Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sign of the Times Corporation, No Question Mark

The thing people need to understand about the New York Times is there's two of them.

The more familiar Times is the newspaper itself. It's the world's finest one-stop source of information, both more accurate and cheaper than the president's daily intelligence briefing. The Times is an indispensable product for any citizen of the world wishing to find out what the hell's going on out there.

Unfortunately for the Boston Globe, its owned by the other Times, the NYT Corporation. That's a Fortune 500 business operating on the same principle as its corporate peers-a complete lack of 'em. Wholly in thrall to hyperactive 28-year old Wall Street stock analysts, the NYT board of directors, like almost every other American board, would burn down an orphanage for a $2-a-share bump in the stock price.

The Globe's announcement its closing its three remaining foreign news bureaus makes clear where New England's leading newspaper stands in the Times scheme of things. It's a conquered province which exists to be exploited for its maximum value. The closing of the bureaus will save the Glober $1 million annually. Globe management didn't want to do it, and expressed the pious hope those savings could save jobs for its Morrissey Blvd. employees. Rest assured if that million's needed to boost a Times quarterly earnings report, Globe jobs will be lost anyway.

What the Times corporation is telling we 3 million or so residents of greater Boston is this: You hicks want foreign news-buy the Times itself. All a Boston newspaper should do is write about school board meetings and local real estate deals. It's the Judge Smails school of journalism. You'll get nothing and like it.

A couple of people with far better credentials than I, Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy and former GE CEO Jack Welch, recently declared all "regional" dailies (that's shorthand for every paper but the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) have no choice but to create a business model devoted exclusively to local news. That is to say, since newspapers have lost their advertising monopolies to the Internet, they must form information monopolies-each paper becoming an exclusive provider of news available nowhere else.

I disagree. Leave aside the obvious peril to consitutional democracy posed by an endless string of proprietary sole-source information outlets. When it comes to my former trade, I'm no goo-goo. I worked for Rupert Murdoch and how I wish I still did.

No, my disagreement with Welch and Kennedy stems from bitter personal experience. I worked at a paper which attempted to provide "local focus." The business plan worked so well I got laid off along with about 25 percent of the rest of the newsroom, and the paper itself has one foot firmly inside death's doorsill.

No paper could be more Bostoncentric than the Herald's been the past decade. It barely covers news from Newton, let alone Nigeria. This emphasis was a most logical decision by publisher Pat Purcell. If the Globe was run by an out-of-town behemoth, presenting the Herald as the home town-owned source of home town news had obvious merit, especially in our proudly provincial burg.

Logic took a beating. The Herald's circulation and revenues losses only escalated each time its news focus narrowed. Strange as it seems, newspaper readers are not vacant eyeballs to be delivered en masse to advertisers. They're consumers with economic minds of their own. When a paper shrinks its staff, newshole, or focus of coverage, readers quickly perceive they're being asked to pay just as much as ever for a lesser product. Quicker than you can say "Adam Smith" many of them turn down the offer. Readers like the idea there's more in their paper than they can or even want to read. They want the best infobang for their half-a-buck.

One more thing. In the 21st century global village, the word "local" has a flexible definition. The biggest world news right now is Iraq. Half a world from Boston, our nation's locked in a frsutrating and confusing foreign war.

In the early stages of the war, dedicated Globe staffers did outstanding work. One of them, Elizabeth Neuffer, was one of the first reporters to die covering the conflict. All of them took hair-raising risks to provide Globe readers with information and insight they couldn't get anywhere else. It made you proud to share their profession, even in the court jester's role of sports columnist.

Over a year ago the Globe shut down its Baghdad office, citing the difficulty and dangers of obtaining information there. By "difficulty" the paper meant, of course, "expense". Hey, the Times still had lots of reporters in Iraq. Only costs a dollar. Why not subscribe to both papers?

As newspapers USED to understand, foreign wars are the ultimate local news. Globe subscribers are fighting this war. Many more Globe subscribers have loved ones serving there. A tragic number of Globe subscribers have buried loved ones who lost their lives in Iraq. Not covering a war your readers are fighting isn't "focusing on local coverage." It's an insulting rip-off. Anyone who's dropped the paper as a result of this decision is to be congratulated. They are the best sort of citizen.

Aaah, maybe I'm just an old hack, an unemployed one at that. Newspaper workers are the world's best bitchers. Maybe I'm just the modern day equivalent of a blacksmith from 100 years ago, cursing the universe as I watch the Model Ts roll down Main Street.

I don't think I am. I remain just enough faith in the free market system and humanity at large to believe there's no real path to long term business success besides putting out the best possible product. The cure for the newspaper industry is to produce papers (or websites, etc.) that have more, not less, information.

The motto of the actual Times is as famous as the paper itself. All the news that's fit to print. Not to get too hokey about it, but the Times stands as the paragon of its business because the thousands of dedicated and talented people who work there live by that slogan every minute of every working day. Not just the reporters and editors. The delivery truck guys, ad salesmen and all the other indispensable back office workers commit to the same pursuit of excellence.

The motto the Times corporation appears to have chosen for the Globe is a little different. It goes "Sullivan Tire has to advertise SOMEWHERE." There have been more inspirational battle cries.


At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be an old hack, but that doesn't change the fact that you are right on this issue.

I am in my twenties, and your sentiment matches mine.If the Globe had good foreign coverage I would read it everyday. But I basically have to buy the Times or The Journal -- or go to the web -- because my hometown paper is dying in front of me.

We need to get newspapers away from Wall Street. They are killing the industry and weakening democracy.

At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fee free to continue your critique with a ruthless examination of the blot on the internet landscape that is It's a terrible example of what happens when advertising trumps news.

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis somewhat. I liked the Herald because it had a lot of local news (better than the Globe). Where it fell down was all the "style" and "life" sections. That stuff is better done by People or OK magazine. I think there is room for a local focus paper which also connects to international issues. Basic news and reporting, not all the fluffy lifestyle issues.


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