Why New York Times’ Dreams of Dominance Are a Fantasy in a Digital World

The New York Times recently acknowledged that its media coverage is “in flux,” which betrays a gift for understatement. Not only did year-end buyouts claim some of its most experienced hands — including TV and advertising reporters Bill Carter and Stuart Elliott — but that was followed by the sudden death of columnist David Carr.

In a piece by public editor Margaret Sullivan, Times editor Dean Baquet spoke of the paper’s need to be strong in this area, calling it “core for us” and “a big part of our identity.” Sullivan sounded a more definitive note, saying the media beat is “one more subject that the Times needs to own. Unassailably.”

Yet while the Times has been aggressive in seeking to reinvent itself, the concept of “ownership” represents a decidedly 20th-century, old-media way of thinking about what’s increasingly a fast-evolving business. The wisdom in moving beyond that narrow mindset, moreover, provides a lesson that everyone adapting to the digital age needs to contemplate.

It should come as a revelation to nobody that there are far more sources of news today — and thus too much competition for even a hometown paper to dominate key spheres in the manner they once did. Nor does it help that breaking news is now measured in milliseconds, making the thrill of victory stemming from an exclusive all the more fleeting.

Notably, two media scandals du jour, involving Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, broke in publications that are hardly at the top of most media insiders’ reading lists: the military paper Stars and Stripes and liberal magazine Mother Jones, respectively.

Similarly, Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, this generation’s version of the Pentagon Papers, became public thanks to “Citizenfour” documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who have teamed on yet another venture, investigative news website the Intercept.

In that broader context, statements about the Times “owning” media, even if the paper were at full strength, sound as pie-in-the-sky as the Washington Post claiming politics as its singular domain, as if Watergate were still the latest scandal with a “gate.”

Ironically, Carr — whose death triggered Sullivan’s soul-searching — was as savvy as anyone at recognizing the business forces that were reshaping journalism, even if he remained a steadfast advocate for the Times maintaining a leadership role.

By contrast, it’s relatively easy and common for top editors at such an enterprise to talk big in order to rally the troops — writing checks, in essence, they don’t have to cash — given the numerous coverage areas that divide their time and attention.

In the interest of disclosure, this comes from someone whose path briefly crossed with Baquet’s at the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago. While both he and his then-boss John Carroll were impressive editors, their pronouncements about “owning” entertainment industry coverage felt misguided even then, and the business has only grown more complicated since.

If there’s a saving grace for the New York Times, which recently reassigned several reporters to fill media-beat gaps, it’s that the sort of institutional knowledge the paper has lost isn’t as devastating as it once might have been. That’s not to diminish the value of perspective and experience, but those twin assets are somewhat mitigated by a media world changing so rapidly that a grasp of what transpired a decade ago isn’t always as germane to a story.

Amid this media version of Babel, key outlets and even individuals can still command oversized footprints and project voices loud enough to register above the din. Given the seat it has historically occupied, the Times can and should aspire to be a formidable player — and fulfill a key agenda-setting role.

Frankly, though, anybody claiming to own any part of the news is living in the past. Because as comforting as it might be to think in those terms, media coverage has become a renter’s market.

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