Monday, October 27, 2008

Is the New York Times giving us a bad read on the newspaper business?

News Corp’s newspaper advert numbers are bad – but they are not catastrophic.  They have got markedly weaker very recently – but until then they were down single digit percentages – and low single digits in most papers.  Some were up - but they were local property papers and the like.  The death of newspapers looked exaggerated if your benchmark was News Corp.

The WSJ is doing OK- not stellar – but OK.  Murdoch clearly has plans to turn it (a) into a national paper, and (b) into the dominant paper in NYC.  In that he is helped by the seeming failures of the New York Times.   

The New York Times is a paper I want to like,  but in fact like less and less.  It is falling into catastrophic disrepair and the stock price shows it.

The New York Times has become the poster boy for the demise of newspapers everywhere.  Revenue and profitability is weak – and the paper looks doomed.

Well is it possible – just possible – that the NYT editorial policies are giving us all a false read about the demise of papers?  

  • Why is it that the paper employs Ben Stein despite the regular and ludicrous columns so well criticised by Felix Salmon?

  • Does anybody still read Maureen Dowd?  As far as I can tell the same incoherent column has been repeated for about a decade.  (Maybe I am just insensitive to "gender issues"?)  Is this worth a regular editorial column in what purports to be the world’s greatest paper?

  • Bob Herbert suits my liberal predisposition – but I don’t bother reading him because I learn little new or useful.  He is too predictable.  And he has been that predictable for fifteen years...

  • Friedman seems to know less about foreign affairs (outside Israel and Beirut) than I do.  And I know very little.  He has been spectacularly wrong quite often.  Unlike Friedman though I know I know little about foreign affairs - he has a platform to show off his ignorance twice a week...

  • David Brooks is a poor replacement for the conservative William Safire.  Safire wrote better – and more to the point I had little idea what he was going to say and sometimes I was forced by sheer power of argument to agree with him.  David Brooks has never done that for me.  Safire was a disingenous guy who twisted facts to suit his political views - but he was darn clever about how he did it...

  • In the editorial area all they have is the very clever Krugman.  I agree with Krugman a good proprotion of the time - but I am forced to think.  He drives conservatives to apoplexy for the same reasons that Safire drove liberals to apoplexy.  He is too darn good.  Unlike Safire he doesn't twist the facts - at least in my view.  If only the paper could find five writers the standard of Krugman covering most political persuasons.  But then it would need to sack the others!

And that is when I get to the editorial policy.  Need I repeat that this was the paper that employed Jayson Blair (who just made it up with little consequence for the world) and Judith Miller (whose seemingly made up stories helped propel America to the Iraq war). 

The New York Times is failing – and the newspaper is failing. 

In the past the New York Times would be forgiven their failures – because there were few alternative sources of information.  But now there are plenty… competition is rife.

Competition is seldom good for shareholders.  It hurts well run businesses but competition has a knack of totally disposing of badly run businesses.  Indeed that is the real charm of competition. 

I want to ask a question: how much of the awful results of the New York Times are because of the demise of newspapers generally – and how much are newspaper specific?  How would we know?  



John Hempton

PS.  Rupert Murdoch would tell you that ultimately content is all that matters.  It suits his business mix to say that.  But maybe there is far more to this than the internet causing destruction...

Buffett by comparison is fairly bearish about the newspaper Berkshire owns.


Anonymous said...

WSJ is a bad comparison. Vs. USA Today (& it's owner Gannett), NYT is doing reasonably well. Vs regional papers NYT is outperforming.

Anonymous said...

I used to read NYT's business section - but I stopped doing it after I discovered the financial/economics blogosphere.

My guess is that the publishing model based on journalists writing for laymen is falling behind the publishing model of specialists writing their thoughts on the same problem.

Sure, some specialist might be too technical for some people's lecturing taste, but overall almost everybody can find a specialist blogging at its level.

For me, NYT cannot compete with Yves Smith or Felix Salmon, because it doesn't have the right people. Only Krugman and Mankiw are specialist enough to compete with the other specialist bloggers.

IU guess FT and WST have better business/economics articles exactly because they rely more and more on specialists, and less on journalists.

John Hempton said...

I apologise - in deleting some spam I accidentally deleted three comments...


John Haskell said...

bang on the money John. However some interesting thoughts on Clusterstock that NYT would be worth more dead than alive - ie shift the best journos to an ad supported website, sell/leaseback the building, dispose of other assets, etc. Would be interested if you had any relevant thoughts.

Anonymous said...

the newspaper business is no different than the radio biz. it's ALL about the content. and when it comes to content, the YT blows.

and similar to say retail sales, if you don't give the customers, or potential customers, what they want, you are toast.

it's a competitive world.

compete. or get out of the way.

Graubart said...

Well said; the only point I might add is that token right-wing editorial writer Bill Kristol makes Ben Stein look accurate. Uggh.

Anonymous said...

John have you see the latest VW news?
Can you explain what happened?

Anonymous said...

In seeking to reduce costs, Barron's, for one, is slipping badly. Articles are shorter, pages are smaller, and delivery (at least where I live) is now intermittent vs. the old reliable USPS (I receive the paper in 50% of weeks only). Not a way to preserve a franchise, though this suggests it may not be worth preserving at all.

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