The New York Times’ Lump of Coal

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer, Matt Purdue.

coal from the new york times.Like JFK, Martin and John Lennon, we can now pinpoint the exact time of the death of a great American institution: journalism.

The tragic moment was Nov. 22, 2014 – fittingly 51 years to the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. On 11/22/14, the New York Times, the Old Gray Lady, the bastion of American reporting, ran its usual column from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan. Her job is, essentially, to answer “questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about news and other coverage in The Times,” according to the paper’s website.

Her November 22 column focused on the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The specific topic, however, is beside the point. The death knell for journalism was sounded by the Times’ Joseph Kahn, lead editor for international news, when he was asked about how the paper determines how much coverage to allot to the conflict. He explained:

“We are following our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to. We cover things that are most relevant to our readers and to the international conversation.”

Can you spot the fatal flaw? It’s in the first line: “We follow our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to.”

Gut experience? The New York Times, arguably the most powerful news outlet in the U.S., goes on gut instinct when deciding what’s relevant to its readers. Shame on the Times. With all the money and influence at its disposal, does the Times rely on repeatable, quantifiable audience research when it comes to creating content? Apparently not. They use their collective gut.

I guess they’re too busy tooting their own horn by reporting on their own journalist, James Risen, and his refusal to reveal a source to the federal government. Yep, that must be taking up so much of their time that they don’t have a few hours to actually do reader research.

The good news for PR pros is that while old-line journalists like the Times’ Kahn continually drop the ball, we can pick up the content ball and run with it. That means using any number of cheap, reliable research methods – from Survey Monkey to actually picking up the phone and calling people – to gauge the desires and motivations of our target audiences. Hell, if we just avoid using our gut to make decisions, we’ll already be one step ahead of the NY Times when it comes to content.

4 thoughts on “The New York Times’ Lump of Coal

  1. Maybe their reluctance to study their audience has more to do with a commitment (or at least an attempt) to preserving journalistic integrity? Otherwise, there would be a picture of a cat on the front page of every edition of the NYT. They can’t compete with Buzzfeed or Business Insider but maybe they don’t have to. As long as they’re producing original reporting that can’t be found anywhere else (Dealbook is still the gold standard for financial journalism), then they’ll be just fine.

  2. Certainly lends credence to the notion that all brands must become publishers. Although I have to imagine they have some sort of mechanism to determine what their audience is looking for. Or is that too naive?