If you want bad news – murders, assaults, fires, wars, kidnappings, dognappings, financial meltdowns, disastrous personnel decisions by your favorite team – all you have to do is pick up a paper or click on a newspaper’s website. If you want bad news about a newspaper – firings, layoffs, furloughs, plagiarism, errors, hacking – you can click on a hundred different sites that document their troubles.
On Wednesday, I read more bad newspaper news. Mark Heisler, a longtime NBA columnist for the LA Times, a guy who was connected to different eras of the league and could bring everything together in a single column, was laid off, along with several other veteran writers and editors.
I haven’t worked in newspapers for seven years but my heart remains in a newsroom. The only job I had in college was in the sports department of the Worthington Daily Globe. My first job out of school was in the sports department of that same paper. Ever since I saw Fletch, where I learned you could be a big-time writer and a Lakers fan, I’d wanted to work in papers. It’d be absurd for me to say I know what it’s been like in newsrooms across the land these past seven years. Unless you’re actually in them, and dealing with cuts – of resources and people – you can’t really know the struggle. But I’ve often been saddened about so many of the results.
In these times, you often read people who seem practically gleeful when newspapers struggle. They make cliched, painfully unfunny comparisons to dinosaurs or horse-drawn carriages. They’re eager to write obituaries for newspapers, apparently excited to see people put out of work, even though, a minute later, they’ll lament a rising unemployment rate and wonder, oh, what can be done? They revel in bad news for papers and if they’re real lucky and their favorite newspaper allows anonymous online comments, they get to post their misspelled, illogical opinions on the very sites they hope are doomed.
No one knows if papers as a whole will ever completely figure out how to make money in a changing media world. The prevailing notion is that people won’t pay for something they can get for free, a line that’s practically become a mantra to people who often seemed resigned to an ugly fate.
But there’s hope. In the latest issue of New York Magazine, Seth Mnookin writes about the somewhat-incredible, no-doubt inspiring resurgence of The New York Times. Thanks to the efforts of veteran publisher Arthur Sulzberger, outgoing editor Bill Keller, a newsroom that remains unmatched and an experimental paywall, the Times has emerged from financial and journalistic disasters and has given hope to newspapers everywhere that perhaps the white flags can be kept stowed away in filing cabinets for a bit longer.
A few years ago, a respected writer for Atlantic said it was possible the Times could be finished by 2009. Instead, as Mnookin writes:
A funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard. Though the Times’ circulation dipped during the crash years, much of the lost revenue was made up for by doubling the newsstand price, from $1 to $2—evidence, the paper insisted, that its premium audience understood the value of a premium product. In March, after several years of planning and tens of millions in investments, the Times launched a digital-subscription plan—and the early signs were good. In fact, less than 48 hours before my interview, the Times announced it would finish paying back the Carlos Slim loan in full on August 15, three and a half years early. When they were released last week, the company’s second-quarter financial results showed an overall loss largely owing to the write-down of some regional papers, but they also contained a much more important piece of data: The digital-subscription plan—the famous “paywall”—was working better than anyone had dared to hope.
The paper discovered that when people thought a company offered something you can’t find anywhere else – and especially can’t find for free – they were willing to pay for it. Even online.
Obviously the Times operates on a different level compared to every other paper in every other part of the world. Other papers can devote tens of dollars to research on digital subscription plans, not “tens of millions” of dollars.
Even during their worst days, they had resources at their disposal that no other news organizations could compete with, including in the culinary arts. A woman I worked with in Worthington 16 years ago – she corrupted me by buying me alcohol at the paper’s Christmas party, when I was only 19 – is now an editor for the Times. We met for lunch one day in the Times’ cafeteria in their new building, which is perhaps most famous for the fact several people have climbed up the side of it. The cafeteria is not like any other newspaper cafeteria I’d seen, which really weren’t cafeterias but more like out-of-the-way areas with a broken-down candy machine filled with melted Twix, a soda machine serving warm products and, perhaps, an old table the publisher picked up at a garage sale. You went there to escape your work, but not to really gather.
They didn’t look like this and they didn’t serve hot foods, cold foods, sandwiches and sushi.
Yes, in so many ways the Times is different. But they struggled with the same issues confronting rural weeklies and suburban dailies. Who knows if the early success of the paywall will continue. Regardless, the Times has shown that death isn’t inevitable for newspapers or any organization in the old/mainstream/traditional/adjective-here media.
If papers can provide readers with stories they simply can’t get elsewhere, even in a world where you can seemingly get anything at anytime you want, they have a chance. Original reporting, investigative pieces, must-read opinions, stunning photography, and exclusive insights – whether in a locker room or an executive conference room. Papers still have more resources than anyone else. They can deliver, even as they cut back on the 75-year-old retirees and 10-year-olds who actually deliver the paper product.
And maybe people are willing to pay for it online. Why not try it? What would be the worst thing that could happen? Papers suffer devastating financial losses, lay people off, cut back on subscription areas, and lose advertising? Too late, already happened by giving it away.
The Times has been the leading paper in the country for decades. With any luck – or, to be more accurate, with a lot of luck – they’ll eventually lead the way in helping newspapers out of the abyss.