“I think of The Times reader as very-well educated, worldly and likely affluent.” Dean Baquet, Executive Editor, The New York Times
The “affluent” part of Baquet’s quote seems to trouble some of the paper’s readers and was the subject of its public editor’s column on November 9: “Pricey Doughnuts, Pricier Homes, Priced-Out Readers,” (Sunday Review, p.12). Has our national “paper of record” become a voice primarily to the rich? Has it always been so, or has the ravaging rise of income inequality priced The Times out of middle-and-working class readership? And has The Times made attempts to keep readers from those segments of our population? (Did it ever have much of a readership in them is a question that should have been but was not asked.)
Margaret Sullivan, public editor, cites two letters from readers that prompted her to dig into the issue within the paper and on November 9 in her column. The first, from a reader in Maine, referred to ads for high-priced items in the daily editions but overwhelmingly in its style sections and magazine (T Magazine): “$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.”
A Washington D.C. reader wrote that the paper “caters to upper-middle-class white cosmopolitan elites while being profoundly out of touch culturally and politically with most of America.” Times readers sounding like Fox News talking heads! But do they make a valid point? Sullivan took their case to Dean Baquet, who agreed that the paper’s readers likely are affluent, but added that among them are “as many college professors as Wall Street bankers.”
That was not a satisfactory answer. The college professors of our elite universities, from Cambridge to Palo Alto, live privileged lives in privileged communities in “exchange for high-quality insights in fields ranging from marketing to finance, technology and entertainment,” as Robert Reich observed. They are much like the “brain workers” of the Silicon Valley, contributors to our technical, industrial and promotional corporate enterprise. As the other “professionals” in the enterprise, lawyers, accountants and physicians, they share with the owners “a smug contempt for the demographically inferior.” The adjunct faculty types, racing from low paying position at one community college to another, likely cannot afford The Times nor have the time to read it. ($2.50 for a copy at the newsstand and $ 878 annually for seven-days-a-week home delivery here in St. Louis.)
The two letter-writers understood what Baquet doesn’t address. His second line of defense is that the paper does not only feature stories about $6 million apartments on the Upper West Side or the frantic efforts of residents there to get their kids into the “right” private school, but also about people “struggling to get by.” It does, and some of those stories are excellent, as were these two earlier this year: “50 Years Later, Hardship Hits Back: Poorest Counties Are Still Losing the War on Want” on April 21, and “U.S Middle Class No Longer World’s Richest,” just two days later.
But here’s the rub. Who’s reading these articles? As Times columnist Ginia Bellafante pointed out in Sullivan’s column: “Every affluent person in New York and every big city and its fancy suburbs reads The Times and they always have.” Did others, middle-class types and blue-collar workers ever read the paper, even when it sold for 5 cents and I first read it in 1949, half a year after coming to America as a refugee from Austria and Switzerland? I don’t recall too many on the Subway or in the pizza parlor on Brooklyn’s 13th Avenue. My teachers read it, but the guys who looked like construction workers or plumbers read the Daily Mirror or Daily News in the morning (3 cents a copy) and maybe The Post or Journal-American on the way home after work.
The Times, in those days, was the paper for white men in suits and secretaries who worked in publishing in Manhattan, it seemed to me, and for intellectuals or artists I had not yet seen or met. It didn’t seem to matter then, so why does it now?
Precisely for the reasons the two letters to Sullivan make clear: in a country turning into a two-tiered society, is “the paper of record” content to speak to the upper tier only, to the famous “1%” and the 10% or 15% professional and managerial class, to the “elite” class in those “fancy suburbs” and gated communities?
That, I agree, is not the paper’s “highest purpose,” as Sullivan concludes. But its lesser purposes, revealed in the Thursday and Sunday Style sections and in the 200-pages glossy T Magazines, often overwhelm how some readers, expecting a newspaper to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” see The Times.
Take the recent full-page ads about the New York Times International Luxury Conference coming to Miami on December 1-3. There the co-chairs of the meeting, Editor in Chief of T Magazine Deborah Needleman and Vanessa Friedman, Times Fashion Director, will explore “how the fields of art, fashion and technology can be utilized and maximized to enhance the unique value of luxury companies and products.”
Tom Wolfe, in a review of a biography of British photographer Cecil Beaton in The Times in 1986 characterized what PEOPLE (founded in 1974) and now T Magazine stand for: “We live in the epochal moment of plutography, which is the great new American vice…Plutography is the graphic depiction of the lives of the rich.” The vice settled in deeper in the 1990s and is the pleasure T magazine—the logo T Needleman wrote “stands for The Times as a whole” –now offers its affluent and self-absorbed readers.
George Salamon taught German at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth and Smith colleges, served as reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review and now writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, New Verse News and Jewish Currents.