This short documentary video that The New York Times posted a few days ago keeps nagging at me. It’s called “Your Train Is Delayed. Why?” and it’s an eleven-minute “explainer” that unravels the many historically thorny reasons why the New York City subway system has come to own “the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world.”
If you live in New York or if you’re interested in why this icon of public transportation and civic infrastructure is now in a state of emergency (literally), then this video is genuinely informative. It’s also really bewildering. Its tone is so informal, so whimsical and, occasionally, so irreverent that I’m kind of shocked that it comes from The New York Times. Watch it and you’ll see playfully abrupt edits, humorous captions, vintage film footage, animated cutouts and even a busker who was hired to sing tongue-in-cheek verses about the subway system. It’s not particularly “Timesian,” as they say at the Gray Lady.
It’s actually all pretty entertaining but its style is also pretty patronizing, if you ask me. The Times has never been afraid of explaining things clearly, but at its best its journalism never underestimates its audience. And there are parts of this video where any reasonably intelligent viewer would feel like they’re being talked down to. Skip to the 3:03 timestamp at which point a toy train set (really) is used to illustrate a key historical decision. At first the track is turned to the left towards one possible decision, and then it’s repositioned to turn to the right towards another. Get it?
What nags at me though is not so much this execution as the question of whether this is what journalism needs to look like in this day and age to succeed? Is this video an example of the style—of the attitude—that reporting needs to adopt in order to resonate with online audiences?
The thing is, I don’t even mean to condemn this approach, because it has its merits. A more Timesian video would have been sober to a fault, and probably much less interesting. This, at the very least, is not that. I also recognize that the Times has to find younger audiences in order to thrive, and that the process of learning how to do that will inevitably strike traditionalists as confounding if not appalling. And maybe that’s all this is: one iteration in a process of finding a balance between the organization’s traditional values and the vastly different landscape. That’s fair; I can’t fault them for trying something different. I just kind of hated myself for watching it—which come to think of it is the way the rest of the Internet makes me feel, so I guess they’re on to something.+