Must-see doc: New York Times' Bruce Headlam on puppies, weapons of mass destruction and the future of journalism

Must-see doc: New York Times' Bruce Headlam on puppies, weapons of mass destruction and the future of journalism

Perhaps you’re unaware that News of the World, one of Britain’s most popular (and trashiest) tabloids, produced its final issue last Sunday as an ongoing criminal investigation continues to rock the nation – and implicate a growing number of employees at media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Fine.

Perhaps you haven’t paid much attention to the news that over 2,800 U.S. newspapers (like The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News) have folded over the past decade largely because of dwindling advertising revenue. Okay.

Perhaps you’re not even an occasional New York Times reader, so talk of a decline in circulation and ad sales at this heralded institution of journalism (with over 100 Pulitzers to its name, by the way) falls on deaf ears. Gotcha.

But if you get your regular news fix on the Internet and you care about the quality of the information you read, than you’ll be interested in how the global media landscape is evolving. Heck, if you’re one to look forward to the beginning of each month to snatch up a copy of the latest NIGHTLIFE.CA print edition, then you’re concerned with the future of journalism. (If you weren’t yet aware, we recently announced our transition from monthly to quarterly publication.)

In the utterly engrossing Page One: Inside the New York Times, documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi spends 14 months inside the Times’ midtown headquarters as its reporters grapple with the emergence of Wikileaks, massive newsroom lay-offs and the increasing market relevance of new media platforms such as the iPad and Twitter. The film is the most apropos portrait of modern day journalism you’ll find, as the Times’ reporters are faced with the same crises as the rest of the industry. Earlier this week, NIGHTLIFE spoke with The New York Times’ Media Desk Editor Bruce Headlam, one of the main characters profiled in the film, about the Gawker approach, pro-am initiatives and the future of journalistic rigour.


Must-see doc: New York Times' Bruce Headlam on puppies, weapons of mass destruction and the future of journalism
Reporter David Carr chats with Media Desk Editor Bruce Headlam in Page One: Inside the New York Times


At first, did you wrestle with the decision to grant Andrew Rossi’s cameras full access to follow you in your day-to-day work?
Well, it really wasn’t my decision. The paper thought it was a good idea, and they presented it to me. I was not in favour of doing it for lots of reasons, but I said that if enough of my reporters wanted to cooperate with the film, then I would go along with it. Because it would have been a little silly to have a bunch of reporters running around the office without editors. Enough of my reporters did, a handful of them very seriously – David Carr, Brian Stelter, Tim Arango, Richard Pérez-Peña and others wanted to participate – so at that point, it’s kind of a no-brainer. My bosses wanted it, the people that work for me wanted it, so I went along with it.


As a Canadian who moved to the States to work for the Times, what’s your take on the alleged 'New York Times effect' that is described in the film? Can most media stories really be traced back to a piece in the Times?
I’ve worked here about 13 years. In various anecdotal ways, I have noticed it. I hadn’t realized the degree to which so many stories that pop up in the media and on television originated at the Times or one of the other big papers, like The Washington Post, the LA Times or The Wall Street Journal, but particularly the Times. It has this role for setting the agenda for news. I don’t think I really appreciated that until I worked here.

But that also puts a special burden on The New York Times in its own strange way – another part of the film is the Judith Miller episode in which a lot of people in the government wanted to invade Iraq and the fact that there ended up having been misleading stories in The New York Times suggesting that Saddam Hussein was gathering weapons in a way that he wasn’t gave cover to a lot of those people. So I think it cuts both ways. It puts a heavy burden on the paper to get it right, because if you get it wrong, the whole idea just goes through the media ecosphere.


Must-see doc: New York Times' Bruce Headlam on puppies, weapons of mass destruction and the future of journalism
A scene from Page One: Inside the New York Times


Page One looks into the rapid decline of media giant Tribune Company (LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday) under billionaire chairman Sam Zell. Rossi films him at a press conference where he declares: “Hopefully we can get to a point where we can do puppies and Iraq”, referring to the kinds of stories that readers expect. He talks of journalists' arrogance to cover stories they deem interesting and relevant. What do you make of that?
You know, I disagree with many, many, many things that Sam Zell may have done during his reign there, but I don’t disagree with his sentiment. I think journalists often see themselves as high priests of journalism, and that it’s not good to know what their readers actually want.

I believe what the woman said to him was: “What readers want are puppy dogs, and we’ve got to give them more, we’ve got to cover the community.” Yes, I agree that you have to cover the community, but I don’t agree with the proposition that all readers want are puppy dogs, because they can get those frankly just about anywhere. And in my experience in journalism, that’s not really what readers respond to. That wasn’t my experience in Canada, and that’s not my experience in the United States.

I think knowing your readers is actually a pretty good thing. So I’m maybe a little unusual in that way, but journalists themselves tend to be a little sealed off from the readers. So I don’t disagree with the sentiment, although I certainly don’t agree with his execution of it. We don’t just report on grim, horrible things, you also want to report on the way people live their lives. The old Chesterton criticism with newspapers is that ‘they told me M. Jones died, but not how he lived.’ I don’t think that’s true anymore; I think we have dining sections, a style section, a home section, which are considered the ‘soft’ sections. We talk to people about how they live all the time, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I also don’t think that displaces Iraq or Afghanistan coverage. I think they fulfill two different appetites that can exist in the same reader very comfortably.


Since Rossi’s camera crew left the Times, it has been announced that the paper’s current News Managing Editor Jill Abramson will succeed to Bill Keller as Executive Editor in September. One of the first things she has publicly stressed is the importance of the paper's ever-expanding online presence and the value of social media. How much of a challenge do you think it’ll be for reporters at the Times to meet her objectives?
Leaving aside what Jill will do, I think the paper has already moved very much in that direction. Stories now, when we get them, we typically break on the web. They’re automatically sent out through Twitter feeds and I’m sure Tumblr and Facebook. Lots of reporters take to those things to do different kinds of reporting and ask readers for tips. So I think we’re already there. And a lot of the newsroom hiring has been web producers and people who are very savvy in the technological world, and teaching them journalistic stuff and having them teach us technological stuff.

But the fact remains that the newspaper mostly pays for what we do. Online advertising just doesn’t really account for that much of our revenue that we could afford to get rid of the paper, but in terms of the way the news is put out over the course of the day, I think we’re completely there. We have a massive website, hundreds of videos every month, all kinds of live blogging. So I’m not so sure that however imperfectly, we’re not already on that path.


A glimpse into the daily Page 1 meetings at The New York Times


These days, we read a lot about the increasingly common editorial practice of determining which stories are green lit for the web based on their potential popularity. What do you make of prioritizing content based on online popularity, number of page views and other ways of quantifying an article’s success?
I think it’s one data point among many – I don’t think it hurts for us to see what those things are, to see what the most viewed or the most popular are. I haven’t seen a distortion effect here, I haven’t seen anyone do a bogus or lousy job on something just thinking that alone will get it onto many sites, and we haven’t given up on our core mission. I mean, Gawker does that, and it’s fine for Gawker. I’ve never seen the harm in looking into what people actually think and what people are actually reading.

Bear in mind that those clicks only measure one thing – how many people looked at a story. They don’t measure how intensely somebody read it, how much they passed it along and its effect on people who read it. When I was at [former Canadian general interest magazine] Saturday Night years ago, in fact in Montreal, we did some focus groups. The presumption was that, since we run long articles, we have to run shorter pieces because nobody reads longer articles. In fact, when you asked people what they read, they’d say: “Well, we don’t have time for long articles.” But then we looked into what they actually read, they read all the long articles and found them much more memorable, and they were very sophisticated in discussing them. So of course, the consultant we hired said: “You have to run more short articles!” And actually, that’s not what the focus groups were saying. I think you have to be really careful with how you interpret this stuff. But it’s useful for people to have access to such data.


In April, President Obama sat down for a chat with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters, streamed live to millions of its users. And last week, the Times covered the first Twitter town hall meeting, to which President Obama also participated. Your reporter Michael D. Shear raised the very valid question of whether new media companies like Twitter and Facebook are taking on the roles that used to belong exclusively to traditional media organizations. Does this hint at the waning influence of traditional media, in this case in the political arena?
No, not particularly. I think certainly since Nixon, politicians have tried to…the phrase is “go over the media’s head” directly to voters. I think that Facebook and Twitter have given the president – this president in particular – the tools to do that. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, that’s not really the role we play, simply asking questions to a president and having him respond. Again, I think that’s a complementary role that has already been played by television in some ways when it broadcasts press conferences. I don’t really think that’s what we do here. So no, I don’t think it replaces us. I think it’s a valid question, but I don’t see that as the answer.


Bruce Headlam in Page One: Inside The New York Times


And in a post-Wikileaks age, are pro-am (professional-amateur) initiatives like CNN’s iReport part of what the future model for journalism will look like?
I think it will become part of journalism. It’s very hard to say that we will rely on people who aren’t being paid to do our work for us, and some of the crowd sourcing stuff has that whiff of opportunism, like ‘hey, maybe they can do the work for us.’ Certainly what people do, and you’re seeing this in the Middle East right now, has been very useful, especially in countries that are hard to get into like Yemen and Syria. A lot of the citizen media there has provided us with pictures and insights which we wouldn’t have otherwise had. Now the other thing it has done is left an electronic trail for those governments to find out exactly who has been publishing that and, in many cases, to punish them very, very severely. So it’s a double-edged sword.

Wikileaks is a little different because it’s a lockbox, they’re activists that gather information and then send it out. But in terms of the relationship between the journalist and the consumer, that has changed. It’s much more interactive, and I think consumers contribute to a news report even if it’s only in the form of comments, in a way that they didn’t before. I think that’s going to continue to accelerate, and I don’t necessarily think that means the end of journalists, where we can just sit back and say “Hey readers, you do it for us.” People still need an economic incentive to do it. And having a job is one good economic incentive.


How are the next 10 years shaping up for journalists at the Times?
I think we might get out of the recession and advertising for newspapers may bounce back the way it has elsewhere, but I think the film presents some pretty considerable challenges to what’s going to happen to journalism. Print newspapers are going to be around for a very long time because they make most of the money, and I think they’re going to be around in 10 years. I think it depends a little bit on the recession and how quickly the economy picks up, but in the long run, I think those secular changes – people reading online – that’s going to have a huge effect. I think the newspaper business is still in for a tough couple of years before we hit equilibrium. I also think in 10 years, and this isn’t simply based on the relative merits of the Times’ pay feature, that more people are going to be paying for media online than right now.


Must-see doc: New York Times' Bruce Headlam on puppies, weapons of mass destruction and the future of journalism


Yeah, we got to see the launch of those Times pay walls in the movie. Do you think they're a viable, long-term solution to make up for dwindling ad revenue?
No, I think it is one possible solution. I don’t know that it’s going to work, but the Times right now believes it has been very, very successful, and it has exceeded their expectations. But you have to remember that even if it gets, say, 300 000 people this year paying an average of $200 annually, that’s 60 million dollars. Now that’s nice, but we’re a more than 2 billion dollar corporation. It’s not going to solve all of our problems, and its failure would not doom The New York Times. It’s another revenue stream, and it’s maybe a new way to strike a relationship with a certain set of consumers who are willing to pay and therefore might be more valuable to advertisers. But it’s not the only solution. If there were a billion dollar solution for The New York Times, I wish I had it! I’d happily give it to them… for only a 50% cut (laughs). But in all seriousness, I think we may be in a position to come up with many, many smaller solutions that, in the long run, help the paper survive and continue to pay for journalists like Tim [Arango] who are in Baghdad and journalists in Afghanistan and frankly, a full media desk, which would be nice.    

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Now in theatres (AMC Forum) |





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