Late Friday afternoon, inside The New York Times building at 40th Street and 8th Avenue, around 100 staffers gathered on the second floor to bid farewell to sports editor Joe Sexton, who, in a speech that lasted around 45 minutes, quoted Irish poetry and, it was observed, teared up more than once.
It’s possible there were several others in the crowd who felt like crying too. Friday was a grim day at the paper: An email had gone out telling everyone where and when editors who were taking the buyout would be saying their good-byes, and more than a few staffers trudged loyally from the Business desk toast to departing editors David Gallagher and Winnie O’Kelly to assistant managing editor Jim Roberts’ farewell speech in the Page One conference room to Sexton’s, and finally to news editor Paul Winfield’s. (In between was a private, Culture desk–only good-bye to culture editor Jonathan Landman.)
The mood inside the Times has grown increasingly dark over the last few weeks, as the names of those who would be taking the buyout — two weeks’ pay for every year of service, capped at a total of a year’s worth of severance — started trickling out. Some seemed to be leaving voluntarily; others not so much, perhaps finding themselves on the wrong side of executive editor Jill Abramson. And the machinations and politicking worthy of a Game of Thrones storyline over who would succeed the departed threatened to destabilize an already tense newsroom. “The politics behind it are very complicated — who Jill likes, who Jill doesn’t like,” says one longtime Times employee, who adds that some of the determinations of who reports to whom in the new configuration have yet to be figured out.
But unless you work at the Times, this is probably the first you’ve heard of what happened last Friday. The articles about the buyouts have been focused mostly on the news of who’s taking them, with a few boilerplate quotes in each from editors saying things like “the time had come” (often with quotes from Twitter about the departures), or a reproduced memo about the buyout. At one publication, the reporter covering the buyouts freelances for the Times — hardly an ideal situation when covering the paper.
There’s been no real glimpse inside the newsroom, no sense of what the rank and file are feeling, no temperature-taking. Until very recently, the Times was the towering institution in American media, the object of endless fascination and obsession. (At the New York Observer, former editor Peter Kaplan was fond of saying that reporters should cover the Times as though it were the Pentagon.) Just a few years ago, the opening paragraphs of this piece might have been the beginning of a story in the Observer, or WWD, or Gawker, or a number of other publications who covered the inner workings of The New York Times like it was their job — which, in many cases, including mine for a time, it was. When I worked at Gawker in 2006 and 2007, we were obsessed with everything the Times did, and when I got to the Observer in the fall of 2007, the media desk was soon focused on the still-developing story of the Wall Street Journal sale to News Corp — and what it would mean for the Times. At the Observer, media reporters were essentially on the Times beat, channeling Kaplan’s laser-sharp focus on the paper of record. But those days are long gone. Now, Kaplan is the editor of men’s lifestyle quarterly M, former Observer media reporter John Koblin — who broke many of the paper’s biggest stories about the Times — is writing about sports at Deadspin, and if Gawker writes about the Times at all, it’s usually just to discuss a low-hanging-fruit story in the Styles section. Now, the best we can hope for is a New York Magazine post-mortem three months from now.
Media reporting has itself changed: The pressure to be first has only gotten more intense, and often that breaking of news, particularly in media, is taking place on Twitter. And for a young reporter, what used to be the rewards of the media beat — getting to know everyone in media very quickly, often because they’re calling you up to yell at you, and then gaining their respect, and then eventually moving on — seem less vital in the age of the at-reply.
But the importance and prominence of our media institutions have shifted too. The intrigue behind the walls of the old-school media giants that I was obsessed with back in 2006 and 2007 — the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast — seems much less, well, intriguing when the narrative hinges on layoffs, not innovation. So maybe that’s why no one reported on last Friday’s wake; it was just another depressing sign of an industry in the throes of wrenching contraction. Personally, these days I’m much more interested in the conversations inside a Facebook conference room than one on 8th Avenue. I suspect many others are too.