The New York Times International Edition: 1887–2016?

Updated.

For most of the twentieth century, it was known as the International Herald Tribune, and it was the go-to newspaper for Americans in Europe. It was so iconic, and so central to the American experience abroad that it had a cameo in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Founded in 1887, it became a joint venture of the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1967, keeping its headquarters in Paris. Several years ago, the Times became the sole owner, and a few years later, it renamed the paper the International New York Times. Good luck finding it now.

Yesterday’s New York Times International Edition

Last night, Roy Greenslade of the Guardian, following up on a press release, wrote:

Overnight, the International New York Times has become The New York Times International Edition. The change of title is accompanied by a new design, additional news content and more analysis.
It represents an attempt by the New York Times Company to see whether, at a time of digital growth, the newspaper can retain, and even expand, its newsprint audience.

The Guardian article caught my attention, because I’d been trying to reach the Times for a few weeks, in order to figure out why the International Edition, as accessed through the Times app, was increasingly seeming indistinguishable from the US Edition (the big tip-off was a “Top Story”, under the International New York Times banner, entitled, “How To Get Home After the Hoboken Train Crash”). I eventually realized that whatever was selecting “Top Stories” for the International Edition on the app, be it an algorithm or a human being, it was identical to algorithm or human selecting top stories for US readers.

Yesterday morning, I checked my app settings, and sure enough, they’d been jiggered with: I was now set to receive the US edition. What was strange, however, was that the international edition had been removed from the app altogether: I had the choice of reading either the US edition, or NYT en Español.

I went to the website, where I saw that the International Edition site was still live, but that, except for an ad banner, it was identical to the US edition. This was highly unlikely to be a bug. The mobile app and the website almost certainly have very different codebases, and it would take concerted effort to simultaneously change both a settings toggle on the mobile app and the layout code on the web app.

Yesterday’s New York Times US Edition. Notice that the international edition (above) is identical

I took a couple of screenshots, emailed the Times Public Editor (a kind of ombudsman), and the digital support team. I had a hard time believing it: had the International Edition, a few months shy of its 140th birthday, been silently killed off in an app update?

The Times has a talented media affairs reporter who had no obvious contact address; I copied my question to him in a Facebook message (we don’t know one another, but he’s searchable). Having put out three feelers, I then went about my day as one of the 95% of people in the world who don’t live within the borders of the United States.

That evening, the carefully-drafted reply I got from the Times customer service division, not long before the Guardian story was published, was so different from the Guardian’s take that if it weren’t for the fact that they both referred to the Times, I would have thought they were talking about different papers. Gone was the reference to the new name, and increased investment in the international edition, as well as the desire to see if it could be financially independent:

There will no longer be separate international section fronts. All of the International content that you enjoy will be featured within Top Stories and throughout the print, web and app experience. To find a specific article or author from the International Edition, please use the search bar within the NYTimes app or visit NYTimes.com.

It’s a pretty clear bet that if the 6 out of 7 human beings on the planet who don’t live in Europe can’t subscribe to the International Edition (because they can’t get print delivery), the paper has a pretty small window toward turning a profit. The Times seems to assuming for now that people who live in neither Europe nor the United States are more interested in the latest news on the contractual relationship between Billy Bush and the American network NBC than they are in, um, any international news. It’s an interesting gamble.

Headwinds and Swarms.

A newspaper is like a hundred-year-old axe: with the way the news changes every day, it’s always getting either a new handle or a new head, but somehow it’s the same axe. The Times, with its big T, has changed with the small-t times better than a lot of other papers. Most American newspapers shuttered the last of their international bureaus in the first decade of this century. It’s been a hard time: they used to provide a bundle of content, the value of each piece of which could not easily be disaggregated. Then came the internet, where what matter are page views and click throughs. These days, the gestalt of an authoritative news outlet means doodley sqat if you can’t demonstrate that most of its articles get visited more often than a free condom jar in a college dorm on homecoming weekend.

What media companies are learning is that a great way to drive clicks is with hard-hitting investigative journalism, the kind where you’ve got a reporter not publishing much on a day-to-day basis, before bringing the big one into dock for a huge payday like Hemingway’s old man tried to do. To keep clicks staying around, as soon as they land the big story, they blanket it, publishing dozens of individual pieces, each of which looks at it from slightly different angles. The Times increasingly swarms its reporters to a story. If you’ve visited the paper’s website recently, you know what it looks like.

There’s been an interesting debate recently about whether such swarming fuels things like the sense that Donald Trump is a serious candidate; defenders of the Times and other outlets note that the coverage is often nuanced and detailed, negative exactly when it needs to be, and often not given close attention by readers.

What makes this debate so interesting is that it brings us back more than 40 years, to when network news was in its heyday. If I recall the anecdote correctly — it’s in David Broder’s Behind the Front Page, and my copy, which I’ve not read in years, is thousands of miles away — a CBS news anchor was surprised to get a call from the Reagan White House thanking her for her coverage; she asked why, noting that her piece was unremittingly negative. “Watch your clip again with the sound off” was the answer she got, and she did: all she saw was Reagan smiling, and crowds cheering.

People who say that the news media is not responsible for helping shape the debate because consumers don’t pay close attention are wrong for the right reason: few people actually read the news; but most people know what’s in the news.

The twenty-first century version of watching network news with the sound off is scrolling across a web page, or through a tweet deck or a newsfeed, only clicking on a handful of articles, and reading few of even those articles all the way through.

An editor in the spring of 2016 may think she’s highlighting Trump’s problems, but she’s just confirming that he’s the person in America most worth receiving attention: more than anyone who might ever beat him in an election.

The New York Times may think that it’s providing corrective coverage to the challenges identified by Black Lives Matter, but it’s just reinforcing that any black man who is not president has really only two paths to being the subject of a top story these days: saying something about Donald Trump, or being killed at the hands of police (or being closely linked to someone who was).

No one seriously following the news believes Trump’s statement in the first American presidential debate that all American blacks live in inner cities and die like it’s a war zone. But if you’re pressed for time, and you don’t read to the end of all the articles in your feed, then you’re a twenty-first century kid watching the network with its sound off, and you might not realize that Clinton was right: black communities in America are vibrant places these days, even as they’re beset by serious and dangerous problems that must be addressed.

Any Times writer or serious reader will tell you that the concern about Ebola in America during the fall of 2014 was hyperventilating and ill-informed; it’s possible to put a lot of this on politicians running for office at the time, and partisan news networks. But it’s not like the Times helped. In 2014, a person living in West Africa was more likely to die of diarrhea than of Ebola, but the Times boasts of its swarm approach to the epidemic:

To convey the scale of the outbreak, The Times has mobilized dozens of reporters, photographers, video journalists and others over the last year, producing more than 400 articles, including about 50 front-page articles from inside the Ebola-afflicted countries.

In this serious and judicious outlet, Ebola completely swamped any other news from the continent; anyone who didn’t have enough time to read, from end to end, the exact proper sample of those four hundred articles, could well have come away with the mistaken impression that the end of the world might be at hand, and the outbreak was dominating the continent.

Swarm coverage and investigative journalism drives clicks. Now, boring stuff like a president’s son who gets named to head a national utility company, the rise of locally-grown mobile technology expertise in unexpected places, bursts of rapid inflation in otherwise quiet countries: these are the sort of things that don’t drive clicks. They add up to a gestalt, though, so that readers are not blindsided when something happens.

The swarm model is the opposite of gestalt: the newspaper had no one there when the pot was simmering, but now that it’s boiling over and the chef has second-degree burns all over his face, they’ll have someone there lickety-split to tell you how this came to be. And if you swarm enough talented people around enough big questions, you’ll win awards: the Times has been handsomely rewarded by the Pulitzer committee for its swarm coverage of Ebola and of the European migrant crisis.

No one will give you an award for accurately charting the myriad slow and meaningful currents that flow throughout the world.

What’s more, you need to have a good financial basis to be able to support swarm coverage. This gets back to why the Times is making it so that people outside Europe have no choice but to subscribe to the US edition: the US edition likely belongs to the expensive business unit where all those swarmers are based; it needs to have a healthy balance sheet to support its operations, international readers be damned.

One Day My Prince Will Come.

Research for this piece turned up an old bit of news only glancingly touched on by the Guardian’s article, and left entirely out of the customer letter. The Times does intend to eventually increase its international footprint; the international edition is just not a significant part of that effort (presumably the Times figures that the world is so transfixed by the American presidential election that a few months without a serious international option won’t be noticed by anyone). Jessica Davies reported last month in Digiday (oh, how the media landscape is changing):

“We have an ambition to develop and generate more international subscriptions, and we want to invest in customizing the web and app products for readers around the world,” said Jean-Christophe Demarta, The New York Times’ svp of global advertising. “Currently, someone in Tokyo sees the same product as someone in Sydney. Although our news is very international facing, you could also argue the product is very American, so we need to make adjustments.”
The 150-year-old brand’s global reputation in Europe is excellent. But like any news business expanding internationally, it’s typically limited to expats or professionals for whom a U.S. angle is relevant — a challenge it will need to overcome to grow, according to Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis.
“The international edition does not yet transcend those limitations,” he said. “Clearly, events such as the forthcoming U.S. election will make the NYT, and other U.S. media, more relevant to more people, but on an ongoing basis, its appeal and necessity will be relatively niche.”

Now, it’s not clear how making people in Tokyo and and Sydney get the same news as people in Trenton, New Jersey really solves the problem. Indeed, you can probably expect the Times to continue to weigh its interest (on the one hand) in having its domestic edition be as robust and well-funded as possible, with its interest (on the other) in having international news that people are likely to turn to.

Presumably, it looked at the possibility of going head-to-head with the BBC and the Economist for providing world news in English, and thought that its chances were slim. Instead, it’s likely to eventually go the way of Google Search, with a global brand that makes you feel that you’re getting something authoritative, and a delivery mechanism which makes it very hard to break out of the regionalist or interest-level block in which you’re assigned (there’s a Canadian Briefing these days, Davies writes).

For now, if you want to support international news from the New York Times today, the best — indeed only — way to do so is to move to Europe and become a print subscriber. The Guardian notes in its article,

In a letter addressed to readers, the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Junior, wrote: “We know that in this digital era you get your news from many sources. But we also know that our international readers still crave the depth and breadth of a newspaper.”

According to the customer service letter,

To find a specific article or author from the International Edition, please use the search bar within the NYTimes app or visit NYTimes.com.

As of this writing, Sulzberger’s letter to readers is not to be found in the New York Times app or on its website. It’ll get better. It’s got to do.

Update.

The press release, including Sulzberger’s article, is now available here. After I sent a link to this piece to the Public Editor’s office, they first sent a two-sentence reply, confirming the “rebranding”, and pointing to an article based on the news by Nieman Lab; the article confirms that in the future, the Times digital news offering will be “geotargeted”: “the paper promises some degree of geotargeted personalization, so readers in Asia might see a different story mix than readers in Europe”, based on IP address.

In a second message, the Public Editor’s office wrote,

One point I failed to mention in the first email is that The Times has invested $50 million into expanding its international coverage (you can read about this initiative here, if you are interested). So if you fear reduced international coverage, I would wager that, even though this change might make it look like The Times is reducing its coverage, in fact, the coverage will only be improving over the next few years. Stay tuned! And, of course, as you note, the public editor’s office will be paying close attention to these developments.

In the end, we’re left with more detail, but not a significantly altered situation: the New York Times eliminated its internationally-focused digital product without prior notice to subscribers, instead substituting its domestically-focused product; it remains impossible for digital subscribers to select into English-language coverage other than that provided to domestic audiences.

Furthermore, the paper was unresponsive to inquiries about the change for weeks. At the same time, it has confirmed its commitment to relaunch international products eventually, and to do so with appropriate fanfare when the time comes.

There is still no information on why it was thought a good idea to nix a product digital subscribers had paid for without telling them in advance that it was doing so. (2016/10/15)