Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Put These Together: Chapter 11, New York Times

I bet you're all just thrilled with my endless doom and gloom, especially when you see the titles of blog posts like "Put These Together: Chapter 11, New York Times."

But I read this article, by Michael Hirschorn, in The Atlantic, called End Times, and it's really quite sobering and provocative.

In essence, Hirschorn states his hypothesis in the first four graphs:

Virtually all the predictions about the death of old media have assumed a comfortingly long time frame for the end of print—the moment when, amid a panoply of flashing lights, press conferences, and elegiac reminiscences, the newspaper presses stop rolling and news goes entirely digital. Most of these scenarios assume a gradual crossing-over, almost like the migration of dunes, as behaviors change, paradigms shift, and the digital future heaves fully into view. The thinking goes that the existing brands—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—will be the ones making that transition, challenged but still dominant as sources of original reporting.

But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?

It’s certainly plausible. Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

“As part of our analysis of our uses of cash, we are evaluating future financing arrangements,” the Times Company announced blandly in October, referring to the crunch it will face in May. “Based on the conversations we have had with lenders, we expect that we will be able to manage our debt and credit obligations as they mature.” This prompted Henry Blodget, whose Web site, Silicon Alley Insider, has offered the smartest ongoing analysis of the company’s travails, to write: “‘We expect that we will be able to manage’? Translation: There’s a possibility that we won’t be able to manage.”

Hirschorn does fine reporting here, but then he goes on to imagine a world without the Times, or at least a world without a print edition of the Times and/or a world in which the Times is bought by scavangers (he suggests everyone from Rupert Murdoch, naturally, to the folks at Google), "stripped for parts," and turned into a "content mill" to "goose" page views.

This paragraph in particular interested me because Hirschorn removes the specter of hundreds of journalists losing their jobs at the Times from the discussion -- it's a wise move because if you love the Times, you'll freeze in horror at the thought, and if you hate the Times, you'll have a bit of schadenfreude curling the corners of your mouth up into a smile. I belong to the former camp and the way he describes a post-Times world is just heartbreaking:
The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things. For those of us old enough to still care about going out on a Sunday morning for our doorstop edition of The Times, it will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives. It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind. And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.

There are, sitting in my parents house, photos of me at age 4 or 5, in a green jumpsuit and wearing my mother's glasses and pretending to read the Times. There are other photos of me, perhaps slightly older, sitting at a little stack table pretending to be doing the crossword. When I was a kid, especially as a teenager, some of my favorite memories of my mother's parents -- my grandfather in particular -- involving watching them finish the Sunday Times crossword in about an hour or so. The Times is a cultural, social and political institution is what Hirschorn seems to be saying, and certainly Americans have a gift for allowing its most precious institutions to fall into disuse and death.

Two more graphs from Hirschorn's story are worth pondering, as he makes a stab at trying to explain the Web-monetization problem in a way that makes sense, both in terms of the number of jobs a Web-only journalism product can support, and how utterly screwed up journalism has become financially as a result of the Web. First graph:
Most likely, the interim step for The Times and other newspapers will be to move to digital-only distribution (perhaps preserving the more profitable Sunday editions). Already, most readers of The Times are consuming it online. The Web site, nytimes.com, boasted an impressive 20 million unique users for the month of October, making it the fifth-ranked news site on the Internet in terms of total visitors. (The October numbers were boosted by interest in the election, but still …) The print product, meanwhile, is sold to a mere million readers a day and dropping, and the Sunday print edition to 1.4 million (and also dropping). Print and Web metrics are not apples-to-apples, but it’s intuitively the case that the Web has extended The Times’ reach many times over.

And the second graph:
What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation. This would allow The Times to continue to impose its live-from-the-Upper-West-Side
brand on the world without having to literally cover every inch of it. In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters—now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases—could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form. Times readers might actually end up getting more exposure than they currently do to reporting resources scattered around the globe, and to areas and issues that are difficult to cover in a general-interest publication.

So what do we think are the chances this will come to pass? Let's discuss.

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1 comment:

Lauren Yarger said...

I think many newspapers will go under and others will develop more of a web presence and that there are ways to streamline and combine print and electronic forms of media that the major papers haven't even begun to explore. The way news gets delivered always has been a changing process. The key to a democracy is that there IS a free and unbiased press, in whatever form. If we lose "free" and "unbiased," the means and potential to inform won't matter.