Last week, technology editor/reporter Saul Hansell had a short item in the business section that began, rather shockingly, "If there was ever a measure of how little traction Sir Howard Stringer is having as chief executive of Sony, it is the company's comical inability to find a coherent approach to delivering content online to its wide range of digital devices."
That sentence kicked off a blunt, smart, informed -- and mercifully brief -- assessment of Sony's performance in the video space. And it was a far cry from the matter-of-fact, straight-laced approach Hansell took the last time he wrote about Sony's video initiatives back in July in a standard business-section report. (That piece began, innocuously enough, "Sony is trying to edge into internet videos with a website to be introduced today.")
Why has Hansell been unmuzzled? Not, as you might suspect, because he's been named a columnist -- that vaunted designation (and headspace) that has traditionally given license to Timesmen, such as outspoken media columnist David Carr, to take their gloves off. No, Hansell got to swat at Sir Howard because his item about Sony was technically a reprint -- from a blog. The Times, you see, has been running a new weekly teaser section in print (about third of a business-section page) that it labels Bits, which consists of "Highlights from Bits, the technology blog updated daily at nytimes.com/bits." Hansell edits that blog and, along with other contributors, writes for it.
The first time I read Bits in print it was jarring not only because of the informal, frequently first-person approach, but because it unselfconsciously references the reporting of competitors, including The Wall Street Journal. Now, though, I love it. And it makes me feel happy for Hansell and his tech-news colleagues because it's thrilling when smart reporters get to tell it like it really is.
And what a pleasure it is to see that the Times is beginning to regard the realm of blogs as more than just a trendy sandbox for its most restless, enterprising writers -- such as Carr, whose raucous, nutty Oscar-season Carpetbagger blog (full disclosure: David's a friend and former colleague of mine) paved the way for the Times to loosen its starched collar online.
Seeing Saul Hansell's liberation reflected not only online but in print suggests to me nothing less than the future of the Times. It's increasingly clear that the paper -- most papers, actually -- can no longer maintain the artificial stylistic and cultural divide between its buttoned-down inky incarnation and its surprisingly freewheeling (but still generally serious-minded) bloggy side.
Imagine a Times business section -- indeed, any Times section -- that consists largely of brisk, pithy briefs that originally broke, in slightly rougher blog form, online.
Imagine a Times that respects readers' time poverty (and, yes, web-addled attention spans) with its directness and brevity and offers a higher level of honesty and transparency -- meaning Hansell and his colleagues no longer have to suppress what they really know and feel just to keep up appearances -- i.e., to maintain the vaunted journalistic lie, the self-delusion, of objectivity.
And then imagine, a number of years down the road, a radically smaller, vastly more compact Times (in my too-ambitious fantasy, it's ultraportable -- about the size of Teen Vogue) that functions as a sort of executive summary of all the original reporting and link aggregation the Times first published online. Somebody needs to invent a paper like that. The Bits blog-to-print experiment in the Times suggests that maybe, just maybe, the Times can.