If Only The New York Times /Could/ Rise above Principle

Scandal over the tendency of organizations to shield sexual predators sometimes concealed in their ranks, the public investigation of which began with the Catholic Church, spread to Penn State University college football, and the Boy Scouts, recently has stained the British Broadcasting Co.  The story of the late Jimmy Savile, a one-time coal-miner turned British celebrity whose television presence over fifty years loosely resembled that of American Bandstand host Dick Clark (with more than a touch of W.C Fields thrown in), would be just another strange tale of Old England, except for one thing.

The New York Times Company, which, through its Boston Globe subsidiary, started the media’s sustained attention to the issue ten years ago with a painstaking investigation of the Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese, recently hired the BBC’s Mark Thompson to be its chief executive officer. Now it turns out that a program that would have documented both Savile’s history of preying on adolescent girls and his systematic enabling over the years by the authorities (including the BBC), was quietly scrubbed during the period that Thompson served as the BBC’s director general. The New York Times own public editor has urged the paper not to “pull its punches” in considering whether Thompson is the right person for the job, “given this turn of events.”

It was at a juncture something like this one that a famous old attorney, now long retired from the courtroom, listened in a private conference room as his colleagues waxed furious at demands that the other side had made during a negotiation: Outrageous! Preposterous! Unconscienceable! After a long and thoughtful pause, the counselor intoned, “Friends, it is time to rise above principle.”  The deal was done and everyone went back to work.

If only NYTimes Co could do so now! Thompson says he did not know that work on the segment had been undertaken, much less that it had been shut down. It’s plausible; the BBC is a big organization.  Even if there were reason to think that Thomson silently acquiesced to an undiscussed decision at some lower level of management to kill the report, bringing him to New York would not mean that he or the Times approved of pedophilia. Thompson could start work on Nov 12, as planned.  After all, the future of the newspaper is at stake.

First things first. NYTimes Co., whose main asset is the Times (it publishes the International Herald Tribune as well), hired Thompson run its business ($2.3 billion in revenues in 2011), not to oversee its news operations.  That’s the province of Thompson’s boss, chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who also serves as publisher of the Times.

More important, the 55-year-old executive is almost uniquely qualified to do so. A television veteran who spent nearly all his career at the BBC, Thompson managed a series of challenges during a period of tumultuous change in the television broadcast industry.  During eight years as director general, he expanded the BBC’s Web presence, extended its penetration of international markets, and restored journalistic luster, to the point that the company’s standing among international news organizations is probably higher than at any time since the 1950s.  Except that the BBC is a public broadcasting venture, supported by mandatory license fees rather than the sale of advertising, Thompson is intimately familiar with the changing world to which the Times must adapt if it is to survive in anything like its present form.

Proof that the Times is in trouble arrives every month as a $61.60 item for home delivery in my American Express bill – or rather every four weeks, thirteen times a year. The Wall Street Journal, in contrast, costs $53.46 — but only once a quarter. The Times, in other words, costs nearly four times as much as the WSJ. $800 vs. $214 a year (digital access included in each case).  On the newsstand, the Times costs $2.50, vs. $2.00 for the WSJ.

Further evidence of the Times’ identity crisis arrives with a thump on the front page every Sunday – a magazine, a book review, a dozen sections altogether, including a bloated Sunday Review whose pages I barely have time to turn, much less read, and almost never clip.  The Financial Times on the other hand, (annual subscription $300), arrives Saturday with three or four lean and meaty sections, including Weekend, the freshest and best magazine I see all week.

The Times occupies a very tricky product space. Its web page is, as far as I can tell, a brilliant success, a state-of-the-art compendium of easily-searched newspaper content, blogs, videos and – the real prize to out-of-towners – real estate coverage.  But the newsprint product has serious problems. The daily paper is still a wonder of comprehensiveness and design, but it seems at odds with that Sunday juggernaut. It long ago shed its broadcast properties and, recently, most of its regional newspapers (it retains, at least for the time being, the Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, also in Massachusetts.  Print advertising, which has declined dramatically for a decade, has not yet found a new level that would permit budgets to be confidently written.  Even so, print advertising and circulation revenues remain crucial to income.

Behind these disparate interfaces with the world is a company of around a thousand journalists – reporters, photographers, editors, designers and managers, organized in such a way as to create version of provisional truth, and to update and extend it on a daily basis – an enterprise whose scope and scale is unlike any other in our society.  The Times has English-language rivals in this undertaking:  the BBC, other national newspapers and wire services. Two of these, Bloomberg and Reuters, are much better capitalized, thanks to their concentration on market information (around $20 billion apiece in family hands).  They follow the fortunes of the FT, the Times, and The Washington Post with glittering eyes.

The Times likes to think of itself as exemplifying the best in American newspaper journalism and, at least in terms of aspiration, that’s true. The WSJ’s coverage may be much more dependable on certain issues (on climate change, for example); the FT, smarter; that of The Washington Post, deeper.  But the Times tries to do more different and harder things than any other paper, and to hold itself to a higher standard. It often fails. But the important thing is that it tries.

So far the strategy has been the one that served the Times so well in the 1970s – “put more vegetables in the soup” and hope that both advertising and circulation will follow. Granted, the industry has been suffering from a double whammy of unprecedented proportions:  The sudden arrival of search advertising-based content as a new competitor, followed by a long and deep recession. Even so, it seems clear that the more-vegetables strategy isn’t working.  Probably better to recall the trick by which the paper’s new owner, Adolph Ochs, in 1898 turned the tables on an embittered bookkeeper in a period when The Times was losing money and inflating its sales:  he cut its price to one cent from three cents, undercut his rivals, and attracted readers from the established quality papers – the Herald, the Sun and the Tribune. Circulation blossomed, from a reported 25,000 copies (only 10,000 of them were actually sold) to a 60,000 by the end of the year and 91,000 a couple of years later. Obviously it’s not so simple in the Internet age, and there is a certain logic to the Times positioning itself as a luxury good.  In the long run, though, it seems unlikely that the paper will benefit from its current aggressive pricing.

The most compelling evidence of trouble at the Times is the fact that Thompson was hired at all.  It was just last year that Sulzberger fired Janet Robinson, the company’s chief executive since he promoted her to the position, in 2004.  The circumstances are still not entirely clear – Robinson left with a payday of nearly $24 million, part of it in return for a promise not to tell her side of the story.

But this much is plain enough:  the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, especially thirteen members who through their ownership of controlling shares that have been pooled in a trust, have gone without a payday since the Times was forced to suspend its cash dividend in 2009. Sulzberger’s cousins may have viewed Robinson as excessively loyal to her boss.

Much has been made over the years of the younger Sulzberger’s failures as chairman. His father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who died in September, at 86, led the paper through a golden age of journalistic distinction and ample profits.  The son has suffered a string of embarrassments.  These range from questionable friendships (reporter Judith Miller) and bad appointments (former editor Howell Raines) to a series of pricy acquisitions subsequently written down to a fraction of their purchase price. Times Co. had to sell the expensive new headquarters it built for itself soon after it was complete.  The paper borrowed $250 million at a high rate of interest from Mexican telephone magnate Carlos Slim. (The loan has been repaid, in part through the sale of assets.)  But Sulzberger has his good side. He loves the paper his family has owned and managed for four generations; he has expanded its civil rights coverage, built its presence on the Web, and continued its tradition of remarkable reporting, most recently from China.

The Sulzberger-Ochs cousins are very different from the Bancroft heirs who sold their patrimony, the WSJ, to Rupert Murdoch.  The company employed a search firm to locate Mark Thompson at the BBC.  He was clearly a consensus choice. His job is to sort all this out, in due consultation with the family, while restraining the enthusiasms of his boss.  One of these may be especially dangerous.  The worst possible thing the Times might do would be to follow the lead of its Times Square neighbor, Advance Corp., publisher of Condé Nast magazines (including The New Yorker) and 38 Newhouse newspapers accumulated in the years since the purchase, in 1927, of the Staten Island (NY) Advance.  Advance, itself suffering succession problems, had recently begun cutting its papers including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, back to three newsprint editions a week, hoping that the Web to will do the rest – and inviting competition from anyone a printing press.

Such a policy would, of course, be a disaster for the Times.  Only a few webheads seem to be suggesting it. Even so, the paper has already tilted in that direction with a special pricing policy for digital access plus the Sunday print edition.  It’s a challenge to put a daily paper on the desk or porch, but if the Times Co. doesn’t stick with it long past the time that its rivals quit, they’ll be no better than anyone else with a website and a fancy name.

It is in these circumstance that the Jimmy Savile scandal is not a distraction, it is a tragedy. The Times Co. search identified a splendid candidate to help the Times survive and prosper. There are not many such. The need is desperate.  But Mark Thompson cannot help them now. The old attorney’s advice to his colleagues – sometimes it is wise to rise above principle – may be appropriate in a private setting.  But this situation is as public as they get.

The Times is the leader of an industry whose most valuable product is provisional truth – not truth in any narrow sense, truth subordinated to the mission, but truth such as might be recognized as well-documented and germane by all those involved in the telling of it – including injured adolescents and wounded broadcasters. Times reporters will have fanned out all over London seeking to discover the truth of the untold Savile story. There is simply no way that Thompson can be absolved.  He must go.

5 responses to “If Only The New York Times /Could/ Rise above Principle”

  1. I subscribed to the WSJ for many years. I quit when it seemed the dishonesty of the editorial page was seeping into the news coverage. NYT was my substitute. They, after many more years, changed the local distributor from one who replaced missed papers to one who did not. The credit for a missed paper was much less than the cost of the replacement, not to mention time and transportation cost to buy the replacement. Very little of the NY local political, entertainment, sports, and social news was of any interest to me, more than a thousand miles from NY. $700 saved per year is an appreciable part of my annual budget. The publications I already received (Kansas City Star, The New Yorker, Economist) and the McClatchy Washington Bureau web site have replaced the national and international coverage for me.

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