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May 23, 2014, 11:37 a.m.

This Week in Review: Politics, gender, and digital innovation at The New York Times

Plus: Doing better data journalism, net neutrality’s implications, and the rest of the week in journalism and technology.

This week’s essential reads: If you’re short on time, this week’s key pieces are Recode’s Kara Swisher and Politico Magazine’s Susan Glasser on editing while female, Mark Potts on The New York Times’ innovation report, and Jacob Harris on being skeptical of data while doing journalism with it.

Jill Abramson and editing while femaleLast week’s review ran as the dust was still settling from Jill Abramson’s firing from The New York Times, so here’s a quick rundown of what speculation and explanation has emerged since then: Countering the reports that Abramson’s inquiry into her unequal pay was a key event in her dismissal, Politico’s Dylan Byers and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz reported that Abramson was fired after publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Mark Thompson believed she had misled them as she attempted to hire The Guardian’s Janine Gibson as a co-managing editor with Dean Baquet. Sulzberger gave Vanity Fair some more details about the events leading to her firing.

Sulzberger issued a statement denying that gender was an issue in Abramson’s firing, and The Times asked The New Yorker for a correction to the Ken Auletta story last week that reported Abramson’s salary protest played a role. Auletta wrote another piece confirming the reports that Sulzberger and Thompson believed Abramson misled them and saying the situation came down to keeping either Abramson or Baquet. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall expanded on that description, speculating that faced with the prospect of being stuck with Abramson, whom Sulzberger clearly disliked, he fired her instead. The Times’ David Carr described the salary dispute as a “sideshow” and said that regardless of who’s in charge, The Times fate and legacy are far bigger than whoever’s running it. Former newspaper editor Geneva Overholser reflected on how dysfunctional Abramson and Sulzberger’s editor-publisher relationship had become.

Much of the invective following the firing was directed at Sulzberger, as The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove documented his PR failings in the wake of the move, and both Alex Pareene at The Awl and Forbes’ Brett Arends called for him to resign, with Pareene saying, “Arthur Sulzberger is in over his head. He’s clearly not up to the challenge of being the publisher of the nation’s last newspaper during the newspaper extinction era.” At Time, Alex Jones argued that Sulzberger was simply showing the same ruthlessness his father did. Poynter’s Jill Geisler urged Sulzberger to conduct a thorough review of the status of women at The Times.

Abramson’s departure continued to highlight the status of women across the U.S.’ top newsrooms, with Media Matters’ Joe Strupp noting that none of the country’s 10 largest newspapers are now run by women and the Pew Research Center’s Monica Anderson pointing out the lack of change in the share of women in newsrooms as well as their pay relative to men’s. BuzzFeed conducted an informal survey of male and female journalists’ pay, which New York’s Jesse Singal warned not to put much stock in.

Reuters’ Shane Ferro lamented Abramson’s firing by saying that “The New York Times appears to have wanted a woman at the top, without actually letting her be in charge. The message here is that women — even the most powerful woman in media — are meant to fall in line. When they don’t, they are dumped.” At The Guardian, Emily Bell expressed her frustration that Abramson’s firing put the lie to the idea that female journalists can be rewarded for their excellent work without also having to be someone other than who they are.

Three editors — Recode’s Kara Swisher, Politico Magazine’s Susan Glasser, and former Sydney Morning Herald editor Amanda Wilson — all reflected on their own experiences of editing while female, noting that they, too, had been described as “pushy” or “difficult” while male editors had been lauded for the same character traits. “You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a woman willing to suit up for life in this public arena. To be willing to be called difficult and pushy and all the rest when you raise your hand,” Glasser wrote. “To never respond or defend yourself, because that would be combative or risky or just plain unpleasant.”

Pushing back against print at The Times: The other big story in the journalism world also came from The New York Times last week, as observers continued to absorb and discuss the paper’s leaked innovation report. Forbes’ Kashmir Hill said The Times should have published the report itself rather than letting other sites reap the traffic, and her colleague Steve Olenski said the paper’s digital problems are a microcosm of the industry.

Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch highlighted a few of the overarching themes of the report, and journalism professor Nikki Usher added some useful context to the report from her own research at The Times. Vox’s Timothy B. Lee explained that it’s going to be tough for The Times to implement the report’s recommendation because it’s still tied to print revenue and the demands print brings. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Bell made a similar point and said it’s time for The Times to decide who it really wants to be on the web. “Because you cannot really produce innovation in digital whilst fighting the gravitational pull of print. It is too significant a force in terms of resource and workflow,” she wrote.

Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor tied the report’s findings to Dean Baquet’s hiring, outlining the need for the generally non-digital Baquet to make a digital splash and the barriers to his doing so. Derek Willis, who works on The Times’ new data journalism site, The Upshot, urged his colleagues at the paper to be more proactive about trying digital tools rather than blaming the system. Journalism professor Carrie Brown-Smith sympathized with Willis’ frustration and noted that opposition to change is broader than The Times, and it’s deeply rooted in organizational routines and individual psychology.

At the American Journalism Review, Mark Potts also noted a similarity between The Times’ situation and that of so many other newspapers over the past two decades. He proposed abandoning the current incremental approach in favor of the radical change of dropping the print edition to unshackle the paper from print routines and shift it toward a mobile-first mindset. Peter Lauria of BuzzFeed also saw in the report a potential future without a print Times.

Elsewhere from the report, Vox’s Ezra Klein and Trinity Mirror’s Martin Belam pushed back against the idea that the report signaled the death of the homepage as a strategy for The Times and other news organizations, arguing that the homepage still has value for power users and as a brand statement. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland also made a similar point, and wondered why The Times has just made a big play based on a mobile app rather than the social traffic that seems to be supplanting traditional homepage traffic.

Meanwhile, as if to underscore the digital difficulties The Times is facing, The Guardian hired away Aron Pilhofer, The Times’ top digital editor and longtime digital pioneer. to a new executive editor of digital position.


Creating more careful data journalism: There was some thought-provoking conversation about the new wave of data journalism websites from a variety of places this week. Data visualization professor Alberto Cairo pointed out the troubling number of pieces on sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight that are based on dubious data interpretation or presentation, deriving far too grand theories from far too little evidence. At Source, The New York Times’ Jacob Harris provided a thorough critique of one faulty piece and give some suggestions for being skeptical of your data. There was also some good conversation on Twitter, Storified here, about what might be causing this data journalism shoddiness.

Business Insider’s Milo Yiannopoulos said data journalism sites are too scattershot and dull to draw attention and sustain trust, while Liliana Bounegru at the Harvard Business Review called on data journalists to create their own datasets more often, rather than relying on “official” ones. British journalism professor Paul Bradshaw, meanwhile, wondered what might be in the data journalism canon.

Reading roundup: Yes, there were events and discussions this week that weren’t related to The New York Times. Well, a couple, at least. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Facebook executive Mike Hudack ranted about the proliferation of fluffy stories meant to go viral on social networks in today’s media environment, and the irony of this complaint coming from an executive of the organization arguably most responsible for this viral pandering was not lost on many people. ValleyWag’s Sam Biddle, PandoDaily’s David Holmes, The Tow Center’s Alex Howard, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel, Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram, and Vox’s Matthew Iglesias all looked at Facebook’s role in the rush for light, shareable stories.

— A few net neutrality notes: Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times explained how the Federal Communications Commission hemmed in by its attempts to please everyone, Poynter’s Al Tompkins looked at the impact of the regulations on journalism, and the Columbia Journalism Review explored the potential effect on diversity online.

— Two interesting pieces on some of the inner workings behind new journalism processes: The Lab’s Josh Benton wrote about Vox’s use of “notebooks” to provide a way for its journalists to publish very short pieces, and Jihii Jolly wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review about the use of algorithms to determine news production.

— Finally, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic collected more than 100 of his picks for the best nonfiction of 2013. You should be able to find a few (or a few dozen) that are well worth a read.

Photo of the New York Times building by Alexander Torrenegra and photo of a Zenith Z-19 computer terminal by AJmexico used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 23, 2014, 11:37 a.m.
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