Is the new public editor fulfilling her responsibility or is she missing the big picture?
The controversy over James M. Broder's article about his test drive of a Tesla electric car is not a major issue but rather a tempest in a teapot, and the attention Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan gave it was disproportionate to its importance and perhaps an indication of her avoiding major issues that readers expect her to discuss. What she ought be writing about is how well Mark Thompson, the new CEO, and Jill Abramson as executive editor along with Publisher Arthur Sulzbeger, Jr. are driving the vehicle of the New York Times newsroom and company.
Something major is going in terms of the culture of the Times and to my mind Sullivan has not been reporting on important developments in three areas: 1) staff changes; 2) the financial implications of those and other changes; and 3) the gradual change in the Times' content. She is the reader's representative and needs to find out how newsroom people are responding to major staff changes and recent financial decisions. As Arthur Gelb, former managing editor, told me some years ago the way to understand the contemporary Times is to "Follow the money." Notwithstanding recent staff buyouts as well as the plan to sell the Boston Globe, do CEO Thompson and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. have a viable long-term business model for the Times Company? It is not enough for the Times to say that it does, as it has been saying unconvincingly for the better part of a decade.
While Sullivan has been careful, conscientious, and judicious in her first months as public editor and has written some nice columns and blogs, she needs more of an edge and needs to probe more deeply into what Mark Thompson and Jill Abramson are doing. She might put a sign over her desk: "News is what somebody, somewhere is trying to suppress; the rest is advertising." (Lord Northcliffe, British Newspaper Publisher.)
Often her columns and comments read like the Times' house organ. She needs to ask bigger questions and take a broader overview of where the Times is going. She needs to push harder and be more of a nuisance. She is the reader's representative, not the Times' spokesperson.Changes in Senior Leadership Can any organization lose the senior talents that the Times has lost without being adversely affected? In addition to losing one of its two Managing Editors, John Geddes, and one of its two Deputy Managing Editors, William E. Schmidt, the Times lost Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts, who played a crucial role in developing digital journalism, and Jonathan Landman, cultural editor and, before holding that position, deputy managing editor for digital journalism. I had found Landman, while writing Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, a civilizing, agreeable, and forthcoming presence in the sometimes competitive environment of the Times newsroom. Two other masthead figures -- Glenn Kramon and Richard Berke -- were apparently demoted and assigned new jobs. Thus only Susan Chira and Michele McNally remain of the recent five assistant managing editors. According to Executive Editor Jill Abramson:
"[W]e were at a point in our evolution and in making the digital transition successfully where, some of the top jobs in the newsroom we sort of could no longer afford. They're great people, they're incredibly talented, they're Times people to the core, they do have amazing institutional memory, but in some ways, they were editors of editors. We just had a lot of layers. The newsroom now, you need to have direct reports of all kinds, and that's just an extra layer that we can't afford, and I questioned whether we still needed some of those jobs." (quoted in Joe Pompeo, Capital, Feb 20, 2013.)
One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to understand how revealingly conflicted is this muddled statement coming from a usually articulate person who has presided over the departure of people she has worked with for decades. It sounds as if she wants to believe but is hardly convinced that these luminaries had become supernumeraries presiding over unnecessary tasks.
Were these buyouts something of a purge in which Abramson put in place more of her people and both she and Thompson rid themselves of senior people who resisted their ideas of what a newsroom should look like? At least one of the above people indicated to me a few months before taking a buyout how much he was enjoying his position. As I noted in my Feb 5, 2013 Huffington Post piece, we have specific evidence of anxiety and confusion within the newsroom ("What Is the Future of the New York Times as of Feb. 2013").
The Times as Newsgathering Organization Under Abramson and Thompson
Public Editor Sullivan might also be addressing, among several major reader concerns, whether the Times is dumbing down its content and whether columnists should be given a pulpit for decades.
With more digital emphasis on videos -- some no more than filmed chats--and blogs, and far more digital content if measured by total words, the Times is hedging its bets that its print version will continue to exist.
The Times still excels at foreign news, investigative journalism, and political analysis. Highlights are the splendid Tuesday Science Times and on Friday, excellent coverage of the visual arts. The newer columnists -- Charles Blow (who took some time to find his now eloquent voice), Joe Nocera, and Frank Bruni -- all add a fresh op-ed perspective.
But the Times continues to become more and more of a magazine with more and more focus on feature stories and "how to live" stories, and, in part because breaking stories come from many simultaneous sources, less on hard news. To be sure, Adam Liptak carries on the tradition of Supreme Court coverage begun by Linda Greenhouse, and, on balance, the coverage of Syria has been by far the most substantive of major media, although I do think the Syria story should be covered every day in the print version and have a special place online other than simple inclusion in the Middle East sub-site of World.
Important "how to live" articles, such as Feb. 25, 2013 on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, may belong on the print front page. But what I have called Timeslite proliferates not only in its Style, Home, Travel, and often Business section, but also often in the news sections. For example, did Jim Rutenberg's Feb. 23, 2013 article on Michael Goldfarb's, "A Conservative Provocateur, Using a Blowtorch as Pen" deserve a place on the print front page? Leaving aside the title that seems more appropriate to the tabloids, isn't Goldfarb just another noise in the social media cacophony?
What about Douglas Quenqua's laudatory article, "The Boy Wonder of BuzzFeed" about Ben Smith which was buried in Fashion and Style? Can anyone use the word "wonder" other than facetiously when discussing the lightweight content of the site BuzzFeed? Is fluff undermining what we expect in terms of a quality Times product?
The New York Times Company's Business Model
Because the Times is the most important newsgathering source in the United States and, in that capacity, a public trust in which we all have an interest, I think Times readers deserve a more detailed analyses of the quarterly report and the Company's strategies. What readers require is an independent media journalist with financial expertise writing under the auspices of the public editor or, even better, having such a journalist writing under a separate financial ombudsman portfolio.
As I have discussed in my book Endtimes? I have been reading and analyzing the Times Company's overly optimistic financial pronouncements and quarterly reports for many years. These reports have been, alas, more advertising than news.
Internet advertising revenue does not begin to compensate for the hemorrhaging of print advertising. According to the Times Company fourth quarter report, circulation revenue -- digital and print -- topped ad revenue. I doubt that this is a viable business model but I would like to see an independent analysis.
With the New York Times Company stock still under $10 a share (it was once over $50 a share), the stock market has remained skeptical about Mark Thompson's leadership. In the past several weeks he has not only presided over the unprecedented buyouts of senior staff, but also in the past month the Times Company has announced yet another attempt to sell (at a steep loss from the $1.1 Billion purchase price) the Boston Globe and the rest of the properties housed in the New England Media Group. The Times has also announced that it will be changing the name of the iconic International Herald Tribune--which the Times company owns -- to the International New York Times. It remains to be seen if these changes, along with the 2012 sale of Indeed.com and the About Group, will change the unimpressive and struggling bottom line. Part of Wall Street's skepticism towards Thompson may be based on whether he can ultimately survive continuing revelations about his leadership of BBC, notwithstanding Arthur's Sulzberger's present backing.
Is there any chance the extended Sulzberger family, who through the B shares owned by a family trust controls the board of directors by electing the majority, would sell all or part of its holdings? Warren Buffett bought 28 newspapers in the past year; he owns the Buffalo News and has a stake in the Washington Post Company. Given the Times Company's low capitalization ($1.4 billion), I have thought for a while that were the Sulzbergers to sell--not likely, but no dividends are not a plus for the less wealthy members of the large Trust-- Buffett or, especially, Michael Bloomberg would be possible buyers of a prestige brand and could integrate the Times newsgathering operation into their media empire. The family would never sell to Rupert Murdoch whose name is an obscenity in the Times newsroom and business offices.
To return to my original premise, I would like the Public Editor to be more aggressive in informing readers about what I believe are transformational events in the Times' history, events that may be pointing in the long term to the demise of its print version and even perhaps to the sale of the company.
Author of the recently published Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.