Is the 'Times' Trying to Commit Slo-Mo Suicide?

Forget Agnostic, Newspapers Need to Be Platform Proactive

By Published on .

I swear to God, if I see one more sorrowful death-of-newspapers story I'm seriously going to hurt someone. Like a self-pitying newspaper person or, better yet, a hand-wringing newspaper executive.

For starters, I'd like to rough up the corporate halfwits at The New York Times who decided that starting next Tuesday, the paper will eliminate most of its stock tables. Because, duh, that should have happened years ago! It is, quite simply, dereliction of corporate and journalistic duty to fail to migrate certain types of information and coverage to the Web and other interactive media immediately. It's slow-motion suicide.

I've been trying to put a finger on the nature of my rage at the newspaper world and what's come to mind is TV movie-of-the-week anger. You know, the type that centers around a beloved, smart, accomplished person who begins to spiral out of control because of some pathetic addiction, in the process alienating everyone, including the designated interventionist who always ends up screaming, "Can't you see?! You're killing yourself!!"

In the newspaper world, the paper addiction -- newspapers' devotion to their grimy, old-school objectness -- is not only obvious when it takes until 2005 or 2006 (or later) to dispense with something like printed stock tables (which are obviously a zillion times more useful in a searchable, interactive context). It's obvious when you observe the first thing that even newspaper junkies do when reading broadsheets: immediately toss aside unwanted sections. The intrinsic waste is obscene -- and it should simply not be happening a decade-plus into the Internet age.

And yet every day I read a little sob story about how newspapers are withering away as readers are turning away from them. You know what? They should be withering away -- as smudgy physical entities -- and readers should continue to turn to media that's better suited to (as The Times Magazine would put it) the way we live now.

Years ago Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. described himself as "platform-agnostic." That's not enough anymore. Newspapers have to take a leadership role in becoming platform proactive -- presenting information precisely where readers can get the richest, most compelling experience, which will often not be in print. In other words, newspapers must dedicate themselves to getting physically smaller by choice. (And I'm not just talking about a format shift to an easier-to-carry tabloid trim size or even a compromise stopgap like the British Guardian's Berliner size.)

Let me point out here that there are many things about The Times and many other papers that I really, really love. Consider, for instance, one of my favorite Times writers: the brilliant music critic Kelefa Sanneh. The first time I heard him on the new free weekly Times "Popcast" podcast (available at iTunes) -- which intersperses writerly commentary with snippets of music -- I thought, he needs to get entirely off of newsprint. In a multimedia world, music reviews really only make sense in an interactive (or old-school broadcast) setting. On paper, Sanneh is not only illogically and needlessly divorced from ready reference to his source material, but he's eclipsed by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of teens and 20-somethings whose online musings about bands are inevitably accompanied, in the effortless, intoxicating MySpace paradigm, by streaming audio.

Likewise, it's an outrage that in 2006 the wonderful Times art critic Holland Cotter's reviews often appear in the paper with no illustration at all (especially since art galleries happily supply free images of the artwork they exhibit!) or with maybe one crummy black-and-white shot.

It's not enough for the Times to continue to add random multimedia content online -- much of which feels half-assed and piecemeal, adding up to a multimedia Potemkin Village that exists to make the inky wretches and Sulzberger feel all cyberhip and innovative. Again, The Times -- all papers -- need to shift content that's better presented online entirely out of print.

So what becomes of the physical paper? It withers away, in a good way, to something incredibly compact and cheap or free -- like the popular giveaway dailies that are distributed in New York (Metro and amNew York) and cities around the world. The future physical version of The Times -- all paper editions of newspapers of the future that feel the need to still have paper editions (mostly for marketing purposes) -- will essentially be, should essentially be, program guides that excerpt from and direct readers to all the up-to-the-minute content on the Web, in podcasts and video podcasts, and in whichever glorious, unsentimental non-print thing gets invented next.

~ ~ ~
The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

Most Popular
In this article: