I haven’t subscribed to the New York Times for several years. Recently, while killing time at a local Starbucks, I bought a copy to see what, if anything, I had been missing.
Answer: not much. On the front page, there was only one hard-news article that actually hit the traditional 5 W’s of journalism up front. The other articles each started out describing broader trends and opinions before reaching the critical news details, often on the inside pages.
Unlike the Wall Street Journal, which includes a helpful news summary on the front page and confines human interest stories to one article at the bottom, the NYT highlights trends and themes rather than events.
The NYT method in reporting news is often to introduce readers to a particular context or viewpoint before telling us what actually happened. It is possible to read the entire first section of the NYT and not have much idea of what is going on in the world, but to have a very clear idea of what attitude its editors want us to adopt towards it.
The WSJ adopts the same approach–to sports. The WSJ doesn’t report news or scores. Instead, it runs entertaining commentary and oddball statistics. It makes absurd predictions: today, for example, the WSJ informs us that the San Francisco Giants will somehow contrive to score 4.7 runs against the Cincinnati Reds’ 2.5. And its writers adopt an ironic, aloof posture towards the very subject they are describing. Ben Cohen’s latest article, for example, compares animal gestation periods to the length of professional sports playoffs.
The NYT news pages are to news what the WSJ sports page is to sports: a lot of commentary and very little useful information. (The WSJ sports page, at least, has the virtue of being highly amusing–in a good way.) Of course, you probably wouldn’t buy the WSJ for its sports section–just as fewer people have been buying the NYT for its news section in recent years. (Even when I subscribed to the NYT, I turned to the opinion articles first.)
The WSJ could do better by including a basic sports news summary–much as it does for general news on its front page. (Even the stiff NYT sports section provides better coverage.) But when it comes to the core business of news reporting, the NYT has confused news with opinion so hopelessly that it has almost ceased to be a useful source of information.
The “newspaper of record” has become a lifestyle broadsheet. Its editorials, more partisan than ever, are less potent because they are grounded in sentiment more than fact. The NYT’s still worth reading, I suppose, but more as a guide to how a narrow, influential clique sees the world than what is actually happening in it.