Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 September 2012

Can the New York Times be Saved?

Since I refused to pay for what has increasingly become a propaganda organ for Wall Street, I don’t pay much attention to the New York Times.

I got tired of transparent apologies for the rogue bankers who destroyed an otherwise well-functioning global industrial economy and still keep it on the precipice. While it makes crude sense for a rag centered in (and on) Manhattan not to bite the hands that feed the whole island [start at “Fourth Estate”], that’s not what newspapers are for.

A newspaper is nothing without the trenchant skepticism and cynicism for which reporters used to be famous. It’s no excuse that the “industry” that supports Manhattan and keeps its prices famously exorbitant is on the hot seat now. It deserves to be there.

A rag that sits at the epicenter of our five-year-old global economic crisis and replaces investigation with sycophancy is worth nothing. It’s worth less than nothing when the best-recognized brand in news falls down on the job.

There were and are other complaints as well. Perhaps the next most important was a philosophy of news by, for and of liberal-arts majors. As compared to the other leading national “print” media—the Washington Post, Bloomberg.com, and even the Murdoch-raped Wall Street Journal—the NYT stands out for its dearth of reporters and columnists who ken math, science or engineering. Most of them seem not even to have mastered arithmetic.

Tom Friedman’s “gee whiz!” approach to routine, pedestrian engineering and software development brought me to the point of nausea. Even Paul Krugman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist, seems to have made a decision to downplay numbers in his columns. Whether that’s his or his editors’ decision I don’t know, but it appears to be part of the NYT’s culture.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an accurate, meaningful number is worth at least a couple of hundred. Bloomberg.com seems to understand that point [search for “praise”]. But the Times’ editorial culture appears not to agree. The only NYT reporter whose command of numbers ever impressed me was David Leonhardt. He’s now the Times’ Washington Bureau Chief. That’s a well-deserved promotion, but it means he doesn’t write much any more. Where are his likes and mentees, if any?

So I gave up on the New York Times. I refused to pay to be propagandized and entertained by frustrated literary writers with no training in or knowledge of the fields that will make or break our nation and our culture.

Now two things suggest there may be hope. First, the Times does have good coverage. I still get its summary e-mails. (Unlike all the legacy stories linked in this blog, which are now “behind the counter,” these e-mails are free.)

The e-mails provide headlines and one-sentence leads for major stories. They’re a good marketing device for the Times. They suggest that its coverage is broader than that of Bloomberg.com, my current source of financial and business news. Yet the virtual absence of numbers in those messages also suggests that its reporters’ liberal-arts culture is, if anything, becoming more entrenched. The NYT’s problem is not coverage; it’s quality and relevance.

The second hopeful sign was a short article in The Economist of August 18 (page 59), entitled “From BBC to NYT.” Apparently Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, is to become the NYT’s new chief executive.

That was not all. The Economist reported that the previous chief executive (Janet Robinson, since 2004), who resigned abruptly last December, had risen up through the advertising ranks.

When I read that, I thought “Aha!” What better way to corrode a newspaper’s investigative function and replace hard numbers with soft impressions than to put an advertising executive in charge? That’s sort of like putting a glorified accountant (Rick Wagoner) in charge of building cars, which is how GM almost went bankrupt before the Obama Administration rescued it. [start at “car guy”]

What was Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s “hands-on publisher and chairman,” thinking?

Like the good mouthpiece for bankers and conservative ideology that it, too, is increasingly becoming, The Economist wonders whether a man who spent his career in government-supported media can solve the NYT’s most immediate problem: making money. But as Steve Jobs admirably proved, the way to make money is to deliver a good product. Price doesn’t matter much if your product is good enough. That’s especially true for newspapers (including on-line ones), whose subscription fees are hardly exorbitant.

If people will pay $50 - $100 per month for cell phone service, and similar amounts for Internet and cable, they can surely afford the NYT’s subscription fees. But the newspaper has to become the best in the world again. That means hitting Wall Street hard with investigative reporting, not advertising-driven obsequiousness, and getting a few reporters who care about numbers, economics, science and engineering on staff.

So Thomspon’s reign at the NYT gives me hope. The NYT’s decline, along with the rape of the Wall Street Journal and the immaturity of Bloomberg.com, has left our nation without a credible leading “print” news source. (The Washington Post has largely retreated into politics.) If Thompson can manage these two big tasks, he can resurrect the NYT and fill the gap. Then the Times will make money again and I, too, will subscribe.

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