BROOKE GLADSTONE: Approximately 1.1 million people read the New York Times. It's safe to say that most of those readers don't buy the paper expecting to be driven insane by its style and coverage. Of those who do, the vast majority do not faithfully read through each and every story combing the paper for errors. And of those few vigilant readers, only one faithfully chronicles the distortions, mistruths, and spelling errors every day on a web site. Or at least one did. Ira Stoll, the founder and editor in chief of smartertimes.com, was the Times' criticizer in chief until recently when he became the managing editor and founder of an actual New York daily newspaper all his own -- The New York Sun. Ira, welcome to On the Media.
IRA STOLL: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now we should point out that the SmarterTimes was really just a hobby -- an incredibly time-consuming, Times-consuming hobby. But you are a journalist in your own right. You were an editor at The Forward, a legendary Jewish newspaper. So was your complaint at the Times mostly their ideology or their style?
IRA STOLL: Ideology, style, and just factual inaccuracies. I think actually, by the way, that the Times is a pretty good newspaper! The New York Sun, my new newspaper makes mistakes too. The idea is that by having another voice that's not part of the Times, it gives Times' readers a way to have an independent check on what they're reading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me ask you a philosophical point here. It seems that everyone who alleges bias is always in turn being charged with bias. As someone who has charged bias and also someone who's been charged with it himself, do you think there's any way to actually prove it, or is it just quintessentially subjective?
IRA STOLL: I, what I, what I've tried to do on smartertimes.com is point to specific problems with specific news articles or editorials and avoid, you know, broad claims about how, you know, there's a left wing conspiracy that's tilting the news at the New York Times. But I think if you go to smartertimes.com and look at the archives and, you know, browse through what now is, you know, a year and a half worth of every morning looking at one or two specific stories and pointing out mistakes --you know, I think a certain pattern emerges.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well I can imagine that as you were writing the smartertimes you'd say to yourself "Now, if I had a paper, I would do it this way." So what can we see in The Sun that's a direct reaction from you to something you hated about the Times?
IRA STOLL: Well, in the New York Sun there are New York stories on page one every day. I was disappointed some days to pick up the New York Times and find, you know, there were stories from Washington or from Las Vegas or from Paris or London, but there wasn't a New York news story on the front page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I remember in one smartertimes item you noted that in a New York Times story about "shopping meccas" the New York Times made a big deal about Albuquerque and, and actually didn't make much mention of New York!
IRA STOLL: That's right. We're going to try on our story about, you know, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season to quote shoppers at Macy's and Bloomingdale's in New York City and if the Times wants to write about the people who are at the Home Depot in Atlanta [LAUGHTER] or the Marshall Fields store in Chicago, that's fine for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know that someone has started a New York Sun watchdog site. Have you read it?
IRA STOLL: I think I've seen it once or twice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there talk around the office that whoever that guy is must be some sort of a nut job with too much time on his hands?
IRA STOLL:[LAUGHS] I think we're flattered that someone would take the time to do that critique. We're a little disappointed that it's not as well done as smartertimes was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think you help the Times to improve?
IRA STOLL: No. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ira Stoll, thank you very much.
IRA STOLL: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ira Stoll is the managing editor of the New York Sun and creator of smartertimes.com. Smartertimes is one of a growing number of web sites dedicated to criticizing a major periodical. Another is the L.A. Examiner whose prime target is the L.A. Times. When the Examiner's creators heard of Ira Stoll's rise to the Sun, they began dreaming of, quote, "the day when their own wealthy industrialist with an itch to take on the L.A. Times would come calling." Enter former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Bent on starting his own conservative paper, Riordan is hiring the Examiner's founders to help him compete against the L.A. Times. Matt Welch is co-founder of the L.A. Examiner and self-described "co-conspirator" in the upcoming L.A. Daily. Matt welcome to OTM.
MATT WELCH: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I guess the New York Sun is your canary in the coal mine. Are you nervously watching the Sun's progress as a forecaster of your own fate?
MATT WELCH: Kind of. The, there's a couple of things that are different about their experience. One is that they're in a crowded newspaper market. Here we are absolutely not. There are many newspapers; a lot of small ones that people don't pay attention to. However the New York Times has The Daily News, it has the New York Post covering New York and so the Sun has to present itself more as an ideological alternative and I think that the proposed Riordan paper won't have such a set ideological position. I don't think that you would be able to describe it accurately as "conservative," for instance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well isn't a conservative paper exactly what the former mayor wants to have?
MATT WELCH:Well, you know-- people in Los Angeles like Richard Riordan because he's a pragmatist, because he's a problem-solver, and because he loves L.A. So I don't think that you - this is going to be, you know, some thumping right wing paper. The, the division here in this city isn't necessarily about liberal/conservative or Republican/Democrat. It's more about smart and dumb.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you suggest that one of the things that has been missing in-- at least in the L.A. Times coverage of L.A. is a real love for the city. What besides that do you think that your new paper would provide?
MATT WELCH: The Times, like many other monopolist papers in the country, tries to model itself after the New York Times which is a terrific newspaper, regardless of what Ira Stoll says. [LAUGHS] You know, there's things to criticize about it, but the New York Times is the, is the golden yardstick. But the New York Times has this competition on its flank. When papers who are in a monopolist situation try to mimic them, that means they're spending an enormous amount of resources finding feature stories in Utah and looking everywhere except their own back yard. Frankly, at the end of the day, they just don't cover Los Angeles all that much, and so our paper will be pretty much Los Angeles. And not doing it with very notorious political correctness that you'll find in the L.A. Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about that issue of political correctness at the L.A. Times. Do you think it's too politically left?
MATT WELCH:Some people and maybe some people I'll be working with soon probably think so. I, for me it's really not a case of left or right. It's a case of being unwilling to ask tough questions about what's happening to the city. We have an enormous impact of immigration in this city, but when the Los Angeles Times writes about it, they do it with such gingerness - they're afraid of offending communities. We want to offend every day -not in a bigoted way, of course! Who does? This, this, this is not a bigoted town, and there's no reason to, to do anything but condemn people who do that. But to approach everything with this tentativeness is, is something that the Times has become notorious for, and I don't think that's something you're ever going to see in our newspaper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will the Examiner criticize your own upcoming paper?
MATT WELCH:[LAUGHS] I hope so! I hope-- I hope Riordan, who plans to be the editor in chief, by the way -- not a publisher -- I imagine he'll criticize his own writers in print. I mean we're not going to hire an ombudsman. We're not going to hire people to sort of stroke their chins and, and, and look very seriously at issues. We're going to have an aggressive back and forth inside and outside the newsroom and with our readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Matt. Thanks.
MATT WELCH: Thank you.
"You Stepped Out of a Dream"
by Sonny Rollins