The Death of Journalism Returns — Sulzberger-Style

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arthursulzbergerWow. I just got finished reading Mark Bowden’s long (11,000-word) profile of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher and chairman of the New York Times Company, for Vanity Fair.

Obviously, being written for Vanity Fair, the story will have the chattering classes classily chattering, but for those who have been missing all of my super-encouraging posts on the end of journalism that marked the start of my charming 2009, there are some really salient bits of the story, beyond the biographical ones, worth noting. It confirms: print is dying. It’s stewards haven’t clue how to save it. Pick a lifeboat now.

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For example:

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No one can plumb another’s depths. Arthur certainly seems clever enough, but try as he might, he fails to impress. He comes off as a lightweight, as someone slightly out of his depth, whose dogged sincerity elicits not admiration so much as pity. While no one blames him for what is clearly a crisis afflicting all newspapers, he has made a series of poor business moves that now follow him like the tail of a kite. He has doubled-down on print over the last two decades, most notably with his own newspaper but also spending more than a billion dollars to buy The Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune. These purchases appear to have been historically mis-timed, rather like sinking your life savings into hot-air balloons long after the first excited reports from Kitty Hawk. Back when he had the money to do it, Arthur failed to adequately diversify the Times Company’s holdings, stranding it in an ocean of debt with no flotation device-unlike, say, The Washington Post, which is being buoyed through this industry-wide depression by the highly profitable Kaplan Inc., an education-services company that provides test-preparation classes and online instruction. (The Post’s diverse investments were made under a board that included Warren Buffett and like-minded business gurus.) Except for his admirable Web site, Arthur has failed to expand the Times effectively into other media. Back in 2000 he announced that television was “our next great frontier,” but his one timid step in that direction, a partnership with the Discovery Channel to produce news-related documentaries, was halfhearted (and abbreviated). The Times still lacks a presence in television. Arthur has not missed the boat entirely with digital start-ups-his decision to buy the online information site About.com, which provides assisted Internet searching, has paid dividends-but he passed up (along with a lot of other people) early opportunities to invest in the great search engines, such as Google, which today is sucking ad revenue from the paper while at the same time giving away its content. Arthur’s oft repeated assertion that he is “platform agnostic”-that is, doesn’t care what medium delivers the Times, and is open to all of them-is both misguided and revealing. It sounds fancy and daring and forward-thinking but betrays a deep misunderstanding of the forces at play.

And also this:

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American journalism is in a period of terror. The invention of the Internet has caused a fundamental shift not just in the platform for information-screen as opposed to paper-but in the way people seek information. In evolutionary terms, it’s a sudden drastic change of climate. One age passes and a new one begins. Species that survive the transition are generally not the kings of the old era. The world they fit so perfectly is no more. They are big and slow, wedded to the old ways, ripe for extinction.

And also this:

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For 10 years or more, Arthur’s signature phrase about this seismic change in the news business, the one he repeats to show that he gets it, has been platform agnostic. “I am platform agnostic,” he proclaims proudly, meaning that it matters nothing to him where his customers go for New York Times content: the newspaper’s print version, television, radio, computer, cell phone, Kindle-whatever. The phrase itself reveals limited understanding. When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling. To be platform agnostic is the equivalent of recording stage plays.

And, finally, this:

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Much more is at work here than a change of platform. Whether you think more is lost or gained depends upon which side of this evolutionary divide you fall on. For me, someone who spent most of his adult life working in a newsroom, someone who reads three newspapers every day, including the Times, the loss will be far greater. Newspapers enable serious journalism. They provide for the care and feeding of career reporters and editors. They strive to be fair, accurate, and objective. They are independent sources of credible, well-researched information. They are watchdogs for the public interest, an important part of the communal mind and memory of the nation. When an editor is replaced by an algorithm, all information is equal. Propaganda shares the platform with honest reporting, and the slickest, most attractive Web sites and blogs will be those sponsored by corporations, the government, or special interests, which can afford to pay for professional work.

In fairness, no one has the answer for newspapers. Some, such as former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, Alan D. Mutter, a former newspaperman and Silicon Valley C.E.O., and Peter Osnos, of PublicAffairs, all of whom have experience as executives, are pushing some form of micro-payment. If the Times, in partnership with the big search-engine companies, got paid a few pennies for every person who clicks on a link to its content, it might replace the old business model for advertising. The price of accessing a single item would be so small that it would hardly be worth the trouble to hunt up a pirated version. Some have suggested that all of the major news providers should band together and withhold their content from the Internet until such a pricing agreement can be put in place. It seems clear that drastic action is required. One top editor at another newspaper put it this way: “Ask yourself this-if the Internet existed and newspapers didn’t, would there be any reason to invent newspapers? No. That tells you all you need to know.”

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