The Times' new business model

Concerned with maintaining its credibility amid criticism by both the left and the right, the paper rethinks its coverage.

Published May 10, 2005 2:18PM (EDT)

The New York Times, America's most venerated newspaper, is responding to growing pressure by pledging to increase its coverage of religion and the rural areas in the United States, while also recruiting journalists who have military experience.

A 16-page report produced by an internal committee of 19, including editors, reporters, a copy editor and a photographer, Monday delivered its conclusions on how the Times could maintain its credibility as a news organization when public confidence in the media is in decline.

"In part because the Times's editorial page is clearly liberal, the news pages do need to make more effort not to seem monolithic," says the report. "We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths."

A recent study by the independent Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing of what they read in their paper. When particular papers were cited, the Times was considered about average. But over the past two years its credibility has been undermined by its reporting of the run-up to the Iraq war, for which it later published an apology, and the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a young reporter plagiarized and fabricated quotes over six months without being detected. The latter scandal led to the two top editors resigning in 2003.

The report recommended steps to make both the Times' reporting and its workings more transparent to readers, including having senior editors write more regularly about how the paper works, limiting the number of quotes that are unsourced and making its staff more accessible to readers. "The Times makes it harder than any other major American newspaper for readers to reach a reasonable human being," it says.

Times Editor Bill Keller welcomed the report as "a sound blueprint for the next stage of our campaign to secure our accuracy, fairness and accountability." Media commentators, however, criticized the Times for being too concerned with its image, rather than the substance of what it publishes. "It will make the paper less interesting, less bold and more careful," said Michael Wolff, media commentator and columnist for Vanity Fair. "In its DNA the Times is accustomed to being loved and admired in every respect. This shows they are more worried about what people are thinking of us rather than what we think ourselves. It's about accommodation."

In recent years the paper has been pilloried by both the left, for being insufficiently critical of the White House, and the right, for being too liberal in its outlook. The attacks reached such intensity during the presidential election that Keller asked the committee to consider whether it was "any longer possible to stand silent and stoic under fire."

It responded: "We strongly believe it is no longer sufficient to argue reflexively that our work speaks for itself. In today's media environment, such a minimal response damages our credibility."

The report concluded that the Times must expand on both sides of the political divide. "Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox views and contrarian opinions, and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than those most of us experience," it says. "We need to listen carefully to colleagues who are at home in realms that are not familiar to most of us." The recommendations suggest a belief that the paper needs to correct a left-wing bias, through recruiting journalists and altering coverage, to balance "clearly liberal" comment with news pages that "make more effort not to seem monolithic."

In January Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, met with Times staff to discuss turning around erosion of confidence and stagnant sales. One asked: "Should we have affirmative action for conservatives?" on the paper. "There was a real sense of urgency," Gitlin said. "They were asking some fundamental questions. It was not a casual exercise."

At the report's core, argues Wolff, is the bid to become a truly national newspaper in a country where most papers are local, and where political divisions are partly informed by geography -- Republicans in the middle and Democrats on the coasts and in the North. "At its heart this is part of a new business model," says Wolff. "Just because they are a national paper doesn't mean they have to accommodate everyone. But they do have to accommodate more people than they have until now."

By Gary Younge

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