Mar 7, 2021 - Economy

N.Y. Times faces culture clashes as business booms

Illustration of a newspaper with the words bleeding off the page

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New York Times columnist David Brooks' resignation from a paid gig at a think tank on Saturday is the latest in a flurry of scandals that America's biggest and most successful newspaper company has endured in the past year.

Driving the news: Brooks resigned from the Aspen Institute following a BuzzFeed News investigation that uncovered conflicts of interest between his reporting and money he accepted from corporate donors for a project called "Weave" that he worked on at the nonprofit.

  • A Times spokesperson tells Axios that the company is adding disclosures to any earlier columns in which Brooks refers to the work of Weave or its donors: "We received a full list of Weave’s donors this week."
  • The spokesperson added that Brook's managers in 2018 "approved his request to take a paid position at the Aspen Institute to found the Weave Project": "The current Opinion editors were unaware of this arrangement and have concluded that holding a paid position at Weave presents a conflict of interest for David in writing about the work of the project, its donors or the broader issues it focuses on."

Why it matters: A slew of public controversies at the Gray Lady has media insiders wondering whether The Times' commercial success has pushed the storied paper to grow faster than top leaders are able to manage culturally.

  • "For the first time in its history, The New York Times' business success has less to do with the newsroom alone, and more to do with the company's strategy," a former senior Times executive tells Axios.
  • As a result, there've been "a ton of hard calls culturally that management has not been prepared to make."

Flashback: The Times' year of reckoning started over the summer, when opinion editor James Bennet resigned following a protest from Times' employees around his decision to green-light an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton, a call some argued put Black staff in danger.

  • Following his departure, former Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss resigned from the paper, arguing "Twitter has become its ultimate editor" of The Times.
  • Most recently, The Times' veteran science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. resigned following a controversy that emerged around his use of a racial slur on a Times-sponsored trip for students in 2019.
  • His departure drew headlines, in part, for inconsistencies in how the paper's top editors approached the situation following pressure from employees.

Between the lines: The list of scandals at The Times showcases a bigger problem that The Times and other big companies are facing — employees have more power than ever to demand change.

  • "Management has much less power than it used to," the former senior Times executive said.
  • The Times today has more than 1,700 journalists and thousands of other employees in sales, marketing and other functions worldwide, rivaling the size and scope of an academic institution.
  • That, too, plays into some of the cultural clashes around how The Times and other news organizations operate. Big-name columnists have long used their tenure to accept paid gigs outside of their core roles. The line between what's acceptable and what's not is being evaluated more amid a trust crisis within the news industry.

What to watch: The Times' prominence means that it's had to battle sensitive situations around culture, race and conflicts of interest somewhat publicly. The way it handles each incident is being watched closely by other media and corporate executives facing similar issues at their own institutions.

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