Politico's newest acquisition is sending shivers down the spine of one rightly worried reporter at the New York Times.
Capital New York, an outlet spearheaded by a number of ex-New York Observer staffers, covers state politics, media, culture, and sports, among other things. There are countless other websites doing the same, but the fact that Politico publisher Robert Allbritton purchased the company is a clear sign to competitors: there's something special about it, something you missed.
In response, Times reporter Leslie Kaufman issued what can only be called a "preemptive strike" against any parties eager to see what will come of Capital's young influence. She attacked the outlet as a "placid general interest site [whose editor,] lightly freckled with red hair and a sardonic sense of humor, is single and lives with his sister." Kaufman also ridiculed Capital's plan to offer specialized-content subscriptions for $99 per month in a media-saturated city like New York, failing to mention that Allbritton's successful Politico Pro business strategy is a major cash cow despite competing with a myriad of free (at least online) publications like the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, The Hill, Roll Call, and countless others.
It's becoming more apparent each day, though, that the New York Times is merely grasping at straws -- the Grey Lady's last effort to paint itself as something other than a stagnant reminder of old American journalism. Of media's three main families, the Sulzbergers remain the last to accept the inevitable. The Bancrofts sold the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch into 2007. The Grahams sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos in 2013. The Sulzberger sale is no longer a question of "if" but rather of "when" and "to whom."
As Frank Underwood might say, "I can smell which way the wind is blowing."
The trouble with the New York Times is that it still pretends to be the nation's watchdog, informing voters one sentence at the time. Yet its coverage of the Obama administration has been weak at best and akin to a transcription service at worst. Politico is no innocent party when it comes to detailing the lives of D.C.'s power players -- look at any Mike Allen exclusive -- but it does so in such an explicit manner that loyal readers embrace the newspaper as a polished industry newsletter. Politico is blatantly obsessive; the New York Times is subtly malleable. The latter isn't entertaining to read in the least.
For instance, in the New York Times' most recent interview with President Obama, which occurred less than two months after Glenn Greenwald began publishing the now-famous NSA revelations, its reporters failed to ask a single question about surveillance. The segment barely met the standards we assume are expected at daytime talk shows in order to avoid ruffling anyone's feathers, and the interview ended up just one more testament to the Grey Lady's pliability, especially after its editorial board criticized the administration for its intelligence programs and having "lost all credibility" only moments before editing the text to say otherwise. Talk about a brittle backbone.
The New York Times newsroom isn't too friendly to reporters who seek objectivity and accuracy in their stories, either. Case in point: when the staff lost its star blogger and pop-culture statistician Nate Silver. About 20 percent of the website's visitors went there to read Silver's vertical last year, a figure that jumped to 71 percent when isolating for visitors to the politics section. However, many colleagues didn't appreciate his disdain for their punditry. He packed his bags and walked right on over to ESPN earlier this year.
As for its less successful properties, the New York Times has been tossing them out like hotcakes. It discontinued the environment and energy blog, "Green," in March following the sudden closure of its environment desk months earlier. "Media Decoder," its media-business blog, which I quite enjoyed, now redirects to the website's general business section despite tireless scoops by Brian Stelter and David Carr and company.
Bland punditry aside, the New York Times' problem isn't that it can't produce engaging content (Silver and Stelter prove they can); it's that they fail to economize their content and retain their talent. Lackluster sales signal a need to change your business plan, not an inescapable collapse of industry. If the New York Times continues to market itself exclusively on the basis of its status as a historic journalistic staple, what kind of future can it really expect to have?
Attacking outlets like Capital New York for no other reason than being new to industry might be a fun way for the Times to tout its influence today, but it won't be fun when someone else is sitting atop that throne. And, if what Politico's doing to the Washington Post is any indication of what's heading toward the Big Apple, the New York Times should take heed and enjoy that influence while it lasts.