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Can the New York Times Pass GO and Collect $200?

The woman told me that she doesn't like to French-kiss her husband.

I didn't know this woman. But on Dec. 6, 2009, I was told her name, and in moments she delivered this intimate confession. And I thought at that moment, "So this is how it ends."

It is the New York Times, and the woman is a writer who wrote an article in the Times Sunday Magazine about marriage counseling. Regarded by many, including myself, as the best newspaper in the country, and perhaps the world, it has fallen in on itself, trying desperately to find its way in a world that in quick succession was turned upside down by television, and now by the Internet. I will try to explain here why this woman's literary gifts are detrimental to the Times.

In the midst of a economic downturn, the Times appears to have decided on a plan for charging readers of the online edition of the paper. At least that's what New York Magazine says. I take the article at face value because if the losers in the internal debate at the Times don't know how to leak a story, who does? The insiders seem to have been divided on the question, with the top people in the newsroom arguing to make readers pay, and the people who run the online edition wanting to keep the content free. Such a lineup might have been expected, but it seems clear to this innocent bystander that the online people are dead right, and the top editors (who were at the Times are almost always top reporters) are dead wrong, perhaps blinded by their own notions of self-importance.

Here's the way I see it: If the Times is indeed the best of the best, and I think it is, then it should be the last man standing in the mother of all newspaper wars. In the background of this fight to the finish, there are two big problems in the newspaper business. The first is enormous, superfluous duplication. The second lies in the content itself. I'll address the first first.

This morning, all the major news outlets wrote about the bold attack by the Taliban in Kabul. CNN, the BBC, Reuters, and the AP all had pretty much the same story, covering the basics. The Times had a breathless report from its man in Kabul, and the Washington Post had a somewhat more measured first-hand report. The wire service group presented a perfectly adequate and informative account. Frankly, they were enough. The two big newspapers were more dramatic and perhaps better, but the point is the reading public doesn't need all of these. A comparison of the accounts might be of interest to academics or partisans of capitalist competition (like that on Wall Street), but they are all more or less the same. It would be stupid for a reader like me to pay for one while the other is free. In this way, I stay informed without paying, and the surviving newspaper has a better and better chance of surviving on the web because it will be the only venue of its kind for advertisers. One has only to compare Google stock prices to the New York Times Company shares to see the point. Google, the dominant search engine and email provider, thrives on the web selling ads, and the Times is starving.

The argument of the faction that wants to charge for the content has to rest, at least implicitly, on the belief that the content of the Times is superior. This is where the second problem comes in. It seems to me that the Times management has a firm grasp of the cost of everything that appears in the paper, but little idea of the value of all the different pieces. One has to understand how the newspaper came to contain all the different stuff it does.

In the past, the only way to read any of the newspaper was to buy the whole thing, in one big wad of folded newsprint. If publishers of the preceding generation decided to add a furniture section, it didn't bother sports readers, but it gained furniture readers. If they included more restaurant reviews, rock 'n roll reviews, gallery reviews, they were just able to collect more newspaper readers without losing the old ones. In this way, the size and content of the physical paper grew steadily since World War II. This dynamic was intensified by geography. Just as the physical New York Times is hard to find in Topeka, it's also hard to find the physical Washington Post in New York City. And so publishers all had their little turfs, and they made them more lucrative by including more and more stuff in the products. More readers, more advertisers.

Publishing on the Web requires some discipline that publishers, and editors and reporters as well, are not used to exercising. They have to think about the value of the different components of their papers. When they merely had to add some new feature and gain a few more readers and advertisers, they did not have to think too clearly. It usually worked. Now, instead of fighting of whether they should charge or not, newspaper managers have to think about what they got and what they want to keep. This is the hard part.

Big time editors and reporters share a perceptual problem with drug dealers, bartenders, college professors, prison guards and chief executive officers of all kinds: Everybody laughs at their jokes. And these people, including editors and reporters, are only human. They start believing the flattery at once. The illusion of omniscience germinates. Power blinds the people who wield it. It clears the path to arrogance. It's a particularly tough spot for newspapers because there are so many little fiefs, and every one of the little aristocrats are absolutely convinced of the value of what they do. But some of them have got to go. And others have got to change. This point is not exclusively about quality, but about competition and relative strengths. The Times recently dumped 100 newsroom employees, mostly low- and mid-level staff through buyouts and layoffs. This will temporarily save some cash, but it won't change the final result much. The paper has to decide what it is good at and what it is not good at.

Here's where I started. The Times is not particularly good at stories about French-kissing. That article was of a kind of confessional that abounds in solipsistic slick magazines and on television. The Times cannot compete well in that arena. Maybe it tickles some people, but honestly, if one is turned on by such intimacies, there are hundreds of places to find them. I'd suggest that whoever really runs the paper spend some hours on Youtube, and then decide if they have more to say on the subject. The Times has an amazing array of offerings, and it does have some readers for all of them, as the bosses of all of those little power centers will passionately attest to. But they really have to know how many buyers they have for each little corner of the business.

The Times has to decide what it's good at, and then to drop the rest. Then the paper must find the courage to stick to its bet.

Posted 18 January 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman