On the occasion of the opening of the new, big New York Times building on 40th St and 8th Ave, I posted a journal/blog entry recently that raised some questions about print media. The post got passed around, and after a few days I received an invitation Ariel Kaminer at the Times to visit their new home. With a little trepidation and a lot of excitement, I went yesterday afternoon and got a little tour. I wondered if embedded journalists might feel much like I did— welcomed in, but unsure how much is kosher to tell and report.
Of course they are asking themselves many of the same questions I asked in my post: for example, “how will print journalism survive financially as more and more readers migrate on line?” Part of my little tour consisted of talking to folks who are confronting that issue every day, but I also encountered journalists involved in traditional newsgathering, as well as the digerati who are pondering the online and electronic future of news media.
Needless to say, the big question remains open; we didn’t decide it yesterday, but a lot of issues and ideas were raised. The Research & Development department (!), located way up on the 28th floor with incredible views, is where possible future (and present) technologies for delivering news and other services are pondered. Or you can look out the window and see New Jersey and the rolling hills that stretch further west. On a long countertop lay a broad selection of tablets, cell phones, PDAs and other devices that might become a way that people receive their news in the future.
While reading substantial articles on a Blackberry or Palm, or even an iPhone seems unlikely on those small screens, checking stocks, sports, movie times, reviews, menus, and headlines, etc., may be a more probable scenario. The tablets and readers arrayed on the counter were more intriguing to me. One or two had color screens and were touch sensitive, allowing readers to highlight parts of articles (as I do in the print version), as well as to save and send them. These devices were about half the width of this 15” laptop I’m writing on, and some were about half as thick, approximating the size of a thin trade paperback. A few had hidden keyboards (the Fujitsu Tablet PC 1610 has a keyboard that swivels out), while others did not. These devices go online, of course, but they don’t necessarily run all the software, or perform all the functions that a laptop does, though it seems obvious to me that fairly soon they will all be able to do so.
This begs the question of whether people actually want these halfway devices, devices that do some things, some of them very well, but stop there. Will people, for example, carry a slim tablet as a way of reading the morning paper and accessing other online information and leave it at that? Will they continue to own and even carry multiple devices? A (smart) phone, a computer at the office, maybe a laptop in the briefcase and another computer at home? And a tablet reader on top of all that? (Well, in many cases the tablets will replace the laptops.)
I can see both sides. When I go out to see something or to have dinner with friends, I never take my laptop. And unless the tablets evolve to use the recently emerging folding screens (enabling a small and compact device to open up and have a larger screen), I doubt I would bother to carry one around as I would a newspaper, a magazine or a book to keep me company when I’m by myself. So, even though one can do email and documents on a smart phone now, and there are various collapsible extension keyboards for them, I don’t see people reading or writing long letters or docs on tiny devices until the advent of the foldout screens.
The R&D folks mentioned the potential advent of portable devices with tiny projectors that would effectively turn any bit of nearby white surface into a screen about the size of a laptop. Hmmm…Maybe folks would adapt to writing and interacting with little projected versions of their laptop screens? The smart phone would then serve as a link to the web, as well as a storage and processing device, its user interacting not with the apparatus itself, but with thin air, a projected virtual version of a desktop and keyboard. And then before too long, the computer interface will become a hologram or a projection that doesn’t need a wall, vanishing when you’re done work (or play) and switch it off.
There was also talk of people getting articles pushed to their phones, all of which is possible, but the question of how one reads longer pieces remains. For now, portable readers seem perfect for information updates and such. In fact a couple of these R&D guys just won first prize at a Yahoo hack contest for developing — in twenty-four hours — some hardware with corresponding software linking phones and computers easily. It is hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that someone could hack a piece of software and its attendant hardware so quickly, albeit some of the stuff looked like it was held together with hot glue. Pretty impressive.
The tour continued in a dark room the size of a kid’s bedroom with a large plasma screen on one wall and various devices — game controllers, iPods, DVD players, etc. — plugged into it. I sat on the couch. A few of the guys came in and proceeded to demonstrate the interactive “game” called Rockband. (The newspaper does review games and electronics, but I suspect these guys were not the game reviewers.) They pulled out a microphone, a virtual guitar (I don’t think it had strings on it), and some virtual drums, and proceeded to jam — full on — to a Weezer tune! The “game” allows you to select avatars — in this case a weirdly muscular drummer, a singer with a kind of white mullet, and a woman on guitar with pink hair — and you sing and “play” your instruments to the prerecorded karaoke version of the song. Lyrics and tab like graphics scroll by to help you follow along. The audience in the game world cheers. Then you get rated on your performance. These guys did really well. Really well.
On another floor I had a talk with a VP of business affairs (not the business section), who of course thinks a lot about from where to derive ad income as readers migrate online. Already the present readership is far stronger online than in print, but income from online ads is not a great, not by a long shot. Ariel says that the ad income online may be much smaller than that on paper, but it’s growing much, much faster.
At present, it is mostly the ads in the Style section, and the glossy Sunday and T magazines that pay for a disproportionate amount of the newspaper’s running costs. Without the income from Gucci and Rolex, there probably wouldn’t be a Baghdad bureau. (That’s an exaggeration, but that’s the idea.) And to some extent those seductive and provocative luxury ads work best in print — they certainly don’t have the same impact when translated to a tiny online banner.
It was pointed out however, that no matter how seductive a print ad is, it still relies almost exclusively on the reader remembering it in some vague way. First it has to meet your eyes, and then it has to be remembered in some conscious or unconscious way. While small in size, online ads have the advantage of being able to take the curious reader right to the “store” — the “store” being either the vendor’s web page or some “place” where one can buy the item with a few clicks online. Any sales person can tell you that once you’ve got the customer into your establishment only a fool will let them get out empty handed.
I sense that there is an unspoken philosophy at the Times that guides and informs everything. It’s an old idea (Jefferson, DeToqueville) that a democracy — which I would suggest we barely have now — can only run with at least semi-informed citizens. Without information a citizen can’t make intelligent choices or vote in any kind of rational way. They’re easy to dupe, fool and deceive. Gut instincts will only get you so far. (One could say that faith-based politics would deny that being informed is necessary, with faith being the only requirement.) Anyway, this philosophy places the media, and in particular the news media, in a sort of integral role — not in the government of course, but in the mechanism that makes a country work.
As a serious newspaper, or news service, or whatever it will be called, the Times would then have a duty to write about situations around the world, around the US, and in NYC and Washington. And to do fairly in-depth reporting, including investigative pieces, they must maintain bureaus in a number of far-flung spots around the globe. Needless to say, this is hugely expensive and some of those articles may not be the most popular. The press is both a product to consume and an indispensable service — a tricky balancing act to pull off.
The Times folks seemed to have internalized an extension of this idea — that, for example, it’s OK if the ads for luxury goods or gadgets fund the newsgathering and reporting because it serves a greater public service. Or, to put it another way, it’s OK if the important newsgathering part doesn’t make a profit.
Many forms of media have held those same values, though a good number have been forced to drop them in recent years. In the record biz, the successive waves of corporate takeovers put increased emphasis on the bottom line and on quarterly profits (to keep the stock values up). Labels like Warner Bros used to fund recordings by Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Frank Zappa and later Talking Heads (to name but a few), with the profits made from Black Sabbath and subsequently from Madonna. The labels accepted that the less profitable, but maybe weightier and more prestigious stuff was important to keep around.
But when the suits moved in after a series of mergers, the idea that many artists’ recordings weren’t profitable in and of themselves was no longer acceptable. Like many other media forms — TV news, magazines and movies — the unprofitable stuff was inevitably axed, and the material bringing in the bucks, well, “Let’s have more of that,” the suits would say. The Ochs-Sulzberger family directs a large percentage of the board of Times, giving them effective control.
There was a similar situation at the Wall Street Journal with the Bancroft family. But, their family’s control was more fragmented and the News Corp (i.e. Rupert Murdoch) managed to take over. The Times family holds the view that “quality” journalism makes all the rest of the business worth more. It’s not uncommon that the unprofitable parts of a company lend it weight, prestige, and ultimately its worth. So, maintaining those expensive foreign bureaus is viewed as important.
It was mentioned that some folks in the building feel that the addition of glossy supplements like the T sections, is selling out. But one could also argue that as long as the serious journalism remains intact, then why not let the ads in those sections pay for it. (Well, we’ll see what happens as readers go on line.)
Lastly, I was invited to a conference room on one of the lower level news floors to sit in on the “page one” meeting. The meeting was like something out of Front Page, one of those old-fashioned newspaper movies. It’s a long-standing tradition in which representatives of each section pitch a story that might be suitable for the front page. More than twenty people sit around a giant table, each with a printed summary of his or her proposed story. A projection screen at one end of the table allows accompanying photos to be thrown up and discussed as well. The meeting was a bit frenetic, with no seeming established order of presentation. There’s no Big Board, as in Dr. Strangelove, but there is a big white wall with room enough for one.
None of the pieces even had proposed headlines at this point. Sometimes the head editor(s) would suggest that a given story be tightened up, which might involve adding a paragraph to make a point or connection, or to provide further clearer explanation.
Yesterday there was no obvious or massive breaking story, so some larger, ongoing stories (the credit debacle, for example) continued to evolve and develop in important and significant ways — although there was really nothing spectacular to hang these developments on. At one point the metro desk suggested a story about non-operating elevators at the Bronx Family court. I thought it was a good piece, as the families and children were often denied assistance or legal help because of the damn elevators — “For the want of a nail, the battle was lost” sort of thing. But OK, in the context of everything else that day, maybe it seemed that more “weight” was desired.
Haggling over the front page might seem anachronistic; soon readers might be customizing their own front pages or an algorithm might do it for them. I would argue that, as in a lot of fields (like music), a filter is more valuable than sheer information. In fact, a filter is information, in the strict sense. And a front page — whether material or virtual — is a filter that tells us what news the paper has decided we should be aware of at a glance. Granted. a nice picture (they’re getting increasingly arty these days) will draw in browsers at a newsstand as much as a headline. But for most of us, this aggregator that is that daily conference meeting is still a pretty good system.
I saw more departments after the “page one” meeting, like the guys who make interactive graphics, for example. Their online pieces are increasingly like little movies and might, I think, draw even more eyes away from the print edition. Hmmm.
On the way out I saw the nice art piece that Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen did in the 8th Ave lobby. Though it usually displays random text excerpts trolled from the online archives, at that moment it was displaying the shapes of nations and states that might be in the news. I recognized the shapes of Afghanistan and Minnesota.
“There used to be only one way to engage with the NY Times — and that was to buy the whole thing, sit down, and read it in its entirety. (If you bought it, but left parts unread you felt “guilty” — which is a big reason some people didn't buy it in the first place.)
Me, I still read it like that. Every morning, cover to cover. But now, there are many additional ways to engage the stuff we publish. You can Google a fact, land on a Times article, dip in, dip out, move on. Or you can visit the site to get movie tickets and showtimes (actually we just yesterday launched our new movie site: www.nytimes.com/movies) and click your way to the day's reviews — or the day's news about Kabul. Or you can debate with other readers about what off-Broadway plays to see during the stagehands' strike (and click thru to the reviews). Or when a rainstorm shuts down the subway system, and the MTA website crashes, you can go to the "City Room" blog, which was fielding real-time reports about what was running and what wasn't, reported via cell phone text by wet people on subway platforms. Or you can waltz through the archives, a vast and free library of history's first draft.
Or, you can log on every morning and read every story, cover to cover (or whatever the electronic equivalent of that is).
The numbers suggest people are finding lots and lots of different ways and reasons to use the Times — as a resource for news and more broadly speaking, information — and that's what I (not ordinarily a cheerleader) find cheering. Because obviously it no longer makes any sense to expect people to read the thing just out of some sense of civic obligation."