Wednesday, January 07, 2009

N.Y.Times Front-Page Ad: Turns Out The Sky Didn't Fall, After All

But That Doesn't Mean You Have To Be Happy About It

Perhaps the biggest question about The New York Times putting a display ad on its front page Monday is what took so long?
That doesn't mean anybody -- especially me -- was hungering for an ad at the bottom of the page, for which the Times pocketed an estimated $75,000. But the Times was merely playing catch-up -- albeit grudgingly -- with its newspaper brethren, distinguished and otherwise. Only The Washington Post has been a staunch hold-out, and I suspect that'll change before long given the Post's sorry numbers as of late.
It's all a matter of getting used to something. You don't have to like it, but if it's there long enough, it'll be part of the furniture.
Just like the Times has in the last two years:
---cut its page width
---blown out A2-3 for an unfortunate digest
---reduced the number of sections most days.
---curtailed most daily coverage of the suburbs
---limited coverage of local basketball and hockey teams.

And so on.
But we keep reading. Because even with those regrettable changes, the Times still does what it does better than any other media outlet.
The Times remains the straw that stirs the drink at any network. You know it's the first thing that Robert Thomson or Marcus Brachuli check, even before their own papers.
So, despite the setbacks and the precarious state of the Times' finances, it's a little weird to see someone who should know better, like Michael Hirschorn, commence grave-dancing.
In a piece in The Atlantic, Hirschorn writes it's "certainly plausible" the Times could shut down its print operation this spring.
No, it's not.
Look, no one disputes that the Times, like most other publishers is facing a cash crisis. As Hirschorn writes:
"With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good."
But that doesn't mean the Gray Lady will fade to black. Far from it. Even Hirschorn admits the odds of the Times presses not rolling in May are "relatively slim."
You have to know the Sulzbergers will do anything and everything to protect the flagship. There are plenty of ways to do that, including asset sales like the stake in the Boston Red Sox, or trimming fluffy sections and supplements, as Hirschorn advocates.
In the end, the Times as a printed product is too big to fail. That doesn't mean its future doesn't lie online. It probably does, but not now, and probably not in the near future.
It can't, if online generates only 10 percent of the revenues that print does, you can't find a way to get people to pay for content, and short-attention spans of online readers all but precludes in-depth investigations and enterprise reporting.
For now, we just have to hope the Times stays the course in 2009, swallowing hard as the pain from the quarterly earnings releases flow through its veins. Maybe, just maybe, advertisers will start to feel good again next year.
If not, then we can really panic, and start to wonder if the days of finding the Times on our doorstep every morning really are numbered.

No comments: