Because I am the author of the 2012 book Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times and several Huffington Post blogs about the Times since the book's publication, and because I have been on CSPAN and quite a few NPR and other radio stations discussing my book, I am often asked about the Times' future as a print newspaper as well as a news-gathering organization.
The recent buyouts of several of the most prominent Times people that were announced last week have increased these inquiries. No organization can afford to lose the number of major figures that the Times lost last week, and I am surprised that more hasn't been made of the significance of these losses in the media. Never have so many top people left at once, and I am not sure the offer of buyouts explains this. To be sure, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan -- whom I am hoping will develop more of a critical edge -- recognized the importance of those who departed, but did not speculate about the reasons for the exodus or about its effect on morale and effectiveness. Many institutions have had buyouts, and the most eminent people don't rush to the doors unless the place faces economic collapse or there are underlying tensions.
The Times lost the two of its five top masthead figures: John Geddes, one of the two Managing Editors, and William E. Schmidt, one of two Deputy Managing Editors. It also lost Culture Editor Jonathan Landman, who until 2009 was a deputy managing editor for digital journalism and who as Culture Editor was presiding over one of the Times' signature departments. The Times lost another masthead figure, James Roberts, who not only played a pivotal role in developing digital journalism at the Times, but also has an immense Twitter following. Also departing was the Sports Editor and former Metro Editor Joe Sexton, and a number of other important senior editors and reporters. Landman and Roberts -- both of whom along with Sexton had been there since 1987 -- as well as Geddes and Schmidt are important figures in the recent history of the New York Times.
According to Executive Editor Jill Abramson's Jan. 28 staff memo:
We will continue to reposition ourselves, to meet the challenges of remaking ourselves for the digital age. The changes under way are part of the journey that we've been on for years: integrating our print and digital operations, expanding our reporting, deepening our ways of telling stories, innovating in ways that make our journalism the literal envy of our profession and the joy of our readers.
To me this sounds like puffery and evasion in the face of major departures. Given that financial decisions originate on the business side, I would have expected the names of Mark Thompson -- as of Nov. 12, 2012, the President and Chief Executive of the New York Times Company -- and his boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, Chairman of the New York Times Company -- to be invoked in Abramson's official announcement that appeared in the Times' own article about the buyouts and her response. (Christine Haughney, "After Staff Reductions, New Appointments at The Times, " Jan 28, 2013).
One wonders, too, how hard Abramson fought these buyouts or whether she wanted to remake the top managerial staff with more of her own appointments. Certainly Abramson will not have gained much love from the announcement. Despite the respect of her colleagues for her intelligence, ability, work ethic, and her encouragement of Times women, not a few senior people were wary of her sometimes abrasive nature and her hard driving manner that often ignores grace notes. Her style was perceived as unlike that of Bill Keller, her predecessor, or Dean Baquet, appointed to Managing Editor at the same time Abramson was appointed. Baquet, in fact, was the choice for Executive Editor of some people who spoke to me.
Undoubtedly the unpopular Mark Thompson -- former BBC Director General -- whose mission is to cut costs and to achieve a viable business model -- is behind this move. Thompson arrived somewhat tainted by the BBC's Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal about which he claimed at first to be unaware. That Joe Nocera wrote a scathing column about his appointment in late October reflects the views of many of the senior staff who would have much preferred either an internal appointment or one with experience with American journalism.
I have not been getting much cooperation from my usual sources -- perhaps those who took the buyout signed a confidentiality agreement? -- although one long time Times newsperson wrote me that, "We have been largely kept in the dark about the finances behind this and the future plans. My own group, formed a year ago, was busted up and we have all been reassigned to different departments. We are puzzled and shaken." My source added that recent events are "too muddled, murky, painful."
What about the current Times product? I think up to now the excellent quality of international and national reporting has remained at a high standard. With its coverage of Syria and now Algeria, the Times continues to excel in foreign reporting, a field in which it has no real competition in the U.S. media. Its 2012 election coverage was outstanding and Nate Silver's analyses and punditry were on the mark. In the weeks following the election, I would have liked more emphasis on the margin of Obama's victory in the popular vote -- almost five million -- to dispute the widely held illusion that the election was close. To be sure, we still find what I call Timeslite, where on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, an article discussing how much skeet shooting the President did was preceded by a front-page picture of him shooting a rifle.
I see much more emphasis on video and indeed, according to the Abramson announcement, one of the assistant managing editors, Richard Berke, will now be focusing on that.
But, now that the total newsroom staff has been reduced from a high of 1450 to 1150 without any assurance that this is the last cut and the almost certainty that it isn't, there will come a time when a smaller staff of reporters and editors will do less. Specifically, perhaps the Times will not be able to do the kind of investigative -- what it calls enterprise -- journalism that requires one and often more staff members to take some time to look into, say, the wealth of Chinese leader Wen Jiabao and his family, a story that triggered the recent hacking of the Times by the Chinese.
As I have pointed out in my book Endtimes? and elsewhere, the Times' basic problem is that its business model is not working. Buyouts of the most senior newsroom people as part of a thirty person reduction in the newsroom do not solve the real problems. For every $25 lost by the decline in print advertising, about $1 replaces it in digital advertising. Costs of paper and wages keep rising.
Recently as high as eleven but once in the low fifties, the stock of the New York Times Company is back in the high single digits -- even in the current bull market -- and its capitalization is a little over a billion. The stock hasn't paid dividends in some years.
In a desperate effort to raise revenue, the Times continues to offer new products, some of which have little to do with its newsgathering mission. For example, this past week the New York Times Company announced something called "Timespace," described as
a new initiative from The New York Times Company that brings entrepreneurs to our headquarters to refine and grow their businesses. Over four months, you and your team will work out of 620 8th Avenue, meet with relevant Times staff, demo your product and teach/learn alongside entrepreneurs and employees who make their livings in digital media, technology and journalism.
Apparently, staff members will work with these companies to help make money and presumably so will the Times.
Or take the Times sponsored conference "Building Sustainable Cities," where tickets are priced at $1,500, although "If you are from an academic institution or NGO, you may be eligible for a reduced fee, and should enter those details in the request for invitation form." We must not forget, alas, that the New York Times Company launched in 2009 a Wine Club, stressing an interest in "the ways that we can delve further into our audience and bring them products and services that basically enhance the bond with the New York Times."
Is the print Times becoming obsolete? What we do know is that, given similar means and education, younger people spend less time reading news than older people, that online readers spend less time reading news gathering sites than print readers, and that people of every age spend less time with news sites than they once did.
So what does the future hold? In addition to the Texas, Bay Area, and Chicago print editions, the Times may try more regional editions.
My guess is that the Saturday Times, which always has lagged in circulation, will be the first to go, and that will happen within the next few years. The Sunday Times would then become the weekend edition. Probably some years later, the Times will, as many papers already have, cut back to three or four days in print, and perhaps eventually only the Sunday Times will appear in print.
I have also speculated about the possibility of a shorter print paper on the model of the International Herald Tribune, perhaps with a weekly print magazine containing the kind of back of the book features that now appear in the daily Times. Among other things, the Times needs to have other media, which use its foreign news without sharing the cost, to contribute substantively to maintaining that coverage.
But the sad news is the Times newsgathering operation will not survive long term even as a digital operation if it cannot make a profit. And it has not proven is able to do so. Perhaps those leaving see the writing on the wall.
Author of Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, 2012), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ danRSchwarz and reached at email@example.com