Media on Media

A former NYT editor on how the Paper of Record lost its way, and more.

“When the New York Times Lost Its Way”

James Bennet’ 16,000-word dissection in The Economist of what went wrong at the New York Times, dovetailed with a dispiriting recounting of his time there as Opinion editor during the Trump years, was an early Christmas gift to media spectators…and, no
doubt, a few right wing Times haters. 

“The Times’s problem has metastasized from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favor one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether,” he writes.  

Yes, Bennet may have an ax to grind. He was famously forced to resign after publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton advocating for military force to squelch the street protests (and some riots) that erupted after the killing of George Floyd. Regardless, his consistent invocation of the Times’ mission to report a diverse set of intelligent ideas “without fear or favor,” played against accounts of nearly half of reporters afraid to speak honestly in the newsroom and even center-left columnists feeling bullied to the point of fearing going to the office, makes clear that the paper went astray. 

Why? The swift demise of metro desks and their “acculturating” beats. Desperation to grow audiences as youthful digital audiences briefly boomed. The irresistible allure of cashing in on polarization. The sudden ability of readers to have their “alternate realities” affirmed on social media. These are just a few of the reasons Bennet breaks down, making the piece essential reading about the past 15 years of not just media, but American social history. 

“How Anxiety Became Content”

Derek Thompson begins his thoughtful Atlantic piece on the anxiety content complex by acknowledging that increased openness about mental health struggles is a good thing, at least to a point. But could the booming genre of anxiety (and/or OCD, depression, PTSD etc.) content, and the extent to which mental health frailties have pervaded casual conversation, be worsening an already grim crisis? 

“People, especially young people, consume so much information about anxiety disorders that they begin to process normal problems of living as signs of a decline in mental health,” Thompson writes.

After speaking with psychologists, Thompson suggests that claiming an anxiety disorder online has become a status symbol among certain people, and especially young adults. And while openness about problems can lead to healthy catharsis, the current prevalence of anxiety-themed social media is at best a passive approach to a problem that requires action, and at worst the digital age equivalent of drowning one’s sorrows.

“Solutions Oriented”

Can local news be saved? The devastation of the field has created vast stretches of America without a single news organization to cover everything from school board meetings to political corruption and environmental degradation. CJR reports on a rare encouraging development: big league philanthropic organizations, including the

Cleveland Foundation, Ford and MacArthur are pumping more and more money into grassroots local news outfits, to the point that the American Journalism Project won’t give further funding to organizations without such support. 

The funders are driven more by fostering community involvement in small bore issues than on taking huge journalistic swings, and Megan Greenwell admits that seasoned journalists may want to fill in significant gaps while reading the (modestly compensated) citizen coverage of zoning hearings and the like. Still, some of these newsrooms—including Signal in Cleveland—have grown quickly in influence, funding and size, and brought traditional journalism prowess into the fold.