Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The NYT and the infomation theory of the leisure class, 2/4

(This is the second of four posts, putting up a long essay on the business model of the New York Times ... a short version of this was published by Pajamas Media online.)


From newspaper to daily magazine

I used to be a shareholder, by the way, and a close reader of the New York Times Company’s endlessly disheartening financials. Not very many shares, please; I am not, as the assassin says to Mal in Serenity, a complete moron. Eventually economic reality must set in – even for this finance law professor who owned the shares as a finance class teaching aid (economic sectors in crisis make for good classroom examples). I finally sold at a hefty loss over the summer.

In the 90s, the Times bet that it could become the general newspaper of elites across the United States – become in the category of a general newspaper what the Wall Street Journal had already become as a national business paper. Falling printing costs and new forms of communication brought the costs of distributing the paper nationwide down sufficiently far that regional production and distribution were within striking distance of costs of the metropolitan NYC paper. Combined with a rising urban elite in many city centers, the national newspaper strategy was not a mad dream. I certainly thought it a smart strategy at the time. Elite regional papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, were justifiably frightened; the Washington Post Company did the smartest thing of all and diversified a few years later out of media and into the Kaplan test prep cash machine.

Content was already shifting. The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, always had to remain anchored in the core presentation of semi-specialized facts and data to satisfy a hard nosed business audience, but it wrapped that staid, fact-oriented newspaper around a conservative, polemical editorial page, while keeping them emphatically separate, and so got two national audiences for one paper. The Times could not do that. It correctly understood that its new, national target audience was what David Brooks famously called the Bobos, the market oriented yet professional, bourgeois yet bohemian, affluent and self-regarding, self-involved elites of the major cities. They didn’t seek facts as such from the New York Times. They already had the ones that really mattered from other, more specialized sources. The only factual area where the Times retained an edge was in foreign reporting, but years of shutting down foreign bureaus and cutting correspondents had largely depleted that competitive advantage, to the extent that this new readership cared about it.

What the Bobos sought instead from the Times was a cultural attitude, confirmation of who they were. The Times, for them, was less about sense than sensibility. The tendency of contemporary baby boomer journalism to narration, reportorial self-expression, and Dickensian sentimentalizing was already pronounced; call it the Long March of the New Journalism through the Institutions. The result was a New York Times that gradually began turning its news pages, and especially the front page, into a magazine.

Magazines are good things. At their best, they are ‘informed opinion’ – each of those, however, a separate qualification. But magazines are not driven by a fundamental, baseline assumption that a story, or a front page, or a newspaper is worth reading each and every day just because the facts are the facts and you need to know what’s going on. A caricature, of course; every newspaper understands that it needs a certain amount of sensation beyond the straight facts. Still, the ultimate justification of a daily paper is “this happened.” A good magazine, by contrast, is not about the value of contemporaneous facts as such, but instead some form of post-hoc analysis – sometimes deep and sometimes not and sometimes pure entertainment – but always something that draws you in beyond the bare fact that the facts are the facts. (As for television “news” – the nature of the medium is visceral imagery, not facts; it is finally just about shocking sensibilities, including via the ubiquitous talking heads, whose principal function is to appear to talk – their mouths move, sounds come out – but actually merely to emote: sensibility, once again, not sense.)

In the Times’s new business model for content, the newspaper is really a magazine and opinion is the draw. Value is supposedly added by publishing stories that are carefully calibrated to the pre-held sensibilities of the consumer-reader. And yet, in order to preserve the idea that this is still a newspaper, the opinions are presented not as a magazine would, but as a daily newspaper does – as verisimilitude. Confirmation bias reigns; this is true at conservative as well as liberal media outlets, of course, but the difference is political dominance of the mainstream media oligopoly, as Noam Chomsky might say. The New York Times as facilitator of elite onanism; high-gravitas journalism as convenor of the elite circle jerk. Opinion as news, offered daily as fact. Readers are no doubt yawning at this ‘discovery’; tell me something I don’t know.

But one bit of collateral damage from the magazinification of the Times is the New York Times Sunday Magazine – the Times has a magazine, and a very good one (for which I have occasionally written). Yet it is tough these days to distinguish the writing in the news pages from the writing in the Magazine, though the latter is better edited. If I were Gerry Marzorati, editor of the Magazine, I think I would be mightily pissed that the newspaper had taken over my gig on a daily basis and stupidly de-valued my weekly niche product by deciding to compete with it.


From daily magazine to online cocooning

Come the Internet Age. The magazine model remains in place, but the national strategy is dead in the water. Virtually every strategic piece is upturned. Costs may have fallen for regional and local printing and distribution – but not as far as costs of distribution on the Internet. Print ads are going downhill, too – long term, not just in the recession – because readership is migrating to the Web. And because, ominously, so is consumer purchasing. It’s disintermediation – middlemen getting cut out and, at least as far as advertisers are concerned, precisely the same economic transaction taking place – look at pretty girl in cute clothes and then buy some, click – but in a much more cost effective way.

And the coolness factor of having the Times in, say, Austin, is rapidly evaporating; who cares about having any hard copy newspaper? My students certainly don’t. There is a national general-interest magazine and it is called the Internet – or at least your political part of it, red or blue. The Times is left with declining stock values, questionable bonds, a glamorous headquarters building, hefty payroll costs, fleeing advertisers, declining subscriptions, a failed national strategy, a Boston Globe barely on life support, opinion based content, the possibility of serious competition even in Manhattan from a revamped Wall Street Journal, and a brand name that increasingly means to its readers, “Be not afraid – we won’t challenge your world.”

The brand name will survive, of course, even as the Times collapses back into a metropolitan New York paper that, to be sure, has legacy political clout nationwide and disproportionate impact on the national media’s vertical oligopoly. More parts of the ‘paper’ will migrate to cheaper environs on the Web. Whole sections, along with a proliferation of blogs and reader communities. Sometimes this interactive reader model is useful – primarily in material with a close connection to readers’ personal lives anyway, such as the personal health sections or John Tierney’s consumer-oriented Science Lab.

As touching political news stories, however, these interactions do little to increase factual content, and instead promote merely inter-reader emotional solidarity even as they present themselves as the online “debate.” Under the guise of open debate, they are in fact mostly production forums for confirmation bias, as Cass Sunstein pointed out as a general problem of online forums in 2.0. Times reporters will be pressed to produce ever more words for these forums and moderate them – productivity starting to be measured by word counts and the variety of forums able to recycle the same limited factual content – at the expense of time actually to pursue expensive, off-line, value-added, new facts.

As this migration takes place, too, the economics of the paper will shift accordingly. From a revenue generation standpoint, the difference between the print paper and the online paper is not simply as a channel of distribution, it is a fundamental matter of what different advertising streams pay. Notes the Times’s media columnist David Carr, more than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still “derives from the print product.” (NYT, October 28, 2008) A single newspaper ad in the printed newspaper might pay the newspaper “many thousands of dollars” – whereas the equivalent online ad might bring in a mere “$20 for each 1,000 customers who see it.”

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