For starters, they may have paid Jill Abramson, their first female executive editor, less than her male predecessors. If this is true — and the Times disputes the overall compensation point — I don’t know how they justify it. Maybe they can, but I can’t see how. Yes, Abramson had a terrible reputation for being an abrasive manager, and was not popular in the newsroom. But if it’s true that she was paid less, and not even a little less, the Times has a lot to answer for. Mollie Hemingway writes:
Consider that this is the paper that loves to bash others on sex discrimination — the Times once ran multiple front-page stories on Augusta National Golf Club’s membership policies (male only) within only a few weeks. Even people sympathetic to the New York Times’ position on the issue thought it obsessive. If Sheryl Sandberg was pushed out of Facebook for being pushy or asking for a raise, the Times would be relentless in its coverage. Or we could just look at a few of the many tweets the New York Times account has sent out over equal pay:
There are many, and Hemingway shows more than enough to hoist Pinch Sulzberger on his petard if he can’t convincingly rebut the pay differential accusation. To be clear, paying Abramson less than her male predecessors for doing the same job is wrong on its face, but to do that to its first female executive editor while lecturing everybody else about gender pay disparities? Unbelievable. Do as the Times says, children, not as the Times does.
In other Times news today, Buzzfeed published a leaked internal NYT analysis of the newspaper’s digital shortcomings. It’s pretty harsh, and says basically that the paper is semi-competent at adjusting to the digital era. The report blames the Times for focusing too much on the print product at the expense of digital, which is where growth for all newspapers will come.
I’m sure this is fair and accurate, but the problem facing the Times, and all newspapers, is more complicated than simply saying, “Do more digital, and do it better.”
It’s hard for outsiders, I suspect, to grasp how revolutionary the digital media environment is to newspapers, which have to rethink their mission and identity down to the fundaments. Buzzfeed’s follow-up commentary, on the long, leaked NYT internal report about its future, quotes the report as saying that the newspaper simply has to stop thinking about its mission in terms of supporting the print product, given that a “huge majority” of its readers get the paper digitally. The financial problem here is that the huge majority of the Times‘s revenue comes from advertising in the print product. The rule of thumb is that digital advertising is only 10 percent as valuable as print advertising (see here for more information about this problem). Every single newspaper faces the same problem, but the Times, at least, has prospects for digital growth that are unparalleled in the American newspaper industry, except for the Wall Street Journal’s, but so-called “legacy” publishers are having a difficult time doing what they need to do. (Contrast this to NPR, a legacy journalism institution that has done a great job making the change.)
As Alan Mutter points out, audience development is the most important business challenge facing newspapers today. In the case of the Times, that growth is going to take place in digital, and it’s going to take place outside the geographical confines of New York City. Think about it: nobody sitting in Laramie, Wyoming, and wanting to subscribe to a newspaper that gives them more news than their local paper, is going to look for the L.A. Times, or the Chicago Tribune. They’re going to consider the NYT or the WSJ. Those are the only papers with national and international scope.
It seems to me that the Times newsroom’s editorial parochialism puts it at somewhat of a disadvantage on this front. Put another way, it seems to me that the Times is far too New York-centric for its own long-term good. No, really. I don’t care that it’s called The New York Times. That is a way of thinking about the paper that makes sense when print is king. In the digital world, it’s a serious flaw. You want to expand your audience outside of New York — indeed, the Times intends to do precisely that. As the newspaper itself reported on itself last year:
The Times’s longer-term financial goal is to attract international paying subscribers. Mr. Thompson said that 15 million to 20 million unique international users visit The Times’s Web site monthly and about 10 percent of The Times’s subscribers are foreign, percentages he hopes to increase.
The global strategy gets a kick-start on Tuesday with the first issue of The International New York Times, rebranded from The International Herald Tribune. The effort involves a significant integration of the company’s resources around the world; the Times and International Herald Tribune staffs, long separate, have essentially merged, with reporting lines directly to New York. Top editors have been deployed from New York to offices in Paris, London and Hong Kong.
Larry Ingrassia, assistant managing editor for new initiatives, said that while the paper will feature “minor design changes,” The Times was more focused on attracting more international digital subscribers, whom he described as “the political, business and cultural elite of the world.”
Still, it is not easy to get the world’s wealthy elite to pay for news. Paul Rossi, managing director of The Economist, said that the market for paying subscribers was smaller than companies think.
“It’s not just reading English to the level of The Times or The Economist that takes a lot of people out of the mix,” Mr. Rossi said. “What problem does The New York Times solve for someone who is smart, Internet-savvy and living in Mumbai?”
But again: what problem does The New York Times solve for someone who is smart, Internet-savvy, and living in Longview, Texas? What can he get at the Times that he can’t get anywhere else on the web? If he wants a top-quality general-interest national newspaper, well, that’s the Times. But he can get that kind of international and national reporting from an aggregate of news sources. As a Times subscriber, I find myself constantly wanting the paper to cover American culture more broadly, and to reach beyond its hopeless NYC bias in this regard. At TMatt tirelessly points out, the paper’s former executive editor conceded publicly that the NYT is biased in its cultural coverage, and doesn’t even try to be balanced.
I’ve brought this fact up on this site before, and people have pointed out that the paper’s cultural coverage reflects the social and cultural values of New York City. Fine, I get that. But if the paper needs to expand its reach beyond NYC, it needs to expand its editorial vision beyond the liberal NYC monocultural view.
Then again, there may not be much point to this. Mutter cites data showing that even though the online readership for newspaper articles is high, people aren’t going to newspaper sites and reading them systematically. They get to the article via an aggregator. Reading this made me reflect on how I used to read the NYT systematically when it came to me in print, but when we switched to digital-only in 2011 (when we were still living in Philly), we both slowly fell out of the habit of making the Times appointment reading. Even though we’ve continued to subscribe — and here in St. Francisville, you can only get the Times digitally — I can’t tell you the last time I sat down with the online edition and read it as I used to read the print edition. Last night Julie and I thought about how we used to look so forward to the Wednesday paper, because it had the Times’s excellent food section. We used to argue over who got to read it first. Now, though? I don’t remember when I last saw the Times food section. I’m quite sure the journalism is as good as it ever was, but I swear, I just forget to read it. I wake up on Wednesday, and there are a thousand choices facing me when I turn the computer on. I’m grazing from everywhere. Once I got out of the weekly habit of reading the Times food section, I gradually forgot about it. It turns out that the medium matters.
I don’t know how the Times solves this problem, frankly. I don’t know how any newspaper does. All of us in media like to bitch and moan about how blinkered the thinking in newsrooms and in editorial management is with relation to digital, and we’re not wrong. But the people whose livelihoods depend on figuring this out are not idiots. It is a devilishly difficult challenge. And to be fair, even though people like me love to gripe about the Times‘s flaws, that fact that it does what it does almost better than any of its competition is remarkable. Nobody is sitting around in rural America pounding out long blog posts about what’s wrong with the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or the LA Times. But being the America’s best buggy whip maker in 1918 offers only a relative advantage.
UPDATE: A reader writes to say:
While I understand your general point, that it’s pretty hypocritical of the NYT to be a leading voice on the “equal pay for equal work” issue, then pay Abramson less than her predecessors, this is mainly just an example of how the real world doesn’t operate in a way that can be explained by bumper-sticker slogans.
As you know, other than entry level jobs, most government jobs, and things like manufacturing/union jobs, there isn’t a pay scale stuck on the wall somewhere that determines everyone’s salaries. Salaries/benefit packages are negotiated, and a lot of things affect what the final salary ends up being. Could be that Abramson negotiated what she thought was a fair deal, and didn’t research what the other people made until after the fact (bad idea). Or, knowing that there were several
people being considered for the job, she demanded less compensation as a way to make her more valuable as a candidate.
No matter what happened, the company owes it to its owners/lenders to make the best business decisions possible. If Abramson is happy to work for “X,” nobody is going to demand she take “1.5X” just because that’s what the last guy got.
Another flaw in this is that the “equal work” part is assumed as well, as the NYT is a shrinking enterprise. Sure the past bosses got paid more, but it was a bigger deal at the time. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future, people in Abramson’s position get paid even less. compare it to a company like Blockbuster. Years ago, the executive VP position there probably paid pretty well. Not so much today.
Anyway, not trying to argue that it isn’t fun to watch someone step in their own mess after getting on a moral high horse. Still, it’s also an example of how real-world constraints usually affect just about everything, no matter what rhetoric someone uses.
That’s really helpful. Thanks for it.