Reading the weekend NY Times has always been one of the true pleasures of life. I particularly looked forward to reading the opinion columns, highlighted by the sly, gentle humor of Gail Collins, the thought-provoking ideas of the multi-talented Frank Rich and the “voice of the voiceless” columns of Bob Herbert. Now that the Times has set up an online paywall, two thirds of that trinity has suddenly disappeared from its pages, as both Herbert and Rich have departed for more creative pastures.
I have read Bob Herbert since his days at the New York Daily News, when I had to beg Times snobs to pick up what they deemed “that low class rag” and read Herbert’s column, usually to no avail. Only when he switched to the Times (writing in the same basic voice) did they deem him worthy.
Herbert took seriously the journalists’ traditional mandate to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” He wrote about the simple truths from which too many of those in Washington are insulated, including the fact that nearly half of private sector workers in the U.S. now get no paid sick days__zero. Herbert was rightly viewed as the “conscience of the Times.” Now that conscience is gone.
So who is left? Paul Krugman remains a vital voice on the economy. Maureen Dowd is a gifted writer whose columns are increasingly self-indulgent, and Nick Kristof columns swing between the courageous and the weird. David Brooks too often seems to simply be a conduit for Republican talking points, and Charles Blow and Ross Doughat are lightweights. So far the new opinion writers (Joe Nocera and Virginia Heffernan) have made little impact. And at the very bottom of the barrel sits Roger Cohen with his relentless Israel bashing and Stanley Fish with his tedious pontificating.
Should I now pay good money to read these mediocre writers and crashing bores?
The truth is, the best opinion writing in the Times both in terms of content and style can now be found in the online “Comments” section. Karen Garcia, Marie Burns and “Gemli” have become must reads, and I’ve begun to put in my two cents as well (under “mivogo”). These comments have built traffic to this blog and sharpened my focus, and reading the regular, unpaid comments of the three names mentioned has been illuminating.
But something is wrong when the Times readers outshine its writers. The paper has established itself as a pillar of our democracy, with its gifted, independent voices leading the way. When these leading voices can now only be found in books or in other publications, something is definitely amiss.
And its not just the opinion pages that have declined. While the Arts section and Book Review remain strong, too many other sections of the Times seem to be sliding downhill fast. As a sports fan, for example, I have to turn to the tabloids to find any decent reporting on my favorite local teams.
Credibility is of utmost importance to the Times, but its fact checking has fallen off a cliff. Meanwhile, its online site is badly mismanaged. For example, a comment made on its site at midnight may not appear until noon the next day or later.
A number of factors are beyond the Times’ control. Newspaper advertising has fallen dramatically, due mainly to a combination of the popularity of digital media and the struggling economy. But many newspapers are making it worse by panicking. The NY Times is a solid brand, but the convergence of establishing a paywall while losing its best writers and its focus on accuracy has put the venerable newspaper in a precarious position.
Newspapers may or may not be dying. But the NY Times seems to be contemplating suicide.