Category Archives: New York Times

NYTimes is Thriving (not failing!)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Contrary to what President Trump says, the New York Times is thriving — not just in terms of its original, fact-based reporting but the company (and just as importantly)  is also thriving in terms of its business. The Times is growing and profitable. The Times has found enough digital subscribers to carry it far into the future.

The Times, which may be the country’s most im-images

portant journalistic institution, is enjoying a “virtuous circle” of professional and business success in which each type of success reinforces the other.

Great reporting –> more readers –> more subscriptions –> more money –> more great reporting –> 

How do we know this? From the sworn, audited statements that the NYTCo is obligated, by law, to divulge to stockholders and other investors every quarter. Let’s look at some highlights from the company’s latest quarterly report:

–The paper set a record of more than 4 million total subscribers worldwide. They are in every country and continent (including Antarctica!).

–That number includes a more important record: more than 3 million subscribers who pay for a digital-only subscription. This is important because those people are probably going to be around a lot longer than then 1 million or so subscribers to the print edition. Not only that, but the digital-only subscribers are customers who can be reached by the Times virtually for free. To reach them, the newspaper does not have to buy newsprint, operate giant printing presses, and pay for fleets of delivery trucks.

–The growth in digital subscriptions is accelerating. The paper reported a net increase in the most recent quarter of more than 200,000 — the best quarter since the “Trump bump” in the period right after the 2016 election.

–Digital revenue (the money the paper gets from all those digital subscriptions) is also rising. In the last nine months, it topped $450 million — or over $600 million a year, which is probably plenty of money to operate the Times newsroom indefinitely.

Profits are up. Operating profits rose 30 percent in the last quarter to reach $41.4 million — or, well over $160 million a year.

–The stock price is up.

snap_chart_buffer

NYT stock price 

Since Trump was elected in late 2016, the value of a share of Class A NYTCo stock has more than doubled.

At the Times, the business desk buries these stories, and the editors absolutely refuse to celebrate their good news or do anything resembling spiking the football in the end zone. But any way you look at it, the New York Times is not failing.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, New York Times, NYTimes, Trump, Uncategorized

Data viz: News media struggle to convey gun story

By Christopher B. Daly 

The recurring American nightmare of mass shootings presents many challenges to the news media who must cover them. This New York Times story gives a glimpse into one of the challenges, as the paper deployed about 40 journalists to cover the shootings in Parkland, Fla.

Another challenge falls to the talented people who work in the newsroom specialty known as data visualization. They struggle to make isolated facts tell stories. Here are two recent efforts that make essentially the same point in slightly different ways:

The first is from NPR, a bar chart:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 4.39.32 PM

This one is from the Times, a scatter plot:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 4.40.18 PM

I lean toward the scatter plot myself in this case. Oddly, here is a version of the scatter plot, minus all the words and legends. In an way, it’s even more eloquent than the version the Times posted online.

chart_totals-Artboard_1

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under data journalism, Journalism, New York Times, Uncategorized

The thriving NYTimes passes another milestone

By Christopher B. Daly 

In the end, as the most recent financial results posted by the New York Times make clear, the only real future for news is the audience. Journalists cannot count on advertising, and we should not count on patrons like billionaires or governments. Those sources are too fickle and too compromising. The only true basis for independent journalism is an audience willing to pay for it.

That’s why there is so much to celebrate in the latest performance figures posted by the failing thriving New York Times. Here is the company’s statement.

imagesYes, profits were off a bit. Yes, revenues from print advertising continued to slide. But the real headline is impressive growth in new digital subscribers. These are the folks who supply the company with its most stable source of funds and who do not want anything from the paper but great journalism. They are the foundation of the digital future.

In a story about the company’s earnings, Mark Thompson, the paper’s top business manager, appeared to agree:

“We still regard advertising as an important revenue stream,” Mr. Thompson said, “but believe that our focus on establishing close and enduring relationships with paying, deeply engaged users, and the long-range revenues which flow from those relationships, is the best way of building a successful and sustainable news business.”

Highlights:

–99,000 new digital-only news subscriptions in the last quarter of 2017. (plus about 60,000 more subscribers to the Cooking and Crossword pages) Digital-only subscribers now number over 2.6 million. (If you are one, good for you! Give a gift subscription to someone else.)

Total revenue for the fourth quarter of 2017 was up 10% (over the 4th quarter of 2016), approaching half a billion dollars for just three months. That’s because subscription revenues rose almost 20%, while ad revenues continued their downward slide, dropping by more than 1%.

Revenue from digital-only subscribers (the people who are going to carry this operation into the future) was up more than 50% (!), reaching almost $100 million. What that means, in crude terms, is that if the Times stopped printing (which it must do one day) and laid off everyone who is not associated with news-gathering, there would be about $400 million coming in every year to pay for the newsroom.

Advertising now contributes just 1/3 of company revenues. In other words, subscribers (plus a little money from merch) are already paying 2/3 of the cost. This has not been the case since the Civil War era. Revenue from digital ads was up 8.5%; money from print ads dropped another 8.4%.

–The company’s stock price is also rising.

snap_chart_buffer

Source: NYT business page

Yes, the Times is continuing to shrink its workforce and the space those folks occupy in the company’s signature skyscraper in midtown. During a recent visit, I witnessed the belt-tightening.

IMG_0919

Moving boxes, covered portraits. Photo by Chris Daly

There are movers’ boxes in a lot of corridors, and oil portraits of various Sulzbergers are covered in plastic, awaiting removal to new, smaller quarters. So what? I don’t see this as cause for alarm, or even sadness. It struck me as a healthy sign of a company trying to get its size right. The key issue is finding a sustainable business model that will support quality journalism indefinitely into the future. The Times seems to be the best positioned of all the big, serious, fact-based news media in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

Down in the lobby, Adolph Ochs, the patriarch of the family that owns and runs the Times looks rather confident, no?

 

 

IMG_0914 3

Photo by Anne Fishel

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, media, New York Times, news, press, publishing, Uncategorized

Covering the Black Panthers

BLACK PANTHERS @ 50:

A Turning Point in America

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, the New York Times observed the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, which took place in Oakland in October of 1966. In one of those historical twists, it is remarkable to recall that the Panthers built their reputation on their response to police harassment of black motorists. Panther members “patrolled” the streets of Oakland, on the lookout for routine police stops. Before those stops could escalate, the Panthers would roll up and pull out their own weapons (which were then legal to carry in California). With weapons in full view, they would then “observe” the police while they interacted with black citizens.

In its look back at the Panthers, the Times examines its own coverage of the movement and its leaders. It’s a worthy effort, but I believe the Times actually slights one of its own reporters – Earl Caldwell, a pioneer in the movement by African-American reporters and editors to desegregate the newsrooms of mainstream, white-owned newspapers and magazines.

In hopes of giving Caldwell his due, I present the following excerpt from my 2012 book Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism. In my view, Caldwell did an exemplary job of not only covering the Panthers but also in standing up to the FBI, when the Bureau tried to pressure Caldwell into cooperating. His work is at the heart of the landmark 1972 Supreme Court ruling known as Branzburg, a case that lamentably drew the erroneous conclusion that American journalists have no constitutional right to protect their sources from the government.

Caldwell had grown up in Pennsylvania coal country and made his way into sportswriting, then approached the New York Times.

 

[From Covering America]

. . . The Times was famous for having plenty of black elevator operators, but when Caldwell started in March 1967, he was just the second black in a newsroom position at the Times (following Tom Johnson).

On his first day, Caldwell wore a Brooks Brothers suit and declared that he wanted to write like Gay Talese. For the first few weeks he did what most newly hired reporters did at the Times: cover New York City. On occasion, he served as something like a foreign correspondent, exploring Harlem for the Times’ white readers and describing the sights, sounds, and folkways of people who lived only a few blocks away. Once a Times editor asked Caldwell for James Baldwin’s telephone number, evidently assuming that all black people knew all other black people.

Soon, though, cities across America began erupting in race riots, and the Times tapped the new guy to help out, often teaming him with Gene Roberts, an experienced white reporter who was the paper’s chief Southern-based civil rights correspondent in the late 1960s.

In the spring of 1968, Caldwell traveled to Memphis to cover the strike being waged by the city’s sanitation workers, supported by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Caldwell was in the Lorraine Motel on April 4 when a loud shot rang out.

10.75 x 7.22 inches jericho

New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell (at left) trails Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. up stairs in the courtyard of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, shortly before King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Caldwell was the only reporter in a position to provide an eyewitness account.          (Photo: Memphis Commercial Appeal.)

 The only journalist present at the scene, Caldwell immediately called the Times newsroom and began dictating details of the King assassination, which the editors spread across the top of page one. According to Caldwell, King had spent most of the day in his room, then emerged around 6 p.m. onto the balcony, wearing a black suit and a white shirt. Caldwell’s report continued:

                  Dr. King, an open-faced genial man, leaned over a green iron railing to chat with an associate. . . .

The Rev. Ralph W. Abernathy, perhaps Dr. King’s closest friend, was just about to come out of the motel room when the sudden loud noise burst out.

Dr. King toppled to the concrete second-floor walkway. Blood gushed from the right jaw and neck area. His necktie had been ripped off by the blast.

King’s murder touched off a fresh round of violence in cities across America, and Caldwell returned to the “riot beat” for much of the summer.

 

That fall, Caldwell went to San Francisco to become a West Coast correspondent for the Times. Through his contacts among the few black reporters in the Bay Area, he gained access to Black Power advocate Eldridge Cleaver, and by the end of 1968, Caldwell was the most knowledgeable reporter in the mainstream press about the emerging Black Panther Party, based across the bay in Oakland. As it turned out, the Panthers were shrewd enough about the media to want coverage in the New York Times, and they gave Caldwell access, as well as what reporters call “color” (atmospheric details), on-the-record interviews, just about anything he might want. His stories established that the Panthers were heavily armed and were talking about violent revolution. Caldwell worried about how Cleaver and the other Panthers would react to his reporting, but he didn’t need to. “The Panthers wanted people to know what they were doing. They wanted me to write in the paper about them having guns.”

His reporting also attracted the attention of the FBI, which was waging a nationwide campaign of surveillance and intimidation against radical groups both black and white. That attention would develop into one of the landmark Supreme Court rulings affecting reporters and their ability to protect confidential sources.

The legal case began when FBI agents paid a visit to Caldwell and told him that they wanted a lot more information about the Panthers. Caldwell told the agents that everything he knew was right there in the newspaper, including the fact that the Panthers were armed and that they were threatening to kill the president.

Even so, the government wanted more from Caldwell. He refused to talk, however, believing that any appearance in secret before a grand jury would make him look like an informant and dry up his sources. The agents were not satisfied, and the Bureau turned up the pressure, warning him that he would be forced to testify in court—a step that would not only destroy his relationship with the Black Panthers but jeopardize his value as a reporter on any other beat as well. Facing a possible court appearance, Caldwell destroyed most of his Panther files, but there was still the matter of his testimony. In February 1970 he was served with a subpoena ordering him to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the Black Panthers. The subpoena did not name the Times, but the newspaper hired a prestigious San Francisco law firm to represent Caldwell. Their advice: cooperate.

Hearing that, Caldwell tapped his network of black journalists, who steered him toward a Stanford law professor, Anthony Amsterdam, a brilliant defense lawyer, who agreed with Caldwell’s decision not to testify and offered to represent him pro bono. After he continued to refuse to testify about his news sources, Caldwell was found in contempt of court and ordered to jail, but he was allowed to remain free while his case went to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The higher court sided with Caldwell, but then the federal government appealed that ruling. En route to the U.S. Supreme Court, Caldwell’s case was combined with two others and filed under the heading Branzburg v. Hayes. Paul Branzburg was a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal who had been an eyewitness to a drug crime. (Thus he was not, strictly speaking, protecting a confidential source.) Paul Pappas was a television news photographer working for a TV station in New Bedford, Mass., who had gone to nearby Providence to cover the local Black Panthers chapter and spent several hours inside their headquarters. Like Caldwell, Branzburg and Pappas were both journalists who had been ordered to testify before grand juries; like Caldwell, they had refused on professional grounds.

In all three cases, the issue was not a classic instance of protecting the identity of a confidential source. It was more a matter of preserving the journalists’ access to sources, which would be destroyed if the people who were being reported on suspected that the reporters had cooperated with law enforcement. All three cases involved a constitutional claim that the First Amendment includes not only the right to publish (and withhold) information freely but also the right to gather news freely.

Recognizing the stakes, news executives threw their institutional weight behind Caldwell and the other reporters. Supporting briefs were filed by the Washington Post Company, the Chicago Tribune Company, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Newspaper Guild, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the Press Photographers Association, and the ACLU—along with affidavits from such respected journalists as Anthony Lukas, Walter Cronkite, and Marvin Kalb.

In a decision handed down on June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled against the journalists. Writing for the 5–4 majority, Justice Byron White held that the First Amendment had to be balanced against the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees criminal defendants the right to have their cases presented to a grand jury before indictment. In his opinion White invoked the ancient legal doctrine that “the public . . . has a right to every man’s evidence.” The only exceptions, he said, are those instances in which the states have adopted laws specifically granting certain categories of people a legal privilege against having to testify.

Such a “testimonial privilege” might protect a wife from testifying about her husband, a doctor about a patient, or a priest about a penitent. In such cases, legislatures determined that some other social good was worth the cost of allowing the privileged category of people to avoid the grand jury. But, White said, the Court could not take seriously the idea “that it is better to write about crime than to do something about it.” If reporters know things that prosecutors want to find out, they must tell what they know. Besides, the justice wrote, if the Court created a special privilege for journalists, it would soon have to define who is (and is not) a journalist — a task that raised the specter of government licensing of journalists, which would be far more murky than determining who is a doctor or a priest. “Almost any author may quite accurately assert that he is contributing to the flow of information to the public,” White wrote, warning that just about anybody could claim to be a journalist of one variety or another. Finally, White observed that the U.S. attorney general had written a set of guidelines governing the issuance of subpoenas to reporters, which the high court thought ought to suffice for the bulk of cases. The majority opinion also included an invitation to legislatures to create a “testimonial privilege” for reporters, and many state legislatures went ahead and passed versions of what are known as “shield laws.”

In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Lewis Powell, though voting with the majority, very nearly came down on the other side. He warned prosecutors that “no harassment of newsmen will be tolerated,” and he wrote that if reporters feel they are being abused by overzealous prosecutors seeking the names of confidential sources, then those reporters should go to court and seek a protective order. “The asserted claim to privilege should be judged on its facts by the striking of a proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony with respect to criminal conduct,” Powell wrote, saying it is up to the courts to handle such claims on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, his joining with the majority had the effect of denying journalists’ claims to a constitutional privilege.

Among the dissenters, Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the most eloquent statements of press freedom in history. Having staked out a position as a First Amendment fundamentalist, Douglas saw the Caldwell and related cases in clear-cut terms. “My belief is that all of the ‘balancing’ was done by those who wrote the Bill of Rights,” he said, adding that “by casting the First Amendment in absolute terms, they repudiated timid, watered-down, emasculated versions of the First Amendment. . . .” The key to understanding the First Amendment, Douglas argued, is to recognize that it exists for the benefit of the American people as a whole. If the people are to govern themselves, they must have reliable, independent sources of information. “Effective self-government cannot succeed unless the people are immersed in a steady, robust, unimpeded, and uncensored flow of opinion and reporting which are continuously subjected to critique, rebuttal, and re-examination,” he wrote.

In Douglas’s view, the free press cases that come before the Court are not really about the press per se; they are about the rights of the American people, the ultimate sovereigns of our system. The press, which serves as the agent of its audience, is incidental to the greater purpose of self-government. Douglas continued:

         The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring to fulfillment the public’s right to know. . . . There is no higher function performed under our constitutional regime. Its performance means that the press is often engaged in projects that bring anxiety and even fear to the bureaucracies, departments, or officials of government.

He concluded by warning that the Court’s majority opinion would reduce journalists to stenographers, and that without the right to protect confidential sources, “the reporter’s main function in American society will be to pass on to the public the press releases which the various departments of government issue.”

The majority, however, did not see it that way. As a result of the Court’s 5–4 ruling against the journalists, reporters and their sources have operated in legal jeopardy ever since, at least in federal courts. On the state level, the Branzburg ruling had the effect of spurring many legislatures around the country to enact shield laws to protect reporters in state courts, but Congress has steadfastly refused to recognize the same right on the federal level.

Ironically, the Branzburg ruling also had another impact: it dried up what was probably the FBI’s greatest source of information about the Black Panthers—the reporting that anybody could read in the pages of the New York Times. Of course, by the time Caldwell’s case was resolved, the Justice Department had lost much of its interest in the Black Panthers. Most of Caldwell’s contacts were in jail, in exile, or dead.

 

*       *       *

 

TO LEARN MORE:

See Earl Caldwell’s oral history in Wallace Terry’s Missing Pages, as well as Caldwell’s book Black American Witness; also Caldwell’s 2006 interview with PBS’s Frontline series for the program “News War.” In addition, his own account of his beginnings can be found at the Maynard Institute’s history project page.

Also see “The Caldwell Journals.”

As for Caldwell, after the Supreme Court case, he left the Times to become a columnist, first at the Washington Star, then at the New York Post. He also served as host of a long- running weekly radio program on WBAI radio in New York. In 1977, Caldwell co-founded the Institute for Journalism Education, which trains minority journalists. It is now known as the Maynard Institute for its other co-founder, Robert C. Maynard.

1 Comment

Filed under First Amendment, Journalism, New York Times, Uncategorized

The NY Times’ bias problem

By Christopher B. Daly

Today’s front page of the New York Times presents a dramatic example of what drives some people crazy about the news media — hidden bias. Many people expect the Times to exemplify the 20th Century ideal of journalistic “objectivity,” a perhaps naive view that news should consist simply of facts. In this view, readers of such facts should draw their own conclusions, and the newspaper as an institution should restrict its opinions to the editorial page.

People who hold those views will surely be angry with the Times today for its handling of the Trump-birther story.

Here’s a photo of today’s print version of the Times’ page 1:

nyt-print

The lead story –the one judged by Times editors to be the most important of the day — is not a news story at all. It is a “NEWS ANALYSIS” that is marbled with blatant opinion and bias. The author, Michael Barbaro, obviously hates Trump, and his piece drips with contempt.

Yes, the Times applied a few fig leaves: the NEWS ANALYSIS line above the headline and the setting of the type in a “ragged right” format, rather than the “justified” columns that the paper uses for straight news. But a groggy reader at the breakfast table could be forgiven for expecting a news organization to lead with news, rather than opinion.

The Times did in fact carry a straight news story about the same event, but it was buried inside.

In the online version, things were different, but still exasperating for readers who expect unbiased news. Here is the homepage as of this morning:

NYT online.png

As you can see, the Trump analysis piece is re-contextualized and subordinated to classic Times-only stories: a tribute to a playwright whose work is essentially unendurable and a staff story from a distant hellhole. The Barbaro analysis piece is still there, now positioned in the lefthand column and still given precedence over the related news story. But notice that in the online format, editorials get equal billing with news. What the Times calls “The Opinion Pages” now occupy the upper right quadrant of the homepage — in the spot traditionally reserved in the old print layout for the day’s top news story. So, the reader who scans this page will observe first that the Times hates that liar Trump and second, that the news team follows the same editorial line.

For the record, Times editors insist that they are still following the rules of objective news. They insist that the editorial operation is totally separate from the news operation. They insist that their reporters are factual and fair.

Is it any surprise that some readers disagree?

Alternatively, Times editors might argue that “everybody knows” what Trump said, thanks to faster media. Therefore, the Times should offer readers something of value that they could not find elsewhere. There is some validity to that view, but the Times has not fully embraced that self-conception either.

[In my personal view, the Times faces a crossroads: rein in the opinion, or embrace it. The current approach is awkward at best.]

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, New York Times, news, NYTimes, Uncategorized

Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

imgres

Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)

 

Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:

 

One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Donald Trump, history, Journalism, journalism history, libel, media, New York Times, Uncategorized

Is the New York Times building a digital ark?

By Christopher B. Daly

What’s going on at the most important institution in American journalism?

Hard to say, but let’s engage in a bit of speculation.

Recently, the New York Times announced two developments, which the paper reported in a single story, giving rise to the notion that they are somehow linked.

Item #1: An earnings report. As usual, the Times reports about itself in a glass-half-empty way.

Buoyed by strong digital growth and cost savings, The New York Times Company reported on Thursday an increase in quarterly profit but said revenue was flat as its print business continued to decline.

There is not all that much news there — just a continuation of two long-running trends. Digital revenues (the money that comes in from online advertising plus the money from digital subscriptions) continues to rise. Print revenues (the money that comes in from display ads in the printed newspaper, plus money from people who subscribe to the print edition) continues to fall. The digital revenue is rising pretty briskly, but from a small base. The print revenue is dropping relentlessly, but from a large initial base. Someday, those trend lines will cross, but not just yet.

Later, the story added this:

Digital revenue remained an area of growth. Digital advertising revenue increased 11 percent during the fourth quarter, to $70 million, a number representing about a third of the company’s total advertising revenue.

And this:

The company said it added 53,000 net digital subscribers in the quarter, the most added in a quarter in three years. The Times now has close to 1.1 million paid digital-only subscriptions.

So, that’s the good news. All those digital ads are starting to add up, and the blessed new digital subscribers are finally pitching in and paying a greater fraction of the cost of delivering all that journalism. All told, the digital revenue is approaching $400 million a year, or about a quarter of total current annual revenue. The paper has set a goal of $800 million in annual digital revenues by 2020.

The existential question for the Times is this:

NYT newsroom

Is that enough money to sustain the newsroom?

In other words, if the newspaper got out of the paper business altogether (as it one day must) and laid off all those printers, truck drivers, and others who are linked to the print edition, could it survive on a budget of digital-only revenues?

That’s an open question, which brings us to . . .

Item #2: Announcement of a team charged with conducting a “sweeping review” of the Times‘ own newsroom — staffing, procedures, everything. It will be led by David Leonhardt, the fair-haired boy who created The Upshot. Clearly, he’s a figure on the rise. The paper’s top editor, Dean Baquet, framed the undertaking this way:

He said The Times would always have a large newsroom, but it was “not going to get any bigger” and “we’re probably going to get a bit smaller.” He added that some areas of the newsroom, including those focused on multimedia and international coverage, could grow.

He did not rule out layoffs, but said he did not expect any in the immediate future.

So, my hunch is that Leonhardt is really charged with figuring out how the legacy newsroom could live within its digital means. Can the paper afford its traditional system of strong desks (especially if they slow the transmission of news onto the web)? Does the paper need to keep spending so much time and energy figuring out how to lay out Page 1 of the print edition? How many jobs could be pared out of sections like the Book Review, the Magazine, and T, if they were online-only?

Clearly, the Times cannot afford to haul the entire apparatus of printing a newspaper into the digital future. At some point, it will have to jettison some or all of its print operations and live entirely online. Any guesses as to when?

[Don’t take my word for it. Here is another take, by Michael Calderone at HuffPo Media.]

Leave a comment

Filed under Journalism, New York Times, Uncategorized