One can only describe what unfolded at The New York Times last week as an outright shitshow. Following the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton that advocated for military crackdowns in cities across America amid a nationwide wave of anti–police brutality protests, dozens of Times staffers flouted their publication’s strict social media policy, tweeting variations on the message, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.” While then–Times editorial page editor James Bennet defended his choice to run the op-ed on the day of its publication, an editors’ note appended to the piece two days later admitted that “the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Even more extraordinary is that it came to light that Bennet, who resigned on Sunday, said in a staff meeting that he had not read the essay in question prior to its publication, despite having publicly defended its publication.
Though many saw the fallout from Cotton’s piece as unprecedented, the debacle was only the latest and perhaps most extreme instance of a familiar cycle that’s been playing out every few months: An odious, reactionary op-ed in the Times leads to public outcry, institutional humiliation, and dismayed subscribers. Highlights of this genre include an incident in which columnist Bret Stephens regurgitated racist pseudoscience, David Brooks’s baffling screed on the classist implications of Italian meats, Ross Douthat’s argument in favor of far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and Thomas Friedman’s fawning profile of Saudi despot Mohammed bin Salman.
Whenever a new instance of this cycle rears its head, and Twitter fills with condemnations, many critics couch their discontent in the same helpless phrase: “I’m not canceling my Times subscription, but.” The thinking that seems to beget these tweets is that it’s so important to support good journalism and prop up the cornerstones of this particular institution that an occasional instance where the opinion editor engineers the ritual stoning of one of his writers in order to create a traffic-driving public spectacle must be grudgingly permitted. I have seen this guardrail placed alongside criticism of the Times by readers and journalists alike, its implication—that the Times’ perch at the top of the media food chain is unquestionably deserved, and ultimately indispensable—unstated but clear.
This line of thinking seemingly belongs to an alternate universe, one in which the entire country contains one newspaper, and the question of whether to subscribe to that paper is, effectively, a question of whether to support journalism itself. We do not live in that world, at least not yet. Nevertheless, it is somehow unthinkable and controversial to advocate for canceling one’s subscription to the Times—a paper with over five million subscribers as of February—and reallocating those funds to one of the many hundreds of smaller publications that are in far greater need of the support and spend much less institutional capital ginning up clickbait controversies.
As one of the devastatingly few outlets that can be said to be doing well at a time of existential financial crisis for both print and digital media, the Times has a long shadow that hangs over anyone hoping for a prosperous career in journalism. While local papers are shuttering, and jobs are disappearing at new media outlets, such as Vice and BuzzfeedNews, and legacy publications, such as The Atlantic, alike, the Times can provide its staff a sense of comparative stability. Many of its freelancers can expect to be paid in the range of $1 per word; the industry standard is a fraction of that amount, and freelance budgets have been slashed down to the bone.
In this manner, the Times, by way of its disproportionate resources, has a sort of choke hold over the media ecosystem, one that only encourages the paper’s worst instincts toward hawkish protection of the status quo and relentless “both sides”-ism. With the view from nowhere dutifully performed, the history and makeup of the Times disappears from view on its pages, despite being an indelible part of every story it tells and each take it dispenses. Its institutional power has acted as a dam, insulating it from the natural consequences of bad editorial judgment—and with Bennet’s ouster amid a sudden loss of subscribers and the alienation of its most prominent staff members, that dam is only just beginning to splinter.
I am not immune to the allure of the Times. There’s a notebook on my bedside table, the first page of which contains a list of goals for 2020: The first item, slotted there for its urgency, simply reads, “New York Times byline.” In the days that followed Senator Cotton’s op-ed, I saw a few writers announce that they’d withdrawn their own forthcoming pieces in the Times in response. I want to believe that, in such a position, I’d have the moral fortitude to do the same, but deep down, I’m not certain I would. The chance of an assignment that could launch a career, or at least cover a month’s rent, is understandably enticing in an industry that promises instability and heartbreak in unbearable quantities.
But there is a wider world beyond my writerly aspirations, populated by people who need basic things from their journalists. This world is buckling under considerable strain. The current funding models for media have all but entirely crumbled: Ad revenue has shriveled, ultrawealthy benefactors are fickle and unreasonable, and venture capital will sell your favorite outlet for parts in the blink of an eye. If journalism is to have a future, that future looks like whatever readers are willing to pay for directly.
The clearest glimpse I’ve seen of such a future comes from living in Chicago, where Alden Global Capital is currently sucking the life out of the Chicago Tribune. During the most eventful stretch of months in recent history, 160 Tribune editorial staffers have been on furlough for a week out of each month to appease the boundless greed of corporate shareholders. And yet, even with its paper of record in deep water, Chicago has not been without meaningful news coverage and analysis.
As protests sprang up last week across the city, the vast majority of news coverage that popped up on my Twitter and Facebook feeds came not from the Tribune, but from Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit neighborhood news site launched with the help of a Kickstarter campaign in 2018. The TRiiBE, a site founded in 2017 to report on Chicago’s black communities, has provided rigorous and empathetic coverage of the protests, as well as the ways in which black Chicagoans have been uniquely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Apart from breaking news, periodicals like The Chicago Reader (where I work) and The Southside Weekly provide in-depth long-form political and cultural coverage, and ProPublica Illinois and City Bureau have long served as shining examples of local investigative and enterprise reporting.
This web of small outlets rising to the occasion is a nascent form of what a healthy, diverse media ecosystem might look like in every city. To build upon that infrastructure, however, requires ongoing financial support, not from a benefactor or a hedge fund, but from the communities themselves.
Local media will never completely eradicate the need for national publications—it isn’t meant to. But as much as the health of the media ecosystem depends on having strong national papers of record, it depends even more on local, community-driven infrastructure across the country. James Bennet’s celebrated ability to spin up a Twitter slap-fight in order to drive brand awareness for The New York Times may or may not have been great for business, but it added a swell of unbearable static to the airwaves of public conversation, where one would instead hope to see meaningful engagement and connection. If you’d rather not fund the Gray Lady’s empty-calorie exploits, there are places more worthy of your money. By shifting your money back to your community, you could also shift the marketplace of ideas to a healthier place and perhaps change the industry—even The New York Times—for the better.