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The Times & the Internet

In response to:

The News About the Internet from the August 13, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

I find little to quarrel with in Michael Massing’s hymn to the Internet and the various journalistic hybrids spawned there [“The News About the Internet,” NYR, August 13]. However, I do object to being set up as Massing’s old-media straw man. Yes, I believe (and, judging from the piece, so does Massing) that there has been a lamentable decline in the supply of professional journalism, the kind that entails deploying experienced reporters to go places, bear witness, develop sources, dig, and explain, and trusting readers to draw their own conclusions. I emphatically do not agree that this lament constitutes “a put-down of the Web and the bloggers who regularly comment on Web sites.”

For one thing, my responsibilities at the Times include overseeing one of the most inventive and popular news Web sites in existence, which includes among its abundant offerings more than sixty blogs. Nytimes.com has won wide respect not only for breaking important news but for innovations in hybrid journalism (see Robert Mackey’s skillful aggregation of professional and citizen journalism from Iran), in commentary (see the Opinionator, or Room for Debate, or Nick Kristof’s online work), in crowd-sourcing, interactive graphics and document-sharing, video and online photojournalism, and more. The work of journalistic pioneers like Aaron Pilhofer, our editor of interactive news technology, has enriched our ability to report and tell important stories.

Kvelling aside, I’ve long been an admirer of the best practitioners of Web journalism, including many of the familiar faces Massing introduces to the Review‘s readers. My respect for Josh Marshall, to cite everyone’s favorite example of a serious journalism venture born online, is all the greater because his success remains, so far, a rarity and a struggle. To point out that few bloggers do what Marshall does, that most of them riff on, sample, propagate, challenge, and sometimes excoriate the work of traditional journalists, is not to disparage their work in the slightest. When it is done well, the role of online critics, analysts, and debunkers makes us better and makes the whole experience richer.

Thankfully my job does not require me to know the future, but I suspect the journalistic landscape five or ten years from now will be a mix of survivors and start-ups, and that the distinction between mainstream and new media will diminish from both directions. I think traditional news organizations—including the Times but also many others—will continue to evolve. We will survive in print as long as the revenues justify it (and, thanks in part to growing circulation revenues, they still do) but we will grow, adapt, and ultimately prosper on all manner of nonprint platforms.

In turn, I hope ventures like ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, and Global Post, which now rely on philanthropy, venture capital, and/or the sacrifices of journalists willing to work for poverty-line wages, will find more sustainable business models. I expect the best of the new ventures will forge alliances to supply some of the important and costly services a company like the Times provides, such as safe workplaces in countries at war, and lawyers to fight FOIA cases and fend off lawsuits by powerful subjects. Journalistic institutions will become nimbler, and new ventures will become somewhat more institutional. At least, that’s my guess.

This is not to say that I embrace the Web as an uncomplicated blessing, I’ve argued at times with some of the Web’s more utopian proselytizers about whether “citizen journalists” are a substitute for professional journalists or, as I believe, a supplement. I’ve worried aloud that the polarization and glorification of polemic on the Web makes it easier for readers to feel informed without ever encountering information that contradicts their prejudices or obliges them to think for themselves. I don’t think that impartial journalism is necessarily neutered journalism. It’s possible to believe all of those things and still celebrate the riches of Web journalism.

Bill Keller
Executive Editor
The New York Times

Michael Massing replies:

I welcome Bill Keller’s remarks clarifying his views about the value of Internet journalism. As I discuss in my article in this issue, the many new online investigative units are already beginning to forge alliances with one another, in the form of new Investigative News Network created this summer. As the Times and other traditional news organizations continue to cut costs, it seems likely that they will be forming their own alliances with these fledgling groups.

Already, the Times has undertaken joint investigations with ProPublica, and on July 16 it ran on its front page a story by a Columbia journalism student (Kristina Peterson, on injured college athletes who face high medical bills) written under the supervision of the school’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Such cross-connections between old and new media seem likely to become a fixture of the new journalistic landscape. As for the Times‘s Web site, I, too, salute its many creative features, but, as I discuss in my new article, I think it has one critical shortcoming. I invite readers to go to the piece to learn what it is.

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