Stefan Geens on the New York Times

Stefan Geens, once a journalist himself, really ought to know better. He’s

just published a bizarre essay

on his website, which alternates between bog-standard European superciliousness

("Go ahead," he tells the New York Times, "become openly slanted,

crusading, editorial, the way that European papers are") and utter idiocy

(the Wall

Street Journal "is clearly thriving where the NYT is stagnant").

It’s not entirely clear what Stefan’s point is, beyond the fact that he likes

the Journal more than the Times. But his arguments are ridiculous. "How

is a newspaper supposed to compete these days?" he asks, apropos of the

World Wide Web. "The New York Times a while ago decided to compete by becoming

more like that other unquestionably compelling toilet read, The New Yorker,

with long meandering articles that go in-depth in ways that Reuters and AP do

not." He says this in response to my

article on reporting simple news, but he gets his chronology completely

wrong. The long meandering articles predate the rise of news websites, and are

much more the product of American journalistic self-importance than they are

of a need to compete with cyberjournalism.

If Stefan can trot out tired old canards like the one about the way in which

American newspapers should embrace an editorial viewpoint, then I can rehearse

the old observation that most American newspapers don’t, in fact, compete with

anybody at all, and that this is why they’re often so dry and puffed-up. European

newspapers are nearly all national, while US newspapers have metropolitan monopolies:

the New York Times in New York, the Boston Globe in Boston, and so on. Very,

very few cities have real competition between newspapers, which means that both

readers and advertisers are stuck with one paper. This is not, quite obviously,

a recipe for innovation.

What does happen, on the other hand, is that journalists start to write not

with their readers in mind, but looking more towards higher notions such as

Posterity and the Fourth Estate. Only in America would a major

motion picture be made about a scandalette in which a magazine journalist

was caught inventing stories. I shan’t belabor the point, as Anthony

Lane has made it much better than I ever could. But in a nutshell, American

journalists, at least in their own minds, are a pillar of the constitution,

while the Brits are writing tommorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapping.

In any case, for what it’s worth, I agree that there’s no such thing as objective

journalism, and that it’s better to embrace that fact and be opinionated than

it is to fight it and desperately attempt to tread an inoffensive middle ground

at all times. But that’s where I part ways with Geens. For one thing, he seems

to think that it would be a reaslly good idea were the Times to write long-form

articles: he even tells the mandarins on 43rd Street "to poach some of

those editors at The New Yorker". In order to back up this assertion, he

points to the popularity of the Journal’s Middle


This is simply confused. For one thing, the Middle Column is closer to the

New Yorker’s short-but-perfectly-formed Talk of the Town pieces than it is to

the heavier, longer features. There’s one Middle Column story per day, and it

provides an oasis of light relief amidst the relentless dullness of the rest

of the paper. While the New Yorker rises or falls on the strength of its long-form

journalism, the Journal’s strength is its business reporting, which is generally

written in a very straightforward manner.

So it’s ironic, then, that Stefan says that "writing short straight news

is a recipe for decline into irrelevancy" at the same time as praising

the very organ which does short straight news better than anybody else.

But that’s not the only way in which Stefan is dreadfully confused. His statement

that the Journal is "is clearly thriving where the NYT is stagnant"

is linked to a story

in the Wall Street Journal about the newspaper industry’s twice-yearly circulation

report. In it, we find that daily circulation for US newspapers was up 0.2%.

The New York Times outperformed, rising by 0.5% – more than twice the

average – while the Wall Street Journal underperformed, rising by, um,


What the Journal did do, however, was start adding 290,412 of the paying subscribers

to its website to its circulation figures; it was this one-off statistical sleight-of-hand

which gave the surely completely objective Matthew Rose the ability to lead

his story with his own paper’s "16% circulation gain".

Of course, those 290,412 subscribers at $79 a year for the website only –

or even the 686,000 people with access to the Journal’s webiste at all –

are a mere fraction of the 9,109,000 unique visitors that got in

September. Stefan’s

all over himself praising the Journal for being "merely a record of the

state of the newsroom’s reporting efforts at the end of the day," when

in fact many more people read the Times on an intraday basis than keep abreast

of what the Journal is reporting to its select group of subscribers.

By this point, Geens has pretty much lost the plot entirely. He criticises

the vaguely-liberal Times editorial page for being more strident than it should

be, in the same breath as saying that the Economist "smudges the line between

informing and opining in ways American media should emulate". Surely, the

Belgian is the only person on the planet who thinks that the New York Times

editorial page is more strident than the editorials which constitute the beginning

– and the front cover – of every issue of the Economist.

We shall pass over without comment Stefan’s discovery that "wifi plus

laptop actually makes for great toilet reading". But at least today’s newspaper

can be dragooned into a vital secondary purpose in the case of emergency; Stefan’s

verbiage, unfortunately, cannot, despite being much better suited to the task.

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One Response to Stefan Geens on the New York Times

  1. Stefan Geens says:

    Nevermind the personal invective, what arguments can we cull from this Tourettic spectacle?

    1. The WSJ is full of “relentless dullness”.

    2. This relentless dullness is made up of straight news.

    3. The NYT is doing better than the WSJ.

    Therefore, The NYT should start writing more straight news articles like the WSJ. Brilliant analytics, Felix.

    But in any case, I disagree with your postulates. Let me (re)count the ways (:

    1. As I wrote, the WSJ is a unique case. As the daily catechism of high finance, it can ask for and receive tithes from its online coreligionists. This allows it to count online subscriptions in circulation figures. To deny them that is like disallowing DVD sales towards gross film revenues because it is a “new” medium.

    2. I never said the longer stories in the NYT were a reaction to cyberjournalism, but that they are an ongoing response to a much broader crowding of the news market, from radio, newsreels, television and now the web. Yes, crusading and investigative journalism has become a hallmark of papers, because they see it as their niche. And they are right.

    3. Read by Daniel Pearl, and tell me again where it belongs in the New Yorker.

    4. “European newspapers are nearly all national.” Only in the UK and France, but for you that must be Europe. European papers are city-based, and where one city dominates the national landscape, then they are also national. Barcelona vs Madrid, Rome vs Milan, Berlin vs. Frankfurt, Brussels vs Antwerp all make a lie of your blanket statement.

    5. “US newspapers have metropolitan monopolies: the New York Times in New York…” I’d call that utter idiocy but then you’d still be at my level. Clearly, the NYT has competition.

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