Examining the NYT

Was turned onto a documentary about the NYT by Ebert:

The paper remains, as it has long been, the most essential source of news in this nation. “Page One: Inside the New York Times” sets out to examine its stature in these hard times for print journalism, but ends up with more of the hand-wringing that dominates all such discussions.

Indeed. Sadly for Ebert, he stumbles into a bit of hang-wringing of his own with a “kids these days!” kind of comment:

I suspect that at the bottom of the crisis in print media is a crisis in American education, and that many of today’s college graduates cannot read and write as well as grade-school graduates did a few decades ago.

That Ebert review was from last year and this post has been sitting in my drafts folder since then. I’ve finally seen the movie!

The documentary is about the NYT Media section, which is tasked with reporting on New Media / Old Media stories. Obviously this is happening at one of the great Old Media establishments so there’s an interesting kind of circularity about the whole thing.

But wait, there’s more. In this movie about Dying Media vs Disrupting Media which stars writers writing about the same subject from within the Dying Media, the main plot thread is a story about another newspaper company struggling with the same changing industry. The result of it all is this article by David Carr (Ebert’s favorite character in the film and mine) about the Tribune.

The tribune story is interesting. Sam Zell played the Murdoch card and tried to solve the paper’s problems by going downmarket, joking that he’d add a porn section if he could.

Obviously in hindsight this was the wrong strategy (the porn industry is doing terribly!). But it’s wrong in an interesting way. Zell tried to solve a technology problem with an editorial strategy.

Here’s my take. The news business has heretofore been made up of what we are discovering are three very different businesses:

  1. The distribution of information (and advertising).
  2. Research.
  3. The construction of narrative. Also called great writing.

The Internet clearly upended #1. Nothing much has changed about the others, though.

Yet everyone is worried that #1 is the only thing that anyone cares about, so is the only thing that advertisers will pay for. Without the subsidy of an information distribution cartel, what about all that great research and writing?

All pure information enterprises are being challenged by the Internet. Into this group I’d lump newspapers with academia and television. Are there more economies of scale available with this new technology? You betcha. Economics says that if incumbents are too slow to figure this out new entrants will steal their lunch. Those foreign bureaus everyone likes to point to as justification of the Newspaper’s Divine Right to exist? There’s an algorithm for that.

One thing that struck me about seeing the inside of the NYT is that its core is simply a bunch of (mostly) middle-aged white guys sitting around figuring out what is happening in the world and what it all means. The Internet didn’t change our appetite to pay someone to do that.

The Internet simply changed just about everything else. If they wanted to they could have tried to compete with Google or Wikipedia or whatever 20 years ago. But instead they chose the higher status ‘white guys in a room talking about world events’ as their business, not distribution of information.

Now they complain it’s a smaller business than they thought? Let me go get my violin.

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