Thursday, January 8, 2009

the end of the Times as we know it?

Writing in The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn discusses what could happen if the The New York Times runs out of money in May. Stuff to think about.

Among the scenarios, going completely digital, Hirschorn writes, which could mean the end of a ritual for many American purists. In addition, he writes, "... it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict."

The problem is in the numbers. While some 20 million readers catch the NYT online, as compared to about a million for the print edition, the latter pay to read. And they are worth significantly more to advertisers who will pay handsomely to play in print -- but not so much on the Web. The result, Hirschorn predicts, is that if the paper were to go completely digital, revenues would decrease such that it might have to reduce its staff by 80 percent.

Here's how he envisions the endpoint:

"... would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would.

"Clearly, over the short run, there would be a culling of the journalistic herd. If 80 percent of The Times staff ends up laid off, many of them won’t find their way to new reporting jobs. But over the long run, a world in which journalism is no longer weighed down by the need to fold an omnibus news product into a larger lifestyle-tastic package might turn out to be one in which actual reportage could make the case for why it matters, and why it might even be worth paying for. The best journalists will survive, and eventually thrive. Some will be snapped up by an expanding HuffPo (which is raising millions while its print competitors tank) and by the inevitable competitors that will spring up to imitate its business model, or even by smaller outlets, like Talking Points Memo, which have found that keeping their overhead low allows them to profit from high-quality journalism. And some will succeed as independent operators. Figures like Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, and Andrew Ross Sorkin (the editor of the DealBook business blog, which has been a cash cow for The Times) would be worth a great deal on the open market. For them and others, the bracing experience of becoming “brands of one” could prove intoxicating, and perhaps more profitable than fighting as part of a union for an extra percentage-point raise in their next contract."


jeremy said...

This is an interesting scenario, but Michael Hirschorn "flunks basic math" according to Poynter:

geewhy said...

Let's face it, there were a lot of bad/lazy reporters out there, especially at smaller and mid-sized dailies. Could that be at least part of the reason readership was declining before the internet? I think the nostalgia for the good old days of daily newspaper journalism is getting a bit ridiculous. How many people out there just couldn't wait to read their local daily because it was filled with hard-hitting investigative work that changed your life? Come on. I guess I'm just not seeing the catastrophe of a smaller crew of top-notch reporters doing the heavy lifting.