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The Changing Times

A deputy managing editor of the New York Times talks about the future of truth and why who is included in the story matters so much.
by Susan Hutton

This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

It is the summer of 2017 and Rebecca Blumenstein, a deputy managing editor of the New York Times, is wondering what is going to happen next. “Everything is changing,” she says, ”from trade policy to taxes to healthcare to social safety nets to relationships with almost every country in the world. Companies’ relationships with the government are changing, and the very notion of whether GM should even have plants in Mexico is being challenged. Retail is falling apart because Amazon is so successful. It’s just a giant story and I feel, like many others, supercharged by it.

“And if you’re a political reporter now,” she adds, “it’s just an endurance test. Rarely has one seen such an intense news cycle last for so long. We are following bigger stories than we’ve seen in many, many years.”

Blumenstein speaks from experience. After four years at the Michigan Daily, including one in which she was editor-in-chief, Blumenstein began her career as a political reporter covering county government at the Tampa Tribune. An economics major in the Residential College, she moved on to Gannett Newspapers and Newsday before joining the Detroit bureau of the Wall Street Journal to cover General Motors. She stayed with the Journal for more than 20 years, covering technology and telecommunications before becoming the paper’s China Bureau Chief. She continued to climb the ranks until she became the Journal’s deputy editor-in-chief, a position she held until this year when she joined the New York Times.

To manage the steady onslaught of news, consumers are increasingly returning to an old reliable guide: the front page of the daily paper. Digital or physical, the front page curates and organizes the superabundance of stories, and they’re stories people want to read. In the first quarter of 2017, the Times added 300,000 new subscribers. The Columbia Journalism Review and the Wall Street Journal have seen upticks in their paid support, too. “It crystallizes our job,” Blumenstein says, “simply do journalism that’s good enough that you’re willing to pay for it.”

Photo by Walling McGarrity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Public Distrust

The trail leading up to many major news stories is strewn with missteps. In Newtown, Connecticut, Ryan Lanza was initially identified as the gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School when it was actually his brother Adam. Days after the Boston Marathon bombing, mainstream news organizations widely reported that a suspect had been taken into custody when, as it turned out, no one had been. Reporting errors have always happened. In 1917, news radio reports relayed fake telegraphs that declared the Titanic was still sailing. And who can forget the notorious edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune that trumpeted Truman’s defeat?

Breaking a fast-moving news story is a snarly, complicated business. It requires piecing together facts and trying to confirm them beneath monstrous pressure to get the story out fast. Reporting errors certainly undercut the media’s credibility, but these days earning readers’ confidence relies on more than reporting chops.

Decades of polarized politics, fortified by a bitter presidential campaign, have made it possible for citizens to live inside their own partisan bubbles that often come equipped with their own sets of facts. While news organizations work to provide the public with accurate accounts, social media works to develop algorithms to give users more of what they want, quietly curating what appears in their newsfeed to reinforce what they already believe — whether it’s true or not.

“There’s a lot that’s been said about fake news, and people have even gone so far as to ask what is the use of facts,” Blumenstein says. “But facts do not belong to some bygone era. I think that’s a dangerous game. News organizations have to remain committed to facts.”

Fake news played an important role in the 2016 presidential election. There was the fake news story that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS, and the one that said the Pope endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential election. On Facebook, top fake news stories engaged users almost two million times.

Gallup, Pew, and Quinnipiac University have all conducted polls that show Americans’ trust in the media has steadily declined since the mid-1970s – and Republicans’ faith in the media has declined faster than Democrats’. Gallup’s most recent poll, conducted during the 2016 presidential election, showed that Americans’ confidence in the media had hit a record low 32 percent; among Republicans, it was an abysmal 14 percent.

“I’m struck by, whenever there’s a big news event, how half of what you see on social media is right and half of it is wrong,” Blumenstein says. “People can end up inside their Facebook bubble or their Twitter bubble and stay inside them ad infinitum.

“The social media platforms are having a reckoning now,” she adds. “They need to develop new algorithms to help root out things that aren’t true. It’s a huge problem.”

Obviously, truth is important. Blumenstein believes the truth not only means fidelity to events. It also includes where they happened and what they mean to the people involved. She believes this even more strongly since the pundits, pollsters, and media got the 2016 presidential election so wrong.

“There is a division in this country that the election laid bare,” she says. “I think it is more incumbent on us than ever to try to represent as diverse a set of concerns as possible that extends to different kinds of people and to economic issues. There is certainly a distrust of the news media borne out of the fact that people feel they haven’t been represented adequately.”

Adequate representation is an old issue for Blumenstein — one she has wrestled with since her time at Michigan.

 

Blumenstein talks to Planning Editor Brian Fidelman on the New York Times news floor. She considers the Michigan Daily one of the most significant training grounds of her career. Photo by Walling McGarrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Code Dread

Since the 1960s, when Tom Hayden was an activist and an editor of the Daily, students at the University of Michigan had worried about a possible code of conduct that would regulate their behavior outside the classroom. There had been talk of such a code for years. The administration had floated some ideas and proposals, but nothing had stuck.

“It was a core mission at the Daily to fight the code or any attempt to regulate conduct outside of the classroom,” Blumenstein explains. “But then in 1987 there were some particularly ugly racist incidents on campus that everyone found quite upsetting. The administration took the concern about racial speech and the concern about the code of conduct and used it as an excuse to impose a code on racist speech. And this was a twist nobody saw coming.”

Blumenstein was editor at the Daily when, in 1988, the code of non-academic conduct — one of the first in the country — was finally imposed. The code prohibited behavior that “stigmatizes or victimizes” minorities or “creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment.” It split the Daily in two. Some wanted to use the code to fight campus racism; others remained staunchly anti-code. The code was taken to court and was ruled unconstitutional in 1989. That took care of the code problem, but not the problem of racism on campus.

“It’s obviously a very stubborn problem,” Blumenstein says, “and a good portion of it concerns representation. African American students were about four percent of the student population when I was there,” she says, “and I don’t think it is much higher now.” African American students made up 4.5 percent of the 2016 entering class.

Blumenstein thinks the election results that surprised so many news organizations have been a real wake-up call to the industry. “It is so important for news organizations to represent the whole country — not just the coasts — and to be able to earn trust.”

The Wall Street Journal, which ran a series of stories from communities that had lost factory jobs to China, did a better job representing the country than most news organizations, Blumenstein says. To many people living in the Midwest and in the Rust Belt, such business reporting is vital. It takes on issues such as pay, work, and health insurance —the bread-and-butter discussions people have every night at the dinner table.

“A lot of people feel that no one talked to them and no one really addressed their concerns as much as Donald Trump did,” she says, “and I think that’s pretty valid.

“People need to learn and be challenged by those who they don’t agree with all the time,” she continues. “It somehow feels like the value of that discourse has disappeared from the conversation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Walling McGarrity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blumenstein and her husband, author Alan Paul (A.B. 1988), on the cover of the fashion issue of the Daily’s Weekend MagazineCourtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library.

Paper Scraps and Podcasts

Blumenstein’s first year at the Michigan Daily was the last year reporters put the paper together with typewriters, paper scraps, and glue.

“We would rip pieces of paper apart, glue them back together, and send them downstairs,” she says. “They would be typed up by typesetters who hopefully could read our chicken scratch over our bad typing and put it on the page.

“It was pretty old school.”

During her four years at the Daily, the paper turned from typewriters to computers. An Associated Press machine arrived in the newsroom and spat out wire copy and photos from around the world.

In the more than two decades that have followed, the change technology has brought to journalism is staggering. Today a news story can be told with words, interactive graphics, videos, audio, podcasts, or snaps (the things you make on Snapchat). “In that sense, journalism has completely changed,” Blumenstein says, “though, fundamentally, reporting has not.”

However it’s delivered, Blumenstein believes the value of original reporting has never been higher, nor has the importance of trusted news organizations to show up on big stories and to report them out.

“There’s no way you can sit out a story like the Trump presidency,” she says. “It is our obligation to cover these stories and bring home some of the things that are happening both in America and abroad — to really do journalism that tells people things they didn’t know, that challenges their beliefs, and that uncovers wrongdoing and holds the powerful to account.”

Blumenstein is particularly excited about a new endeavor coming out of the Times’s newsroom: a podcast called the Daily, in which journalists talk to each other about news events and reporting, and try to bring listeners inside the process. Listeners might hear conversations with coal miners or with a woman whose daughter was murdered by a man about to be executed on death row. Blumenstein applauds the Daily’s commitment to presenting different sides of the story. Listeners like it, too. As of July 2017, the Daily has been downloaded or streamed more than 40 million times, and it averages 500,000 new downloads and streams a day.

That’s a lot of people, and that very high profile is something Blumenstein is always careful to keep in mind. A story that runs on the New York Times site can garner two or three million page views — a formidable responsibility to get the facts straight.

“You have to be very cognizant of it, and to be as careful and fair as possible knowing that a lot of people are going to see the story,” she says.

It’s a time of great opportunity, but Blumenstein admits it can also be overwhelming. Though she only joined the Times in February, she’s excited to be there during a time when readers have a real sense of urgency and are using the Times as a guide through a changing and complicated world.

“We feel like we have a front-row seat to history right now, and the readers are coming along. There’s a lot of industry changes, and the story’s moving fast. It’s just a wild ride,” she says, “but it feels like a very important one right now.”
 

 

 

Blumenstein and her husband, author Alan Paul (A.B. 1988), on the cover of the fashion issue of the Daily’s Weekend Magazine. Courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library.

 

 

 

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Release Date: 10/20/2017
Category: Alumni
Tags: Economics; Residential College; LSA Magazine; Susan Hutton