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Thursday, February 06, 2020

Bad News: The New York Times is Doing Great

I have had a post simmering on the back burner for a while on what's wrong with the NYT's 1619 Project. (Short answer: 1) Journalism is the "first rough draft of history," it's not history, and spending time on things outside the expertise of the profession, especially when so many areas--investigative reporting, foreign bureaus, serious local coverage--need more resources and are within its expertise is a poor choice. That's true regardless of one's views of the substantive claims of the Project. 2) It's the capitalism, stupid. Whatever the intentions of individual actors, institutionally the Project represents another effort, especially through its school-curriculum salesmanship, to find new markets in an environment that is not kind to the old journalism business model. Again regardless of the substance, or of one's sympathy for the plight of newspapers, this is letting the tail wag the god.) It's taken time because I'd like to do it right. In the meantime, motivated by my same love of journalism as the first "institution" I was a part of, here's another Times-related story. It's painted as mostly good if not great news, but it ain't necessarily so.

The Times reports today that it has "reached one major business goal and got more than halfway toward another....in 2019 it passed $800 million in annual digital revenue for the first time, an objective it had pledged to meet by the end of 2020. Most of that $800.8 million — more than $420 million of it — came from news subscribers. In the fourth-quarter earnings report that came out on Thursday, the company said its total subscription figure was over five million, a high. The company’s stated goal is to reach 10 million by 2025." It continues: "The company added more than one million net digital subscriptions last year — the most new subscriptions annually in the newspaper’s history. In a statement, Mark Thompson, the Times Company president and chief executive, called 2019 'a record-setting year for The New York Times’s digital subscription business, the best since the company launched digital subscriptions almost nine years ago.'" The story then notes that "Advertising was a weak spot, with print and digital ad revenue each declining slightly more than 10 percent in the final quarter of 2019, compared with the year before....The company said it expected to continue generating revenue more from readers than from the advertisers that were once integral to the newspaper business."

Sounds good! But it should be cause for worry as much as anything else. Leaving aside straight partisan denunciations of the Times (but not more measured arguments that the Times's style has become more partisan and less connected to its traditional model of mid-century professionalism), relying on subscribers rather than advertising may be a necessity, but it's not necessarily a virtue. A newspaper that relies entirely on its subscribers will rely on keeping them happy, including parroting their views and hiring staff who are likely to do the same thing. That is surely one reason for the change in tone in the paper and the style of its reporting. It also means spending time and editorial resources on the things those subscribers want rather than the things they need, something that newspapers could do more easily when there was an independent stream of advertising, including classified advertising. When one is inclined to praise the seriousness of the Times and the intelligence of its readers, it's always a good idea to take a look at its "Most Popular" list and "Editors' Picks." Today, they include such instructive and indicative pieces as "Coming Home to a New Upper West Side. Which Apartment Did She Pick?" and "7 Podcasts for a Healthier Mind and Body." The online page of the Times manages to include news stories, but also pushes forward a host of luxury and comfort pieces (although many of the news stories and virtually all the opinion pieces are, in essence, comfort pieces for its readers): "'Dad Naps' for Everyone," "Dunkaroos Are Back," and a personal favorite from just the other day: a lavish, impassioned, absurd defense of Goop. As it is written in Scripture, "Jesus wept."

Of course the Times has always embodied and represented bourgeois sentiment and suited those needs and interests (mine included, to be sure). But it is a lot harder to do anything other than that when you have no cushion from reader satisfaction. If the Times today is not anywhere close to the paper it ought to be--and that is my view, but only because it's true--it is not because it is less popular, but because it has no choice other than to run after popularity, with a particular readership, like a dog chasing a car. (Its other option--diversifying into things in which it has no expertise and which I think tend to harm rather than help its core mission, like TV shows, podcasts, and school curriculum tie-ins--is, as I suggested above, a prominent reason for the 1619 Project, and an unfortunate one.)

In the course of drafting my 1619 post, I came across a recent story boasting that the newsroom staff is larger than it has ever been in the paper's history, at some 1,600 staffers. That seems at first blush to counter my suggestion that the paper is pouring its resources into side projects and intellectual throw-pillows instead of areas of reporting we need much more. I would feel better about that statistic if so large a proportion of its staff did not seem devoted to offering recaps of late-night TV and other television shows and features on "What to Do About an Overtalker," and if it had not already gotten bought out so many of its more experienced editors and writers. The dubious level of experience and quality of its online editors, headline writers, and stories is evident to any reader.

I'm glad the Times is not dying. There are few big newspapers in the United States and few good ones, and such institutions do something different from the alternatives that have arisen and which do not serve the same important functions. But the incentives and necessities that have been a part of its growth, and which inevitably become the subject of sincere but reverse-engineered justifications on the part of its staff and leaders, are going to change it, and are more likely to make it big than good.        

   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 6, 2020 at 01:48 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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