A New York Times editor will take charge of the Globe’s opinion section

The day after The Boston Globe was named a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing, the paper has announced that it’s hired a new editorial page editor — James Dao, a senior editor at The New York Times. The announcement, reported in the Globe this afternoon, was made by chief executive Linda Henry.

Dao replaces Bina Venkataraman, who stepped down several months ago and is now a Globe editor at large. Venkataraman was involved in the launch of The Emancipator, the racial-justice website the Globe publishes jointly with Boston University.

I don’t know much about Dao except that, according to the Globe, he had a role in the Times’ decision to publish an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020 arguing that military force should be used against violent Black Lives Matter protesters. The episode led to the departure of editorial page editor James Bennet after it was revealed he had not read the Cotton op-ed before it was published. Dao stepped down as deputy opinion editor and took a high-ranking editing job in the newsroom.

Also of significance is that Dao is 64. I’m not saying that’s old (hey, he’s younger than I am), but he’s at an age where he probably wouldn’t be seeking to settle in for a lengthy stint. Perhaps Henry is hoping that he’ll identify and mentor a possible replacement. Henry’s full statement, forwarded to me by a trusted source, follows.

Hi team,

I am thrilled to announce that James Dao will be the Globe’s next editorial page editor, effective on July 5.

Jim brings great perspective to the Globe from his vast leadership experience across three decades and multiple news desks at The New York Times. Most recently, as the Metro editor, he oversaw coverage of one of the most consequential mayoral races in New York City’s history while leading a team of over 60 journalists in covering the ongoing challenges of the pandemic on the nation’s largest city. Previously, he oversaw the paper’s Op-Ed section and has served roles in leadership and in the trenches as an editor on the National desk, as the Times’s Albany bureau chief, a Washington correspondent, national correspondent and military affairs writer.

He is an award-winning journalist and has a passion for pushing the envelope on multimedia storytelling, an area in which we too, are deeply investing in as we aim to reach new audiences and amplify our powerful journalism in new media. Jim’s 2011 multimedia series, “A Year at War,” about the yearlong deployment of an Army battalion in Afghanistan, won numerous awards — including an Emmy — and he also was executive producer on the Netflix documentary, “Father Solider [sic] Son,” which was based on the life of an Amy sergeant first profiled in his series.

I’ve had the great honor of diving deep into conversation with Jim, and in that time, he has shared that his priorities in this role are bringing new approaches — from newsletters to podcasts — to an already outstanding opinion report. He plans for our editorial page to be at the forefront of sharing the groundbreaking ideas and innovation unfolding in our region, while continuing to hold our leaders accountable to the high standards that we expect.

As a proud Editorial Board member, I see first-hand the thoughtful dedication and passion our board has for the work that it does each day and the impact it has all across our region. In the last two years alone, Globe Opinion writers Alan Wirzbicki & Shelly Cohen and Abdallah Fayyad have been recognized as Pulitzer Prize finalists in Editorial Writing – truly remarkable accomplishments, and a testament to the talent and incredible contributions at all levels on this team.

I am grateful to Bina Venkataraman for her bold approach and leadership in this role over the last two years. Globe Opinion has grown and strengthened the editorial board, launched The Emancipator with BU, and has drawn national attention to further the impact of our content and voices. Thank you to the entire team for their commitment and patience while we conducted this thoughtful process to find the next leader who will steer Globe Opinion forward in new and exciting ways. Everyone stepped up, but I would like to particularly thank Marjorie Pritchard and Alan Wirzbicki for their leadership and extra effort to keep Opinion sharp and relevant.

Jim will now lead the charge in this exciting new chapter for the board, and we are so excited to have him get started in early July. He is copied on this note, so please join me in welcoming him to the Globe; he would welcome local bike route suggestions.

Thank you,

Linda

The New York Times is about to kill off its Today’s Paper web app

Some will mourn. Most probably didn’t even know it existed.

The New York Times is sunsetting its Today’s Paper web app on May 16. A simple listing of every story in that day’s Times, with a minimum of distractions, the app — which works on computers and tablets, but not on phones — has been a solid platform for readers who like to view the paper as it was published that day without a steady stream of updates and extra, non-print content.

I use it occasionally, but it’s been obvious for a while that no development resources were being put into it. The app looks pretty much the same (OK, exactly the same) as it did when it was unveiled in late 2013. The photos are muddy, too. There are better ways to access a listing of today’s Times — here’s one way, and there’s a section in the tablet and mobile apps as well. (There’s also a really bad replica edition that’s almost impossible to access.)

Here’s part of what Dante D’Orazio wrote at The Verge when the Today’s Paper app made its debut:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that’s selected to go into the paper each day, Today’s Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times‘ reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times‘ true sections, like the once-weekly “Sunday Styles” and “Science Times,” to the fore (the paper’s website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections). As a nice touch, users are presented with an image of each day’s print edition when they open the app, and select one to download for offline reading. Each section, meanwhile, offers a small glimpse at what the print layout looks like.

I believe there’s great value in offering that day’s paper, fixed in time. The Boston Globe offers two — count ’em! — replica editions, one accessible from the website and one as a standalone app. I’d give both of them a B-plus; they’d get a higher grade if you got a better view when you tapped on a story to read it. The Globe’s got a Today’s Paper listing on its website as well, but I never use it because it’s always missing things, like corrections.

The best Today’s Paper replica edition is offered by The Washington Post on its mobile and tablet apps — it’s smooth, and when you tap on a story, it opens up into a beautifully rendered article with photos. I wish every paper would do something like it.

The Times’ Tucker Carlson series is a triumph of explanatory journalism

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Yes, I read The New York Times’ massive deep dive into Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News program was dubbed — accurately — as “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.”

Something as lengthy and detailed as this defies summary. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to slog through the whole thing, the “key takeaways” sidebar is quite good. I also recommend that you interact with the digital version of part three, in which you’ll hear Carlson’s own words, taken from more than 1,100 episodes.

Times reporter Nicholas Confessore has done a remarkable job of combing through Carlson’s past and present in an attempt to explain his rise from stylish but obscure magazine writer and failed television host to the most powerful force in cable. And Confessore offers partial answers, at least, to some aspects of the Carlson phenomenon. For instance:

Did Carlson change? Or has he always been this way and we just didn’t see it? Several years ago I wrote a piece for GBH News in which I recounted my own long-ago experience with Carlson, who came across as a charming raconteur with mainstream conservative-libertarian views.

Confessore’s answer, I think, is that Carlson really did change, although the seeds of his transformation were always there. His childhood sounds like it was truly miserable. And, in looking back, I have to say that my only personal experience with him was in how he interacted with a fellow white man. It doesn’t sound like he’s spent much time at all with people of color.

Does he really believe the terrible things he says? Or is it all an act? This comes up in conversation with friends and associates all the time — again, mainly because he seemed to be someone entirely different a generation ago. Confessore’s answer: it’s a little of both.

I thought Confessore was especially strong in his explanation of Carlson’s attempt to reinvent himself after his failed stints at CNN and MSNBC by launching The Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that moved increasingly to the fringe right. Carlson comes across as someone who embraced extremism partly out of conviction and partly as a way to amuse himself. He does not seem like someone who ever gives much thought to the consequences of what he writes and says.

He is also portrayed as really, really wanting to make it in television, and he was probably willing to do just about anything to make his Fox gig a success. The late Fox impresario Roger Ailes reportedly once said that Fox was Carlson’s “last chance.” So Carlson’s shtick could be seen as a poisonous combination of his own flirtation with extremist ideas; delight at provoking the “elites” whom he hates; and desperate ambition.

What’s next? Would Carlson run for president? Confessore doesn’t get into that, even though he portrays Carlson as the logical successor to Trump — “Trumpism without Trump,” as he puts it. I don’t see why Carlson would take the next step given the riches and fame that have already come his way. But we don’t know whether he lusts for power, just as we didn’t know that Trump would aspire to authoritarian rule once he got past the novelty stage of what started out as a celebrity candidacy in 2015.

Confessore also does a good job of explaining how Fox has overcome the problems with advertisers that Carlson has experienced, and the role played by Lachlan Murdoch, who is far more ideological and extreme than his cynical, greed-crazed father, Rupert. The Times has produced a triumph of explanatory journalism.

Joe Kahn seems unlikely to fix The New York Times’ broken political coverage

In what was surely the least surprising media news of the year, The New York Times announced Tuesday that executive editor Dean Baquet will be replaced by his deputy, Joe Kahn, this June, a few months before Baquet turns 66. The move is a clear indication that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and his family believe everything is just fine. And, in many ways, it is — the paper has a huge paying audience, great journalism and vibrant digital products.

But the political coverage is broken. Not all of it. The Times’ enterprise stories on politics grapple very well with the Republicans’ descent into insanity. But the day-to-day coverage treats the two parties as morally equivalent players rather than as a flawed but fundamentally normal Democratic Party and an insurrectionist, QAnon-poisoned Republican Party. With Kahn moving to the top of the masthead, it seems unlikely that anything is going to be done about that.

Four years ago, I wrote a piece for GBH News about what was wrong with the Times’ political coverage. Not much has changed. Kahn deserves a chance, of course, and the Times’ journalism is defined by far more than politics. Its coverage of the war in Ukraine has been nothing short of superb.

And congratulations to Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger alum Carolyn Ryan, who’s been named co-managing editor along with Marc Lacey.

An odd and very remote encounter with racism. Or was it? To be continued.

I’ve got a ton of good stuff to blog about, and I hope to get to some items over the next few days. Right now, though, I’ve got to say something about a weird experience I had yesterday.

I was on the train back to Boston, cleaning up the transcript of an interview I’d done in New Jersey, where I was reporting on a nonprofit news organization called NJ Spotlight News. I paid more than I usually do so that there would be a human set of eyes looking it over before sending it back. The quality was excellent — but there was a section in which my subject and I were talking about race. Every reference to “White” was uppercase and every reference to “black” was lowercase.

If you’ve been following changes in news style over the past few years, you know that some pretty significant shifts have been implemented. The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Boston Globe all decided to start uppercasing Black but not white. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory explained the paper’s reasoning in January 2020:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

Why not “white”? As the AP described it, “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

The Washington Post took a different position, uppercasing both “Black” and “White,” explaining, “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” That’s fine, and I suspect that at some point others may follow suit.

But referring to uppercase White people and lowercase black people is something you’d expect from the racist dark reaches of the internet. I was kind of startled to see it come from a reputable transcription service — and no, I’m not going to name them, so don’t ask. I might let them know (now I’ll have this blog post to send them), and if I get a response, I’ll tell you what they said.

The Washington Post is phasing out its once-revolutionary blue app

Forgotten but not quite gone

I was surprised — but not shocked — to discover recently that The Washington Post is phasing out its blue app, which at one time it called the “National Digital Edition.”

The app, which debuted in 2015, was an important part of the Post’s strategy during the early years of Jeff Bezos’ ownership. I wrote about it in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Available on phones and tablets, it provided readers with a colorful, magazine-like experience. The National Digital Edition was also cheaper than the Post’s other digital products; it was marketed to a national audience and omitted all news from the Washington area. That way, Washingtonians couldn’t save money by choosing the blue app unless they were willing to do without any local news.

The blue app had a lot to do with the Post’s meteoric growth in digital subscriptions, especially after the paper offered it to Amazon Prime members for free for six months, earning hosannas from a wide cross-section of media observers. Media analyst Ken Doctor, a recent guest on our “What Works” podcast, called it “potentially game-changing.”

Even as the Post was marketing the National Digital Edition, though, it continued to evolve its black app and, of course, its website. Those provided readers with a more traditional experience, including a home page, which the blue app lacked, as well as local and regional news. At some point, too, the Post abandoned its different pricing schemes. The blue app, despite its attractiveness, always seemed a bit lite, and eventually most people just moved away from it.

I hadn’t checked the blue app in ages until the past week. When I did, I got a message that said “this app soon will no longer be available” and pushing me toward the black app instead.

The National Digital Edition served its purpose, boosting paid circulation at a time when Bezos was trying to catch up quickly with The New York Times. As of last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Post’s circulation was around 2.7 million. That’s well behind the Times’ 10 million (which, to be fair, includes subscriptions to non-news products such as its cooking app and crossword puzzle), but it’s impressive nevertheless.

What The New York Times gets wrong — and right — in its editorial about free speech

Photo (cc) 2007 by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Whenever The New York Times takes on as large and amorphous an idea as freedom of expression, it quickly escalates into a war of words about the Times itself. That was certainly the case with a nearly 3,000-word editorial it posted last Friday under the headline “America Has a Free Speech Problem.”

The piece launched a thousand hot takes, many of them dripping with mockery and sarcasm. I certainly don’t agree with everything in the editorial, and I find a lot of what the critics are complaining about — especially the paper’s patented “both-sides-ism” — to be right on target. But in the spirit of contrarianism, and in recognition that this is a Major Statement by our leading newspaper, I’m at least going to take it seriously.

Read the rest at GBH News.

How events-as-journalism cast a New York Times story in a different light

It was an unremarkable story. On Jan. 26, The New York Times published a real-estate feature about Robbinsville, New Jersey, a community that has become increasingly prosperous and desirable since changing its name from Washington Township 15 years ago. But the article contained within it the kernel of an unpleasant truth that it would take a smaller news organization to highlight.

The Times story, by Dave Caldwell, included this:

A few years after the opening of the mixed-use Town Center development of shops, restaurants and residences, one of the first of its kind in the state, Amazon opened a fulfillment center in Robbinsville in 2014, and a corner of the township became a warehouse hub. So the township was able to build a high school, a municipal building and a police training facility without raising property taxes. That drew more residents and, in turn, more businesses….

The Amazon fulfillment center and other warehouses are on the eastern side of the Turnpike, providing separation from Town Center.

Pretty innocuous-sounding. But warehouse development is a hot issue in New Jersey — so hot that it was the subject of an hour-long event last Wednesday sponsored by NJ Spotlight News, one of the news organizations being tracked by Ellen Clegg and me for our book project, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Spotlight, a nonprofit that focuses on state politics and policy, merged several years ago with NJ PBS.

Events can be another way of doing journalism, and Spotlight does a lot of them. The one I attended, titled “Warehouse Growth in New Jersey: Impacts and Opportunities,” shed some unexpected light on the Times’ assertions. The keynote speaker, Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, explained it this way:

About a month ago, The New York Times had a great profile of Robbinsville and all its progress. And it gleefully pointed out that its proud warehouse development was sited far from its Town Center, as if that were some remarkable feat. What the Times didn’t mention was that Robbinsville residents enjoy all the tax benefits of those warehouses with none of their impacts. Because what they’ve managed to do is outsource them completely to Allentown and Upper Freehold, where they’ve dumped them on their border. The traffic, air pollution, crime and noise that are all centered on the residential areas of two communities that derive exactly none of their benefits that don’t stop at the municipal border. It’s a nice trick if you can manage it, and it’s Exhibit A for why we desperately need to think beyond municipal borders.

Rasmussen’s point was that regional and state governments need to regulate runaway warehouse development in New Jersey in order to prevent exactly the kind of situation that the Times praised — locating the facilities on the outskirts, where they detract from the quality of life in other communities.

Micah Rasmussen

Before sitting in on the webinar, I had no idea what an issue warehouse development is in New Jersey. I am not going to go into any details except to observe that Rasmussen and the panelists, moderated by Spotlight reporter Jon Hurdle, had plenty to talk about.

One of the panelists, Kim Gaddy, national environmental justice director of Clean Water Action and a New Jersey activist, spoke passionately about the disproportionate effects of warehouse development on communities of color.

“When we think about the proliferation of warehouses throughout our region and concentrated in Black, brown and low-wealth communities that have historically borne the brunt of this,” she said, “it is for this reason that we believe that we cannot talk about where or how warehouses are distributed but why is it that we need these facilities in the first place.”

Kim Gaddy

The rest of the panel comprised a representative from the warehouse industry; an official from the New Jersey League of Municipalities; and the executive director of New Jersey Future, a planning and land-use organization.

My purpose in attending was not to become an expert on New Jersey’s warehouse issues. Rather, I wanted to see how a small news organization makes use of events to extend its reach. The webinar itself reached nearly 250 people, and is now the subject of a story on Spotlight’s website. The discussion also provided ample material for follow-up stories.

There was nothing especially wrong with that New York Times story. But there was a lot more to it — and it takes journalism that is invested in the communities it covers to bring that to light.

A resounding double defeat for Sarah Palin may make it difficult to undo libel protections for the press

Sarah Palin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

To the extent that fading right-wing icon Sarah Palin had any strategy in pursuing her deeply flawed libel suit against The New York Times, it was this: to force a reconsideration of protections for the press that had stood for nearly 60 years, thus exacting vengeance against her tormenters in what she once infamously labeled “the lamestream media.”

It’s at least theoretically possible that could still happen. But the devastating manner in which she lost has made it less likely, not more, that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually take her up on her invitation to weaken or overturn its landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision.

First came U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff’s move on Monday to throw out the case and rule in the Times’ favor.

Rakoff was troubled by the 2017 Times editorial at the heart of the case, which claimed — falsely — that Jared Loughner, who shot then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others in 2011, had been incited by a map put together by Palin’s political action committee that depicted gunsights over Giffords’ district and those of 19 other Democrats.

“I don’t mean to be misunderstood,” Rakoff said. “I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times.” But Palin’s lawyers did not present any evidence that the error was anything other than a sloppy mistake by then-editorial page editor James Bennet, who was contrite and apologetic during his testimony.

Rakoff did not inform the jurors of his ruling, instead allowing them to move ahead with their deliberations in order to assemble a more complete record for the inevitable appeals. That only added to Palin’s humiliation, as all nine jurors voted against her when they announced their verdict on Tuesday.

“Your job was to decide the facts, my job is to decide the law,” Rakoff said. “As it turns out, they were in agreement in this case.”

Press advocates had worried that the case could substantially weaken Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 court ruling that public officials cannot win a libel suit unless they are able to show that a false, defamatory story about them was published or broadcast with “actual malice” — that is, with the knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth. That protection was later extended to public figures.

Palin is all of the above — a former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate who transformed herself into an all-purpose celebrity. A ruling in her favor would have rendered the actual-malice standard meaningless.

There are, of course, those who have railed against Times v. Sullivan for years. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump vowed he would “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

And as I’ve written previously, two Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have said they would like to revisit Times v. Sullivan. But though Thomas appears ready to overturn the decision in its entirety and return libel law to the states, Gorsuch has indicated he would take a more subtle approach. Because the Palin verdicts are so clear-cut, it may be difficult for the justices to use them as a reason to sink their fangs into the Sullivan decision.

Rakoff’s unusual two-part approach presents an additional obstacle to Palin’s hopes for winning on appeal. As David Folkenflik reported for NPR, if an appeals court were to set aside Rakoff’s verdict, the jury’s verdict would still be in effect.

Finally, the case helped demonstrate the importance of First Amendment protections even for bad journalism — which the Times’ editorial surely was. Bennet inserted language into an editorial — “the link to political incitement was clear” — that was patently false and defamatory. There was no connection between Palin’s map and the shooting of Gabby Giffords and others. (Although it would not be surprising to learn that the jury considered the fact that Palin really did publish that grossly irresponsible map.)

But the media must have the freedom to report on matters of public importance without being subjected to crippling lawsuits because of inadvertent mistakes. As Justice William Brennan wrote in the Sullivan decision, “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and … it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need … to survive.’”

So Times v. Sullivan lives — for now. Whether Palin’s lawyers will somehow be able to transform their resounding defeat into a winner on appeal remains to be seen. But a federal judge and a jury of Palin’s peers saw through her bogus complaint. For now, that’s enough.