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May 12, 2014, 11:06 a.m.

Culture change is hard: What Nikki Usher learned in five months embedded in The New York Times newsroom

“When you talk about the cultural legacy for newspapers, if you talk about the cultural legacy inside and outside newsrooms, print still fundamentally matters, and it’s really difficult to let go of how that works.”

In the early afternoon of January 27, 2010, The New York Times’ tech team was ready for breaking news: Apple was set to unveil its long-anticipated tablet computer.

As Steve Jobs prepared to take the stage, Times tech blogger Nick Bilton was preparing to scour the Internet for information on the yet-to-be-named tablet and feed information to the Times’ liveblog. The hype was huge, and readers were desperate for information on the tablet — not least its name. George Washington University professor (and frequent Nieman Lab contributor) Nikki Usher describes the scene in her new book, Making News at The New York Times:

Bilton was shouting out information to his editors, but it wasn’t clear how this was getting incorporated back into the liveblog. “The wireless just went out in the room,” he said. Then a few minutes later, when it was back on, he went back into monitoring mode. He shouted, “It’s starting,” as the tech staff in New York wasn’t getting much of anything from their staff. Slowly, the tightly edited bits of information began to appear on The Times liveblog.

Bilton saw the name on a competing blog — “iPad, they just said it!” — and immediately tweeted it. The Times’ home page editor was ready for the announcement right away with a red alert right underneath the “The New York Times” banner: “Jobs announces new tablet will be called the iPad.” But the Times’ liveblog took two minutes to get the name up. The Times’ home page then put up a link to the liveblog after some wrangling.

Usher spent five months in early 2010 embedded in the Times newsroom, studying its culture and how it was transitioning to the digital era. Usher’s ethnography provides a snapshot of how Times reporters worked their beats, how traditional reporters interacted with multimedia and interactive staffs, how was managed, and more. The detailed portrait of the newsroom takes readers behind the scenes and illustrates how the paper of record was adapting to the Internet. For instance, Usher describes when DealBook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin learned about TweetDeck for the first time:

“What is it?” Sorkin asked. [Weekend business editor David] Joachim explained the advantages of using this site over the main Twitter platform: “You can post the whole URL instead of going to that link shortening thing [Bitly]. And it updates to Facebook automatically.”

Though the book’s events take place in 2010, much of what Usher writes about is still relevant today — the cultural issues the Times was facing then still, to varying degrees, face it and other newsrooms. (See last week’s internal report on how the Times newsroom could continue to evolve and innovate digitally.)

I talked with NIkki about her new book and the lessons that can be gleaned from it; here’s a lightly edited transcript. (You’ll also want to check out the excerpt from her book that we’re publishing in parallel with this interview.)

Joseph Lichterman: You were in the Times newsroom in 2010. What stands out to you as something that’s changed or accelerated there in the time since?

Nikki Usher: One of the biggest has been the speed of the homepage, which has slowed. But it’s important to remember that the idea of “freshness” motivating changes — to continual updating of stories, to tweaks across websites, this push to constant immediacy in a hyper-competitive live world — is still something that we see across media outlets. In fact, we can see that accelerating across social media platforms in a way that wasn’t the case in 2010. I think this fundamental compulsion that has always been part of journalism — to be first and fast — has been amplified through the web and is now further amplified through social media. I would say that a lasting lesson is that we are really in a new era of speed — even though, of course, journalism does have a legacy of caring about speed. But there is something fundamentally different about now.

Lichterman: That immediacy is a big focus, but at the same time, the Times is still putting out a print newspaper. In the book, you go into detail about how reporters and editors struggled to find the balance between writing for online and writing for print. How did you see folks deal with that in your time there?

Usher: I think one of the most interesting aspects about what is still facing newsrooms — and is still facing the Times — is the decision about what to put on the front page. Because culturally, it’s still that final signifier of what matters. When you look across representations in the press, in movies, and in popular discussion of what people remember and talk about and think is important, it’s not what is on the web, even though we might like to think so — it’s what that final, permanent stance is.

As a system of values, it does play a really significant role in how people articulate what’s important to their work. And it’s this fundamental contrast about what needs to be done to survive in a competitive Internet environment and what needs to be the reality to remain sort of this cultural imprimatur.

That may be the central finding: We’ve talked about how we’re in a digital era for news, and that people aren’t subscribing to print and people aren’t reading print — but when you talk about the cultural legacy for newspapers, if you talk about the cultural legacy inside and outside newsrooms, print still fundamentally matters, and it’s really difficult to let go of how that works.

Lichterman: You demonstrate that really nicely by describing the page one meetings at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and how before them the sections meet to decide what they’re going to pitch for page one — but then comparing that to the website, which is essentially just one person deciding what’s going to be placed where.

Usher: The thing about the web is that it moves so quickly that you can’t have meetings to make these fast-paced decisions. There may be cases where you can plan out some static content, but as far as making up-to-the-minute decisions, that’s going to be left to one or a very select few individual people who are not going to have these weighty decisions about the construction of stories and the meaning of what these stories mean to the public. They’re going to be making really quick decisions.

Compare that to the kind of intense conversation that happens around the presentation of the print paper and the development of print stories, and how ultimately, that’s a reflection of the in-depth conversations. It’s a really fascinating dichotomy. I think one of the strengths of the book is that the ethnography really outlines how stark these differences are, even in an era where we would like to pretend that this stuff doesn’t matter.

Lichterman: One of the other things I found interesting was how you described the workflows of the various journalists — like how the traditional print reporters are interacting with the video staff and the multimedia staff. You paint this picture of a top-down approach, where a lot of the reporters weren’t so happy about having to change their routine and deal with these people that they never met. Since you were embedded there, Snow Fall happened, and these big interactive pieces have become a lot more common. Do you have a sense of how those workflows have changed?

Usher: The book points out an important cultural barrier, which is that you can go into any newsroom and there are still going to be fundamental difficulties in organizing any new form of news with an old form of news — whether that be multimedia or interactivity. The rise of interactivity is well noted, but if you look at the intensity of the effort, they’re often devoted to the kind of project stories that are geared to win Pulitzers, the project stories that are geared to win attention. Rarely do you see that happening on a day-to-day basis — and when you do, they’re generally a project of something like The Upshot, which is a specific group of people dedicated to creating these sorts of interactives with data.

When you’re talking about the day-to-day relationship to multimedia to traditional journalism and interactivity to journalism, I think there’s still a barrier at the Times. And I think if you think about how that applies to other newsrooms that are less resourced, you’re going to see more of that. Everybody knows that multimedia is important, everybody knows that interactivity is important, but not everyone knows how to make it part of their routines. It still takes work.

Lichterman: I love the scene in the book where Andrew Ross Sorkin is learning what TweetDeck is. I was chuckling to myself as reading it because a number of the reporters you quoted as saying they didn’t want to be on Twitter…

Usher: …are now on Twitter!

There is no doubt that this book, on some level, is a period piece of the Times at this particular moment. But where it draws some of its ultimate value is that it’s a clear portrait of how people did their work at a time of conflict and change. That sort of stress on the routines and that type of change isn’t something that’s going to go away. While the technologies may change, the patterns and processes and conflicts over emergent values and emergent practices — that underlying relationship between change and process — is the consistent thing that we’re going to see throughout the evolutions of newsrooms. I think that might be one of the most important things to stress.

Lichterman: Another thing I found interesting was the section you devoted to how the Times dealt with scoops and exclusives, and the issues of immediacy around that. There was this tension between putting something online right away and holding it back to protect it from the competition and make it relevant for the print paper as well.

Usher: One of the things the book highlights is that scoops are ephemeral — but they are an internal fascination inside the newspaper. And that is a really important lesson. Culturally, scoops are something that newspapers and news organizations are generally counting as victories, and as long as we have that mentality of winning and losing, it may actually obscure a strategic approach to thinking about scoops.

Lichterman: Obviously, The New York Times is a unique environment, and most news organizations don’t have the reach or the resources that it does. But do you think there are any lessons that smaller news organizations could learn from how the Times approaches these issues?

Usher: I think the Tow report Post-Industrial Journalism does a great job of saying We can’t just talk about the Times, but we always talk about the Times. But I think these are underlying tensions that every newsroom experiences — about how fast to be, the relationship between web and print, difficulties and strategies between how to incorporate multimedia and interactivity into their newsroom, questions about what exactly is the right way to think about social media. You must remember that most newsrooms are totally Twitterified, but not all of them. That may be an East Coast kind of thing. But these tensions over change is something that every newsroom is going to experience for as long as this technological era is present. It doesn’t matter where you are: Cultural change is difficult. So understanding how people really think about change through all of these varying perspectives should give a lot of people some sense about some of the things facing their own newsrooms.

Photo of The New York Times newsroom by Sean Savage used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 12, 2014, 11:06 a.m.
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