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The New York Times Doesn't Need Twitter Anymore
The Paper of Record pivots
On Thursday, the New York Times set media Twitter aflame when executive editor Dean Baquet announced a sweeping new social media policy for his journalists. The leaked memo, tweeted out by a Washington Post reporter, heralded a “reset” in the Times approach, declaring that “we rely too much on Twitter as a reporting or feedback tool—which is especially harmful to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers.”
Baquet warned that Times journalists “make off-the-cuff responses that damage our journalistic reputations.” He said colleagues at the newspaper shouldn’t attack each other with “tweets” or “subtweets,” undermining their work. In addition, Baquet offered sympathy for the Times reporters who have experienced online harassment and proclaimed that Twitter and other social media would be “purely optional” for them. “It is clear to us there are many reasons you might want to step away,” he wrote, adding that the newspaper would now have new “training and tools” to help “prevent and respond” to online abuse. And the Times would now treat information on Twitter with the “journalistic skepticism that we would any source, story, or critic.”
Baquet is correct on several fronts, though it’s easy to mock any degree of social media pivot the Times—or any news organization—attempts. As a veteran of 2010s media, I can tell you Twitter was a deep obsession of news organizations large and small. In darker times, everyone feared BuzzFeed would eviscerate legacy media outlets and required their millenial workforce, reared on the internet, to be relentlessly online. Twitter was, in essence, mandatory, with clear professional benefits meted out for those who could climb the ranks of popularity without getting canceled. Twitter was where journalists made friends, cracked jokes, accumulated clout, shamed dissenters, and collided with their enemies head-on. The cliché, of course, was that this was all so high school, but Twitter, in actuality, could be much more deranged. In high school, you generally found your clique and stuck there. If you expressed an opinion, a person didn’t magically materialize above you to shout you down furiously—bless the quote-tweet—and there was the chance, upon graduation, of starting anew elsewhere. Twitter was a perpetual high school of anxious, aging millenials and Gen X’ers thirsty to stay current with pop culture ephemera and peacock for pals, editors, and rivals. You didn’t merely have opinions—you performed them. I am very much enmeshed in Twitter, though I have tried to pull back. Less is more.
Twitter, for journalists, can be useful in more ameliorative, if ultimately careerist, ways. I’ve met very smart sources there and maintained professional friendships. My DMs are open and I treat them like email. I like that any member of the public can easily reach out to me if they have a concern or a question. Social media is not a blanket evil. After 2016, it became easy for Democrats to attribute Donald Trump’s rise to malicious Facebook algorithms and Twitter misinformation, but the reality is that 73 million people voted for Trump’s re-election and they weren’t all keyboard warriors devouring QAnon and sharing pepe the frog memes. The far right has purchase beyond America and virulent political ideologies predate the internet. Disinformation is a serious problem in this country; so is the need, for certain partisans, to mislabel every crumb of information they don’t particularly like. The Hunter Biden laptop fiasco was evidence enough of this.
For many journalists, myself included, Twitter has value and it is not so easy to walk away from—particularly when creating a brand independent of a publication is essential. When Maggie Haberman and Taylor Lorenz clashed on Twitter recently, this was the essence of their fight. Lorenz argued the brand mattered and Haberman, a Times institutionalist, pushed back on this idea. Both have a point. For independent journalists like myself—I am associated with certain publications but I am not a full-time employee at any—it is vital to have a presence that transcends one media property. For journalists to succeed, they need to distinguish themselves in some manner. These days, if wielded properly, social media can be beneficial. Most journalists don’t have the luxury of retreating behind an institution.
But Baquet, the Times executive editor, is right to want to pull his newspaper away from Twitter. The Times is not an ordinary media property. In the wake of two decades of catastrophic industry decline, the Times is a newspaper hegemon, more powerful, in a relative sense, than it’s ever been. The twentieth century Times may have mattered a bit more because so many more Americans consumed print newspapers, but the Times of 1968 or 1997 had far more competition. Major magazines like Time and Newsweek staffed enormous bureaus and carried the same gravitas as the Gray Lady. Regional newspapers, turning healthy profits, were very influential in their own markets. The people of Cleveland chiefly read the Plain Dealer. Chicago belonged to the Tribune. West Coast residents read West Coast papers. The Times just couldn’t pack the same punch outside New York when hometown newspapers were widely read and well-staffed.
The Times adjusted remarkably well, in retrospect, to the rise of the internet, pivoting hard to a digital paywall a decade ago and aggressively making itself the newspaper of record for all of America. Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, may be trolling the Tribune with a tweet like this one, but it also speaks to reality: plenty of people in Chicago probably have digital Times subscriptions while not bothering with a local paper. Meanwhile, the Times easily hoovers up talent from rivals and acquires new properties in a manner few newspapers today could dream of, buying up Wordle and the Athletic. The Times is built to last.
Given all of this, Baquet probably could have gone a step further and announced that he wanted most or all of his journalists to withdraw from Twitter entirely. The New York Times does not need Twitter and it does not need its journalists—either the marquee names or the young twenty-somethings—there any longer. Twitter doesn’t drive much web traffic and it isn’t going to be the source of another subscription boom for the Times. The Times, quite simply, is both bigger than Twitter and bigger than any single journalist. Taylor Lorenz believed the Washington Post, in part, was more hospitable to her brand and decided to go there. That is her right. The Times, in turn, does not need Taylor Lorenz. There is no single person on their staff who is more important than the brand itself. The Times is Coca-Cola and Disney. The Times is Amazon. None of these companies need to have Twitter accounts. For the most part, they maintain social media presences out of rote obligation or the vague fear of missing out on whatever the young are doing.
If anything, that may have been the subtext of the Baquet memo—or what he would want the subtext to be if he didn’t fear too much backlash from his staff. Many Times reporters do not help the Times through their social media conduct. It is not particularly essential for news-gathering journalists to spend much of their days on highly-curated feeds where a sliver of educated, left-leaning Americans discourse on issues of somewhat limited reach. A Twitter retreat could make Times journalists less accessible, but most Americans aren’t on Twitter anyway. Better to make reporter email addresses public and hire a new public editor. Bring Margaret Sullivan back from the Washington Post. The Times has the cash to make it happen.
Baquet could have said outright that the Times is an institution that supersedes the ambitions of the people who work there. The dark truth for employees is that most of them can be replaced; the Times is capable of hiring almost any journalist in America. Ezra Klein left Vox, the publication he co-founded, to write a Times column and run a podcast. Ben Smith decided, at one point, he’d rather be a Times media columnist than oversee BuzzFeed. David Fahrenthold, perhaps the biggest break-out star of the Trump era and a Washington Post mainstay, is now a Times reporter. Even the Yankees can’t simply pluck superstars from other teams on a whim. All leverage belongs to the paper of record now.