The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Archive for December 2011

New York Times Noir

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The sudden firing of the New York Times chief executive, Janet Robinson, is the stuff of detective movies. There’s plenty of money, power and glamor involved.

Janet Robinson

Janet Robinson

The news broke Thursday with the mandatory filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, mandated because the Times is a publicly traded company and the unwashed investors still have a right to know salient facts about the stocks they are buying and selling.

I am taking some liberties with the language used by the Times, which calls the sudden departure of Robinson – without anyone in line to take her place — a retirement.

In all businesses, official announcements are mutual declarations of undying love and admiration. Robinson’s case is no exception. She is going quietly, walking out the door on her own two feet, and with $4.5 million in hush money. They call it a consulting fee — for consultations when and if the newspaper asks in 2012.

The mystery is, Why did this happen? A mere 11 days ago, Ms. Robinson gave an upbeat talk at an analysts’ meeting at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference in New York. Everything was hearts and flowers about the newspaper’s “landmark” year in 2011, and its glowing prospects for 2012. If this were a high-ranking government official leaving a job in a hurry, no reporter with a pulse would believe that this is a retirement. Where’s the smoking gun, huh?

The speculation I’ve read so far has to do with the newspaper’s stock price, which has been drifting downward for years. Though no one can tell exactly who is disappointed. Maybe, the stockholders at large, or the big institutional funds, or Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, and his family, which controls the paper. A lot of newspapers have remained family businesses although fewer and fewer of the heirs actually have anything to do with the news business, and as such, there is always some agitation, more or less public, to get out of the dying enterprises while they can.

But we’ll need a detective to show that she might be a victim, made the fall guy for the decline of the newspaper business.

Almost everybody wants to recite a civics essay when talking about the news and newspapers. It’s common to blame content thieves on the Internet for the poor prospects in the business, but that’s not right. The decline in the news business was underway long before the Internet blossomed, and I think it’s largely due to the way the news is collected and presented.

At some point, most newspapers and broadcast television stations became little monopolies that just churned out cash because advertisers had no where else to go. The Internet brought all that to an end, but not quite the way the papers imagined. People don’t need to hold a big pile of newsprint in their hands to find out what is on sale. They can search for it on the web. But what the news business is trying to do now is to clone the old way of making money onto the web and fence in their loyal readers.

Arthur Sulzberger

Arthur Sulzberger

In short, no business needs to pay the New York Times $100,000 for a full-page ads, and no reader needs to rely on the infallible judgments of the New York Times’s editors to find out what’s going on in the world.

Those of us who actually read news had a feast with the advent of the Internet. We weren’t stuck with the two or three newspapers and magazines we could afford to buy, we could read anything and everything.

The way I see it, the opportunities for the news business are greater than ever in total, but it has nothing to do with limited circulation areas that are defined by how far the trucks can deliver the bundles of papers.

Meanwhile, each organization strives to be all things to all readers. The Times maintains a far-flung national and international news gathering force, while presenting all kinds of little stories about the city, and fancies itself the final arbiter of Yuppie taste and fashion, and the haughty authority on culture. And probably a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten about.

In its way, the Times is fighting on a multitude of fronts, often competing against outfits that are far better in their areas than the Times. For example, consider technology. The Times coverage of tech is often silly, but it pays a slew of people to cover it. The Times coverage of gossip is lame, but again it pays a slew of people to try to outsnark the experts. Even in politics and government, the Times’s coverage is tepid and often hardly any different from anyone else’s.

I’d like to think that Janet Robinson saw some of this, and tried to express it to the Sulzberger family, and to the feudal lords of the newsroom. That would explain it, and I can tell you for sure that no one survives such a clash in the newsroom.

If only Bogart would slouch in, ask the inconvenient questions and then explain it to all of us at the end of story.

Written by theunbiasedeye

December 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm