1.07.2009

Hirschorn to Times: Drop dead (by May)

Michael Hirschorn's provocative article in this month's Atlantic, "End Times," is the piece to read this week. In it, he suggests that the print edition of the New York Times, and thus, the Times as we know it, could be gone by May. Regardless of the math involved, that's a startling supposition.

My gut reaction is to rebel and worry. How could that be? But of course, business decisions that have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the paper are likely to sink it (and many others). I joked with someone today that my sound financial advice is "don't spend what you don't have." Sadly, a lot of media entities are going to go under in 2009 because they failed to follow that simple rule.

I'll get my main beef with Hirschorn's piece out of the way now. It's this ridiculous sentence: "It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind." Bold words from a former VH1 exec and Spin magazine editor. Ever worked in a real newsroom, Michael? I doubt it, or you wouldn't call the grueling work of a good beat writer "a quasi-bohemain" existence that is part of a "semi-charmed life of the mind." Sure, having an inside look at the world and being able to flex creative muscles as you convey your view of it to the masses can seem like a pretty sweet gig, but it's hard work like any other, and to dismiss it is to be blinded by the tall buildings obscuring your view from Manhattan. I've long railed against opponents of "the media" who are really talking about the Post, the Times, the Journal and the networks -- not the thousands of papers and TV stations in smaller markets. It's sad when someone from one of those larger markets paints his own industry with the same broad brush.

That aside, there are thought-provoking aspects to Hirschorn's piece, but he doesn't take them anywhere. He throws his bomb by declaring the Times near dead, and then seems content to sit back and watch for the fallout. There is an entire analysis to be spun off from this short paragraph alone:
The conundrum, of course, is that those 1 million print readers, who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t. Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.
I don't read the Times in print, but I do read the local daily that is also the subject of much "kill print, move online" talk. But media companies will die an even quicker death if they simply ditch paper and move to bits and bytes, for web ads draw a fraction of that earned from print ads, and no one pays for a subscription to a web site (the Journal notwithstanding). Some editors, like the Gazette's Steve Buttry, have interesting notions about what people pay for with a subscription (he argues it's simply the paper and the delivery, I argue that while that might be what they are actually paying for, most subscribers would say they're buying the news carried on those pages. No one pays to have blank paper delivered to their door). Why kill the one thing actually making money for you in a rush to move online, knowing it'll probably kill your product thanks to the resulting cuts in the process?

Why not, to get back to the central tenet of this blog, offer choice? If people want something to read at the breakfast table, why not offer it until it becomes economically unfeasible to do so? Of course, some may say we're already there, but if papers didn't need to pay off billions of dollars in debt accrued by executives whose eyes were bigger than their wallets, that might be a long ways off.

One last point: I read Hirschorn's piece online, not in print. I might not have done so had it not been among the shortest things I've ever seen in the Atlantic. had it been one of the magazine's typical 20-pagers, I would have printed it out or sought out a copy of the magazine. Not everything works online; some things, gasp, actually work better on paper. 'Nuf said.

Ultimately, Hirschorn's piece is the latest in a long line from those on the sidelines telling newspapers how things ought to be.

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