You shouldn’t unsubscribe from The New York Times over a bad headline. Or even over a bad pattern of editorial decisions dating back years demonstrating an institutional worldview poisoned by false equivalence, blinkered elitism, and fealty to power. Don’t unsubscribe to punish them, or as economic leverage to force them to Do Better. You should instead unsubscribe from the Times because the Paper of Record doesn’t need your money. Or, at least, the Times needs it much less than someone else probably does.
The Times itself reported on Wednesday that The New York Times Company earned an operating profit of $37.9 million in the second quarter of this year—down from last year but still pretty healthy—thanks in large part to the paper’s combined print and digital subscriber base of 4.7 million readers.
If you are among that 4.7 million, you have been won over with some canny marketing. The Times’ decision to heavily invest in attracting subscriptions from a national (even international) audience has been a savvy and largely successful one, but almost by definition these world-conquering ambitions can only succeed at the expense of other, smaller outlets. There is not an unlimited international appetite for newspaper subscriptions. And that expansion has required the paper to market itself as various things it is not: chiefly as a true national newspaper, meant to be read by every literate American, or as a voice of the Resistance. But it has never been either of those things, nor has it ever sought to be. The Times has a specific niche in the media environment, and it is quite good at being the thing it actually wants to be.
The Times is a paper for the East Coast rich. If that doesn’t describe you, the paper is not making editorial decisions with you in mind.
“Times readers in the New York metropolitan area are upscale, affluent, Jewish, liberal and identify with New York’s culture, its museums and its art,” a former Times circulation editor said in a 2013 interview. The company’s media kit—the PR materials designed to convince brands to purchase ads in the paper or on their website—tells a similar story: “The NYT Weekday ranks #1 with Opinion Leaders, reaching 57% of this elite group.” It reports a median household income of $191,000 for readers of the paper and $96,000 for the website.
I am an urban professional, living in New York, making a good living, and The New York Times is barely even for me. Take a surgeon, making $400,000. That is, more or less, the intended reader of the Times, which consigns a mere family practitioner making $200,000 to the “middle class.” Indeed, the Times itself helpfully clarified its own upward-skewing vision of social class in a delightfully unselfaware Opinion section piece about “the middle class in America” made up almost entirely of subjects with six-figure household incomes. When readers criticized the paper’s apparent redefinition of “middle” and “class,” the Times braintrust explained the editorial process that led to the creation of that piece: They simply tasked reporters to ask Times readers who self-identified as middle class; not surprisingly, these open-ended inquiries yielded a handful of objectively wealthy people who simply don’t feel that rich.
The paper’s target audience explains everything from its bizarre fixation on elite private universities and the behavior of the students attending them to its unshakably windshield-obsessed perspective on transit issues, despite covering the only American city where a majority of households don’t own a car. It explains the entire real estate section, and “Vows,” and why a significant portion of the Gray Lady’s op-ed page is given over to people who only exist to troll a sort of imagined effete elitist caricature of Manhattan liberalism. It even explains the crossword puzzle.
True, this perspective doesn’t entirely explain why its coverage of the president regularly retreats into misleading euphemism, or treats him with a level of saucer-eyed credulity its top reporters know he has never earned. The explanation for this egregious failing is more about the pernicious elite media worldview that leads the paper’s deputy Washington editor to parrot racist generalizations because he believes them to be widely accepted common sense. But the paper’s reliable fallback posture of professional managerial entitlement does unlock one central feature of the Times worldview: It explains why the people who run the paper react to having this pointed out to them by people on Twitter with one or another variation of do you have any idea who you’re talking to?
Even when acknowledging an error, the default attitude of the paper’s top editor is, we know better than the rabble. “I get that people see the phenomenon of someone who says inflammatory statements as a new thing,” editor Dean Baquet told the Columbia Journalism Review, to explain why the Times refuses to treat the Trump presidency as aberrant. The implication of course, is that the Times has been covering people who say “inflammatory statements” correctly this whole time: It wouldn’t take off the kid gloves in 1972, and it sure as hell won’t do so now.
It is not inherently bad for a media outlet to be, broadly, “for” rich people. Within that framework, there is plenty of room for important investigative journalism and vibrant culture coverage. (The New Republic’s subscriber base, especially for the print magazine, is fairly well-to-do, and we market that audience in much the same way the Times does.) But it was much more forgivable when there were more alternatives. The position and self-conception of the Times made more sense in the context of a city served by multiple thriving papers—the working classes had the Post and the Daily News, and the hippies and left-wing intellectuals had the Village Voice—but it now fits uncomfortably with the paper’s marketing of itself as a national paper of record for the entire country. Editorially, it’s never been that and it’s never tried to be. (That was more USA Today, and even that paper was conceived, under the market-populist mission developed by founder Al Neuharth, as a broadsheet “for” middle-managerial Babbitts on business trips.)
Amid all these broader shakeouts in the journalism market, it should be noted that the Times is not simply an incidental victor. The Times began rapidly expanding its print circulation nationally in the 1990s. Before then, it couldn’t exactly be called a “national” paper, despite its prominence. Based on the paper’s demographic profile in New York, it was a safe bet to foresee that, as it moved into broader regional markets, the Times attracted the most highly educated and high-income subscribers—many of whom may have then dumped their local papers. In fact, two economists studied this in 2006—at basically the peak of national newspaper ad revenue, just before the collapse—and found that “as Times circulation grows in a market, local newspaper circulation declines among college-educated readers.” In other words: The Times peeled off the elite readers from the local papers, leading them to read less about local news and more about national politics.
If you live outside of New York or Washington, your local paper almost certainly needs the money you are paying the Times. Alas, these local papers may not deserve that money any more than the Times does. In fact, chances are your local paper is owned by either asset-stripping private equity vampires, or some local right-wing millionaire nutcase. It’s unclear whether your subscriptions would have saved magazines like Pacific Standard—a nonprofit funded primarily by one rich person, who abruptly decided to pull the plug—or Governing, which appears to offer free subscriptions, based on a model of attracting advertisers who wish to reach state and local officials and policy-makers. (Please do subscribe to this magazine, though!) Unfortunately, there isn’t really any solution for the national journalism ecosystem that works at the level of individual consumer choice.
So do what you like with your money, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re saving journalism. Today, more people pay The New York Times for recipes than pay the Los Angeles Times at all. Like nearly everything else in our economy, this is a decades-spanning story of monopoly, and the few big winners and many small losers of industry consolidation. To feel personal affinity for the Times brand—to buy the tote bag—is not much different than being excited to finally have the X-Men join the Marvel cinematic universe. Appreciate the content on its own merits—or don’t, but know that the relevant marketing departments all want you to make it a lifestyle. And remember, too, that the X-Men also hail from a tony Westchester suburb.