The New York Times Turns Its Sights Away From New York City

Even as New York City subsidizes the ‘Gray Lady’ to the tune of nine figures, she’s giving less of herself to her hometown.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The New York Times is playing such a vital role in reporting the news from Washington that it seems ill-timed to point out how much it is cutting coverage devoted to another great city — its hometown.

As The Times plans further trims to its New York metro coverage—“less incremental” is the phrase they are using — it is worth noting that there has already been a startling reduction in it over time.

A check of coverage for the week starting on the last Sunday of January finds that the paper ran 48 metro stories. This is less than half of the tally for 2009 (102) and less than a third of the 153 stories in the same period in 2001 (a figure that doesn’t include metro stories in the additional Sunday suburban sections published then).

The Times is not alone in cutting down its coverage, of course. Rather, it is a high-profile example of a market-driven trend that threatens local news coverage in many places: Not only are local news staffs shrinking because of falling advertising revenue, but priorities are shifting away from local reporting to tasks that might be more profitable.

There is simply more potential web traffic in a story of national or international interest than in one targeted locally, even if local means a city as big as New York. Newsroom resources are moving accordingly, and The Times is eagerly courting a worldwide digital audience.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet has tried to make a virtue of the reduced metro desk output, saying the paper is shedding unnecessary stories in favor of bigger ones. The Times will continue to run less “incremental New York news coverage,” he said in an interview with the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd.

Or, as Times metropolitan editor Wendell Jamieson told me in an interview, “A big investigative hit is worth 100 smaller stories.”

The metro staff has indeed responded with some blockbusters, but those stories haven’t protected the section from being the target of further potential cutbacks. Baquet hinted as much in a memo to the staff last May, declaring that the paper had to find out what “makes sense given that fewer than half of our readers live in New York.”

City taxpayers, though, have a reason to resent their paper of record’s retreat from local coverage: The Times is receiving a hefty 29-year package of tax incentives to pay for its 52-story headquarters across from the Port Authority bus terminal on 8th Avenue. Its subsidy could eventually be as much as $106 million. The biggest chunk stems from an $80 million reduction in property taxes to subsidize the cost of buying land, according to city records released under the Freedom of Information Law and reported on here for the first time. The paper is also eligible for an additional $26 million in city tax breaks, and has so far collected about a third of that.

The subsidies were premised on the economic benefit the city would accrue from the development, not on any promise to cover the city thoroughly.

There were some 85 New York metro reporters back when The Times proposed the 2001 deal for its new headquarters. That allowed the paper to offer a Sunday city section filled with sprightly, well-written tales from neighborhoods in all five boroughs, and five zoned Sunday suburban sections brought Times expertise to bear on the surrounding region. On a weekday, there could be 25 metro stories in the paper – three or four times what usually appears now. Even a Saturday paper could have 15 or more stories.

But the newspaper industry headed into a prolonged advertising slump and while the deal with the city helped the paper remain in the “crossroads of the world,” Times Square, named for it, the number of reporters dedicated to covering New York has since been halved, to about 42.

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As the metro staff began to shrink, coverage of the suburbs started to disappear. The Times sought to hold off reporter layoffs, but the newsroom was hit in 2008. That’s when the paper dropped its stand-alone weekday metro section, folding it into the back of the A section. Supposedly, the space for city news was going to be maintained. It wasn’t.

Arthur S. Brisbane, then the public editor, wrote in 2011 that after the stand-alone metro section was eliminated, the space for metro news dropped by almost a third on weekdays and two-thirds on Sunday, and the zoned Sunday regional sections had been combined into one.

Jamieson, the metro editor since 2013, has said he has focused on quality over quantity as the resources dedicated to the city have continued to decline.

Various Times staffers I spoke with told me that Jamieson (a colleague of mine when we both worked at New York Newsday in the 1990s) has responded to the dismal hand that Times management is dealing to him as well as possible, given the circumstances.

In 2014, he created a metro investigative and projects team. The following year, The Times metro desk produced three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, including one entry shared with the non-profit Marshall Fund on violence against inmates in state prisons.

In-depth reporting on the criminal justice system has been exceptional. A series called “The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons” last December led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to order an investigation of whether black inmates were more likely to be punished than white ones for the same infractions. A 2013 series by William Glaberson, who has since left the paper, exposed extreme dysfunction in the Bronx courts. Two reporters, Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, won a Polk award for their reporting in 2014 on violence against detainees in the city jails, coverage that led to a Justice Department crackdown. And during the past year, a series of articles on the 40th Precinct in the Bronx highlighted the longstanding inequity in how the Police Department deploys detectives, favoring precincts in Manhattan over squads in some of the city’s most crime-prone neighborhoods.

When the metro desk offers such stories, or when a local story of national interest breaks, space is opened up. But on a typical weekday, there is not all that much local news from the nation’s largest city — six or seven stories, not counting what has always run in other sections such as business, food, arts and sports. There aren’t any brief items to make note of lesser stories, and few videos are produced for local stories. Last year, The Times killed its regional arts and restaurant coverage, a serious blow to many suburban culture programs and businesses.

Jamieson told me that when he started at the paper in 2000, it ran 34 columns of news in the metro section, which now has 18 columns. But, he suggested, in the past there were “only 18 really good columns” and that there was “a lot of dutiful reporting … We’ve tried to be more selective.”

It’s strange to argue to The Times that its stories are more important than its editors say they are. But I would not underestimate the power that even a marginal Times story carries in the news ecosystem; it tells assigning editors that the subject is important.

But something has to give when a staff is cut in half, and Jamieson acknowledged that there is a risk of missing some stories if the staff is concentrating on finding the big ones. For example, he said that not all courts are staffed, and that a smaller group of reporters circulated among them.

It’s something I’ve seen firsthand; The Times is far from a daily presence in any of the city’s courthouses.

“You’re not going to be there every time a bailiff runs in and says something’s happening in courtroom 3B,” Jamieson said.

I told Jamieson that I had compared the previous day’s Times, which had seven metro stories, to one produced on the same date in 2001. It had 21 stories and 17 brief items. Some of the stories beyond the top half-dozen seemed like good ones to me, such as a piece in advance of what was expected to be a massive police rally against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani the following day.

He told me that a long list of stories wouldn’t work well on smartphones – and much of the audience is getting its news via the mobile platform.

After we spoke, I looked more closely at some of the back-of-the-book stories published in the days when The Times covered the city more thoroughly.

Some were forgettable, as yesterday’s “incremental” news often is. But it was probably interesting to know in 2009 that the South Ferry subway station couldn’t open after a $500 million upgrade because the gap between platform and train was too wide, or that costs had ballooned for promised new parkland to replace parks that were removed to make way for the new Yankee Stadium, or that a robbery suspect was allegedly singling out Asian victims in East Harlem.

The downside to the Times’s big-story approach is seen in coverage of a fire that killed two toddlers in a Bronx public housing project last April. Spayd, the reader representative who has applauded Baquet’s strategy, built a column around it in August.

Jamieson had pointed to it as an example of the kind of story that The Times might no longer cover. It was a provocative comment, and Spayd added her own: “why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing and London?”

The answer is that in pursuing such lofty ambitions, The Times might miss a story about a systemic hazard to the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people who are tenants of the nation’s largest public housing agency — a city within the city that’s home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers – and maybe as many as 600,000, with unofficial residents included, nearly the population of Baltimore. For that is what happened in this case.

City investigators learned that a NYCHA maintenance worker at Butler Houses had been in the victims’ apartment only four hours before the fire, knew that the smoke alarm was broken but falsely reported on a work order that it was functioning. Such false reporting occurred “often” at the Housing Authority, they determined.

Times coverage of the fire contained a tantalizing hint of what the investigators later found: a story noted that the Fire Department said there were no working alarms in the unit, but that a Housing Authority spokesperson said they were working earlier in the day when a maintenance worker was in the apartment. The Times said that investigators were trying to determine what happened, and left it at that.

The city Department of Investigation issued a 34-page report on this fire in October. The Daily News and DNAInfo.com reported on it; The Times did not (except for stories that routinely appear in wire-service feeds on its website).

“By all means we should have done that,” Jamieson said. “There are no doubt risks to this approach.”

(Part two of a two-part series. Read part one, In New York City, Local Coverage Declines—and Takes Accountability With It, here.)

This article was reported with the support of the Urban Reporting Program of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. CUNY-Brooklyn College journalism students Brennen Johnson, Jhodie-Ann Williams and Aleah Winter contributed research.