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Failing NYT? Newsroom Mood ‘Poisonous’

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The New York Times is set to undergo another round of buyouts in the coming weeks, demoralizing journalists and creating a deep unease in the publication’s newsroom, according to Vanity Fair.

“The mood at the paper is poisonous in a way I’ve never seen it in the past 15 years,” one editor told Vanity Fair’s Mike Pompeo. “Every buyout is tense, but there’s something really demoralizing about this one that’s been worse than any before.”

The buyouts are offered primarily to editors, but others on staff can also apply. If not enough employees apply for buyouts, the NYT will turn to layoffs. This is the sixth round of buyouts offered since 2008. In 2014, the Times was forced to layoff employees after not enough volunteered for the buyout.

These most recent buyouts are the second round in almost as many months. However, this round is part of an even bigger shift towards restructuring time-honored editorial and journalistic protocols, leaving many at the NYT feeling “obsolete.”

The purpose for the restructuring is to streamline the copy editing desk and acquiesce more to the digital age. “The Times continues its shift from a legacy print operation to a more digitally focused newsroom,” the paper reported in May.

For many decades, the NYT’s editorial standards and long-established voice have been enforced through the important copy desk, whose salience was as imperative to the NYT’s identity as the reporters, writers, and editors. It provided the traditional desk structure for multiple people to review every story, molding and shaping them to align with the NYT’s signature tone that “makes the Times the Times,” according to Pompeo.

The copy desk will no longer exist as a free-standing entity, and the remaining editors, after buyouts and layoffs, will be subsumed into other departments like politics, sports and culture.

newsroom study issued in January at the NYT led to the new changes and hit the copy editors especially hard, affecting newsroom morale. Multiple people at the NYT described the implementation of the process as “cold.” Some of the criticisms in the report included:

“Every story feels like a fire hydrant — it gets passed from dog to dog, and no one can let it go by without changing a few words.”

“Hire editors and reporters who don’t need to have their hands held. Honestly, how can we still afford to have five editors arguing for hours over a routine day story? The print mentality still rules the newsroom, from the top down.”

“There is too much editing on the copy desks, where editors are adhering to a style that is increasingly becoming far too rigid for the Times.”

The NYT’s streamlined system will resemble many web-first news outlets, requiring editors to maintain structure, but also focus on social media presentation.

Someone intimately involved in the project told Pompeo that “in the old model, each story got two-and-a-half edits; in the new model, each story gets one-and-a-half edits, with more emphasis on a story’s digital presentation as opposed to its placement in the print edition.”

The NYT’s digital subscriptions are on the rise, netting an all-time record of 308,000 new digital-only subscriptions in the most recent quarter, accompanied by a 19 percent gain in digital ad revenue in May. Problem is, it’s not enough to offset the loss of an industry decline in print advertising.

However, the restructuring isn’t relegated to their journalistic methodology. The New York Times building itself is also changing, shrinking from 20 floors to just 12 floors, leaving only the highest-ranking editors with private offices. The purpose, according to Pompeo, is to “free up valuable leasing space that could help offset a dramatic print-advertising fallout that’s been plaguing the Times for the past 10 years.”

The shake-up at the NYT is not without plenty of criticism. Grant Glickson, the president of the NewsGuild of New York who represents NYT employees, saidthat the buyouts are “devastating for our members and grave news for the state of journalism.”

“These Guild members don’t simply correct comma splices; they protect the integrity of the brand,” Glickson said in a statement. “They are the watchdogs that ensure that the truth is told.”

The buyouts have also conjured concerns over the “the puzzling lack of African-Americans in the management ranks at the Times under [first black Executive Editor] Dean [Baquet],” one source told Vanity Fair. News of prominent black editor LaSharah Bunting taking a buyout comes on the heels of departures by illustrious black journalists Lydia Polgreen, Dana Canedy and Simone Oliver.

Reporters and editors organized a walkout June 29 in a show of solidarity for what they view as “the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times,” copy editors wrote in a missive to Baquet. “We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed.”

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