Sam Tanenhaus discusses the printed word.
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GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And this is the second of two programs about print – books and newspapers – with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, whose own quite fascinating Random House volume on The Death of Conservatism was the subject of Open Mind conversations just a few years ago. More now about the word…printed, rather than spoken.
And Sam, I said that what I’d like to do … if you don’t mind … is ask you a question about the criticism of your paper … my paper, too, I feel, because I didn’t start before birth, but I’ve been reading it for much of my 85 years.
Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote the other day in critical vane about the Times attitude towards its competitors. Particularly I suppose again … about Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal? Did you take issue with what he wrote?
TANENHAUS: Well, I didn’t take issue with it, Dick. If I remember he was .. this came after the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize awards.
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
TANENHAUS: And The Times is always careful to say, “Well, we didn’t win as many as we’d like … but the other guys didn’t either.”
And The Times has run a number of stories that report on the inside doing the Wall Street Journal, particularly under Rupert Murdoch. You know I think I’m on the side of those who say “We cover our own, we report about ourselves”, media is a very important part of the culture we live in now.
And the Times … if I remember Arthur’s complaint was … or his objection … or fear even … was that readers of The Times think of the paper as sort of “the big kid on the block” and it shouldn’t act like a bully toward those other papers.
Well, we don’t really live in an era, anymore, where there is a single dominant news source. People are drawing their … the news from many, many different sources.
Give you an example, if you remember a little dust-up between my boss … the Executive Editor of the paper … Bill Keller and Arianna Huffington …
TANENHAUS: … of the Huffington Post … bought by America Online … AOL … and they had … went back and forth a little bit … and someone pointed out at the time that Arianna Huffington actually has more people looking at her website, probably, than the Times does at ours.
So in a sense, it was not as if .. the bully, Bill Keller … was picking on the defenseless Arianna Huffington … it was almost on the contrary … as if he was reminding this force of journalism that what we do is important, too.
So I think for a newspaper like ours to look at the competition and to study what they do, to report on what they do is a, is a useful exercise … I think people want to know about it.
You may have read … very interesting profile of Robert Thompson, the top editor of The Wall Street Journal … that ran in The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta.
TANENHAUS: Just … was published … oh … a month or so ago. And one of his points was that the Journal itself had not been looking into some questions that, in its earlier iterations, it would have.
HEFFNER: Questions about itself or others?
TANENHAUS: About, about its own coverage. And it was, in a sense, leaving it up to other publications to do that. So you raise the question, “Well, should the Times be investigating itself a little more?”
Which we’ve done. You remember the Judith Miller case, reporting on the weapons of mass destruction … there was a massive internal investigation.
Before that Jason Blair, the notorious case of the young journalist who had been filing …
HEFFNER: Took liberties.
TANENHAUS: … he took some liberties, plagerized and all the rest … and what did it lead to? Very close self-examination of the, or the paper’s practices.
And so I think it’s fair, at a moment when many people question the rigor, the seriousness, the objectivity of the so-called mainstream media … that those of us in that mainstream media look at ourselves, look at one another and, and make some judgments.
And if we didn’t indicate any sense of competition or rivalry, I think people wouldn’t think we’re being honest with them. Because of course we want to win, we want to have the best paper, we want to get all the prizes.
HEFFNER: Do you? Have the best paper?
TANENHAUS: Well, I think the newspaper’s very good. Yeah, I think so. I think so. You and I have talked about this. I think our foreign coverage is remarkable … probably better than it has ever been.
The great Frank Rich, who tragically left the New York Times and is one of my heroes and mentors, told me recently … he thinks if you look at the A-1 page … the very front page of The New York Times … it’s never been better than it is now.
HEFFNER: Even though there are so many times when I look at that first page and say, “What in the world is that story doing on the first page of The New York Times?”
TANENHAUS: Are … what are some examples, I’m curious to know …
HEFFNER: I wish I could finger them … but do … you ask …
TANENHAUS: Pop culture stories?
HEFFNER: I mean pop culture … absolutely.
TANENHAUS: Well, yes, I think that’s true … that there is now an imperative … at least we feel the imperative, to mix the kind of stories we present as news.
What qualifies it as news is sometimes hard to know. Now, not to say that these would never been legitimate news stories.
But, but what’s important enough to be on the front page? I’ll tell you one reason I think we’re doing … we do it sometimes now is so much of the news is not only bad news … like tragically, painfully bad news … I remember looking at the front in one, in … on one Sunday … I think it was March … it might have been early April 2011 and I felt as if I’d reached the apocalypse. It was this horrific disaster in Japan .. the kind of thing we associate with horror films.
It was Libya, it was another country, might not yet have been Syria … it might have been Yemen in the, in the Middle East. There was a child or nursing home abuse scandal somewhere upstate New York.
It was just … almost shocking … it was almost as if you didn’t want a child to look at this and see the world adults have created for, for him or her.
So in that sense I think to leaven the paper a little bit with an eye on the broader culture is not such a terrible thing.
Also, the culture functions on many, many different levels and fronts now.
What happens in the world of the Internet or show business, entertainment, sports … I think some of the most remarkable reporting the Times has done in the last few years has been its accounts of concussions in professional football. And they transform that sport.
There you’re looking at a form of entertainment that also has consequences … this one question of whether plays are actually putting their lives at risk … following an era of steroid use and human growth hormone and all the rest.
All of this is to say that there are no areas of the culture, Dick, at this point, that seem off limits exactly. Because we’re living in so saturated a world … a media saturated world, an information saturated world … that you could turn to a very unusual place and maybe learn something about the country you’re living in that you might not get through the more conventional pathways to reporting the news.
HEFFNER: Oh, I’m, I’m certain that part of my dismay and anger comes from the fact that, unhappily, I find that as time goes on I’m reading those damn stories, so that my fix on it has not been as … ahmm … as positive as yours is. And you speak so well about it.
This is the larger culture, this is what is going on. But rather I think that the Times is now appealing to the, the less worthy aspects of my nature and my interests and I’m beginning to read it with greater interest … god help me.
I am reading those stories. I don’t want to. But the Times pushes them into my …
TANENHAUS: You’re feeling …
HEFFNER: … face …
TANENHAUS: (Laugh) You’re feeling (laugh) feeling complicit.
TANENHAUS: Well, there’s an interesting thing about journalism. One of the great magazine editors, Richard Stengel … Rick Stengel of Time Magazine …
TANENHAUS: … told me … not terribly long ago … some of the demographics of readership. Now, here I am going to say this on television, I hope it’s accurate … I believe Rick told me … the average age of a New Yorker magazine reader … what do you think it is … the average … so what they do … now I, I’m not sure what surveys these are based on … and Rick told me this anecdotally … so let’s not hold him accountable if I’ve gotten it wrong.
But he did give me a figure that’s in my head … and what do you think it was? The average age a New Yorker reader?
HEFFNER: I’d assume it’s over 40.
HEFFNER: It doesn’t surprise me.
TANENHAUS: Now for The New York Times we know that our readership is … much of it … about the same age as our newsroom.
Our average age of the newsroom person … that’s an editor or reporter or photographer … anyone who’s involved in putting out the newspaper in some way. You can … somebody like me who does the, the soft section … the book review.
When I started at the Times … I’ve been there twice … but started in this job at the Book Review in 2004 … I believe the average age was between 45 and 50. Well, that was eight years ago.
HEFFNER: And now?
TANENHAUS: I’m not sure. But it might be around 50 or so. That … and our reader … that, that’s the people who work there …
TANENHAUS: And our readers are about that age. Well, we’d like to connect if we could with a new generation of readers as well.
And there are two ways of looking at it. We had a brilliant writer at the Book Review … the only time, I believe, the Book Review has ever had a staff writer … was a wonderful journalist named Rachel Donadio, who’s now the Rome Bureau Chief for the paper.
But she started as an essay writer for the Book Review and then when we were looking hire someone … I’ll never forget something she put in her memorandum … we asked applicants, candidates to write short memos for us.
She said, “The Times is” …she was then 29 … “The Times is making a, a mistake. It thinks … it seems to think … that the way to attract young readers is by writing about the things The Times assumes they’re most interested in. Said, well … pop culture, music, fashion, let’s say.
“Readers will get, young people will find out about those things in other places. They come to the Times actually to be elevated, to be made more grown-up, to learn about the things that they don’t know, which The Times authoritatively will tell them about. How foreign policy works, for instance. Or, a great section like “Science Times” where you have journalists who earn the respect of the actual professionals in the fields they cover because of the mastery they gain over their, their topic. That that’s what readers want in the newspaper.”
I was really impressed by that argument at The Times, so were my colleagues. We hired her. Now I wonder if we’ve reached a moment where we’re saying something a little different.
Which is that … or considering a different possibility. Not to say that Rachel was wrong … I think essentially what she was saying is that the Times is an aspirational newspaper. As you grow up or begin to see yourself as a grown up … that’s the paper you read because you’re entering the adult world with its adult concerns.
The … well, there are other aspects of the culture that do filter up through youth. And that The Times, if it’s going to maintain its place and its relevance and currency has to, at least indicate or explore … right … the possibility of getting some command over those areas.
I’ll give you an example of a very young reporter at The New York Times. A guy named Brian Stelter, this terrific media reporter for The Times.
He was one of the very first people to get involved in Twitter, for instance. He was hired, I believe, not long after the paper had done a story on … how he, as a college student … had created a website about film that Hollywood moguls were reading because it was breaking so many stories.
It’s … and so … Brian is in his … oh, I would guess … mid-twenties … and he’s been at the paper a few years now. He’s someone who had a feel for how the newer aspects of journalism could be used.
He’s a wonderful reporter, does all the things you expect a Times reporter to do … but he has also a feel for the newer media.
When I started at The New York Times, at the Book Review in 2004 our digital staff were not even in the same building as the print reporters.
And if you told a print reporter or a beat reporter for Metro or National or the Foreign Desk or Washington Bureau reporter that their breaking story would go online … there was outrage, because that wasn’t taken seriously.
No, the only story that mattered was the one that went in print. Well, in the space of six or seven years that changed … or even less … changed dramatically.
Times … in a hallway where the Pulitzer Prizes … the plaques are aligned … has one for the Elliot Spitzer story … we broke online. That’s where the news is moving. And with those changing journalistic tools, different sensibilities enter as well.
HEFFNER: What about those different sensibilities? I mean that’s the question that I think we most have to deal with. What’s changing? For the good or for the bad? Or, as you said on our last program, that’s the way it is.
TANENHAUS: Well, I do think that’s the way it is. What’s changing for the good? I think there is less … what should … not dependent … less of automatic respect for institutional authority that no … as you know, Dick, I write a fair amount of history … and I use newspapers all the time, including the great paper of record which I’m privileged to work for.
If you go back … and you’ll remember this … the way The Times would cover a press conference, back in the days of Eisenhower or Kennedy. There was something in it that was grand, that we lost. And something in it was unquestioning that I’m, I’m glad we moved beyond.
In essence what you would get was a transcript of the press conference …
HEFFNER: Yes. And boy I miss that.
TANENHAUS: Well … now, now we will give you the transcript …
HEFFNER: You have to go online.
TANENHAUS: You have to go online. You will get the entire transcript … the story itself will read a little differently.
And sometimes it will verge on analysis or opinion … those lines are being blurred. There’s no question about it.
And what you miss is the sense of pure objectivity. That if a great Washington reporter was … attended a press conference that Eisenhower gave, his story would reiterate, in essence everything that was said.
Well, now we figure we can give that literally and we’ll put a reporter in the room who captures some of the dynamics as well.
And do those lines start to be blurred? Sometimes they do, there’s no question about it.
HEFFNER: Do you have any information as to the relationship between reading the interpretation in print and going to the, the facts of the matter online?
TANENHAUS: You mean how many people are doing it?
TANENHAUS: I don’t know. I think there are people at the paper who do know. One of the great things about the Times if you’re a journalist there is … one is protected, as it were, from that information. Sometimes I wish we knew more about it.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
TANENHAUS: Well, the idea is that you should do your journalism without thinking about or worrying about what might get you the most “hits”.
HEFFNER: I see. I see.
TANENHAUS: Now, we, we keep track of most email lists … but that you shouldn’t be tailoring the work you do to information … marketing information about your audience.
Now that may be not naïve … for instance if you look at the section I’m involved with … the New York Times Book Review … when I entered … when I began the job … 2004 … I was told very distinctly that the people who work in advertising will never approach you, you can speak with them, if you like, they do something different … they won’t infringe in any way on the purity of your journalism.
And my answer was, “Well, wait a minute. Don’t the number of pages we have, doesn’t that number each depend on how many ads we’re getting? Can’t we get some more ads so I have more pages and books to review.
HEFFNER: Sam, Sam you may not remember, but the first program we did … I was playing “got’cha” which I really don’t do, that’s not the nature of the program or of this old man … but I opened up the previous Sunday’s New York Times and there, the centerfold was not a gorgeous naked woman … but a full, double page add for NBC …
TANENHAUS: Oh, I remember that.
HEFFNER: And I put it in front of you and said, “What in the world is that doing there?” And I was so delighted by the directness and honesty of your answer which was, “Hey, we can do more of what we do if there are more such advertisements in the Book Review section”.
TANENHAUS: The gold standard for my publication is The New York Review of Books. I’m a great admirer of Robert Silvers, I used to write for him … before I became his competitor.
Not really, it doesn’t come out every week and the audiences are somewhat different.
But it’s a magnificent publication … greatest critics, Nobel Laureates, you know, writing at far greater length than we can allow … or except on rare occasions … our writers to do. They have months and months, sometimes years to prepare an essay. It’s a brilliant, great thing.
There’s an ad on almost every page. It’s Academic Presses …
TANENHAUS: … but it’s an ad. And my comment to that, my response when we were discussing this in connection with the Book Review was, “I don’t think Bob Silvers thinks his content, his editorial content is compromised by that.”
If you think it is, then maybe the problem is your content. You know, if you’re publishing first rate journalism, an ad does not detract from that. On the contrary, it sets it off in some ways.
So, yes, these are the considerations we, we look at. Journalism is a business, you know. Do you remember … test your memory here … about a year or two ago … let’s say 2009 … when the economy was in terrible shape, really, really bad shape, far worse than even now … around the time that the President was elected.
And there was real concern about whether any newspaper would survive …
TANENHAUS: … including The New York Times. And one of the suggestions was “Well, let’s create, let’s change the anti-trust legislation and either force people to pay for what they read online … now the Times is moving toward that independently, with its subscription plan.
Or let’s have the government bail-out the newspapers … do you remember that?
Let’s, let’s call them a public service and find someway to subsidize them. And Arthur Sulzberger, who’s the publisher and Bill Keller who’s the Executive Editor, runs the newsroom said, “No, we don’t want to do that. We actually want to try to be a profitable enterprise if we can.” Because it gives you more autonomy and, and more independence.
And some of that autonomy and independence allows you to make huge mistakes. And some of the mistakes may be in, in the coverage we do.
HEFFNER: All right. Question … from inside … how’s it going …
TANENHAUS: For …
HEFFNER: … financially.
TANENHAUS: … well, the subscription plan seems to be working. Now, we’re freshly into it.
But one of the unexpected developments, very gratifying, is apparently the offers, the various offers readers have been given … where, you know, you can pay a certain … certain sum to get access to one page or another … has actually led quite a few people simply to subscribe fully to the newspaper … so they could have everything.
So the print subscriptions are actually rising a little bit. Which is kind of, kind of intuitive. But it will be months … months before, before we know. Because it takes so long to register the number of users, to see what they’re looking at … how many people when they exceed the, that limit of 20 articles are actually paying the fee to go on. I think it will be a long time before we know. It feels more stable now than it did a year or two ago.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
TANENHAUS: Well, we went through a period of voluntary buy-outs and then some not-so-voluntary buy-outs and even layoffs, which is almost unheard of for The New York Times. They had a big loan, we borrowed a lot of money from …
HEFFNER: Haven’t paid it back, either.
TANENHAUS: I thought we did.
HEFFNER: Have you?
TANENHAUS: Yeah, yeah.
HEFFNER: I’ve been waiting to see that, hoping to see it.
TANENHAUS: Well the … Wall Street Journal …. (mumble) … (laugh)
TANENHAUS: No, no. I think we’re doing okay. It’s never going to be what it was. I remember when I first worked in The New York Times … I worked in the OpEd page as an Editor. I think it was 1999. You know that great old building on 43rd Street, before we built this great new building in.
Entered the lobby and we all got a candy bar that commemorated that that was the first year the paper … I believe this is right, had earned a billion dollars in advertising.
It just seemed endless at that point. Now I was profiting from any of it myself, but I wasn’t worried the way we all are a little bit worried now. You look at these magnificent newspapers … the Washington Post, which has become by its own description … a local rather than national newspaper. The Los Angeles Times, a great newspaper … they’re … don’t have the foreign bureaus.
The Times hasn’t got a tremendous amount of money to, to set up bureaus and security operations in, in foreign countries … Middle East … Iraq was costing a million dollars a year … just to cover, or just to send reporters there and, and to protect them. Security details and vehicles and all the rest.
To see fewer and fewer news organizations able to do that is disheartening. And it’s not good. It’s not good for journalism. People ask me sometimes … say, well you’re the last man standing at The New York Times Book Review … like only The New York Times Book Review is left. It’s true.
When I started there was the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Washignton Post Book World, the San Francisco Chronicle had a stand alone section. The Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe had fairly substantial book sections. They’re not there anymore.
And people say … would say “Well, does that feel good?” And I’d say, “No. First of all I might be the last many standing … on a melting ice floe … who knows who’s next.”
Also, it’s not good for the culture. There shouldn’t be a single voice that dominates. Fortunately, that’s not the case. There are so many people covering books online … great books sections in the New Yorker, and in The Republic and the Atlantic Monthly … and other magazines.
But as far as just the daily book coverage goes, there’s so much out there, so many voices … people have said to me … heard it said more than once … the most important reviews are not the ones that appear in any print publication, they’re the reviews that readers post on Amazon.com. They are their reactions to the books.
HEFFNER: It’s on that note that … that electronic note, that I’m going to say thank you again for joining me on The Open Mind … Sam Vau … I’m going to make you into someone else. Sam Tanenhaus, thanks.
TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure, Dick.
TANENHAUS: I know Sam Vaughn … he was Buckley’s editor.
HEFFNER: That’s right he was Eisenhower’s, too.
TANENHAUS: Oh, he was?
HEFFNER: He was Truman’s. Yeah.
TANENHAUS: I didn’t know that … oh, he …
HEFFNER: And we’re going to go off the air … talking like this …
HEFFNER: … I’ve got to say thanks to the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related program. That thirteen.org/openmind
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.