On reading The New York Times and the New Yorker in New York

I am a committed reader of newspapers – and mostly the “old school” kind, actual ink on printed paper, even though I spend a large part of my professional life online.  Living in Sydney, Australia, I regularly read The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and even the Australian Financial Review.

But my favourite paper – and I am not alone in this judgment, even here – is The New York Times.  It may partly be a result of growing up in suburban New Jersey – where The New York Times was THE paper to read on Sunday mornings.  And occasionally you could buy the paper the night before (although I never quite realised then that the news was distinctly first edition and was inevitably updated later on).  It was, at least to me at the time – as they advertised – “all the news that’s fit to print”.  In retrospect, that clearly was not true (ALL the news?), but I recall spending many hours happily reading the paper, and continued to read printed paper editions of the “Arts and Leisure” and “Book Review” sections while living here in Australia, courtesy of various libraries which received them (a quaint and now dead tradition, from the perspective of late 2011, yes?).  The online world has made The New York Times more accessible (and I regularly receive at least three alert emails from the paper each week), but the last thirty years has also seen the Times expand to a true global brand, available for purchase all around the USA and widely consulted outside that country.

I am equally enamoured of The New Yorker, a weekly intellectual magazine with the courage to publish extremely long articles (8,000 or more words is not unusual), and with an ability to present some of the best writers,  And it is often been thus, as the recent biography by Brian Kellow  about the late film critic Pauline Kael details.  (Also see Camille Paglia’s analysis of Kael’s writing style and impact.)

So it was with delight that during my recent two month stay in New York City I was able to read the print edition of The New York Times every day and The New Yorker every week (the latter happily – for me – sent to the absent landlord of the flat we were renting in Chelsea).

And here is what I realised: these two media icons are actually fully and thoroughly New York in their being, both in and of that frustrating, exciting, stimulating and maddening city.  While I regard myself as intelligent, surely I would have noticed that ALL of the “events” listed in The New Yorker were actually taking place in NEW YORK.  Well, I guess I did, but I never quite thought it through or made the connection, until I saw a number of people reading the magazine on the subway – easily at least two or three in any one subway journey.  And of course, the covers of the magazine – which are frequently famous – inevitably tell important stories (or commentaries) about New York.  Here are three recent examples, respectively commenting on the Occupy Wall Street protests (October 24th 2011), the World Trade Center Twin Towers (the September 12th 2011 edition) and the tourists who flock to (and occupy) Times Square (October 3rd 2011).

Oh yes – Times Square – renamed that in 1904 (from the previous “Long Acre Square”), named after the newspaper The New York Times.

Indeed, The New York Times stands almost unique in the world, as it serves many functions as a media outlet.  It is THE major newspaper for the New York metropolitan area, which includes more than 22 million Americans (or more than one out of every fifteen Americans).  It is also a national brand, and sold – literally “on the streets” and in newsagents – throughout the USA.  And it is an international brand, with articles extensively reprinted (including here in Australia) and widely quoted as one of the few true “papers of record” (I certainly treated it that way in my soon-to-be finalized PhD thesis).  I have a hard time thinking of any paper in the English (or other) world that operates in the same way.  Certainly, The Guardian (from the UK) is widely read internationally (perhaps even more so internationally than in its home country), The Washington Post is a strong paper (but does not have the same national or international reach as The Times, and papers such as the English edition of Ha’aretz (from Israel, ironically sometimes called “the New York Times of Israel”) are widely read outside its own country.  But none can come close to the impact, reach, reputation, quality and durability of The Times.

So … reading The New York Times in New York City is not just a pleasure, it is a grounding experience – for this is where the paper was born, where it lives and it’s the city which gives it such energy, both a reflection of the intellectual life of that great city and a tremendous addition to it.

(My thanks to Emily Bell, Columbia University School of Journalism, for her helpful thoughts which have informed this posting.)

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