How to save The New York Times?

by on November 5, 2009 at 6:13 am in Economics | Permalink

I was reading an NYT account of its finances and came across the following:

More radical moves, like dropping the sports section, have been rejected because they would undermine the quality of The Times or would not save much money, Keller said.

"Or"?  Which is it?  It would not  undermine the quality of the paper from a Platonist point of vew; the NYT sports section isn't even as good as USA Today.  It's hard to believe the section is cheap to produce, but if it were that again would imply it wasn't so special.

Is Keller trying to say something like: "We also don't think the section is that good, but if we cut it we'll lose those subscribers who take only one paper and still demand minimum sports coverage"?  For these subscribers, is it not possible to rent out somebody else's sports section and stick it in the paper with a NYT label on it and maybe an extra article about the Knicks?

1 brec November 5, 2009 at 7:21 am

The disjunction doesn’t specifically apply to the sports section, which is merely one example (“like”) of radical moves. Some of the radical moves would undermine quality; others would not save much money.

2 Brian J November 5, 2009 at 8:08 am

I’m not much of a sports guy, so I don’t really check out the sports section that much and don’t have an opinion on it. But is it like all other sections of The Times, where to an outsider like me, it looks as if there’s a lot of redundancy amongst the reporters? Did anyone here see the details of the buyout package mailed to everyone at the paper? Apparently, some sections run with a few people, but others run with a massive number of reporters. You have to wonder, does The Times really need 103 people working at the Metro desk? Does it even need 50? Does the paper need 14 book editors? My guess is, there are quite a few people that could be cut without drastically undermining the quality of the paper.

Here are a few random thoughts, predictions, and suggestions:

1. I’m not sure if you realize this, but The Times recently started offering a local edition for San Fransisco, which along with Chicago has the highest number of subscribers outside the Northeast. Chicago’s local edition will be out towards the end of the month. (The Wall Street Journal is doing the same, starting today in S.F. I believe.) Right now, the edition isn’t much, just a couple of pages every Friday and Sunday with some local advertising mixed in. The Times people themselves they don’t expect to see huge results from it, but if over time it can push enough people to the web site who, since they aren’t from New York might not think of right away, or actually lead to some small subscriber growth, this could be expanded into several areas. The Times already has a ton of domestic bureaus outside of the northeast, and while it’s not clear how much news will come from current employees, like those at the S.F. bureau as opposed to more independent, possibly non-profit services like the recently formed Chicago News Cooperative, its presence already around the big areas both through manpower and through deals for actually printing make it very possible, if not likely. It all depends on several things going right, but some small subscription growth in a bunch of different places could reverse the overall declines.

2. As I said before, the paper has what appears to be a bloated Metro staff. Why doesn’t it either reassign the people to other areas or simply drop them? Or better yet, why not drop the majority of the really localized news from the main paper and try to spin it off into a free Monday through Friday paper? Imagine a small paper would give a roundup of news, a lot of sports, and perhaps some cultural stuff that could be digested on the subway each morning. The Times already has a lot of manpower and the other things that go along with producing a newspaper, so why not try it? There could be different versions for each borough, and since the advertising wouldn’t need to reach people outside of the city, it could be small enough in price but big enough in quantity to make it work.

3. Why not try to fold the Boston Globe into the The Times itself? I don’t read the paper often and have never seen a print edition, but if it’s at all possible to retain enough local flavor by keeping the Boston-specific staff members on while using those already working at The Times to maintain its national focus, why not think about it? Would there really be that much of a circulation drop? How much is tolerable?

4. Perhaps the paper should consider not printing at all, save perhaps on Sunday. This is a pretty radical move, and while right now the paper makes more from circulation than advertising, there’s no guarantee that will hold up if price increases continue. Those inside the paper know more about the numbers than me, but if I had to guess, I’d say this idea has been entertained more than once.

5. Why not charge a small fee for some parts of the site? Some wouldn’t return, but if you assume even a small amount of the 15-20 million unique visitors each month would pay $5 on the low end to $25 on the much higher end, it’d be worth it to try for a freemium modal like The Wall Street Journal.

3 Dan November 5, 2009 at 8:40 am

It’s an “and,” not an “or,” in the case of the sports section:

1) The money saved would be small. The Times does not have that many sportswriters and probably has a small editorial staff exclusively devoted to sports. The section today runs from B12 (!) to B18; on the latter, it shares more than half the column-inches with obituaries. That’s 6.5 pages and it does not even start on the front page of a section — and note, the Yankees won the World Series last night. A lot of the content — probably 2 pages worth — is AP reports from around various leagues and/or scoreboards and lines. I guess they could outsource more of it, but I do not think the Times benefits from treating content as a commodity (to that degree).

2) The value of the sports section — and indeed, most non-A sections — is significant. It allows brand advertisers to vertically target readers from within the Times’ demographic. Because of the sectional nature of the paper in general, it also buoys subscription rates as husbands now have something to flip through if their wives otherwise wish to subscribe. That — being a sectioned omnibus news format — is one part of the business model which still remains relevant.

4 Ted Craig November 5, 2009 at 9:02 am

The NYT business section, while very good, is far from the only good business section in the U.S. Many papers do a good job covering their local area of concern, such as the auto industry in the Detroit papers.
Most papers do have bloated staffs. Many reporters have very small beats under the belief they’ll cover them exceptionally well. What happens instead is they lose perspective. That said, many papers wind up going too far the other way and cut staff to the point where reporters really are overwhelmed.
Also, you always have to remember the Times does have a somewhat exaggerated sense of itself.

5 Chris Dornan November 5, 2009 at 9:35 am

Great Tyler: the kind of rationalization you suggest makes perfect sense and is surely the future.

6 newsjunky November 5, 2009 at 10:15 am

America would be a better place if the NY Times failed — the NY Times is a truly crappy journalistic product and it crowds out superior rivals.

7 Mario Rizzo November 5, 2009 at 10:24 am

I wonder why the same publications that report regular news should report sports news. Initially it was because consumers wanted to get “everything” from one or two newspapers. Now, of course, people go to many sources through the internet. (This avoids the question of pricing.)I think the NYT could get rid of the sports section without much loss of readership. But the ship IS sinking.

8 Ed November 5, 2009 at 10:41 am

Other people have already pointed this out, but Tyler is simply incorrect about the quality of the NY Times sports section. About twenty years ago it was true that it was really bad, to the point that the tour guide was making jokes about it when I took a tour of the then NY Times building. Its improved substantially and incorporates some good analysis. I read the New York tabloid sports sections sometimes too, and the Times sports section at the moment is a better read than the one in the Daily News and about even with the NY Post. It may even be the best section in the paper.

The main problem with the Times was that it was caught a few times this decade publishing stories, in the front section, that were either fabricated or straight propeganda. I’m thinking of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. They blew their credibility and that is hard to fix. I don’t think moving around or changing their subsections, which they’ve tried, really fixes this.

As it happens, the Times is bloated, but the Sports Section, which is quite small, rarely a separate section, and actually quite decent is actually least in need of cutting or an overhaul. Have you looked recently at Styles, Arts, the Book Review, Business, or Travel recently? Others here have also pointed out Metro. I read an article in the Sunday Travel section, about a place that I visited a few months ago, that was a parody of what is wrong with the Times. The writer completely missed the main reasons one would want to visit the place and wrote mainly about motorbiking with his friends and trying to pick up girls. It managed to combine being annoying with giving no information to potential travellers about why you would want to visit the destination or what to do when you get there.

9 outsider November 5, 2009 at 11:24 am

I think papers in general are going to be re-defined and need to narrow their focus to what they’re best at, good at, known for. The NYT is not known for sports coverage. Either they should drop it, or cut a deal with ESPN to have a daily sports page (not section) covering the previous days action and today’s schedule. Something akin to what the WSJ does now, a one pager, with the occasional interesting feature. If I want a lot of sports coverage, I go to another paper in truth (NY Post, Daily News). And, as the other poster said,

Similar to a lot of other industries, the days of a paper being all things to all customers are waning. Find what you’re good at, differentiate yourself with it, and forget the rest. Nobody buys the NY Times for the sports section. They buy it for the A news section, for the Science on Tuesdays, for the Lifestyle sections on weekends and the Week in Review. Sports is kind of added in as an afterthought – you read it only because it’s there. You don’t buy it for that. That kind of ancillary offering is what businesses need to ferret out in their product lineups and stop.

10 anon November 5, 2009 at 11:47 am

Who reads the New Yuk Times?

Tyler – PLEASE stop linking to NYT articles. Even though it is free, like the WaPo, the profane user name I tried to use didn’t match the profane passwords I tried…. Too much trouble for substandard reporting.

11 jm November 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm

The NY Times Sports section only concerns itself with 1 issue, RACE. Bill Rhoden is a joke. Every article re mgmt vs players……fans vs players…..mgr vs players always and everywhere goes back to….yep u guessed it…RACE….without player as slave metaphor u really don’t have a NYT sports section.

12 Gabe November 5, 2009 at 1:40 pm

maybe if the NYT would break more stories like this:

“The CIA relied on intelligence based on torture in prisons in Uzbekistan, a place where widespread torture practices include raping suspects with broken bottles and boiling them alive, says a former British ambassador to the central Asian country”

Instead we have to rely on the internet for real news.

13 ben November 5, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I’d drop my subscription without the sports section. Its perfect for today’s world. You don’t need game stories and box scores (internet) but they dig into unique stories. Where they are wasting money is on the columnists. With all the various outlets for opinions, no need in traditional print media (especially at their high salaries).

14 bigyaz November 5, 2009 at 6:12 pm

I think the Times is doing the right thing with sports. It can’t — and doesn’t try to — provide all the box scores and statistics that you can get much more easily on the web. It provides depth and context, addresses social issues and generally gives me something to think about.

15 Terry Cowgill November 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm

A modest suggestion, fire all the anonymous editorial writers. No one reads the editorials anyway.

When’s the last time you heard somebody ask, “Wow, I can’t wait to see what the NYT editorial board thinks about this big story.”

Judging by the website traffic, unsigned newspaper editorials representing the paper’s “institutional view” are among the least read and least emailed items in the paper. No reporter should ever be laid off while editorial writers labor on unread.

16 Brian J November 5, 2009 at 8:12 pm


I think it depends on how they approach a paid content model. If everything is locked behind a pay wall, they’d be dead, because as good as the paper can be, I don’t think enough people would sign up based on the high fee they’d have to charge to make up for the loss in overall advertising. But if they do a model more like The Wall Street Journal’s, it could work.
Basically, the site gets enough people now that if they charged a small enough fee so that enough people would sign up just to not be annoyed by not being able to link to it, they’d make money.

No, not everyone will sign up. But let’s say that, out of 17 million (to take an average from the figures I’ve seen) or so unique visitors that come to the site each month, at least one million of them would pay at least $5 a month. That’s $60 million a year, plus what money they’d make on top of overall advertising. If they’d give away certain stuff for free, like movie reviews, some blogs, and a certain number of articles a day, they could maintain the level of advertising they have now, or perhaps even increase it depending on the demographics. Plus, if the money could be used to make the content more unique, it’d make a subscription even more worthwhile.

On another note, one issue I haven’t seen addressed is why they give away the stuff online well before the paper comes out. It’s one thing to do it in the middle of the night on a weekday, but why is the content from the Sunday paper being released on Thursday? What’s the point of someone buying the paper? Perhaps it’d be a good idea to put some content–not all, not even a majority, but some–in the paper first to see if it would increase circulation of the print edition.

17 Richard Whitney November 5, 2009 at 10:44 pm

>>the NYT sports section isn’t even as good as USA Today.<< An understatement.The Times Sports Section, and the writers employed there, have always been subpar. Since the 1970s, the dialog went: "Why doesn't the Times have a comics section?" To which the rely was "It does. It calls it the Sport Section." I subscribed to the NYT for 24 years. How can they increase readership when they lose regular customers due to their own institutional failure? The MSM is today's buggy whip.

18 Donald A. Coffin November 6, 2009 at 12:48 am

Tyler–My problem with your comments (about the viability of the sports section of the Times) is that it seems to me one could write almost the same comments about any section. International news? Outsource it to Reuters. National news? AP. Coverage of the arts? A bit dicier, perhaps. Business news? Bloomberg’s wire service. What, then, becomes distinctive about any individual newspaper? (That is, perhaps, the key issue about the survivability of local, as opposed to national–USA Today–or specialized–FT, WSJ (although Murdoch seems to be trying to move it away from being a specialized newspaper, positioning it more as a national newspaper; we’ll know ne’s done that when the name changes to WSJ) publications.)

I read a lot about how the internet is replacing newspapers, but it ain’t really true. Someone has to pay to provide the news coverage (reporting, editing, although printing the things is probably not as important any more). (And, to date, the financially successful on-line news sites tend to be very specialized.) That’s easier for local, and harder for national/international. And it’s not being done in other ways. Blogs and aggregators need source material to blog about and to aggregate. Governments need to be watched, and to be exposed. And that requires an institution, with a relatively large presence. Much as I loved I.F. Stone’s work, he didn’t have much impact, except when he influenced the mainstream media of his day. (And, to date, the financially successful on-line news sites tend to be very specialized.)

I read (or at least skim) on-line, the parts of the Times daily, because it continues to be useful. Even the sports section, which does a good job of covering New York professional sports and New York college basketball. (And which will link you, on-line, to non-New-York, mostly AP, coverage.)

19 Washington Guy November 6, 2009 at 11:05 am

I grew up with the New York Times but didn’t read it much for the sports. I remember they had some great columnists–Dave Anderson, Red Smith. I think they had five sports columns at one point in their heyday. Looks like it has gone downhill.

Compare that to my current paper–the Washington Post. I think they overdo it on sports. On a typical Monday, the sports section will run 12 to 14 pages–with virtually no advertising. That’s a huge investment in people and newsprint. I can’t see how that can be sustained. Maybe they have some focus group research that says that people buy the printed paper for the sports section. I don’t…and I think the advertisers know it.

20 MonkeyMan November 9, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I think New Yorkers would pay extra to *keep out* the Knicks articles.

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