Whose newspaper is it, anyway? The New York Times and the 1%

By Caitlin Kelly



Loyal readers of The New York Times consider it one of the world’s greatest newspapers. Founded in 1851, today it’s read by millions of people worldwide thanks to its digital version. Some consider it the only news source they can rely on for accuracy and depth of reporting; others find its coverage of the world grotesquely skewed.

My husband and I — to use that classic American sports analogy — have skin in this game; I’ve been writing for the Times as a freelancer since 1990; my latest story for them, about Americans married to a foreign national who choose to retire overseas, runs in this weekend’s edition. My husband, a photo editor there, has been a staff photographer and photo editor for the Times for 30 years.

But the paper is now going through what one insider calls a “tectonic change” as it shifts increasingly to digital and prepares to rid itself of 100 staff. It’s offering them buyouts which must be accepted by December 1.

The Times is also shifting in the way it covers the world and, according to some, not for the better.

Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor — whose unenviable task it is to take her own employer to the woodshed within its pages — recently addressed the paper’s new and consistent attention to the concerns of the wealthiest:

I often hear about from readers who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.

It’s not hard to see why they feel that way. The featured apartments with their $10 million price tags and white-glove amenities seem aimed at hedge fund managers, if not Russian oligarchs. The stories on doughnuts at $20 a half dozen are for those who are flush with disposable income, not struggling to pay the rent. Many of the parties, the fashions, even the gadgets are well beyond the reach of the middle class.

It’s no secret that The Times often is intended to appeal to its many affluent readers and, at least sometimes, the advertisers who want to reach them. (Consider the ad-heavy special section produced twice a year and called, simply, “Wealth.”)

Claudia Griffiths, a reader in Maine, put it this way: “$160 flashlight and $219 level? Do the one percent of the one percent need your home-tool shopping help? Hello. Could the Times editors consider for WHOM they are actually writing? Here, not most Americans.”

I’ve lost patience with it, both as someone who wants to write about a broader and more diverse cross-section of sources, and as someone weary of other media outlets chasing down the wealthy and sucking up to them hard — from the FT’s (yes, this is really the name of their magazine), How to Spend It to The Robb Report to Town & Country, Tatler, you name it.

It’s so much more amusing for editors, writers and the advertisers of expensive goods they need to keep selling to coo over the cars/homes/furs/jewels of the filthy rich than contemplate the misery and frustration of the poor, let alone the struggling middle class, whose stagnant wages, stuck for decades at appallingly low levels in an era of record corporate profits, have left millions running as hard as they possibly can just to stay in place.

If a newspaper with the putative authority and depth of the Times keeps fawning over the rich — and just take a quick look at the quarter-page ads that run in it every day from Chanel, Cartier and other luxury goods purveyors — what signal does that send to the rest of us?

If the world’s soi-disant best newspaper barely looks at, let alone seriously addresses the underlying policy shifts that have created the worst income inequality in the U.S. since the Gilded Era more than a century agowho will?

Some people — and you may smile indulgently at their naievete and idealism, and yes, a career journalist I’m one of them — believe that journalism exists not merely as a megaphone with which to trumpet the “achievements” of the wealthy and powerful but to shine a light on the many interwoven reasons so many Americans languish in poverty.

(My last book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” talked in very real terms about what it’s like to live on low wages in the U.S. Only by working 2.5 years, even part-time, at $11/hour [a wage many employers here consider munificent] did I appreciate what a nightmare of a life it is.)

Jose and I read Neiman Reports, a magazine about the business of journalism, which last year addressed the paucity of poverty coverage by American journalists:

Nearly 50 million people—about one in six Americans—live in poverty, defined as income below $23,021 a year for a family of four. And yet most news organizations largely ignore the issue. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indexed stories in 52 major mainstream news outlets from 2007 through the first half of 2012 and, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director, “in no year did poverty coverage even come close to accounting for as little as one percent of the news hole. It’s fair to say that when you look at that particular topic, it’s negligible.”

Instead, as Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans notes, at most news organizations poverty comes up sporadically. “Poverty becomes a sort of ‘very special episode’ of journalism that we sort of roll out every so often,” he says.

The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar. Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways the ultimate accountability story—because, often, poverty happens by design.

“Poverty exists in a wealthy country largely as a result of political choices, not as a result of pure economics,” argues Sasha Abramsky, a journalist whose upcoming book is called “The American Way of Poverty.” “The U.S. poverty rate is higher than most other developed nations, and the only way you can square that is there are political choices being made—or not being made—that accept a level of poverty that most wealthy democracies have said is unacceptable. We make these policy choices that perpetuate poverty, and then because poverty is so extreme, it becomes impolite to talk about.”

Do you find the media’s coverage of poverty adequate?

Does it matter to you if journalists ignore the poor and their struggles?

31 thoughts on “Whose newspaper is it, anyway? The New York Times and the 1%

  1. Perhaps poverty should have its own beat! Journalistic coverage would be interesting depending on what angle it was covered from. Would it be a political angle in an effort to decrease poverty? Would it be filled with features on the lifestyle of someone experiencing poverty? Regardless, $20 for half dozen doughnuts would certainly hurt my bank account but perhaps would benefit my health and weight.

    1. There are a few reporters there who cover aspects of it; Jason deParle, many years ago, was their poverty reporter. It certainly could be, and should be, a full-time beat.

      But I have no editorial clout…:-)

  2. Caitlin- very interesting that you and I have written pieces this week about poverty in America. I took a look at how one West Virginian from a played out coal mining town, surely not the 1%, played a card that got results.

    Maybe we need to get a few West Virginians to show the Gray Lady just why their lives (and accomplishments) are compelling stories to cover.

    But then, I doubt that these folks, who have no road, are on the loyal delivery list…

  3. The title of your blog post is – Whose newspaper is it, anyway?
    The answer? Advertisers.

    Advertising revenue amounts to two thirds of a newspaper’s total revenue. I know this because my father was a newspaper and magazine publisher in Toronto. He and my sister (she was advertising sales exec) would sit around in the 1980s counting the number of full-page ads in competing magazines. From that, they could determine how much advertising revenue the competing publications were earning.

    As for editorial, there’s a thin line between the editorial and advertising departments of a newspaper or magazine. Advertisers are extremely sensitive to content. Advertisers are, in fact, all-powerful.

    The demographic profile of a newspaper’s readership is critical to that newspaper’s survival. In the battle to attract (and keep) advertisers, newspapers will offer “desirable” audiences (high household incomes, upscale lifestyles, high purchasing power) to potential advertisers. All the graphs and charts illustrate this in their media kits. Luxury brand advertisers = luxury demographic.

    With the transition from traditional print to digital, newspapers are hemorrhaging. The loss of print ad revenue will never be replaced by digital revenue. And this is why The New York Times is tapping into a wealthy demo and pandering to luxury brand advertisers more than ever now. Also, it’s those same advertisers who have the big bucks to pay the $225,000 or more for a full-page colour ad.

    Luxury brand advertisers aren’t interested in stories about poverty. It’s sad but true. Advertisers are only interested in consumers who are likely to buy their product or service.

    In response to crashing ad revenues and plunging circulation, newspapers also have to cut staff. These are the times we live in, the 21st century.

    1. Yes, certainly money talks and that is how it has to be. Whether it be newspapers or anything else, if they can’t make a profit, they can’t exist. People below the poverty level don’t buy newspapers so what be the point of directing their news or advertising in that direction? Many of those below the poverty level buy cigarettes or beer rather than newspapers.

  4. I relate to your diminishing patience. Last winter this was the kind of work I was doing–the advertorial selling of useless crap–and couldn’t maintain it. Hated the job, the toxic environment that it spawns, and the feeling of being useless/ineffective as an educated intellectual by contributing to it. (sigh)

  5. themodernidiot

    Oh, you’re just Mrs. Drop-A-Challenge today, aren’t ya? 🙂

    Ok, I’ll bite, being one of the poor in question; and I’ll type slow to make sure I say this as succinctly as possible…

    I feel a bullet list best expresses my feelings:
    1. NY is America’s bragging right when it comes to finance, glitz, culture, etc. It is a world hub of money-moving; and as such, there is a ton of money residing in NY. It takes a ton of money to live in NY. Things cost a ton of money to buy in NY. Having The Times advertise high-end items is no bigger sin than having Harper’s Bazaar show us haute couture, or Motor Trend show us cars that few of us could actually afford.

    2. I’m not about to advocate putting Walmart ads in The Times because it is far classier than the local, muni-rag where Walmart ads belong. You don’t read The Times to find out when the city council meetings are held or whether they’re extending the summer hours for the public pool. You read it for depth, not necessarily for breadth. You get a narrower scope, but a deeper reach. It specializes, if you will. You won’t get 3,000 word articles on government misdeeds, or foreign affairs in the Keokuk Gazette. Why? Because readers at that level rarely care beyond their 9×12. Need proof? Check out our latest voter turnout.

    New York is one of the more informed places in our nation because it has resources like The New York Times; and it’s just laying around on park benches, or tossed aside in coffee shops. Y’all pack your damn fish in it, so even minimum wage workers, who don’t speak even speak English, could take it home and use it to learn line by line. You can articles free, online, ten times/month. You can read it with free, unlimited access at any number of New York’s amazing libraries. Or any library almost ANYWHERE.

    No, it’s reach should not be tainted by info-fluff and consumerism.

    3. On consumerism.
    Some might argue that Chanel ads represent more consumerism than Target. False. More Americans shop at discount stores than rich ladies frequent Vera Wang. And we do it more often. Poor people spend more cash than the rich folks on a consistent basis. While the uber wealthy might buy a yacht or two, they aren’t constantly forking over paychecks in their entirety for Tupperware and tube socks. That’s us po-folks. We spend money like it’s going out of style. Why do you think there is so much work done to keep the percentage of poor people high? 1. We pay our debt more consistently than the wealthy. 2. Collectively, we have more money than the one percent. 3.Our debt and monthly expenses IS the money of the 1%.

    But the Times reminds us is that beyond our materialistic ignorance and tunnel-visioned hunt for the best, free pizza, style matters. American craftsmanship and aesthetics still survive in our drive-through, plastic existence. We all hailed Martha Stewart for the substance and style she brought back to our dinner table, so why wouldn’t we praise The Times for doing the same to our brains?

    The argument that the New York Times doesn’t represent the poor is…silly. If you want articles that directly reference poor people, read the Enquirer. That’s who it’s written for. Read Better Homes and Gardens, Claire, and definitely Cosmo. Lower yourself for a few hours and slum it with the herd: stand for hours in check-out lines with overhead TV’s blaring gossip-news, and enjoy the claustrophobia of being flanked by garbage media in the tabloid bullpens. Read US News, News Week, USA Today, or any other shitty publication, who’s job it is to spin, clip, sensationalize, and glamorize the life of the poor. Get your news from Facebook.

    They all tell you what poverty is in America: a deteriorated state of mind manufactured by distraction media and clever governance.

    4. But we are only slaves if we choose to be. That’s why The Times is awesome when it hits its mark; it addresses poverty more than all those rags combined because it writes about the causes. The NYT covers Washington D.C. and policy; it give us history and foreign news, which puts those policies in a context we can understand and act on.

    Best of all, the Times writes articles as if its readers have real interest and concern; it doesn’t dumb its language down to appease the low-information voter crowd. It doesn’t apologize for higher diction, bigger vocabulary, or college education. It doesn’t feel bad if you’re an idiot, and it doesn’t placate insecurity. That’s what TV is for.

    Knowledge in this country is shunned as a whole, and government policy is chasing publicly accessible education into extinction; but people don’t care if their local news doesn’t tell them too. The proof of our ignorance is our poverty level. The dumber we got, the poorer we got. Well-read and educated people don’t wave off important policy as “boring.” Sadly, they seem to be outnumbered by DTWTS fans.

    5. Ads for Mercedes in The New York Times aren’t thumbing a nose at poor people any more than is a Picasso hanging in the Guggenheim. We have nice things in America. We have no reason not to enjoy them. While crusing some NYT facts (rather than the complete and utter, unedited bullshit from those asshats at the Puffington Post or the fiction on Fox), take a minute to enjoy the amazing photography from its advertisers. Some of the spreads they do, really are art. And art makes us happy.

    I can’t take a Picasso off a museum’s wall, (even if some rich person could); but I am blessed that I can see it. I can’t travel to New York or Paris, so I’m glad that publications like Conde Nast gives me the the goods. I like nice things; just because I’ll never afford them doesn’t mean I hold a grudge against those who can. I also bear no resentment for the nice things themselves. I don’t feel misrepresented if I am reading an article about The Keystone Pipeline fiasco and the opposite page has a picture of a $2 million condo. It might be a nice condo.

    You have to learn to separate the pictures from the articles like guys say they do in Playboy.

    6. While reading The New York Times, I do not feel jealous or insecure, left out, or ignored because a full spread article on Syria has an ad for a Rolex in it. I feel like there is still hope because someone is not afraid to call bullshit on Washington, someone isn’t scared to talk smack about Erdogan, someone can has an in-depth about all sides of Israel’s war. I feel proud my country has a city so vibrant and smart, so accessible and glamorous, so attractive and gritty. I feel more informed after reading one issue cover to cover than after a month of “catching up” online.

    So what, as a poor person in America, would I like to see in the NYT? Fewer typos, more research. Maybe throw up a free Sunday crossword once in a while.

    Digital or hard copy, the editors don’t have to cave to the frightening trend of catering to the dumb and lazy. Be the bastion of knowledge we’ve come to rely on. Be a hero, not a statistic.

    The only thing I feel when I read The New York Times is grateful that I can read.

    1. So I hope you’ll read my piece today…:-) It’s the second most-viewed in NYT business at the moment.

      I hear you…I knew you’d weigh in, and intelligently. Thanks for making time to do it!

      1. themodernidiot

        I would read anything you write any time! Partly because you are fantastic, but also because it’s free teaching 😉

        Thanks for the link. Great stuff. I like your writing style; it flows so well and links ideas together beautifully. I dig how you take the harder edges of non-fiction and make them soft and comfortable like fiction.

        I also enjoyed the contrasting stories (journalism 101?), and you answered a few questions I had about living abroad–definitely a recommended reading for anyone considering it.

        I have to say, I also found some surprises. I never would have thought about health care, insurance, or taxes. I’m just moving for the food.

        As always, Kelly, home run. Thanks for sharing.

      2. Thanks! For some reason, people really seem to like this one.

        I shouldn’t say it, but at this point it’s mostly just income for me; I enjoy it, of course, but I’d enjoy it a lot more at 3x the fee I’m paid. 🙂

      3. themodernidiot

        You deserve 4x times the fee to start, love. Thanks for your time and generosity. It’s been highly valued.

      4. No pressure! 🙂

        I called up my very first agent — from Blown Away in 2002 — and hope we’ll be working together again. One of the things I enjoy about my business is that, if you’re lucky, you can rely on long relationships.

      5. themodernidiot

        Haha no pressure at all. I got all the time in the world. Yeah, i dont think I could make it in your world. I love people and all that, but Ive never been a networker; and I LOVE to burn bridges lol

  6. We don’t want to read about sad and depressing things. No one wants to talk about Ebola either. We want to see success, we want hope, we want propaganda.

    Poverty is an issue when someone is running for president, but otherwise…it is swept under the table. But poverty is a huge issue. A teacher can only do so much to help those students in poverty. A student in poverty can’t really concentrate on the Pythagorean theorem, when they are wondering if mom is going to lose her job today, and if there are enough food stamps to buy dinner.

    The “Common Core” isn’t going to increase test scores. Real work on reducing poverty in our nation will.

    1. But what would that “real work” look like? The battle for raising the minimum wage is one of the few signs of hope that I see, but even $15/hr is not a lot of money in a major city with a family that includes multiple children.

  7. large publications, and the majority of media in general, are driven by the dollar, and have lost touch with what their original mission was meant to be, delivering the story, whether it makes the reader/viewer uncomfortable or not. not only the good, but the bad, and that may include stories about poverty, and issues experienced by most of the real world.

    1. They are scared and desperate, with editors and reporters and publishers trying to hang onto their jobs….anyone over the age of 40 in this industry will have to completely retrain for a new career. Hardly an amusing prospect — as you well know!

  8. In my 20s and 30s, I dismissed the Times management as elitist blowhards. And yet, in my 40s, I find myself drawn to the Sunday Times like a moth to a flame. I do feel covering issues is important. Of course. But few things seem written for me anymore. I am not wealthy but I love nice things. I am intelligent, with an advanced degree. I am a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. It’s not perfect but it’s as close to writing for my sensibilities as I’ve found right now . . . maybe I’m the butt of the aging joke. I began reading Mother Jones and Utne Reader, and now read the Times.

    1. It’s not easy trying to find an intellectual fit — I read the WSJ (weekends only) but the editorial and op-ed pages are so sadly predictable and I read the FT weekend (which I adore, even if written for millionaires.)

  9. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

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