Last week, in a memo from executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn, The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) offered buyouts to its newsroom employees to reduce the layers of editing, reports The Times. The idea is to replace the layers with a single group of editors who would be responsible for all aspects of an article, with another editor acting as a final check prior to publication. Currently, two of three editors review each article before it is published.
Reduction of the layers of editing was one of the recommendations in The Times’ 2020 report, an internal study about The Times’ future. Here are two related comments from that report, published in January 2017.
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“Every story feels like a fire hydrant – it gets passed from dog to dog, and no one can let it go by without changing a few words.”
“Hire editors who don’t need to have their hands held. Honestly, how can we still afford to have five editors arguing for hours over a routine day story?”
This is the sixth round of layoffs offered by The Times since 2008. According to The Times, the buyouts are intended primarily for editors, but reporters and newsroom staff are also eligible to apply. If not enough employees apply for the buyouts, The Times will likely lay off staff, like it did in 2014.
“Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before,” said the memo.
In a separate memo by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The Times announced that it would eliminate the public editor’s position, a role created in 2003 to rebuild trust with its readers following the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. In the memo, Sulzberger said the role was outdated.
“Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be,” he wrote. “Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office,” Sulzberger said.
Liz Spayd is The Times’ most recent public editor, being the sixth person to fill the role since its creation. She addressed the elimination of her position in her last column on June 2. Here’s an excerpt from that column:
“Media pundits and many readers this week were questioning the decision to end this role, fearing that without it, no one will have the authority, insider perspective or ability to demand answers from top Times editors. There’s truth in that. But it overlooks a larger issue.
It’s not really about how many critics there are, or where they’re positioned, or what Times editor can be rounded up to produce answers. It’s about having an institution that is willing to seriously listen to that criticism, willing to doubt its impulses and challenge the wisdom of the inner sanctum. Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model? We’ll find out soon enough.”
The New York Times reported a strong first quarter of 2017 with 308,000 net digital news subscribers and total revenue of $398.8 million, a 5.1 percent increase year-over-year. However, like other newspapers, The Times is faced with declining ad revenue. While offset, in part, by an increase in subscriptions since the 2016 presidential election, the ad declines are expected to continue and organizations like The Times have to find ways to cut costs.
With its 2020 report, The Times seems to be trying to cut costs and reimagine itself thoughtfully, taking a deep internal dive to review and re-evaluate its practices. Provided that quality control doesn’t suffer, reducing editorial layers makes sense as does increasing its reporting team to further differentiate itself with the original content its readers clamor for.
School’s still out on the elimination of the public editor’s role. While we understand the rationale, and other organizations like the Washington Post have already eliminated this role, in a time where fake news is prevalent and trust in the media is dropping, this doesn’t seem to be the right time to shed a gatekeeper. We agree with Spayd’s assessment that it is about institutional integrity. Can The New York Times maintain that without someone minding the store? Time will tell.