Not Impressed With the NYT’s New TimesCast

The New York Times recently launched a daily Webcast called TimesCast. It airs around midday and is about a six-minute-long overview of the big stories of the day, as seen through the eyes of the NYT’s newsroom. Each episode starts with a brief clip from the NYT’s daily page one meeting, where the top honchos talk about the big stories of the day, followed by interviews with individual editors and reporters about a particular story they’re working on.

The new feature has received a mixed reception. Some like the show because they feel it gives them a behind-the-scene look at how news coverage is shaped, while others have panned it as being boring.

After watching the three episodes so far, my reaction is “meh”. The main problem, I think, is that the Webcast isn’t sure what it wants to be: a behind-the-scene look at how news coverage develops at the NYT, or the NYT’s own daily news show.

This piece in the Guardian says TimesCast “is taking the transparency of a news organisation to a new level,” but I disagree. Now, to be fair, in its own announcement about TimesCast, the NYT never said its aim was to provide more transparency, and I’m not really sure why anyone would make that claim on their behalf, especially after seeing the show. TimesCast reveals way too little real behind-the-scene stuff to shed any light on how things work at the NYT, and it is way too polished and over-produced to convey a sense of authenticity. Once you get past the initial “Hey I’m looking at the NYT page one meeting” novelty, you quickly realize that just because the NYT brought a camera into the meeting, it doesn’t mean it’s actually showing you much of anything. The clips of the meeting that we get to see are just the “tell us your biggest story” tidbits, with little real discussion about how they plan to cover it. In effect, there’s not much more there than what you would get out of a list of the day’s top headlines with a brief summary under each.

Hey, it’s the NYT page one meeting. Why, it looks … pretty much like any other meeting …

The interviews with individual editors and reporters also do little to add any real transparency. It basically turns the interviewees into talking heads and resembles segments from TV news, with the interviewer playing the role of the studio host and the interviewees standing in as on-site reporters. As for what they discuss in these interviews, mostly it’s not them telling us how they are covering this story; it’s them reporting the story. The interactions in the Webcast comes off as staged. I mean, when’s the last time an editor called a reporter and said, “Hi Bob, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you are working on?” Even the clips of the page one meeting feel like they were edited not for authenticity but for the purpose of serving as a stage-setter for the rest of the Webcast. They are in the newsroom, but they’re not showing you how the newsroom works. You’re not being shown behind-the-scene stuff; you’re seeing a front erected just for you. In essence, you’re a member of the newsroom tour and there’s no wandering off.

In the instances where there was actual talk about how the NYT is covering a story, it runs into the problem of “so what?” Unless you’re a hardcore news junkie, how interested would you be in things like, “We’re looking at the Google-China story from the angle of how this is going to affect each’s reputation.” Geez, that’s great. Maybe I’ll pay attention when you actually tell me how this would affect their reputation. The only reason I would pay attention to someone telling me how they plan to report something is if I have a way of interacting with them right then and there and telling them “That’s good” or “You’re on the wrong track.”

If transparency isn’t the goal and the NYT is looking at this Webcast as its own daily news roundup, then I think the format is ill-suited. I agree with Jeff Bercovici’s assessment on this point:

It faithfully captures the aesthetics of life in a newsroom — the queasy lighting, the unflattering hairstyles, the droning story meetings. What it doesn’t have are any of the elements that viewers have come to expect from TV news: lively pacing, polished delivery, dynamic visuals.

Trust me, you will find yourself checking your email after the first 30 seconds.

And Bercovici is right. I did find my attention flagging after about 30 seconds, and a minute into the six-minute Webcast, I was already doing other stuff and not really paying much attention to the voices droning in the other browser tab.