The Times, It Is A-Changin'

It is remarkable how much certainty there is in the world. For instance, consider the conventional wisdom of Jill Abramson’s sudden departure from The New York Times:

Abramson was fired because there is a gender double standard that rewards tyrannical men and punishes “brusque” women.

The first three words of the sentence are true. So are the last 14. The one word that may not be true -- and I certainly don't know -- is “because.” Here’s another sentence that might be constructed the same way:

O.J. Simpson was prosecuted because there is a historical, ongoing and often depraved police bias against black men.

Correlations are easy to divine. Causations require a lot more data. At a minimum, when drawing conclusions on particular events based on generalized conditions, it’s wise to allow at least for the word “partly.”

In the Abramson case, excepting her and bosses, nobody has the right to profess certainty. The fired editor was so widely disliked in the newsroom and on the business side that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. cashiered her despite the public relations calamity he knew would ensue. Even an unreconstructed sexist would pause at the thought of the shit avalanche sure to follow. Yet out she went, with nary a sheetcake.

Please note that the avalanche has come, but not from within The Times itself. As one Timesperson emailed an ex-Timesperson of my acquaintance, when the announcement came, “There wasn’t a wet eye in the house.”

Abramson has yet to tell her side of the story, perhaps honoring the severance agreement that Sulzberger seemed to ignore over the weekend by issuing a public bill of indictment against Abramson’s management style. But we can scarcely ignore his protests of accumulated grievance: a gradually burdened camel finally collapsing under the weight of a single straw. Over at The New Yorker, Ken Auletta believes Abramson was ultimately caught in a lie.

But let’s put that aside, because this disquisition takes up the subject of certainty -- and if it is certainty you seek, you are absorbed in the wrong Times shitvalanche. The more serious one is documented in the leaked NYT Innovation Report, a point-by-point explication of how the paper has complicated the existential crisis facing all newspapers by doing practically every single thing wrong for 15 years.

 …we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers. We have always cared about the reach and impact of our work, but we haven’t done enough to crack that code in the digital era. This is where our competitors are pushing ahead of us.

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have announced aggressive moves in recent months to remake themselves for this age. First Look Media and Vox Media are creating newsrooms custom-built for digital. The Guardian and USA Today have embraced emerging best practices that have helped grow readership. And Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do. In contrast, over the last year The Times has watched readership fall significantly.

Not only is the audience on our website shrinking but our audience on our smartphone apps has dipped, an extremely worrying sign on a growing platform.

That’s the beginning. After that it gets ugly.

Suppose the world of journalism is a continuum with BuzzFeed on one end, representing absolute fixation on audience behavior, and the Times on the other, representing absolute dedication to quality journalism as highlighted on tomorrow’s front page. If both institutions are going to thrive in the long run, each must move in the other’s direction. BuzzFeed is doing exactly that. The Times is standing virtually still. Publishing digitally does not mean converting ink to pixels; it means abandoning the Page One/Homepage mentality rooted in the monopolistic old days.

Mind you, those were the good old days; of that I am certain. But I am equally certain that it’s useless and self-destructive to live in the past, when the present is cascading down the mountain to bury you. That’s what The Chaos Scenario was about. I’ve been writing about this stuff since 2005.  Makes you wonder how the Great Gray Lady defines “innovation.” 

The New York Times is in trouble because it has just fired its executive editor.

Everything in that sentence is true but “because.”

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1 comment about "The Times, It Is A-Changin'".
  1. Mark Paul from Mark Paul , May 19, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.
    The problems are even worse than you describe. Consider that 2 of the last 3 executive editors were total disasters and they were internal promotions. Did Howell Raines and Jill Abramson suddenly develop those personality traits which led to their dismissals? Hiring the operational managers -- executive editor & president -- is the most important part of Sulzberger's job. In fact, if he gets these 2 right, there's hardly anything for him to do. It should be the most desirable job top in daily journalism and Sulzberger keeps failing. Time for a family meeting.