A few weeks ago, we had an interview scheduled with Cella Irvine, the CEO of About.com. After a hiccup during the recession, About.com is firing on all cylinders again, and we were eager to hear the latest from Cella.
A few days before the interview, however, we got a note from Cella’s office saying the interview had been canceled.
We asked why.
At first, it was the usual excuses (schedule conflicts, etc.). But the interview had been set up for months, so we pressed for the real reason. And eventually we got it.The interview had been canceled because the New York Times Company, which owns About.com, is not happy with what we’ve been saying about the future of the New York Times Company.
As frequent readers know, we think the New York Times newspaper will eventually have to go through a major restructuring, in which the cost of the newsgathering operations is brought in line with the revenue the company generates from its online business. We estimate that this restructuring will require the paper’s newsroom costs to be cut by at least half.
Importantly, we do NOT think the New York Times is going to cease to exist (and we’re happy about that–we love the New York Times). We also do NOT think the New York Times Company is going to go bankrupt, although this is a possibility. (And bankruptcy would actually make the restructuring easier).
But it is true that our assessment of the future of the New York Times Company is not as rosy as the New York Times Company management’s is.
This, of course, is not the first time we have been retaliated against for having a less-rosy view of a company’s future than the company’s management does.Certain types of PR folks love to try to bully journalists into saying what they want them to say by ridiculing their conclusions, withholding information, and making executives “unavailable.” Based on the frequency with which this tactic is employed, it is evidently quite successful.
But we were surprised to see this sort of behaviour at an organisation like the New York Times.
When we found out the real reason our interview with Cella had been canceled, we asked NYTCo’s new PR chief Bob Christie a simple question:
Given Arthur Sulzberger’s commitment to the New York Times’s journalistic integrity, does he support policies like this that are clearly designed to punish scepticism and reward more favourable coverage of the company?
Until then, we had been on cordial-if-tense speaking terms with Bob (see below). But three weeks have gone by since we sent him that question, and we haven’t heard boo.
We’re still curious about the answer, by the way. How can you stand for what the New York Times stands for and be so blatant about trying to manipulate press coverage? We’re also curious about how the New York Times newsroom feels about this behaviour.In any event, a few weeks before the Cella episode, when we were still on speaking terms with Bob, he had told us that our assessment of the company’s future was “wrong.”
Well, we’ve been wrong before, and we’ll be wrong again.
So we invited Bob to tell us WHY our assessment was wrong–to explain which of our assumptions was inaccurate, where our analysis was flawed–and we offered to print Bob’s response. He declined to provide one.
Now, in our experience, when people who are trying to get you to change your view by saying you are “wrong” won’t explain WHY you are wrong, it often means you are right.
But our offer still stands.
And another offer we made to the New York Times Company still stands, too.
A few months ago, we invited Arthur Sulzberger to speak at our upcoming IGNITION: The Future Of Media conference. Arthur has had one heck of a challenging job in the past few years, and we wanted to talk to him about that. We also wanted to give him the opportunity to explain in more detail why he’s optimistic about the company’s future and how NYTCo plans to make the transition from analogue to digital.
Well, when we extended that invitation, Bob Christie could not get back to us fast enough to say that Arthur would NEVER speak at one of our conferences.
When I asked Bob why, he explained that he was worried that I would ambush Arthur on stage and make him look like a fool. I suggested to Bob that, on the contrary, this was a good opportunity for Arthur to ambush ME on stage and make ME look like a fool. After all, as chairman and publisher of NYTCo, Arthur has access to information that I can only guess at. If I was “WRONG” about the future of the company, as Bob maintained, it ought to be easy for Arthur to explain why.
Bob was not swayed.
And now, it seems, we’re no longer on speaking terms.
Well, let me take this opportunity to renew our offers to Cella and Arthur and Bob. We’d love to hear more about the great things going on at About.com, and we’d love to have Arthur speak at our conference. We would also be happy to print a detailed response from the New York Times Company that refutes our analysis of its future and explains why we are wrong.
But let me also add this: If the price of engagement with the New York Times Company is more favourable coverage without a detailed response, forget it. There’s already way too much quid-pro-quo journalism in this country. No one needs more of it.
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