight columnists affords the New York Times an unprecedented opportunity to belatedly diversify, ventilate and otherwise modernize its opinion pages by opening them to, quite literally, a world of contributors.

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?


Blogger Aaron said...

NYT should just start printing things in the Opinionator online section in the paper is what you're saying.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Brian S Hall said...

Really great post. Thanks.

6:24 PM  
Blogger PereiraView said...

I reside in Hong Kong and used to read the IHT as my window on the European view of world affairs. After the NYT bought out the IHT fully, the Americanization of the product has left a bad taste.

Tiring because the same US-centricity is on CNN as well. The NYT did not do IHT loyalists any favours.

I hope this call for a more global and inclusive approach to its op:ed pages will make the NYT relevant to readers beyond the USA. Otherwise why bother to distribute elsewhere?

Cyril Pereira, Hong Kong

7:23 PM  
Blogger iceboxlogic said...

Love your stuff generally but this is one's out of the park, totally on the money: I write this as a gigging investigative journalist who's also a software developer building a collective intelligence engine. Who can say where the next Twitter revolution will erupt (I kinda like Cuba...because history is perverse, human, a black comedy, and Shakespearean and Chekhovian, not Friedman-esque). If you've not, you must read Fernand Braudel's massive three volume history of's written literally from below---a history NOT from the POV of ruling elites but rather from the POV of evolving vernacular technologies and the interaction of working/creating/innovating classes, not the political or royal classes. It's the icing on the cake of your post, this thinking. As for samizdat, I'm still gestating the thought Shakespeare's stuff was Catholic samizdat, too... :) And me, I read THE ECONOMIST, Le Monde and Die Welt: stuff with a voice. Why? I saw too many foreign correspondents from big brand newspapers in my wartime days in the Balkans who had no clue. They turned up like pop stars and were routinely shipped about by fixers: no languages, no context. No wonder no one understood those wars.

9:45 PM  
Blogger DANIELBLOOM said...

Alan, good post. When both Frank Rich and then Bob Herbert announced
they were leaving the Times oped page for other things, some readers
said too bad and others said good riddance. Me, i like both of them
and always enjoyed their columns.

But what caught me eye the other day is when Newsweek's new editor for
the International edition of Newsweek twitted on
his twitter feed (which was picked up and went viral even on the
Romenesko website post announcing Herbert's resignation letter).

tweeted something like "Hebert leaving the Times is the best thing
that has happened in all Christendom" (I am paraphrasing of course)
and he also said he was more than delighted that Rich has left too. Of
course, in a free speech country like the USA, one can say what one's
private feelings are, sure, and even on Twitter, sure,
BUT....BUT....when you are a public person now like he is and the
editor of Newsweek's International Edition, THE EDITOR, who is
supposed to be fair and balanced, what kind of reaction will readers
have to future Newsweek issues when they know that the EDITOR of the
Intl edition is biased against writers of Rich's and Herbert's ilk?
I,e. progressive, leftwingish writers. I feel
that he as a top editor at Newsweek now has public responsibilities
as EDITOR and should refrain from making such public comments on his
twitter feeds, which the whole world can read. I wrote to him and
told him so and I posted comments at Poynter....., and then he twitted again later week: "Demented
blogger calls for Newsweek to fire me" and he was referring to me! Is this the way for him to behave in public when he is the EDITor of Newsweek intl?
Ben Bradlee would never have behaved this way in public! Privately, of
course, TV can say whatever he wishes, but to twit prejudiced and
biased remarks on Twitter seems very irresponsible. Just to be clear,
I do not think he should be fired. But I do think Tina Brown should
have a good talking with him .

His lazt twit to his friends was: ''Demented blogger calls for my firing from Newsweek''

This is not a good way to represent a presitigous print magazine, is it?

10:58 PM  
Blogger Elaine said...

Where will the next revolt occur? America. Excellent post.

8:35 AM  

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