New York Times? We Need to Talk.
I come from a family of journalists. My mother is an editor, has been at the Akron Beacon Journal in one capacity or another for 40 years, and has taught journalism at Kent State University. Before he died, my father also worked at the Beacon, also taught journalism at Kent, and spent the last 20 years of his life editing on the foreign/national desk at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Needless to say, I respect and appreciate the newspaper business. This respect leads me to support the business in its decline.
Every day when I go out to lunch, I pick up a copy of the Daily News here in New York. They have a fantastic sports section, but more often than not, I don’t have the time to more than skim the paper. (I don’t buy the Post. That paper is a rag.) On the weekends, I have the New York Times delivered to the doorstep of my apartment building.
I buy these papers even though content is available online for free because these two papers are struggling to survive. The newspaper industry is in big trouble, from the lowliest paper in the country, to the hugely circulated Daily News, to the indispensable Times. I buy these papers because I believe in the product. I believe it is essential for organizations to investigate and report the news, and they need cash to do this.
Reporters cost money. Putting a reporter in an overseas bureau is downright expensive. Editorial staff are generally experienced journalists, demanding premium salaries for their skills. The overhead on a paper is huge, encompassing ink, paper, mechanical and computerized infrastructure, and the staff that uses and maintains them. Printing a paper every day is a mammoth job that makes the reportage look easy. It’s worth thinking about how much effort goes into a paper that costs 75 cents or a buck, then think about how many copies have to sell, how many ads need to be run, just to break even.
And the work newspapers do is important. The Times may be the most important news organization in the country. They are the original source for much of the national and international news that is reported on by television news networks, the blogosphere, and other newspapers. A Times byline lends legitimacy to a story, lends it the air of quality and accuracy, because that company has been building its reputation for decades. It’s not perfect, but it is, without a doubt, the best newspaper available today.
I bring this up because when I wrote above that I have the Times delivered to me on the weekends, I should have written ‘had.’
I paid the Times over twenty bucks a month for two papers a week. A reasonable price. I was glad to give them the money. I was glad to support John F. Burns in London. I remember, and I was rewarding, his and others’ incredible reporting from Iraq during the war. I was glad to support an inexplicably bad sports section and an ambitious business section. I was glad to support the Week in Review (now the less polished Sunday Review), where reporters could take a step back from the news hole and contribute thoughts and opinions on the stories they followed. I was glad to support everything in the paper, even this awful op-ed published in 2007 (I can’t believe this piece of elitist snobbery made it past the editors. It’s one of the most useless op-ed pieces I’ve ever read, and deliberately insulting. A particular gem from the piece: “In any event, nothing about cricket seems suited to the American national character: its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities that could occur with each delivery of the ball, the dozen different ways of getting out, are all patterned for a society of endless forms and varieties, not of a homogenized McWorld.” Fuck you very much.).
For all of this, I paid. All the Times had to do was make sure the paper made it to my doorstep every Saturday and Sunday. Yet for weeks, ever since Christmas, nothing. Every weekend morning I opened the front door to the building and was greeted with naught but cold concrete. It’s happened before. Having a paper delivered in this city is a risk, what with all the folks out there with sticky fingers. But for seven weeks? No thief would dedicate the time necessary to catch all those papers. This was a logistical fuckup, and I was caught in the middle. After trying to fix the problem, I decided it was time to end my subscription. From now on, the Times and I would have a web only relationship.
What surprised me was that there were negative feelings on my part when I cancelled. I genuinely felt bad about denying the Times much-needed cash flow, even if it was an infinitesimal part of their revenue. I knew that by going all digital, I was now among the millions of readers that put pressure on the Times and all news organizations by taking in content for free. (The Times does have a digital pay model, but it has two things wrong with it. One: a full digital subscription costs more than having the actual paper delivered to me on weekends, which comes with full digital access. Two: the article cap before a reader has to pay is too high, ensuring only real Times junkies will pay.)
Right now, reader loyalty from paid customers is about all that’s holding up the Times. It’s what they base their ad rates on. They cannot survive with a digital-only model yet. If that organization has to step up its cutbacks like other papers in the country, it could have a cascading effect on information coast to coast. Less stories will be reported, and what is out there will be less accurate. And that is why I felt bad when I called it off. Because a Times that has to half-ass it’s information gathering and distribution is bad for the country.