The Times will change

So now the hedge funds pushing New York Times Company management own about as much as the Sulzberger family. I don’t know whether they’ll win their effort to elect directors to the board, but I do think this has reached a critical mass and that the family and management will be forced to make strategic changes. So I’m curious: what would you change? The hedge funds are urging the company to divest some assets and concentrate on the Times, investing in digital. What do you suggest? (And please refrain from the obvious Times-bashing. There’s plenty of opportunity for that in the post below about the McCain scandal. This is about the business of news and media.)

  • Walter Abbott

    I’ve thought about this for several hours since you posted and I really can’t think of a thing they can do. They’re done for, along with many other major metropolitan newspapers across the county.

    If you look strictly at the business side, newspapers are (or were) merely communications devices that provide advertisers a vehicle to showcase products or services to customers. That’s it.

    Newspaper publishers often got confused and thought they were in the business of reporting news. Similarly, television broadcasters think they’re in the “entertainment” business.

    Not so. There is no future for newspapers that print news no one reads and television that broadcasts entertainment no one watches.

    With the plethora of new media distribution systems, it looks to me like “broadcast” as exemplified by newspapers and broadcast tv are not as efficient as “narrowcast” in delivering advertising efficiently to customers.

    And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

  • Jeff, Not Times bashing, but reality. They would need to change their culture, and I do not believe it is going to happen. Former Public Editor Daniel Okrent opened the door by admitting non-defensively that the Times is a liberal paper. The Times has to embrace its liberalism and use it to build more loyalty among liberal readers and gain more trust among non-liberal ones. The future of news will be similar to the partisan model of London’s papers, and similar to America’s papers prior to a century ago. If the Times wants to have a future, that seems to me to be the only reasonable path. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • I think the first thing they have to change is their attitude towards the news and information flow. We are long past the day when any one source could claim to be the first and last words on a story – and the Times doesn’t seem to recognize that anything has changed. That’s why they are so shocked by what has happened to them on the McCain story. How could anyone dare to question them? Perhaps what’s needed most is some people on the board of directors who actually understand new media and, even more important, how the information flow has changed forever.

  • David

    This may sound trivial — but I don’t think it is. The first thing I’d do is get rid of the motto “All the news that’s fit to print” that has adorned every front page for 100 years or so. That motto sets the philisophical tone for the enterprise, and that type of thinking in journalism today is OVER. Either update it, or scrap it altogether.

  • Bill K.

    Jeff, I know you were a content consultant for the NY Times’, but I rarely go there for information. There are more authoritative sites depending upon the topic I need to research. As for fast-breaking stories, Reuters or the AP do the best that they can, with bloggers who know the subject matter better cleaning up their mess by doing the fact-checking.

    I know Jason Calacanis is hard at work developing his own human-powdered directory of Web info at, but I’m sure he’s facing the same issues as I’m sure he has some ideas on how it could be better, or what strategy they should persue.

  • Rob

    I disagree with the above comments about the Times having to work to side with their liberal readers. The Times should be about the news, in as unbiased a way as possible. They should not work to pick one side over the other, they should work to present the facts in as unbiased a way as possible. I would rather have a few entities focused on news that way to compensate for all of the biased news out there.

  • I just realized that Gawker’s traffic just passed the San Jose Mercury News’s traffic.

  • elizabeth

    On first blush this may sound naive, but hear me out. The NYT should step back from and significantly reduce their political reporting, which they clearly cannot report on objectively, and which has caused a great deal of their credibility problems over the past decade or more. Jayson Blair aside, their vast resources and talented writers still could make a tremendous impact and provide enormous value in the areas of foreign affairs, rise of China, large city issues, this American lifestyle, water and ecological concerns, business trends, etc. The American political waterfront is clearly more maturely and ably managed by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as several other big city newspapers with Washington Bureaus. Many sites on the net have also shown themselves to be effective at getting scoops and to be more thoroughly reliable in their reportage than the NYT.

    I can’t help but wish the NYT had spent as much effort on sniffing out the abuses and implications of the sub-prime mortgage mess, for example, as they did on Abu Ghraib and FISA in the same time period. Might that story not have been a greater “gift” to America? Might that not have had a more lasting impact?

  • I’m sorry if this sounds glib. First I would change the publisher.

  • Maybe stop launching smear campaigns against presidential candidates, no matter how horrible they may be.

  • Matt Neznanski

    I agree that the culture must change. Just as New York isn’t the center of the universe, neither is the Times the epicenter of journalism anymore.
    How about focusing daily coverage on New York and regional northeast news, printing that for subscribers in that region and online. Then print a national magazine (with corresponding online product–not shovelware, but added value) that could tap the investigative power of the organization for the wider audience.
    News organizations are learning-however slowly-that we can’t be all things for all people. But the Times can be more relevant things for more people and that might keep them afloat.

  • Lary Weber

    All media face the problem of the perception of bias. However creative magement of biases may lead to a solution to the financial problems the papers face.

    The Times has managed to display and confirm its bias thus narrowing it potential readership. However, it could truly break new ground while retaining and admitting its existing biases if alternative biases were affirmatively introduced into the paper.

    Articles in which bias in bias was likely to be perceived by readers would be collaborations of two writers: one with a liberal bias and one with a conservative bias. These articles would be structured in three discreet parts. A] what both writers agree upon [this could be the facts, speculation as to outcome, motives, importance, etc. However both contributors would have to agree to everything included in this section. B] the liberal contributor’s unrrestrained observations, opinions, dissents, etc. C] the conservative contributors unrestrained observations, opinions, dissents, etc.

    Fox Nightly News and many of the pundit shows on network television employ this technique and it enjoys wide support among viewers. For example the “panel” part of the Brit Hume show tees up a subject in a more or less “neutral” way. While weighted toward conservatives, the panels includes Moira Liasson, Juan Williams, and others with perceived “non-conservative” biases who get their fair share of time to voice their opinions and react to Krauthammer, Barnes, etc. Fox reports this is far and away the most well received part of their broadcast.

    One can reasonably argue that this suggestion basically turns every story into an op-ed “tossup” question and thus drags opinion into places in the paper where it does not belong. Probably true. However, such a charge ignore the reality that readers are convinced there is already opinion throughout the “news” sections of the paper. This proposal simply formalizes and balances what is percieved to be happening now.

    As a reader I would jump for a publication which forthrightly acknowledges that there may be two sides to the story and attempts to present both sides. I can foresee a re-invigoration of the newsroom as “counter cultural” thought is introduced. [“I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon” would be a phrase from the past.] I can see the readership of the paper expanding dramatically as readers who now dismiss the Times as a untrustworthy source return as well and new readers are captured who would opt for the one source which lays out both sides.

    If the Times’ hierarchy is willing abondon what appears to be its “messianic” mission I believe there are ways to pump readership and step back from the financial abyss.

  • Lary, Those are very interesting and logical points. But I think what the Internet will ultimately expose is that the key place bias is introduced is in the selection of news stories and angles, e.g. was the McCain story sufficiently newsworthy to discuss?. Even Fox begins with the premise that the “national conversation” as chosen by the NYT/WaPo/AP is valid before it debates the pros and cons. I envision a future in which partisan news outlets will choose their own stories/angles that make their own side look good and the other bad, and will attract like-minded communities. I think this will be a positive development — the marketplace, not elites, will be selecting the top stories. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Guy Love

    The NYT is the flagship of traditional media in the newspaper arena. They have historically served the role of starting a national news cycle on a given topic as their brethren in the traditional broadcast media often run with their stories. This has unfortunately promoted an intellectual arrogance at the NYT which has prevented their leadership from adjusting to the change in the news industry in the last decade. The NYT and all journalists need to abandon their self-appointed role that their job is to change the mindset of America vs. just reporting the news. This is a cultural issue which will be difficult for them to adjust to as they perceive it as giving up power and influence.

    The great strength that an organization like the NYT has over other types of media is their ability to doggedly pursue stories from beginning to end with in-depth reporting. The NYT needs to leverage this asset by unwinding complex stories for the public. Complex stories can take weeks or months or years to unfold (i.e. the sub-prime mess), and organizations like the NYT should be the place for the readership to go for understanding news of that nature. Imagine if the readership could tap into any related archived articles that tracked how an event unfolded without being forced to find them? The readership could then ask for more information on a detail and the NYT staff could go get the answers. This type of collaborative effort would energize the relationship between the NYT and its readership. They somehow need to take advantage of that type of capability to define their own niche in the alternative media future.

  • jeff,

    I’ve published my ideas here


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  • I love your blog.