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Save The New York Times: Bankrupt It

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Everyone seems to agree that we need save journalism as we watch newspapers slowly sink into insolvency.

Why? Mike Royko, the acerbic, blue-collar, Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Daily News put it best, I think, when he wrote that "a reporter is to a politician as a barking dog is to a chicken thief." The country needs these watchdogs not only for politicians but also for businesses, Wall Street, and the climate.

Many newspapers, magazines, blogs, commissions, and even the government have taken up the question of saving journalism. One report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," by former Washington Post Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. and respected newspaper historian Michael Schudson and sponsored by the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the most extensive research I've seen that has been conducted on the subject to date.

Downie and Schudson are basically optimistic, especially for local journalism, but they are less optimistic for hard-hitting, responsible investigative reporting on national issues and put forth some ideas and suggestions for preserving this important type of journalism. See this video interview with Schudson to get a summary of the report.

Here are my specific suggestions:
  • Because TheNew York Times is the best and most important newspaper in the country, its survival must be addressed first.
  • First, TheTimes must be wrested away from the Sulzberger family. How?
  • Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have to start things off by agreeing to put a $5 billion matching grant from the Gates Foundation into a new Journalism Preservation Foundation and then pressure other billionaires (Bloomberg, Murdoch, Redstone, Ted Turner, Page and Brin of Google included) to contribute to get the fund up to $10 billion.
  • Buy Carlos Slim's $250 million loan to The Times by giving him 15 or 16 percent interest on his money. He'll take the deal because he doesn't care about the viability of The Times or journalism. If he did he would have given it a lower interest rate; he cares about the money - that's how he got so rich.
  • Then, call in TheTimes's loan as soon as legally possible, which will force it into bankruptcy.
  • When the paper is in bankruptcy, offer to buy out the Sulzberger family's voting stock at a big discount and buy non-voting stock at pennies on the dollar. Investors who were dumb enough to buy non-voting stock in a company run by Pinch Sulzberger deserve to lose most of their money.
  • While the paper is in bankruptcy, get rid of current business-side management (Sulzberger, Robinson, etc.) and the many layers of bureaucratic management and hire bright, young professional managers who want to save journalism and are not interested in getting rich - make sure they live in Queens or Brooklyn where they can hobnob with the folks and not need to pay high rents.
  • Negotiate ruthlessly with the paper's unions to get major concessions.
  • Renegotiate the contracts with all the editors, reporters, and columnists. It's an honor to write for The Times and the top compensation should be $200,000 and contracts should be 360 contracts like the record companies are making with musicians in which the paper would get a percentage (40 percent?) of the speaking and consulting fees. Reporters, editors, and columnists wouldn't get gigs without Times exposure, so the paper should get some of the action. If they don't like the deal, they can try to get a job that pays more somewhere else - they could interview at Google, for example.
  • Charge $299 a year for online subscriptions to a complete version of the Web site and put a Times Lite version on the Web free and charge non-subscribers a per article fee for the heavy versions of articles.
  • Give students with an .edu e-mail address a 33 percent discount on subscriptions.
  • Charge readers who want to get the newspaper printed on paper and delivered the actual cost of each paper - if it's $10 a paper, so be it. If they want their fingers smudgy, let them pay for it.
  • When The Times exits from bankruptcy, it will be a non-profit organization run for purpose of putting out great journalism, not for making a profit. That's a start. I'll have some more ideas in Part II, but in the meantime, I'd like to hear your ideas on how to save journalism and The New York Times