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Don't Dance on the Times' Grave

Recent circulation numbers showing continued, substantial declines of traditional newspapers give me an excuse to make a point I have wanted to make for some time. 

I am a frequent critic of newspapers.  I think they have lost focus on the hard-hitting investigative journalism which used to be their highest and best calling, instead considering reiteration of an activist's press release sufficient to check the journalism box on some particular issue.  When investigative reporting does occur, it almost always is focused to support the dominant or politically correct outcome, rather than to really challenge conventional wisdom.   Media coverage of any technical issue involving science or statistics or economics is often awful, in large part because journalism is too often the default educational path of folks who want to avoid numbers.  Any time I have been on the inside of some issue receiving coverage, I have generally been astounded by how little the print descriptions matched reality.  Now that I am interviewed more as a source for articles, I never think my views are well-quoted (though that may be my fault for not talking in sound bites).  And, like many, I get irritated that the media's arrogance and self-referential reporting seems to increase in direct proportion to their drop in circulation.

All that being said, the world without healthy newspapers is a bad thing. 

First, we bloggers can blather on all day about being the new media, but with the exception of a few folks like Radley Balko, we're all editorial writers, not reporters  (I consider my role at Climate-Skeptic.com to be more like journalism, but only because there is such a glaring hole on that topic in traditional media).  I couldn't do what I do here, at least on this particular blog, without the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I'm a remora feeding on their scraps.  I can't bring down the big fish by myself, I can only feed on the bits they miss.

Second, and perhaps more important in this world of proposed reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, print media is the mode of speech best protected by the First Ammendment.  This isn't the way it should be -- all speech should be equal -- but in reality goofy regulatory regimes for radio, TV, and even the Internet all offer the government leverage points for speech control they don't have with the print media.  It's why half the dystopic sci fi novels out there have a world dominated by TV -- because that is where government has the most control of speech.

So here's hoping you guys at the NY Times get your act together.

Posted on October 28, 2008 at 04:50 PM | Permalink

Comments

I agree in general with all your points. But when it comes to the Times, I'll invoke an exception: Drive it fast to its tomb.

Posted by: vanderleun | Oct 28, 2008 6:36:53 PM

In reality the NY Times is in very bad trouble. "Pinch" Sulzberger has been allowed to continue to run the paper after having exhibited some of the worst business and journalistic judgement of any newpaperman, ever. In a prior era the overwhelming abiity of newspapers to generate cash would have carried him. Bit not now. In my opinion the family (B stock holders) has allowed Pinch to retain his stewardship through the election and no further. This so he could put the full weight of the Times to elect a Democrat President. But in doing so he has sorely ruined the brand.

On the financial side, the Times has about $2 billion in debt to refianance over the next 4 years. Current debt is currently rated junk by one rating service and the other is not far behind. They own the Boston Globe which they purchased 14 years ago for $1.4 billion. It has already been written down to $500 million. They will write off another $150 million according to recent press reports. And they still can't sell it. They will have to cut or eliminate their dividend to satisfy their creditors. They simply are not generating the earnings to come close to the current dividend. And the trend line is pointing steeply down. Their stock is $10/share and was briefly under $9 earlier this week. It was $45/share 5 years ago.

Journalistically the Times has lost all credibility for impartiality. From this they will never recover. A whore can never regain her reputation. Their campaign coverage is shamelessly one sided. The Times suffered through a journalistic ethics scandal 4 years ago when a minority reporter was coddled by the papers top editors despite valid complaints of falsifying stories from sub editors and reporters. Only when a reporter from another paper publicly documented Jayson Blair's plaigerism of her stories, did the Times look into it. They found half of his most recent 50 stories were false. He subsequently left the paper along with the the two top editors. This was done under the uber-liberal management culture of Pinch.

In all liklihood Pinch will be asked by the board to relinquish his position of Publisher and Chairman. Almost certainly this will come before the shareholders meeting next April, perhaps much sooner.

The fatal flaw for the Times is the dual sharehoder status. The family controls 8 of 13 seats with less than 20% of the stock. Pinch and his spokesmen have repeatedly said there will be no change, despite an attempt to force the issue by outsiders a year and a half ago. They family and especially Pinch wants to maintain control.

But the Times is near the tipping point where no amount of capital or change of ownership can save it. By stubbornly resisting a change in the B stock, it will be too late when the family finally caves. And despite the allure of the brand, there aren't many who would buy in at this point even if they could get control. The prospect of losing several hundred million a year just doesn't cut it. The best match would be the Washington Post Co., but they don't want to increase their exposure to disaster by doubling up in the newspaper business.

Yes it's a sad fate to ponder, but Pinch has squandered the paper's future.


Posted by: Corky Boyd | Oct 28, 2008 8:00:04 PM

Print speech may be the best protected, but only those who own the presses and ink have a free voice. We have seen how they have squandered that privilege. I agree with Corky. Let the Times melt down. It might serve as an object lesson to others in that business.

We do need real reporters to dig up actual news. Unfortunately, the current system is pretty poor at providing them.

I did a little real reporting on a local story because the Arizona Republic's "reporter" simply too one side's press release and reported it without the slightest fact checking, which would have shown it to be wrong.

I don't see the journalism "profession" reforming itself, and it's hard to see what will replace it.

Posted by: John Moore | Oct 28, 2008 9:17:21 PM

This http://pajamasmedia.com/edgelings/2008/10/24/editing-their-way-to-oblivion-journalism-sacraficed-for-power-and-pensions/ piece is really disturbing!

Posted by: Spruance | Oct 29, 2008 1:33:24 AM

"All that being said, the world without healthy newspapers is a bad thing."

Which is why many people wouldn't mind seeing the Times go the way of the dodo. They believe it illustrates the fact that we are already living in a world without healthy newspapers. The Times, and the other unhealthy newspapers we have now, are taking up "journalistic space" that could be better used by more competent publications. The sooner the source of the infection is cleared away and we get to that newer world of better newspapers, the better.

Posted by: kcom | Oct 29, 2008 7:34:27 AM

The investigative work that the Times has done on the LIRR pension/disability situation has been excellent. Solid reporting like that is always valued. The contrast of hard hitting stories like that versus the drivel on the editorial page is amazing.

Posted by: jimk | Oct 29, 2008 8:36:12 AM

"LIRR pension/disability situation" didn't happen yesterday. Once something gets that ugly and pretty much out in the open, the investigative work is pretty much a softball

Posted by: Charlie B | Oct 29, 2008 9:50:27 AM

You are wrong about this one, my friend. The sooner the better for newspapers. I eagerly anticipate seeing the staff of the Miami Herald selling pencils on the street.

Posted by: dr kill | Oct 29, 2008 12:07:15 PM

why would we *not* dance/piss on the grave of an entity that has fought to bring about the ruination of our country? whose dishonesty is matched only by its arrogance?

yeah yeah, "we need good papers", but that ship has sailed. print is **dead**. like buggy whips: their time has come and gone. since the NYT played a substantial part in that turn of events, ("you may rest assured that we're fair and impartial. the fact we've endorsed *every single democrat* running for president in the last 52 YEARS is merely a coincidence!"), that just makes it that much more amusing.

Posted by: the asset | Oct 29, 2008 8:54:01 PM

It's too late to save journalism. The journalism schools are a big part of the problem. They 'teach' that there is no truth... there are no facts... there is just perception. Under their leadership, all things are subjective and opinion... rather than all opinions being equal, only the opinion of the elite count.

Posted by: bobr | Oct 30, 2008 5:37:22 AM

Interesting post and good comments. Assuming that reporting is biased to fit left-wing templates and that it can't be changed, where is news gathering headed? We view the world mostly through the refracted lense of the likes of Reuters and AP now. How will we view the world in the future if/when they are gone? As for the NYT, what about a Muslim or Chinese sovereign wealth fund or a George Soros riding to the rescue? NYT can still amplify your influence if you are willing to stand the losses.

Posted by: feeblemind | Nov 1, 2008 8:02:07 AM

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