Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The End is the Beginning (is the End?)

In this week's Vanity Fair roundtable, contributing editor Michael Wolff puts it to the man and criticizes the New York Times for its recent $850 million pomp and circumstance despite disintegrating confidence in its own writing, operations, and management - in other words, a grave identity crisis for "the paper of record."

Aside from his potshots at publisher Arthur Sulzberger and U.S. President Dubya, Wolff lays out clear reasons for the Times' corpulant corporate gait: unclear, ineffective management, led by Sulzberger's informal but effective blurring of the lines between editorial, executive, and shareholder power; the Times' sham of an impression that it is ahead of the technology game with its admittedly comprehensive website (an aside: Mr. Wolff, your comparison of MySpace unique monthly hits to NYTimes.com's unique monthly hits was, in my opinion, an impossible one to use, though your point remains valid); and its not-so-strategic maneuvers as a corporation purchasing items wholly unrelated to the news/media process.

Now, hang on here. While I wholly agree that the NYT Company is at best bloated and sloth, I must point out that there are bigger issues that were not addressed. Why must the Times be singled out as the only paper facing problems?

Aside from the corporate mismanagement - which I would have preferred as an excellent sister article - the Times is facing the same problem every newsroom in every town in the country is facing: how to disseminate the same information profitably in the digital age where a physical medium to distribute content is no longer necessary. Shaving inches off its paper edition (notice, we would never have had to discern the "paper edition" five years ago) and adding advertisements are surely gasps at fresh air- but not lifesavers.

Is the Times alone in this? No, but it's certainly a figurehead for the industry.

The solution of an all-new business model, ground-up, is imminent. That's for certain. But what Mr. Wolff did point out, quite wonderfully, is a larger problem - that the Times has a terrible identity crisis in its own pages, not just in boardrooms. Its attempt to unite the nation with one broadsheet has ruined its coverage of the one thing it covered unparalleled: New York City.

Mr. Wolff writes:

Unlike The Washington Post, which has put much of its editorial and business energies into dominating its local market, the Times's strategy—a doomsday scenario, foreseeing a one-newspaper nation, a last-man-standing paper—has been to make the paper national. Hence, The New York Times is no longer principally a metropolitan paper. With a daily circulation of 260,000 in the five boroughs, it's no longer even creditably a New York paper. (Its two tabloid competitors, the Daily News and the New York Post, have far more readers in New York City.) It's an Everyman suburban daily.

Two hundred sixty thousand! At 50,000 people per square mile in Manhattan, that's only just over five square miles of an island that covers 23.7 square miles and a sliver of a city (proper) that covers 301 square miles! Of course, I don't expect everyone to read the Times. But as a paper considered "essential" by most journalists (those at Fox are politely excused), it's an embarrassing figure.

In covering the rest of the country and globe, the New York Times forgot to cover one thing: New York.

To survive, the Times must consolidate its reach and, while still providing impressive national and foreign coverage, stop trying to one-up local papers and stick to its own identity. Otherwise, what is the point in running all of those features on New York neighborhoods? I doubt someone in Tennessee knows where Greenpoint, Brooklyn is.

Pick an identity and stick with it, NYT, and while you're at it, make sure the name of the paper matches its contents.

At least USA Today has an alibi.

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