The death of The New York Times?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Michael Hirschorn has an interesting piece in The Atlantic about the media's economic depression, where he focuses on the dim business prospects of the Times' print edition. Hirschorn asks:

But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?

He notes the possibilities are slim, but not quite out of the question as the company's debt and credit woes mount while advertisers flee. And that it's really just a matter of time before the print edition, "and with it The Times as we know it," no longer exists.

I fear Hirschorn's right. I also fear that my local New Jersey paper might not make it through to 2010. This is a daily, the Newark Star-Ledger, that I've been telling friends in recent years was certainly among the best mid-size metro dailies in the country; smart, aggressive, and intensely local. But I wonder if it will make it through the decade simply because it's virtually ad-free right now. The idea of New Jersey not having its major newspaper, to me, is frightening in terms of what it would mean to day-to-day life. And I'm not even talking about the state's famous corruption, which would be allowed to flourish even more openly if the Star-Ledger were to fold.

According to Hirschorn's piece, newspaper like the Star-Ledger wouldn't be alone:

In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: "Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010."

As another quick example, I have doubts that the New Haven Register will be publishing twelve months from now.

Still, it would be one thing for Connecticut to lose the Register. It would be quite another for everyone to lose the Times, the most important news gathering outlet in the world.

As Hirschorn notes, the current plight is mostly because of the Internet and because Times' readers online don't pay for the newspaper and advertisers won't pay that much to reach those readers at Hirschorn estimates that if the Times had to rely solely on web advertising, the newspaper would have to lay off 80 percent of its newsroom staff, thereby decimating the operation.

Where Hirschorn loses me though (and he's not alone on this; lots of online commentators seem to subscribe), is his hope that maybe a smaller, more nimble web-based Times could find its niche. Or that it could "resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post."

Look, I love the blogosphere (and the Huffington Post), and journalism potential the Internet holds. I love the blogosphere so much I'm writing a book about it, which I need to finish so it will be out in the spring. I think blogs have changed both the politics and the press in hugely important ways in the last four years.

But I don't buy the notion that maybe blogs or upstart online news sites could replace gigantic news operations like the New York Times and the extraordinarily important work it does each day. (Even though, as a critic, if I wish it did a better job with its final product.) I just think people are being naive if they think blogs or some Internet collective could do what the Times does and that, in the end it wouldn't be that big of a deal if the Times ceased to exist in the form it has for the last century.

Hirschorn concludes:

Ultimately, the death of The New York Times—or at least its print edition—would be a sentimental moment, and a severe blow to American journalism. But a disaster? In the long run, maybe not.

I disagree. The death of the Times as we know it would be a disaster. And it would be a man-made disaster caused by the Internet.

P.S. I also have trouble with Hirschorn's suggestion that, in this current, dismal media/economic environment, some star Times reporters and pundits could actually make a better living striking out on their own on the Internet.

Their current jobs, featuring beefy six-figure salaries, paid vacations, travel, health benefits and the prestige of working for the Times, could be easily replicated as "brands of one" online?

I just don't see it.

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