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October 5, 2003

Times Web Editor Goes to Harvard in Search of Something

The Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times on the Web says he may be ready to try more weblogs, if he can figure out the right ones.

Cambridge, Mass: Oct. 5, 2003…. “I came here to get an idea of how we can do this,” said Len Apcar, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times on the Web. The “this” was the form we’re gathered in now, the modern weblog. Like hundreds of others, Apcar had come to Blogger.con, a conference featuring leading webloggers, front line troops, and assorted apostles, put on by the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. It ended today.

Apcar had asked himself a disciplined question; in fact, the type of question outsiders to the Times rarely know how to ask. Not, “what would be a cool weblog to see in the New York Times?” which is fun but too easy. Rather: which version of the emergent thing might actually work, even flourish, within the relatively cautious editorial environment and weighty decision machinery that Apcar contends with at the Times? Factor in all the talent one could tap…. but to do what? Plus all the competition that could be unleashed…but competition at what? Plus the subtle politics of moving into it. Plus the fact that the Times will take risks, but only up to a point. Have any ideas about that, head bloggers in heady times?

This isn’t what he said, literally. But it was the question on his mind, more or less. He didn’t ask the conference for its ideas, really. (I gave him some of mine anyway— from the audience.) He just indicated, in a very polite and open way… I’m trying to get a handle on this myself, so let’s talk. To me, this was a welcome move by Len Apcar. Good citizenship, intellectually speaking— a notion that has perhaps become more important at the New York Times after recent turmoil.

Apcar took his seat with two journalists already familiar with weblogs: the moderator, Scott Rosenberg, the managing editor of, who writes his Links and Comment there, plus James Taranto, who does the Best of the Web Today, “a column in weblog style,” as he put it, for Opinion Journal. That’s the Wall Street Journal’s online forum (and unlike the main site it’s free.) These two represented early adopters within Apcar’s tribe: experienced pros in the national press who were doing it.

The Times, he said, had only one weblog, Kristof Responds, by opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof. It was working because Kristof, a driven reporter, went to interesting places and found unusual stories, but had only 700 words for his column. He could thus file to the weblog from the road, and keep a reasonable flow going with material already gathered. Then for days, weeks he could not file. Which lets the comments fill up. When there’s time he reads them, replying to some and even correcting mistakes in his Times column— correcting them online, that is, after weblog readers who argued with him won Kristof over.

No correction in the print edition, though, which Apcar admitted was an unsolved glitch. An individual correcting himself in his weblog is not the same thing as the Times itself “making” a correction, a matter far more fraught. The weblog, it appears, is self-correcting for the author involved. This, I think, is one of the major arguments in its favor. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit , at another point in the conference, called this the collective truth-making feature of weblogs: readers are your editors. I’m not sure “collective” is a well chosen term, but he means a social mechanism for catching errors and improving or extending ideas, which is part of the weblog’s gift to journalism— distributed fact checking, for one.

Apcar said something I found insightful: “Kristof Reponds” was essentially a contract between him and Kristof, unwritten and based on a mutual sense of where the boundaries are. This is one answer to “everybody needs an editor.” Maybe everyone needs the right contract with an editor, setting terms for mutual oversight of the writer’s venture into the new. Such things (you-and-me understandings) are efficient, and they play a bigger role in editorial invention than we sometimes think. I bet they’re a major part of the Spokane Spokesman Review’s eleven weblogs. Click here for the newest, “Journey to Vatican III,” about change in the Catholic Church.

Apcar said six other things significant for the coterie at Harvard and for anyone curious about whether weblogs will make a difference for the better in journalism:

1.) He has followed with interest what the Dallas Morning News is doing with its group weblog among the editorial page staff. But he couldn’t quite figure out what it was, he said.
2.) The experience with Kristof had been good enough to make him consider doing more with the weblog form.
3.) It seemed safest to begin with writers who were already licensed as “critics” of some kind.
4.) He was hoping to use the events of the presidential campaign to launch new weblogs at the Times site.
5.) In thinking about how to do that, he remain impressed with what Timothy Crouse achieved in his 1972 classic, The Boys on the Bus— recently re-issued, as Apcar noted.
6.) He couldn’t imagine the Times doing a weblog that exposed its news judgment to daily scrutiny, by talking about why things made the front page or didn’t. Not appropriate, never happen. (I agreed with that.)

So it qualified as news—I mean for the conference and its little world—that it had drawn to Cambridge at least one key player in the big presence the establishment press has online. Len Apcar was in a position to break ground and hire the first crew to chart a weblog course for the flagship newspaper. He could have said he was an expert in Times journalism, invited to tell us how it’s done at the Newspaper of Record. (This is the rhetorical situation 90 percent of the time with Times editors at conferences.) Instead he came as an inquirer.

The Bogger.con conference had organized itself in my mind around two alternatives written in boilerplate on its website. Is the weblog form “just good enough to make a difference, or the revolution so many say it is?” I don’t have the answer yet. But the appearance by the Times Web Editor convinced me it was an open question, there on the table, not of a Net coterie, but in the press culture at large.

There was one almost poignant moment during the question and answer period. Someone stood up and asked will the New York Times open its archive to free linking? (The original url’s expire after seven days for most articles, then you have to pay.) This appeared to catch Apcar off guard. Perhaps he had not fully understood the ethical universe he had traveled to, the Open Source Society, where naturally you link to everyone who enriches your account, building the social capital of the Web a tiny bit at a time. You take pains to make yourself linkable, too— that’s just good citizenship.

What the crowd was really saying, however, cut deeper: Don’t you understand? We want to link to you, mighty New York Times, and give everything you publish more and more Web life. For this, the Rule of Links, is the way of our tribe, said conference host Dave Winer, who wrote the rule. But because of your foolish and short-sighted archive policy, our efforts die after a week. Why, why are you causing all this needless link death?

This wasn’t entirely fair to Apcar, who isn’t a corporate head. He seemed puzzled by it.

Listen here to Chris Lydon’s audio interview with Len Apcar (or another one with yours truly.)

Hmmm. In the comments section Barry Parr says the total market for online archive information purchased the way the Times charges is a mere $15 million, which he calls insignificant revenue in the big picture. The source is here. Maybe this is a winnable battle down the road. Certainly we can say this: if the Times has a crew of webloggers, it will have people who grasp the principle of justice in the Rule of the Link.

Steve Outing of Poynter says if the Times adopts weblogs, this will be a significant boost for the form. See his Oct. 6 item here.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 5, 2003 4:52 PM