New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke to the newsroom yesterday. Some cushy perks and benefits are history, he said, but your jobs are safe. For now.
Like the vines that produce great wine, journalism is enriched by its rootstock, and ours is fine and sturdy.
Arthur’s State of the Times speech last month has somewhat relieved me of the need to dwell on the future of the company as a business. I share his confidence in our future and I rejoice in the steady support that he, his family, and the company’s executives promise for the kind of journalism we produce. I also respect the fact that we cannot map out every step from here to the future. There is just too much beyond our control, including what seems these days to be the collapse of the modern economy.
And the newspaper industry.
Moreover, the pace of innovation in the information business is just too rapid to make firm predictions. If you’re not comfortable with uncertainty, you’re probably in the wrong racket.
Yes. Although not many places left to go. Academia? Pasta companies?
My confidence in The Times rests on the obvious, overwhelming, growing demand for what we do.
Except demand for print advertising, which pays for the whole thing. That’s history.
It rests on the loyal print audience that will sustain us as our digital operations grow. (I assume we’ve all had the number 820,000 tattooed on some body part. Those loyal subscribers, who stick with us through the price hikes, are the reason that, even as our print CIRCULATION has eroded, our print circulation REVENUES have gone up substantially.)
They have, which is remarkable, considering that the product is available online for free. We suspect a lot of those folks will have a change of heart now that they don’t have any money left. But it is definitely a generational thing: We know lots of fellow 40-somethings who will read newsprint until the day they die. Or at least until the NYT tries to raise prices again.
My confidence rests, also, on the dedication and inventiveness of the people in this company. It rests on the fact that our newsroom, while stretched, is strong and nimble and increasingly organised for the new world. To my mind, those factors justify an abiding optimism about The New York Times.
We’d like to make a little side bet with Bill: 20% of the newsroom produces 80% of the content that NYT readers read. True? If so, is it really fair to say that the newsroom is stretched?
Since Arthur stood on this stage, the economy has gone from a decline to a tailspin, but our confidence — his and mine — remains strong.
If so, both of you are in denial. The company is running on fumes.
Let me answer the question that I assume is on many of your minds: No. No, I do not see another round of newsroom staff reductions on the horizon.
Translation: No holiday layoffs.
In fact, we are entering into the budget discussions for 2009 with a determination — shared by Arthur and Scott — to protect the journalistic team that is the engine of our long-term success. A deep, sustained recession will mean the search for savings and the quest for new revenues continues, that there will be no luxuries and little comfort. It will mean, as the company announced last week, that for management there will be some cuts in future pension benefits and retiree medical insurance. (Susan Murphy from Corporate HR is with us today, in case any of you managers would like that announcement translated from the original Swahili.) The tough business climate has already meant the consolidation of sections to save printing costs. It will mean, I’m sure, that our hiring is even more selective than before. It will mean some new projects get delayed. It may mean we get more exotic and garish species of advertisements.
Should save a few tens of millions. Maybe enough to buy another quarter or so.
What it will NOT mean, I most fervently hope, is a surrender to the short-sighted, serial staff cuts that have hollowed out some of the nation’s great news organisations. There are no guarantees, especially since we have such limited visibility into the future. But as of now, even with the growing misery of the global economy, our aim is to move forward without another wave of newsroom buyouts or layoffs. If I learn that such a staff reduction is on the table, I will tell you, and I will tell you promptly.
We assume he is misquoted there. Bill then goes on to praise dozens of individuals whose coverage makes the organisation great. And it does make it great. And they deserve the praise.
But we have a problem with Bill’s characterization of the cuts around the industry as “short-sighted.” Bill’s business reporters would never characterise them that way, and if he wants to maintain his credibility, he shouldn’t, either.
The newspaper industry is cutting costs because it is in a permanent decline. So far, the online business model cannot support anything like the staff that classifieds and other print ads used to allow. This is a business reality, one that the New York Times has stubbornly refused to accept. The sooner it does so, the better.
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