Not long ago, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the Trump Whisperer, posted an innocuous tweet about squabbling within the Trump Circle. It produced a furious response on Twitter from people sick of hearing about Donald Trump, challenging Maggie to give it up, stop reporting on Trump; he’s finished, so are you, etc. One reader threatened to drop Maggie’s account if she continued.

   Big mistake, in my view. I think it is vitally important to learn the full story of what happened during the chaotic days of the Trump Administration. 

   Maggie has contracted to produce a book on Trump, due out in 2022, so yes, she has a reason to keep reporting on Trump and his circle and all the wacky things that went on before, during and after his presidency. But it is also her job. The Times has smartly assigned her to the politics desk to track the Trump post-presidency and its impact on the runup to the 2022 elections. As her 1.7 million Twitter followers and Times readers know, Maggie has been covering Trump for years, has sources inside the Trump World that other reporters can only dream of and is a fine writer. (She is also a second-generation Timesian, the daughter of the estimable columnist, Clyde Haberman.)

   But the issue here is not Maggie Haberman or even her cranky Twitter followers. It is about the public’s need to fully understand just what happened during the Trump years: the chaos, the confusion, the gross mismanagement, the corruption and the cynical, self-centered politics of the 45th president and the Republican members of Congress that enabled him for what they believed was their own political benefit. It is an extraordinary story and at this point, we don’t know the half of it.

   Reporting and reconstructing that history is a huge, costly and complicated job, but one that media organizations must tackle. There are 74 million Americans out there who need to know precisely who and what they voted for in November. And there are scores of former officials and insiders in Trump world who will be willing to talk now that they are out of office.

   Media: get to it.


   Three recent, controversial “resignations” from The New York Times display a curious pattern of behavior by top management, namely, 180-degree reversals, decisions made one way and, after protest from some staff members, made the other.  The pattern underscores the changing culture at the Grey Lady and to a degree, in journalism today.

   The three compelled “resignations” were those of  Opinion Editor James Bennet after publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s provocative column urging military action against racial protestors; audio journalist Andy Mills in the wake of the flawed podcast The Caliphate; and Donald G. McNeil Jr., the much-praised science reporter who apparently used the n-word in a discussion with students about racist language on an overseas Times Journey in 2019. And, in each case,  management investigated, resolved the issue to its satisfaction and pressed ahead with valued employees who were “disciplined” in various ways. In each case, a group of staff members subsequently objected, their objections became public, and the top leadership reversed their initial decisions, sending the staffers packing. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

   Each of the three cases is different, and complicated in different ways. And, in each case, management has indicated that there is more to the story than has been made public. Taking the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and executive editor, Dean Baquet, at their word, as I do, it is still hard to understand the reversals. Did new information come to light? Were lies uncovered? Or, did the embarrasment of the internal revolt becoming public prove to be too much? 

   Sensitive personnel decisions like these are normally kept private, but these cases have attracted so much attention and caused so much controversy, that The Times needs to come clean with the whole story. 

   In which case, what does the controversy portend for the future? More sensitivity to racial and other issues? More consultation with staff, whose views have been largely ignored in the past? A management backlash? A staff revolt?

   What is clear is that the fuss over the McNeil case is not over. Witness Ben Smith’s lengthy Media Equation column about it today and the fact that McNeil says he is not free to discuss the matter fully until his separation from the paper becomes final on March 1.

   Stay tuned.


In case you missed it, amidst Tom Brady’s Superbowl triumph and the upcoming second impeachment trial, The New York Times has posted some extraordinary revenue and subscription numbers for 2020 that point the way to a prosperous 21st century for some newspapers.

Yes, newspapers. Some newspapers. The venerable Grey Lady’s earnings report documents 7.5 million digital and print subscriptions at the end of 2020. The paper is well on its way to its stated goal of 10 million total subscriptions by 2020 and at this rate, could even exceed it. Further proof of the old adage that bad news is good news for news organizations and a disastrous year like 2020 can be a bonanza.

(Of that 7.5 million, a paltry 833,000 are print subscriptions purchased by ancients like me who still enjoy the tactile pleasure delivered to my door each morning.)

This subscription boom took place as total NYT digital and print advertising revenue for 2020 fell by a perilous 26 per cent to just under $400 million. Most of that loss was in print advertising, which declined 38 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2020. In a role reversal, 65 per cent of ad revenue came from digital. The tail is now wagging the dog.

So, the broader pattern is clear: subscription revenue up, advertising revenue down. Since the days of the penny press, the income publishers received from subscriptions was almost an afterthought. Now digital subscribers appear to be a key to economic survival.

Of course, this lifeline is only available to papers like The Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others that have built their websites into rich, reliable, appealing smorgasbords of news and features. The Times does especially well with a variety of stand-alone digital offerings like cooking and crossword apps, podcasts and video. The Washington Post has added live interviews with newsmakers and panels to its regular fare.

Bottom line for newspapers in 2021: Digital is the present and future; print is fading fast. Something gained, something lost.

MONDAY MORNING MEDIA (Early snowy edition)

It has been a relief, frankly, to be spared during the past 10 days or so the obsessive coverage of Donald J. Trump that dominated American media for the last four years. We’ve done quite well, thank you, without breathless reporting of nonsensical tweets, wall-to-wall broadcasting of his rallies and penetrating analyses of White House infighting. We don’t even know what Jared and Ivanka have been up to.

This respite will be brief, of course. Once the Senate begins arguments in the trial spawned by Trump’s second impeachment, the headlines will again focus on the 45th President and his actions around January 6. And, no doubt, Maggie Haberman or some other well-sourced observer of the Trump phenomenon will soon give us an inside look at the mood and manners at Mar-a-Lago since January 20. (The most memorable so far: the small plane that flew up and down the beach that day trailing a sign that read: “World’s Worst President!”)

That’s all well and good and as it should be. But I am waiting for the kind of revealing, in-depth reporting of what actually went on during the four-year nightmare known as The Trump Presidency. The best early example is the two-column lead of the January 31 st edition of The New York Times: “As Far-Right Peril Brewed, U.S. Eyed Threat Left.” The subhead explained: “Trump’s insistence on Danger of Antifa Led Federal Officials to Shift Resources.”

Read it and you’ll discover how Trump’s all-out assault on the so-called Radical Left caused boot-licking federal law enforcement officers to look left when the genuine threats were rising on the right. You’ll read how Federal prosecutors and agents felt pressure from the top to uncover a left-wing extremist conspiracy that never materialized. And – no surprise – you’ll learn that Attorney General William P. Barr enthusiastically endorsed the president’s politically inspired attack on the left.

In the coming days and weeks, I expect we’ll read more such shocking inside stories of the behind-the-scene activities of the Trump Administration. The accounts will come out and be confirmed as liberated senior officials and aides feel free to tell us all what really happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The stories may not come as a total surprise, but they are history and they are important.