June 27, 2014

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough had company this week in trashing the New York Times’s Internal Revenue Service scandal coverage. In a post on the matter today, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reports receiving complaints from “many readers” on the matter. She quotes a complaint from Harry Koenig of Monroe Township, N.J., that the paper was too slow to hop on the back-and-forth over the lost e-mails of former IRS official Lois Lerner:

Well, kudos, as I see there was coverage the past few days – although on Page 19. Hey, it could have been in the Food or Fashion section. Mark Halperin, a frequent panelist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, made an intriguing observation on [the] show about the I.R.S. scandal. After saying that the recent news regarding the destroyed hard drive belonging to former I.R.S. official Lois Lerner would be “a test for the news media,” Halperin took a stance on the scandal that few on the cable channel would dare take. “I think with a different administration, one that was a Republican administration, this story would be a national obsession.” Obviously, the New York Times failed the test.

Sullivan turned to reporter and editor David Joachim for a rebuttal and got plenty of pushback. In an e-mail, Joachim noted how the story has aroused partisan passions and passed along links to previous New York Times stories on the scandal.

Since the IRS disclosed Lerner’s crashed hard drive — and thus missing e-mails — on June 13, noted Joachim, interest at the New York Times has spiked.

Since then, we’ve published five articles on developments, including a lengthy explainer that tried to put the lost emails into the context of the overall scandal. None of those landed on the front page of the print newspaper, but every one of them was promoted heavily over social media and spent a long time on our home page, which is prime real estate.

Anyone who’s been around journalism for the past couple of decades will agree: A long stay on the homepage of the New York Times amounts to extensive story promotion, though it’s less and less effective as so-called “sideways” traffic — social media referrals and the like — grows more prominent. The New York Times innovation report found a dropoff of 50 percent in homepage traffic in recent years.

Plus, the front page of a print newspaper makes for a nice prop, as Scarborough noted in lambasting the New York Times for its placement priorities on the IRS. Sure, you can argue that for traffic purposes and readership, the homepage and social media promotion count more than the print version. Yet that dead-tree version still communicates pretty clearly where the priorities of the top editors rest.

In any case, Sullivan ruled in favor of the paper’s newsroom, writing in part, “The Times has given its readers insightful coverage of a situation heavily clouded by partisan politics.” That’ll surely prompt more complaints — this time about the coverage of the coverage.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
Continue reading 10 minutes left