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Thursday, June 18, 2009 02:55 am

What’s wrong with the New York Times?

Placing faith in the archaic notion that journalism sells

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I love the New York Times. I quote it so often my kids think I don’t know anything I didn’t read there. So naturally I was drawn to the long piece in May’s Vanity Fair on NYT publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and how he is steering the country’s flagship newspaper through the recession and the Internet revolution.

How dare they say such things!

“In 2001, the New York Times celebrated its 150th anniversary,” writes Mark Bowden. “In the years that have followed, Arthur Sulzberger has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” The article noted that the Times is the world’s most celebrated newspaper because it “sends a small army of reporters – 1,300 of them – into the field every day asking questions” and Sulzberger “has done more than anyone in the business to showcase newspaper journalism online.”

So what’s the problem? “The Sulzbergers embody one of the newsroom’s most cherished myths: journalism sells. But as a general principle, it simply isn’t true. Rather, advertising sells, journalism costs. Good journalism costs more today than ever, while ads have plummeted, particularly in print media. This is killing the Times, and every other decent newspaper in America. Arthur has manfully tied himself to the wheel, doggedly investing in quality reporting and editing even as his company loses more and more money.”

By the time it was finished, Vanity Fair almost had me convinced that this latest in a long line of Sulzbergers – who took over from his father 17 years ago – is clueless. Doesn’t he know newspapers need ads? Hasn’t anybody told him that you can’t just put up your newspaper on the Web because the Internet has a culture all its own?

So then I went to see how Newsweek is coping with the fact that its ad pages were down by 23 percent in the first quarter this year, and circulation has dropped from 2.6 million to 1.5 million. “It is no secret that the business of journalism is in trouble,” begins editor Jon Meacham in his introduction to the magazine’s new design in the May 25 issue.

Meacham makes a good case for the weekly cycle, something we in the newsweekly business like to hear. “The Internet does a good job of playing the role long filled by newspapers, delivering headlines, opinions and instant analysis,” he writes. “Many newspapers have long been forced into a traditional newsmagazine model, with longer-form reporting and more big-picture thinking, but they still have to do it every day, and there is only so much wisdom one can summon in a few hours.”

Then Meacham gets down to business. In the new Newsweek there will be two kinds of stories: the “reported narrative – grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact” and the “argued essay – a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something.” What is displaced? “The chief casualty is the straightforward news piece and news written with a few new details that does not move us significantly past what we already know.”

He makes it sound like Newsweek is just getting rid of the stuff we already know. There will still be a place for breaking news if it is “truly adding to the conversation.” Yet I wondered how will the magazine find the new news if its writers are all home penning essays?

I went where I always go for answers. The New York Times was unimpressed with Newsweek’s changes. “There is a hermetic feel to the reconception of the magazine that can make reading it seem like small ball, a retreat from mass ambitions to a smaller, more rarefied civic niche,” writes NYT media critic David Carr.

The Vanity Fair article criticizes Arthur Sulzberger as a “careful steward,” when “what the Times needs today is some wild-eyed genius of an entrepreneur.” It looks like the genius entrepreneur visited Newsweek instead. I mean, I know I should read what Fareed Zakaria has to say about “The Capitalist Manifesto” (the current Newsweek cover), but I’m not sure I’ll get to it today.

The article hedges its bets about the New York Times by quoting an industry analyst saying, “Nobody has figured out what to do,” and conceding that if Sulzberger weathers the economic storm after placing his faith in news then he will be vindicated. His approach “evidences a devotion to quality journalism amid the growing din of propaganda and digital frivolity; after all, most of the real reporting done in America is still done by newspapers.”

“Arthur will remain every journalist’s dream publisher. . . . Today he represents the best hope, reporters and editors would like to believe, of weathering the crisis without the soul-killing budget cuts that turn great newspapers into little more than supermarket circulars.”

I’ll stick with the careful steward.

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