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The New York Times and the President Trump's Love-Hate Relationship with the Gray Lady

Donald Trump bashes no other newspaper to the degree he does the New York Times. But it hasn't damaged the paper -- on the contrary. The newsroom may be exhausted, but it is more motivated than ever.
Von Isabell Huelsen

It is 10:30 a.m. and Maggie Haberman already looks like she's put in a full day's work. She is pale and has rings around her eyes, her hair is tied up in a ponytail. Haberman is a workhorse, but even so, she is "tired, very tired."

The 43-year-old is a reporter at the New York Times. She has three children -- and Donald Trump. Her day began at 6 a.m. and since then, she has written half a dozen tweets and her most recent story has already been online for a couple of hours. Now, on the way through the lobby to the elevator, her eyes and her fingers don't leave her smartphone. Twitter, Facebook, email: Haberman reads, writes and talks all at the same time.

Haberman these days is one of the stars at the New York Times. She has known Trump personally for some time and covered his campaign, but she assumed that her life would quickly return to normal once Hillary Clinton moved into the White House. Instead, her days now sometimes include 20 hours of work, up to 130 tweets sent -- and a new mission. "We are all exhausted," she says. But this is the story of their lifetime.

Why are they working themselves to the bone? Why are journalists needed? Donald Trump provides an answer every day. For the 1,300 journalists who work for the Times, this president is a nightmare and a dream-come-true all at the same time.

In the morning, Haberman wakes up with the president. Like many of her colleagues, she has set up a Twitter alarm on her mobile phone. When Trump once again blasts the New York Times as "fake news," as he so often does, the probability is high that they once again hit the mark: with exclusive stories and facts. Or perhaps just with details.

Together with a fellow reporter, Haberman wrote an article in early February about the first two weeks of the Trump administration. The piece discussed the chaos that reigned in the White House, the frustrations of his staff and the lonely president who watched TV in the evenings in his bathrobe. Hardly any article has enraged the president to such a degree. His spokesman, Sean Spicer, accused the Times of lying and claimed that the president didn't even own a bathrobe. Trump himself tweeted that the "failing New York Times" was inventing facts and sources. That it was "fake news." Haberman, though, is familiar with such accusations. It has become the standard tone between the Trump administration and what is perhaps the most important newspaper in the world.

Trump's Rage

No other media outlet has become the target  of Trump's rage to the degree that the New York Times has. Since announcing his candidacy in summer 2015, he has directed at least 70 tweets at the paper, calling it "disgusting" and "dishonest," a "dying newspaper" that "writes total fiction." It is "irrelevant," "failing" and "a joke" with "dwindling subscribers and readers." It is, in short, "the enemy of the American People."

The newsroom itself keeps close track of the attacks and even ran a widely shared piece in which every single one of the tweets -- along with those pertaining to other news outlets and sundry Trump targets -- was listed and linked to. Each one of them is a badge of honor, proof of the newspaper's relevance and of the fact that Trump reads it and takes it seriously.

A month ago, when his health care reform plan failed and Trump looked like the emperor with no clothes, he called two reporters from the Oval Office to share his side of the story. One of those was Haberman.

Six days later, though, the Times once again "disgraced the media world." Trump even threatened the paper with strengthening the country's libel laws -- only to again approach Haberman three weeks ago, this time to receive her for an exclusive interview in the White House.

It is a constant and repeating cycle, clearly illustrating the passionate love-hate relationship that exists between the Times and Trump. The president hates the paper yet yearns for its praise. The Times, meanwhile, isn't shy about criticizing Trump, yet the president has presented the paper with a unique opportunity for digital success in the future.

Trump behaves not unlike a small child that bites and scratches to get the loving attention it wants. But it isn't the Times' job to praise the president. "The truth doesn't have sides," says Haberman.

Thus, Trump's next Twitter attack is no doubt just around the corner -- and that has proven to be the best thing that can happen to the paper. Its subscriber base grows with each new tweet and it sold more than a quarter-million new digital subscriptions in the last quarter of 2016. It's widely referred to as the "Trump bump."

Dramatic Numbers

As such, Trump has unintentionally answered a question that the Times has been asking for years: What must the 165-year-old Gray Lady do to survive in the fickle world of digital media? The boom in digital subscribers has provided the paper with a welcome answer: It doesn't have to blow up watermelons on Facebook to find success on the internet, nor does it have to resort to light-hearted listicles.

"With the journalism we are doing -- the big news stories, the investigative reporting -- readers are coming to us in dramatic numbers. That fires people up," says Dean Baquet, 60, who has been editor-in-chief of the New York Times for the past three years and the first African-American to ever run the paper. As a schoolchild, he used to mop the floor of his parents' restaurant in New Orleans -- and now he runs a newspaper that is synonymous with the New York elite.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

His small corner office lies on the edge of the newsroom on the third floor, his desk covered with books and notes. Baquet quickly grabs a bottle of mineral water from the minibar before sinking into his black leather sofa. He has a gentle, distinguished appearance, with a lavender pocket square highlighting his dark suit and polished shoes. He has a warm, friendly voice.

Nothing, Baquet says, has motivated the newsroom to the degree Trump has. "The size and scope of this story are unique. And we are uniquely set up to cover it." A president who is loose with the facts is something of a test of the paper's fortitude. With 1,300 journalists, the New York Times is one of the largest news producers in the world, with the Washington Post employing just half as many. Following the election, the paper's publisher freed up an additional $5 million to hire more journalists in Washington, D.C., with an emphasis on investigative reporters. "Trump gets the aggressive, tough coverage as is warranted by his position," Baquet says. "It bothers him."

Its critical reporting alone, however, isn't enough to explain Trump's fury with the Times. CNN and the Washington Post are likewise aggressive in their reporting on the president, and even the otherwise conservative Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Trump clings to his false assertions "like a drunk to an empty gin bottle." And yet Trump's most hated enemy remains the New York Times.

Unrequited Love

Baquet has his own explanation, one that perhaps only he can relate without sounding arrogant. "Donald Trump grew up in Queens, he moved to Manhattan. He was not raised in the New York elite, but he wants the approval of this elite. And the New York Times is part of the New York City elite."

Trump, though, has never received the recognition he expected from his hometown newspaper. Indeed, the Trump-Times relationship is a long story of unrequited love.

To trace that story, it is helpful to visit Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the Times who lives in an Upper West Side apartment with a view of Central Park. A chaise lounge chair is sitting at the windows and orchids bloom nearby. There is a grand piano in the living room and an office crammed with books. Goldberger embodies everything that Trump scorns because he doesn't possess it himself: style, elegance and intellect.

Goldberger worked for the Times for 25 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his architecture criticism. When Trump published his book "The Art of the Deal" in 1987, in which he gloated that he was New York's biggest real estate developer, Goldberger wrote that Trump Tower symbolizes the greed, the glitter and the superficiality of the Trump world, one in which money is mistaken for taste.

Trump wrote a furious letter to the New York Times in response, as he so often did in the pre-Twitter era. Goldberger, he wrote, had no taste whatsoever and was the laughing stock of the New York real estate scene. Plus, he added, Goldberger's books hadn't sold nearly as well as his "because they are unnecessary (and boring)." But Trump's "greatest disappointment" was in the New York Times itself for granting Goldberger a platform. Trump extended a couple of invitations to the journalist to come to his Mar-a-Lago club, but Goldberger declined to accept. He did, however, once go out for a burger with the real estate tycoon. Trump flattered him as "the most important critic" and as a brilliant writer -- the whole palette of compliments. "When he realized that he could not charm us into saying something nice and that he could not control what I might write, I would be the stupidest idiot in the world."

That, however, did not prevent Trump from printing two nice lines Goldberger had written about the Trump Tower on an advertising poster and hanging it in the lobby -- clearly labeled so that everyone could see it came from the New York Times, the highest authority whose verdict was important in New York high society.

A Laughing Stock Trapped in an Oversized Ego

Trump expected gratitude from his hometown paper. In the 1970s, New York was in bad shape, with an extremely high crime rate. Those who were able, left the filthy metropolis. It was Trump, though, who was the first to invest in the city and build, being rewarded with tax subsidies and special permits. But even as city leaders and tabloid papers like the New York Post idolized the real estate investor, he remained little more than a rich clown for the Times, a laughing stock trapped in an oversized ego.

Part of his disappointment with the paper may have been informed by the expensive ads he bought in the Times to sell his luxury apartments and office buildings. Those with money in the city read the New York Times -- and not the yellow press.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 17/2017 (April 22, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

In 2010, Trump even sacrificed his ego for a marketing campaign in the Times. In an ad, he is quoted as saying: "It is well-known that one of the first things I do every day is read the New York Times." The paper "has consistently delivered the right target audiences for our projects, and has helped us build the world-renowned Trump brand."

Journalists at the Times proved insusceptible to the flattery. But Trump found an audience in the tabloid press. His weddings, his divorces, his wealth: for the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Trump was a star. He would call their reporters to hand feed them stories, pictures and quotes -- and all of it was published. Among the reporters responsible for the city's most important gossip page, the New York Post's Page Six, Trump was known as "President of Page Six."

"Trump had near control of the tabloids," says Jim Rutenberg. "Because of the access, he could almost dictate where the story went. He never quite had that at the New York Times."

Rutenberg is a media critic for the New York Times. He began his career in the tabloids and got along well with Trump until he wrote a story in 2002 for the Times about the falling television ratings for Trump's Miss Universe pageants. Trump's agent called Rutenberg with Trump in the room, who yelled that the Times journalist was a "scumbag." "I was just accurately reflecting the television ratings, nothing more," says Rutenberg.

The Changing Times

Almost all Times reporters who have ever had anything to do with Trump have received mail from him, often copies of their articles with comments scribbled across them: "Poor reporting," or, next to a photo of a columnist, "face of a dog."

When Rutenberg took over the Times' legendary media column last year, he was surprised to find that Trump was willing to talk to him again. But Rutenberg suddenly found himself confronted by a different problem: When he would call the presidential candidate's spokesperson for information on even the smallest of details, Trump wanted to respond himself. "I said, no, no, that's not necessary," Rutenberg relates. "I knew he would automatically take over my column."

The remarkable love-hate relationship between Trump and the Times came to a head at the end of November with a meeting in New York. The freshly elected president had agreed to spend 75 minutes answering questions from New York Times reporters. Editor-in-Chief Baquet and even Publisher Arthur Sulzberger were also to be present.

Early in the morning ahead of the meeting, Trump, though, angrily tweeted that he had cancelled the meeting with the "failing New York Times," claiming that the paper had made last-minute changes to the rules governing the interview. "Not nice," he added. But it wasn't true. And he showed up after all six hours later, with reporters who were present saying he was conciliatory, flattering and charming. When Trump left the Times building on 8th Avenue, he praised the paper as a "great, great American jewel."

A short time later, the paper published an editorial arguing that Ronald Reagan's approach to the Soviet Union, "trust but verify," was "the right approach to take with Mr. Trump. Except, regrettably, for the trust part." To the president's ears, it must have sounded like a declaration of war.

Since then, the paper has been trying to figure out what it means to report fairly on a president who believes that it is OK, in his dealings with women, to "grab her by the pussy." "If there is a fair and balanced way to cover that, I would love to hear it," says Rutenberg.

Since 1896, the New York Times' creed has been "without fear or favor." But what does that actually mean given the madness that prevails in the current White House?

'Uncharted Territory'

Rutenberg wrote a widely read and oft-misunderstood article that focused on the conundrum facing journalists. If you believe as a journalist, he wrote, that Trump is a dangerous demagogue who cannot be trusted with America's nuclear codes, then you are in "uncharted territory" that is difficult to navigate using accepted journalistic standards. Rutenberg then asked: "Do normal standards apply?"

Right-wing conservative media outlets from Breitbart to Fox News interpreted the piece as a call to abandon fair-mindedness in the coverage of Trump. It fit well with their image of the Times as a left-wing intellectual echo chamber that had lost touch with American realities -- a paper that was so certain that Hillary Clinton would win that it wrote shortly before the election that Clinton had an 85 percent chance of victory. The paper received widespread criticism for its prediction, and not just from Trump supporters. It was also discussed in-house, with reporters wondering whether they hadn't taken Trump voters seriously enough, and if they hadn't, why not?

But since Trump has been in office, the doubts have faded into the background. "This president stretches truth beyond anything we have ever seen," Rutenberg says. "You have to go where the facts take you. If the facts take you where they take you and that seems unfair to Trump, then that's what it is."

Following Trump's inauguration, the Times hired a reporter who is constantly checking the accuracy of his statements. Her desk is called Fact Check and it explores whether his statements are completely inaccurate or simply misleading and whether there is evidence for what he says.

Only Editor-in-Chief Baquet, however, can decide whether the president can be accused of "lying." It is a word that the newspaper shies away from, for good reason. Lying implies intention, but it is impossible to know what is going on inside Trump's head. The use of the word lie "should not be a common occurrence in the pages of the New York Times," says Baquet. But balance? "I don't think balance is the goal," he says. "If we have 25 voices on the left, critical, we have to have 25 voices on the right? That's weird. Balance is a false construct." Fairness and open-mindedness are the goals, he says.

As Baquet is talking, Arthur Sulzberger walks past the glass door. "Arthur?" Baquet calls out. The publisher pushes open the door, a half-eaten apple in his left hand and a stack of papers in his right. He is a small, jovial man in a blue-and-white shirt and wants to know what is planned for the next day's front page: the story about the FBI head's confirmation that the agency is investigating the Trump team's connections to Russia? Or the story about the intelligence agency's lack of proof for Trump's accusation that Obama had him wiretapped? The choices these days seem to be between lunacy and insanity. Sulzberger then asks what the visiting journalist from Germany is writing about. About Trump's relationship with the Times, comes the answer. "Oh boy," Sulzberger sighs.

Big Dividends

The 65-year-old Sulzberger represents the fourth generation of his family's control of the Times. Even as publisher dynasties like the Grahams (Washington Post) and the Bancrofts (Wall Street Journal) sold their struggling newspapers, the Sulzbergers stuck with the Times, despite all the economic difficulties.

The demise of print has cost the Times some $650 million in advertising revenue in the last 10 years. Yet just the salaries of those who work for the company swallow up over $600 million annually. In 2009, the highly indebted publishing house found itself fighting for survival. The Sulzbergers sold the brand-new Times building, designed by star architect Renzo Piano, and other assets before selling 17 percent of their stake to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The newsroom was forced to make cuts as well. But even as other papers dramatically reduced the number of reporters on their payroll, Sulzberger calculated that the Times could only survive if it didn't sacrifice quality.

That decision is paying big dividends today. But the Trump phenomenon has also made it clear that the Times isn't just necessary, it also has an obligation to fight for survival in the digital world as well. Whether American democracy can survive a president like Trump depends on the continued existence of media outlets like the Times, which hold the president accountable. It is somewhat paradoxical: The president who has made it clear on Twitter that he would like to see the New York Times "fold with dignity" has instead motivated its staff to fight even harder for its digital survival.

Three years ago, the paper's internal "Innovation Report" was accidentally leaked to the public. The 97-page document was assembled by a team led by Sulzberger's son and designated successor, 36-year-old Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, and was unsparing in its analysis. The Times, the report found, trailed its competitors technologically, its newsroom was too slow and it was still too fixated on the print product. The younger Sulzberger issued a warning: If the Times didn't change radically, it would lose its journalistic advantage to digital competitors like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post.

'A Bit Insecure'

The report got people's attention. Suddenly the Times, widely considered a paragon for the entire industry due to its paywall, looked as though it had simply stood still for several years. The growing power of online competitors, the falling advertising revenues, the constant pressure to save money while at the same time introducing a steady flow of new digital ideas to the marketplace: All of that had chipped away at the newsroom's self-confidence. Many found themselves wondering what, exactly, was the Times' role in the digital world. How should the Times turn serious news into an online business model? "It made us all a bit insecure," Baquet admits.

These days, though, it is possible to see just how far the paper has come during its daily afternoon conferences. At 4:30 p.m., some 20 department heads gather with Baquet in the "Page One" conference room. The room's name recalls a time when the front page of the printed New York Times was the most important news page in America. It defined what was important in the country.

Now, however, the conference doesn't address the printed paper at all. The focus is exclusively on the home page: Which stories will go up this evening and which will be launched tomorrow morning? What stories should be on top and which one can be posted lower down? Some of the stories will only find their way into the printed edition one or two days later -- a small team is devoted to curating the paper. Some 1 million subscribers still read the New York Times on paper, including the legendary Sunday edition, while 1.6 million people have a digital subscription. But the processes and limitations of print should no longer determine the rhythm of publication and should not stand in the way of the future.

"Let's start with Trump," Baquet says to laughter. One department head speaks up: "Can I ask a stupid question? Why does Trump keep on saying that Obama wiretapped him? Is he stupid? Is he lying? Is it part of a strategy?" A discussion begins. Baquet suggests exploring the question in an article, because it is one that readers are interested in as well. The editors joke around and the mood is light. "Have you been drinking?" Baquet jokingly asks the Washington bureau chief who has phoned into the conference. Anything else on Trump? "No, just regular stuff."

The combination of Trump and digitalization is "the perfect storm," says Baquet. Trump has triggered dramatic growth in the number of digital subscribers. But, the editor-in-chief says: "That puts more pressure on us to produce a digital report that this growing audience will stick with us for. We have to move even faster."

The Most Important Thing

For the newsroom, that means filming yet another Facebook Live video, giving an interview for the podcast, writing and tweeting. The six Trump reporters in Washington now work in shifts so that whenever the president makes news, it can be posted online. The early shift takes over at 6 a.m. while the late shift sits at their desks late into the evening. "If the president tweets at 6:30 a.m., we can't have a system that does not allow us to publish the story before 10 a.m.," Baquet says.

In January it was announced that, despite the investments made in Trump coverage, there would be budget cuts and layoffs. It isn't yet clear how many reporters will lose their jobs, but it does mean that the newfound euphoria and energy is mixed with fear of what comes next.

"We can't cancel the future only because we have got a big story," says New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson. Despite the steep growth in the number of digital subscribers, profits fell in the fourth quarter of 2016. Advertising revenues from the print edition have been dropping faster than online revenues have risen. The cultural shift in favor of digital means that the paper is no longer deceiving itself: At some point the printed paper will cease making economic sense. And it is no longer possible to rely on advertising revenue, whether on paper or online. Ultimately, online subscriptions will have to generate sufficient revenue to finance the Times' powerful newsroom.

There are two numbers that highlight the paper's path ahead. By 2020, digital revenues are supposed to climb from $500 million to $800 million per year. Currently, the overall cost of running the Times news machine stands at $1.4 billion per year.

Trump, though, has as least provided the paper with one certainty: "For all of the changes we have to make, there are some things we shouldn't change. Good journalism is still the most important thing," Baquet says.

Despite the free advertising provided by the president, the Times recently launched its own marketing campaign. One of the slogans is: "Truth. The alternative is a lie."

One of the posters hangs at a bus stop on Fifth Avenue. Right next to Trump Tower.