The Times, it is a changin’

March 31, 2011

The New York Times has always held a special place in the hearts of liberal elitists like myself. When I was young, I grabbed the Los Angeles Times on Sunday to read the color comic strips. Decidedly uninterested in the latest shenanigans of Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, or that cheeky bunch over at Family Circus, my parents went for the Gray Lady’s news and opinion sections. Long after our subscription to the L.A. paper was cancelled, the New York Times remains an integral part of my family’s breakfast routine. It is considered a grave offense to throw the paper away before both of my parents have the opportunity to read it.

These days, such devoted affection for the printed version of a newspaper is rapidly disappearing. Major newspapers have collapsed or wasted away to online-only ghosts of their former selves. America’s de facto newspaper of record has not been immune to broader trends in the industry. Two years ago, the Times’s weekday circulation dipped under one million for the first time since the 1980s, largely on account of the Internet and the recession.

This has been an eventful year for the Times.  Its op-ed section, which has been in an unfortunate decline since the retirement of political giant Bill Safire in 2005, will lose further critical heft with the imminent departures of the esteemed Frank Rich and passionate Bob Herbert. The Times must act quickly to encourage a rebirth in meaningfully opinionative journalism. All too often, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman produce fluff. (When Brooks based a column about humanities education last June around a made-up undefined term of his, “The Big Shaggy,” I lost some faith in the Times’s op-eds.)

Beyond the opinion columns, WikiLeaks has been the most important feature of the news section. The paper’s role in publishing Julian Assange’s classified U.S. government documents had the potential to return the Times to the glory days of the Pentagon Papers. Unfortunately, Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, has made his condescension toward Julian Assange clear in two articles so far this year. I don’t think the Washington Post commented on the cleanliness of Deep Throat’s socks during its reporting on the Watergate scandal. It would be easier to focus on the activities of our government if the paper wasn’t spending so much time bashing its own source.

The most important moment of the year for the paper came this week. On Monday, the Times launched a paywall for users accessing the newspaper’s online content. After clicking on 20 articles in a month, visitors will have to purchase continued access to content ($15 a month). While charging for online content is a new and uncertain world for newspapers, decline in subscriptions and the evaporation of print advertising revenues over the last decade gives the industry no choice.

To be sure, the new pay model is not perfect. It might be too pricey and drive visitors away. It might not save the declining print edition of the paper on its own. It would be too much to expect an unqualified triumph on the first try: the success of the initiative will depend on its flexibility.

One of the best parts of the new system is the Times’ recognition of the importance of social media. Although users who view more than 20 articles per month on the Times website directly are now required to pay, access to articles available from links on Twitter or Facebook remains unlimited. The paywall also does not apply to five articles per day reached through major search engines.

The Internet’s contribution to the instant spread of news and analysis, coupled with the Times’ financial difficulty, has some pessimistic about the paper’s future. I remain hopeful. The Times has survived the spread of radio and television. The technological advances that brought the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite into the living rooms of millions of Americans also enabled the Times to dramatically expand its global reach and deliver a better product to our doorsteps. Although there will be fewer copies of the Times landing on front porches in this century than in the last one, I believe that as long as the paper remains committed to providing in-depth reporting and thought-provoking opinion while also adapting to new technology, it will continue to hold its position as America’s newspaper of record.

Although liberals may defend it too strongly and conservatives may disregard it too flippantly, the Times is still one of the largest producers of original content in the world, rivaling the Associated Press and Reuters in its global reach and depth. Financial troubles and the rise of the Internet should not prevent it from continuing to provide its readers with all the news that’s fit to print.

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