Readers and the Citizenry
Air Date: August 19, 2017
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Washington Post veterans – media columnist Margaret Sullivan and formerly managing editor Liz Spayd, most recently, we’ve hosted the New York Times public editors since the inauguration of that position. An ode to the free press, to the public’s right to know, and yes, their right, even civic responsibility at times, to criticize the profession. This past June, the New York Times surprised many journalism junkies and long-time readers when it terminated the position that had strived to be a voice for readers and accountability in an ever-volatile media climate. They announced in its place they would create an interactive Reader Center focused on deepening journalism and reader contact in more substantive and regular form than the now-defunct weekly column. Its inaugural editorial director and former international correspondent and editor for the Times and GlobalPost, Hanna Ingber joins me today. “In order to be successful,” she wrote, “We need to work with everyone. The reader center will be a way to convene all those people, to make the most of all the work that’s already happening at the Times. The goal is to infuse a reader-centered thinking across the newsroom.” And that’s what we’ll discuss here today. Hanna, thank you for joining me.
INGBER: Thank you so much for having me.
HEFFNER: When they asked you to become the inaugural editorial director of the Reader Center, what was your response.
INGBER: I was thrilled. Um, it’s a, it’s a huge honor, uh, and it’s a huge honor to do it at a place like the New York Times. Um, some people were, who knew me were, were a little surprised because I had most recently been an editor on the international desk and it, it seemed to them like a, a big change. Um, but actually I’ve been really thinking very deeply about our readers my whole career, um, and, and have been thinking about how we can do more to involve them in our journalism and engage them in our coverage, um, at different jobs I’ve had in the past and so this actually was, um, it made a lot of sense. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: And when you thought of this particular media moment when there is an unprecedented opportunity for engagement, what did you think as you were arriving in this position was the most important task ahead of you. And what do you think is the most important task ahead of you now.
INGBER: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think that’s changing as we go, you know, trying to figure out what our priorities are. When I started the position and, and the team, I was really thinking about reader engagement and thinking about how can we do more to be in, doing you know, calling out to our readers and involving them in our stories, let’s say we want to hear more about women in Saudi Arabia, and so we would do a call-out where we would ask women in Saudi Arabia to tell us about their lives and we would invite them in to be part of our coverage, and I thought that we would do, use the Reader Center to do more of that across the newsroom, and that is definitely still a priority and, and we do want to still do that. But we’ve realized we have other priorities that are, um, as important if not even more important, um, that I hadn’t realized coming into this, uh, would be something we’d focus on. One is just doing more to be responsive to our readers. We have readers who really want to tell us what they think about our coverage, to tell us what they think about our journalists and our journalism, and we haven’t in the past had a systematic way of hearing that, digesting it, assessing it, and then responding to it. Um, so that’s one of our first priorities now.
HEFFNER: In order to sort through all the different kinds of feedback you’re getting, what has struck you so far as the, if there was a dominant theme in the readers’ response to the Times right now.
INGBER: I don’t think you could say there’s a dominant response. Our reader feedback is so varied, it’s as varied as our report. You know, we have a tremendously strong politics section and then we have a lot of responses to our politics coverage. We have a strong culture desk and we have a lot of responses to that, so I think it would be hard to characterize it in one way. Um, of course we have a lot of very, very loyal, dedicated Times readers who are at all times supportive and glowing, and we also have a lot of loyal readers who read us every day but want to criticize us every day too, um, and they’re also Times readers. Um, so I, I think it would be hard to, to put people in, you know, one bucket.
HEFFNER: And are you engaging with readers so far, you and your staff in email correspondence or telephone calls.
INGBER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: How exactly is the formula right now for the solicitation of input or the back and forth exchange?
INGBER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well there’s a lot of teams at, at the Times who are thinking about readers and then there’s a lot of journalists thinking about readers. Um, we have a community team looking at comments, we have a social team that’s working, um, very hard with readers on social media. We have a customer care team. We have, um, we have individual editors on desks and reporters, and so one of the things that the Reader Center really wants to do is empower those journalists to, to do more to help them with best practices, to show them, um, by example what’s more that, that they can do, so that they can be responding to their readers themselves. And so that they can be, um, doing more to um, solicit reader involvement and, and responses, for example, um, when there’s news such as, um, uh, President Obama, I’m sorry, [LAUGHS] President Trump announcing the ban on transgenders in the military, empowering the desk to be able to uh, reach out to our readers and, and hear from people who are directly affected by that ban.
HEFFNER: And that’s one example you sent to me, an experiment you’re working on, a Reader Center’s Digest that you sent to your Times colleagues, and I was even encouraging you and you may publish this in the future as a report that is compiling the reader or user citizen mindset on these given issues.
INGBER: Yeah, the idea of it really is to be this internal and as you say we, we may publish it because our, our readers might want to know too, but the initial idea was that it would be this internal email to the newsroom and the entire company that is showing all the different ways that our readers are making our report richer, whether or not that’s, um, talk, our readers talking about how they’re affected by our coverage such as, um, the transgender example, or it’s readers, um, criticizing our coverage. Maybe it’s readers saying that headline was really insensitive. Um, maybe it’s readers saying why didn’t you cover this story when other news outlets did? What is this saying? Maybe it’s, um, readers questioning, um, something biased or why are there anonymous sources? Or maybe it’s, um, readers having a really emotional response to a story. When there was the obituary about the singer for Linkin Park, um, the obit led to a tremendous outpouring of emotional responses from our readers who were deeply, deeply affected by the death and wrote about how at times, when their life was hardest, when they were watching their parent or their spouse die of cancer, or they were literally at the hospital with a loved one, or they were having their own suicidal thoughts, that they would listen to this music and, and it meant so much to them and it got them through such hard times. So reading those comments, you know, I, I actually was reading them in bed one night because um, I was already home and, and I was so moved by these comments and it made me think differently about the music and, and I went back and was listening to more of the music after reading the comments. And it’s that type of thing that our readers are saying really compelling, interesting, smart, uh, critical… Um… Comments. They’re making great statements and, and they are telling us something more about the world, and they’re telling us something more about our coverage and our stories and ourselves, and this email, the idea is that we want to make sure that everyone in the newsroom and everyone in the company at large is aware of that and they can see the real value in these reader voices.
HEFFNER: And if there is criticism, perhaps the internal audit will be greeted more favorably than the external one that was in the form of a column each week or twice a week by a public editor. Seems to be strategic on your part to inform that insight on the ground level, to build out.
INGBER: Right. I mean we are, we’re definitely not trying to be a watchdog. We are trying to elevate voices and sometimes those voices are critical, and so what we frequently do, even if it’s not in this internal digest, but if we see criticism, we go and we tell the editor or reporter, um, and we have a whole conversation about it, and we, we, we want our journalists to be thinking about that criticism of course, and of course they, they already are. And maybe I shouldn’t say of course but [LAUGHS] they, they’re having very deep, thoughtful conversations about that criticism and then thinking about how to respond and our job is to facilitate that and also to give our journalists more options so that if they do want to respond, they know how to. Um, one thing we have created as part of one of our first initiatives on the reader center is what we’re calling a bulletin board, and the bulletin board is a public spot for our journalists to talk about our coverage. It’s a way for um, us to be more transparent, for us to, to provide some insight into what we’re doing and our thinking and, and how we go about telling stories, um, and it’s a way to respond to, to feedback. Uh, recently we had our national security editor, Amy Fiscus, write a piece on the bulletin board about why we named an undercover CIA official, and we did that because after our story naming the official, there was a lot of um, readers saying, I’m sorry, I take that back. It was the, um, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. He um, said at a conference I can’t believe the New York Times did this, and so after he made that statement and there was a video clip of it, Fox News and other news outlets covered that and then it led to a discussion on social about how could the New York Times do that.
HEFFNER: And they, they misreported some aspects of what the Times did.
INGBER: That was a different case.
HEFFNER: We’re talking about two, two stories.
INGBER: [LAUGHS] Two stories, it’s, right. So this one was about the CIA official, um, and we did in fact name an undercover CIA official. Um, and our readers were upset. I mean that, that sounds bad. Why would you do that? You know, what, what is that serving? And so we wanted to, we gave a statement to Fox News, um, who was reporting on Pompeo’s, uh, statement, but then we also wanted to say to our readers, you know, you may have seen this chatter, well let us explain to you why we would do that and, and let us tell you our thinking so that you can then make an informed decision about whether or not you agree with us. Um, but you’re not just hearing it on Twitter and not knowing the backstory.
HEFFNER: What was the other, the other example?
INGBER: The other example was, um, uh, it was Fox News saying that our coverage of a 2015 raid against ISIS in Syria had thwarted the U.S. efforts to um, find Baghdadi, um… And in fact, our story, um, had not done that, that our story at the time had talked about a raid, um, the Pentagon was actually very happy with this raid. They wanted coverage of it. They gave us the information. We then reported on it, as did other news sources, um, and then um, at the time, the Pentagon never complained about it. There was never a problem with it. It was only then much later that Fox News, um, made up this accusation.
HEFFNER: How are you staving off the, what could be the demoralization of the fourth estate in response to the accusations of failing? Well first you’re not failing, you had the best digital growth in your history just today. Being… Um… berated by the President on a regular basis. How do you encourage your peers to respond to those accusations and the idea that you’re fake news or faulty?
INGBER: Mm-hmm. Well, we’re pretty proud of our, of our newsroom and our coverage and so I, I wouldn’t say that it’s having a moral impact on us. Um, I would say that the way that it impacts us is we realize perhaps even more now than ever before that it is really important to tell our readers what we’re doing and to give them a window into how we cover stories. And when you have a President questioning us and then when you have, you know, um, other news outlets questioning us, it provides us an opportunity to say well, actually, let us tell you what it means to verify information. Let us tell you all of the steps that we go through to um, confirm a story.
HEFFNER: But I’ll tell you what’s demoralizing. What’s demoralizing from the perspective of those journalists at least from my perspective is forty percent of the American public or a majority of Republican voters or supporters of the President say, say they would close news outlets that they perceive as biased.
HEFFNER: So when I talk about that relationship, I don’t mean necessarily that they’re demoralized with their own craft or pursuit of stories, but they’re demoralized by some of the readers.
INGBER: Right. It’s a difficult time. Um, on the one hand you have that. On the other hand, we have as you said more digitial subscribers than ever before. We actually have people who want to give us money and want to give us more money than their subscription, and so we have created ways that, that readers can do that such as funding, um, student subscriptions, which is really a way of giving a donation to us and, and being able to give students the opportunity to read the Times. So it’s an, it’s a polarizing time. Um, and people on the one hand as you say, there, there is this demoralizing, um, issue. On the other hand, we have people saying now more than ever we really care about really good, really strong journalism. Um, we heard that a lot when we announced the news that there were big changes in our newsroom and that we were laying off, I’m sorry, we were offering buyouts to a number of um, staff and, and then having layoffs. And we heard a number of readers say wait a second, this is a time like no other. We need the New York Times, we need the Washington Post, we need PBS, we need strong news outlets to be covering the news and really be focused on getting it right. How could you possibly be laying people off. Um, and we had Dean Baquet, our executive editor, do a Q&A with our readers just on that issue and he talked a lot about how we are now, while it looks like we are, um, laying off people and we are, we are also really investing in our journalism and we are making sure that we are hiring more reporters and we are hiring video journalists and we are hiring, um, other content creators to, to really make sure that we have the best, most competitive reports possible.
HEFFNER: And how do you think the Reader Center in particular can grapple with this polarization issue?
INGBER: Mm-hmm. Well one of our goals is to do more to explain to our readers, um, our coverage, and to explain to them the back-story and to show them, um, how we came to, to a decision. Also in, in all fairness, one of the ways we can help readers is sometimes readers are right when they have a criticism, and if a reader, um, flags to us or flags on social media that they find a story to be either they, they find an inaccuracy or they see, um, something that they think is biased or uh, they’re upset about it for another reason, we can look into it and we can, um, bring it to the attention of editors and we can bring it to the attention of the masthead and we can really talk about, um, do they have a valid point and, and how should that affect our coverage going forward. So it really is a way that we can be much more, um, in touch with our readers and, and what they need.
HEFFNER: In being in touch with your readers, is there more of a perception gap in terms of fact versus fiction or in terms of discretion. Editorial discretion is not being applied. You said before it, it was hard to characterize in a sweeping way the nature of criticism, but would you say it’s more on the factual basis people are concerned or on the discretion question.
INGBER: Yeah that’s a great question. Um… I think we see, um, we probably see both but, but perhaps more on the discretion side. I’m, I’m not sure in terms of a, a quantity, you know, I probably couldn’t say in terms of counting. Um, but… When people are upset with our coverage it often is, um, people saying that they are upset, um, about how a story was presented, not necessarily, um, a factual error.
HEFFNER: Or that the story was presented at all?
INGBER: Or that a story was presented at all.
HEFFNER: I think in the political arena, your White House correspondent Maggie Haberman has I’m sure been under assault by me, and others, although I credit her tremendously with being the most sourced person. She comes from the New York tabloid culture that seems to have hijacked 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but I think there was concern and criticism, legitimate concern and criticism that that was morphing into or cannibalizing the nature of what ought to be public affairs journalism and not tabloid journalism.
INGBER: Well, I think we’ve always cared about drama and personality. [LAUGHS] In some ways it’s why politics stories are, have always been fascinating. Um, but certainly there is a lot of debate, there’s debate among readers and there’s, honestly there’s debate in the newsroom about how to cover an administration that is so different than previous administrations. You know, there was um, the idea that we have a President tweeting all day long, um, statements that are often surprising is different and so how do you cover that? How do you think about that? Are these, um, uh, are these official announcements from the administration? Are they, um, just uh, comments like someone would make, a President would make at a bar but it’s not at an official announcement? I mean how, how do you think about it? Should you, should you only report on it when the President does something? Not every time the President says something?
HEFFNER: Do the readers care about those questions and the answers to them.
INGBER: Yes, definitely. Yeah.
HEFFNER: And what do you, what are you getting so far from your tenure at the Reader Center.
INGBER: [LAUGHS] Um… Again there’s, there’s, um, it’s varied but certainly our readers are interested in our political coverage, um, every day. I mean the, our stories on Trump and on our political coverage always get a tremendous number of comments, thousands of comments. Um, our Facebook Lives we do with our correspondents in D.C. get a huge viewership. Um, you know we use those as an opportunity to put people like Peter Baker and other White House correspondents in front of our readers. Um, and they, um, everyone has an opinion. [LAUGHS]
INGBER: It’s, which is good. I mean we, we want to hear it. Uh, we also though, we want to hear opinions that um, are different and that we don’t expect, um, from Times readers. Um, we, we, one of the ways that we use the, this Reader Center Digest for example is to point out, um, surprising comments, um, and times when um, for example we had a story recently, um, I think it was by Peter Baker as well, a news analysis about President Trump and about how he’s just doing things so differently, constantly, and, and at this point, when he does something that is a surprise, we’re not even surprised anymore, and that sort of a story. And um, and we had commenters both on Facebook and on the story itself who are Trump supporters who said and you know what? That’s exactly why I like Trump. It’s because he does some things that are so against the status quo and, and um, not what we’re expecting. And so those are the comments that we want to make sure we surface for the newsroom and we, um, surface for our reporters and editors so that we can um, be hearing from those voices as well, because of course the majority of our comments are people who want to um, rant about Trump, in all honesty. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Hanna, I’m sorry because we could have begun the program this way, it’s that important a question. European newspapers, we’re going to end it this way. European newspapers have begun to experiment with literacy quizzes that require readers of stories to pass a test to show that they’ve read the piece before they comment. It strikes me that if you’re managing a Reader Center that ought to encourage fundamental literacy.
HEFFNER: Whether or not a Trump supporter will ultimately see something as illegal that’s irreverent, or irreverent as illegal, that’s a decision they’re going to make at the ballot box or when they petition their representatives, but ultimately it’s your decision as the inaugural director of the Center to decide how important real, genuine, factual literacy is. Do those European newspapers have a point?
INGBER: It’s a great idea. And the Reader Center, we’re, we’re all about being a lab and experimenting and doing things differently and, and trying things out, and the idea that you would say you need to read, you know, 75 percent of this article before you comment on it, it’s a fun idea and, and it, um, if nothing else it makes a very good point that um, too often we, we do of course see people who write on Twitter about, based on a headline. Or they write on Twitter based on someone else’s coverage of us, not even our own coverage, not even our own headline.
HEFFNER: Well I hope it’s something you seriously consider in, in due course if not immediately. Is it true, it used to be true that I think the op-ed columnists could decide if they wanted their pieces to have a comment section or to not actually invite any comments. Does every article on the Times website now offer the opportunity to comment?
INGBER: Not every one but we are um, increasing the number dramatically. So we have um, really focused on, on trying to make sure that more of our stories allow comments. We’ve always been focused on making sure that our comment sections are thoughtful. We monitor comments, we um, we frankly delete and block, or, or not accept in the first place comments that are inappropriate, which is very different from a lot of news sources. Um, and it’s why we’ve been able to have such a vibrant and smart discussion within the comments of our stories. You don’t see people name-calling and um, angry back and forth. You really see a community of people talking about a story. Um, but because of that, that’s been very labor-intensive and so we’ve only been, in the past we were only able to open up comments on a, a small number of articles. But we see the, the real value in comments and we are, um, working on, on changing that, and hopefully we will get it to the point where we have about 80 percent of our stories open.
HEFFNER: Hanna, thanks for your time today.
INGBER: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: Exciting work.
INGBER: Thank you. Great to chat.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.