Overcoming the Identity Crisis Thanks to Intensified Competition

September 30, 2008 • Digital News • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, September 26, 2008
How the New York Times renews itself by strengthening its Internet presence
Rupert Murdoch is presently redesigning the Wall Street Journal, thus putting the New York Times under intense pressure. In response, the Times is re-inventing itself at breakneck speed.

“Through four generations, during some splendid highs and despite some mortifying lows, the paper has set the standard for journalism worldwide,” the American Journalism Review writes in one of two informative profiles recently published about the Times in the specialised press. This assessment rings true when recalling the past century, but also seems to be an astonishingly accurate description of the transformation the New York Times has gone through in recent years.

The paper’s traditional nickname hints at the contradictory way it is perceived; the New York Times is still affectionately called the “Grey Lady,” an epithet that doesn’t seem to coincide with the paper’s colourful outfit, its prodigal lifestyle supplements or its distinct Internet presence. For a grey lady, the Times has been known to showcase some awfully indelicate material.

Better than the others

Sometimes it is even the Times’ publisher himself, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who tends to stir things up. During last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, for example, he shocked listeners by saying that he didn’t know whether in five years his paper would still exist in print form, adding that, ultimately, he “wouldn’t really care.” He modified the statement on subsequent occasions and continues to emphasize that “print will continue to be a viable medium for many years to come.” His job, Sulzberger also states, is “to grow our digital business quickly enough to outpace print declines.” Researchers have recently cast doubt upon this possibility. According to a study funded by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, advertisers are following audiences to the World Wide Web, but aren’t necessarily purchasing space on the websites of major newspapers.

Nevertheless, Sulzberger’s track record looks pretty good, especially given the apocalyptic mood that prevails in the U.S. newspaper industry. The Times’ circulation figures are not declining as steeply as those of other dailies, and in the last quarter they have even seen a slight increase. In March 2008, 1.077 million copies were sold on weekdays, which is 33,000 copies or 3 percent less than 10 years ago.

For years the New York Times’ advertising earnings did not suffer as much as those of some of its competitors. As of Spring 2008, ad earnings were only 5 percent less than the year before, compared to an average loss of 7-8 percent for the whole sector. During the second quarter of 2008, however, the company was hit hard and suffered from a decline in advertising income of 17.8 percent. Their online earnings may be on the upswing, but this hasn’t helped the stock ratings.

About 1200 Editors and Reporters

Due to long-term strategizing and a quality-conscious ownership (the Times-owning family hardly flinched during criticisms from Wall Street investors and analysts) the downsizing of the New York Times’ gigantic newsroom isn’t progressing as swiftly as in other publishing houses.

With 1,330 newsroom staffers, the New York Times even posted its all-time high in March of 2008.  Over 100 jobs have been cut since then, yet the newspaper still runs 50 correspondent offices in the U.S. and abroad.

Great online feats

The average Internet news reader may peruse nytimes.com without even considering the Website’s great achievements. One must take the website’s true sophistication into consideration – the diverse content, interactive nature, multimedia – to appreciate how transparent quality journalism can be if presented by an editorial staff of that size and capability.

The numbers speak for themselves.  With 21.3 million visitors per month, almost 73 percent more than in the previous year, nytimes.com stands alone at the top of U.S. newspaper websites.

“On the Internet, the New York Times is more of an agenda setter than any other news provider,” an internal memo states before citing the latest media research data. In February 2008 alone, around 50,000 blogs displayed links to nytimes.com. Such blog links are important indicators of public awareness, as bloggers tend to be in the know about their respective fields and often act as leaders of opinion and powerful recruiters.

In all likelihood, this success is also related to the fact that online journalism has consistently been integrated into the work routine of the New York Times newsroom. “ ‘Online First’ has been our policy since 2007,” says Jonathan Landman, the man in charge of the newspaper’s website. To him, it is only natural that the Times grabs hold of all the advantages the Internet provides over traditional print media. Aside from print, the speed with which information is distributed via Internet undoubtedly beats out both radio and television as well.

The Internet can be utilized in ways radically different from those of the traditional newspaper, Landman says. However, the “universe of competitors” has expanded “explosively” as well. In the past, those competitors consisted of two, three newspapers, but today they are made up of large Internet portals, a variety of highly specialised blogs and even comprehensive websites such as Wikipedia. And whereas “loyal” newspaper readers continue to stick to “their paper,” nytimes.com’s most loyal users are exactly those who are hopping from one website to the next, making use of a wide variety of online sources.

Interactive

On the Internet, “loyal” indicates a readiness to interact. Landman is proud of how often New York Times readers tend to engage in discussion forums, and how many questions they ask whenever he or one of his colleagues takes part in online chats. On the very day this interview took place, readers submitted numerous amateur snapshots of a crane accident that had occurred immediately beforehand in downtown Manhattan.

However, the reverse is also true: the printed paper is embracing the World Wide Web and the entire “blogosphere” whole-heartedly. Not a day goes by without the New York Times reporting on Web activities,  for example the controversial story about cult blogger Emily Gould, who was invited to present her innermost thoughts on the pages of the New York Times Magazine. The published report featured a series of photographs displaying the tattooed 24-year-old in sensual poses.

The fact that a beacon of traditional journalism like the New York Times is building such an Internet presence begs the question of whether the “soft” standards that tend to apply to web-based journalism are slowly rubbing off on the newspaper’s website, or even the flagship publication itself.

In an attempt to lead his editors and writers out of their worst image crisis to date (the journalistic forgeries by Jayson Blair and the biased, falsified coverage of the War in Iraq instrumentalized by the Bush administration) chief editor Bill Keller successfully reanimated the paper’s tradition of investigative journalism, an achievement that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Among the more recent examples of such hard-hitting journalism is the breaking of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s story. Spitzer was forced to resign after being discovered using the services of an illegal prostitution ring.

Tip-Toeing on the Boulevard

It can’t be denied that the “Grey Lady” also, on occasion, engages in a kind of journalism you might normally expect from the Yellow Press. This irritates core readers, and distracts from the reporting of genuinely newsworthy events. A case in point is the attempt to pin an extramarital affair on Republican presidential candidate John McCain, which ultimately failed due to a lack of evidence. When the paper exposed the sex scandal surrounding Governor Spitzer shortly after, two other important topics were practically drowned out by the related media buzz. First, hardly anyone was interested in the truly scandalous part of the affair – which was the fact that public investigators had blatantly violated the politician’s private sphere. Nevertheless, the next day, rather than delving into that question, America’s leading news medium published an article on the prostitute whose services Spitzer had solicited, along with a series of suggestive photographs and details of her private life.  Also ignored due to the media frenzy was the day’s actual news: Admiral William J. Fallon, Commander of the U.S. Marine in the Near East since 2007 and thus overseeing operations in Iraq, had resigned – apparently in open disagreement with the Bush administration.

This leads to another distinguishing characteristic of the new, web-affine New York Times: The paper makes sweeping strides to achieve complete transparency. Voluntarily, painstakingly and on a daily basis, the Times publishes a “Corrections” column on page two in which the errors and mistakes of the day before are amended – frequently also offering, under the heading of “Editor’s Notes,” some explanations as to why a particular reporter may have committed the error in question. Moreover, there are blogs and discussion forums in which editors are ready to justify themselves. Since the scandal surrounding Jayson Blair, who was fired in 2003 for plagiarising and forging certain parts of his articles, the New York Times also has its own Public Editor, whose job is to deal with reader complaints. With his own column, the public editor regularly contributes to the ongoing debate on the standards of professional journalism, making his position comparable to that of a nationwide authority on journalistic principles. Additionally, his blog serves as a platform for readers’ passionate discussions about any misdemeanours – past and present – the paper might have committed.

It is exactly this transparency which allows the New York Times to hold a mirror not only to itself but to all other news providers, thus setting a standard which will remain unreachably high for most competitors. It is striking how little these efforts are acknowledged by those who still accuse the Times of arrogance, regarding it with suspicion and counting it among the mainstream media.

A new identity – courtesy of Rupert Murdoch

Intensified competition may bind the New York Times’ editorial staff together, shaping them into a tightly knit unit and thus helping them overcome their acute identity crisis. It seems Rupert Murdoch is poised for battle. “Of course this poses a serious threat to us,” Landman admits. “Murdoch certainly is an opponent who, with his fierce determination and practically limitless resources, is frightening,” he adds.
Murdoch’s newly appointed generalissimo Robert Thompson is currently declining all interview requests, but his strategy has become clear. In terms of graphics, the new Wall Street Journal promises to become something of a “light version” of its famous New York-based competitor. Which could become a real danger, as there might be a niche market opening up between the liberal, but in its appearance still conservative New York Times and America’s largest newspaper, the more boulevard-like «USA Today».

However, in addition to being a gifted strategist, Murdoch is also a gambler by nature. It could be the case that this time he’s seriously underestimated his opponent. The stakes are high, and whether it really pays to attack the New York Times in order to gain new readers remains to be seen. Sulzberger still seems confident – obviously assuming that the battle for supremacy will be fought primarily on the Internet. “Even if the Wall Street Journal’s website WSJ.com was free of charge, they would have to keep running for a long time before they could hope to catch up with us in terms of media penetration. We simply offer more features, more functions, more search options, more multimedia and video, and more user-generated content.”

To face his largest challenge, Sulzberger will need the continued support of his family.  An unfriendly takeover of the New York Times – like in the case of Knight-Ridder, which was swallowed by McClatchy – seems hardly possible due to the two-tiered structure of its stocks, which guarantees familial control over the company.  If Sulzberger’s clan should decide to sell, there is little leeway. “Whether hedgefunds have a chance of success depends on Sulzberger’s ability to keep the family together. This won’t be easy, as some clan members may want to see cash, or may also want to take revenge,” says a media expert from New York who knows several family members and wants, for this reason, to remain anonymous.

*Smolkin, Rachel: “Challenging Times”, in: American Journalism Review, February/March 2007 http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4262

*McCollam, Douglas: Sulzberger at the Barricades, in: Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2008, 24-31 http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/sulzberger_at_the_barricades.php

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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