It is a good time to be a deceitful politician or a pay-for-favors lobbyist or a crooked corporate CEO. That’s because the profession that is charged in a democracy with ferreting out such miscreants is losing some members of its “A” team.
Despite its ills and errors, The New York Times remains the best newspaper in America. But the business model to which the industry remains fanatically obsessed â€” maximize shareholder income at the expense of the quality of its product â€” is about to slip a knife into the muscle and bone of The Times‘ reporting staff.
The Times will trim its newsroom staff of 1,332 by about 100:
The cuts will be achieved â€œby not filling jobs that go vacant, by offering buyouts, and if necessary by layoffs,â€ the executive editor, Bill Keller, said. The more people who accept buyouts, he said, â€œthe smaller the prospect of layoffs, but we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that there will be some layoffs.â€ He said, â€œWe intend to move quickly, to get any cuts past us so that we do not spend a year bleeding slowly.â€
More than any other set of job cuts in the news biz, these are the most troubling. Like it or not, The Times has held fast to its reputation for credibility, accuracy and fearlessness for more than a century. Yes, it’s often too liberal. Yes, Judith Miller’s pro-Iraq reporting left some slime on the masthead. Yes, The Washington Post beat it on Watergate. And yes, The Times can be irritatingly patrician and arrogant. But it’s ability to latch onto a story and extract every last dram of news is unparalleled in American journalism.
The New York Times Co., which owns The Times, has not always been the best-run of American media. But it’s still making money:
For 2007, the Times Company recently reported earnings of $208.7 million on revenue of $3.2 billion. The companyâ€™s newspaper segment had an 8 percent operating margin last year, compared with 13 to 22 percent for several other large newspaper publishers. Newspaper industry ad revenue fell about 7 percent last year, and 4.7 percent at the Times Company, hurt by both the slowing economy and the rise of Internet advertising. Executives around the industry have projected that 2008 will be equally bad. [emphasis added]
By now, it’s an old story â€” falling revenues from print advertising caused, in part, by declining readership. Rapidly increasing online readership has produced dramatic gains in online ad revenue â€” but gross online ad revenue still pales with gross print ad revenue. Apparently, there’s just not enough breathing room, newspaper management believes, between shifting high gross ad revenues from a print-dominated enterprise to an online-dominated one.
And The Times does well online â€” at least in terms of readership:
Revenues are falling even as readership of major newspapers climbs sharply because of the Web. Most major papers set records for Internet traffic last month, Nielsen/NetRatings reported Thursday; the Web site of The Times had more than 20 million unique visitors, more than any other newspaper site. [emphasis added]
But cutting the reporting resources of The Times will have consequences â€” just as newsroom cuts at other newspapers nationally have. Fewer reporters will be available to do the more stories desperatedly needed about an increasingly complex society.
The Times has a newsroom budget of more than $200 million. It is one of a few news organizations that has not reduced its coverage of Iraq, which costs about $3 million a year. Expenses have also been increased by an unusually long and competitive presidential campaign.
Cutting 100 reporters may reduce the effectiveness overall of The Times‘ commitment to Iraq and political coverage. The Times Co.’s shareholders may gain, but we, the readers, will lose some measure of quality in the old Grey Lady’s news columns.
Said editor Keller:
To meet our budget goals, we will have to do a little less, and every time we do less, we cede a bit of advantage. Our challenge will be to set our priorities in such a way that we do less in the areas that damage our competitiveness least.
This is not a positive development for American journalism. If the nation’s best newspaper becomes less effective journalistically, it will be costly in ways we cannot yet predict. At the least, those who seek to hide misdeeds from sunlight will be emboldened.