Reading the Times With a Critical Eye

Since he's left the paper, Okrent continues to come across things that irritate him about coverage. But it's no longer his job to be the paper's cop, so he lets them go.
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TRANSCRIPT


Question:
Do you still take issue with the Times's coverage?

Daniel Okrent: You know, when I was at the paper, I would let my assistant, Arthur Bovino, a very good journalist.  He and I had a game.  We would both read the paper before we came to work and we would bet on what was the mail going to be about.  What will people be complaining about?  And, of course, within a couple of months, we knew exactly what people would be complaining about; we learned how the average Times reader, or not even the average Times reader, the Times readers in general, responded to the newspaper.  

So, I’d begin to respond that way and I would see things that would irritate me that I might not have noticed at an earlier time.  I tried to stop doing that when I left the paper, and I’ve been pretty good about it.  The only time that I really wanted to go and grab somebody around the neck was the Duke Lacrosse case, and I’m happy to say... but I’m proud to say, I gave a speech to the Nieman Journalism Fellows at Harvard while that was breaking... very early, within the first month.  And I said, this is going to be a catastrophe.  This journalism is not good journalism.  This is something where a story is being blown up to much larger scale than it deserves to be because it fits so many preconceptions of so many of the editors at The Times.  You know, it was white over black, it was rich over poor, it was educated over uneducated, it was male over female.  "Aha, let’s go do something about this."  And because The Times did it, that led to everybody else doing it.  So, Newsweek does a cover story that never would have happened had not The Times been putting it on the front page for several days.  So that as driving me crazy.  

On the other hand, it wasn’t my job any longer to be the cop, so I left that to my successor.

Question: What are the biggest problems the New York Times is facing?

Daniel Okrent: Well, the biggest problems confronting The Times specifically are the same problems confronting everybody in the new business, which is that people don’t seem to be willing to pay for their news.  Or let me turn that around, I think The Times seems very reluctant to charge people for the news, although they have announced that they are going to begin charging online in early 2011.  I still sense a trepidation.  And I wish it were otherwise.  I wish they had more confidence.  I think it may be hard for this regional paper, or that metropolitan paper, or this small town paper to charge for news, but I think The Times can get away with it because it is the, for a large portion of the educated populace, it is the authoritative voice on what’s happening in the world.  You know, there are something like, I don’t know how many tens; I think it is now over 10 million people.  I need to restate that....

There are millions of people who go to their website every day all over the world.  Now, if you started charging $10 a month, would a lot of them stop?  Yes.  Will all of them stop?  No.  Would 50% stop, I don’t know, but I did the math not long ago and I think that if 20% of them stayed, that would cover the cost of the newsroom.  And what the people in the news business seem to be reluctant to realize is that’s the only thing that matters, that it’s the production of news being rewarded with revenue to cover the costs and perhaps produce a profit, that’s what counts.  The making of a newspaper isn’t what counts.  

And I think, if somebody had gone to the newspaper publishers and magazine publishers of America 20 years ago and said, "I have a new business model for you: no paper, no ink, no truck, no Teamsters, no press men, no Printer’s Union, no newsstands."  They’d say, "Give it to me tomorrow.  This is heaven.  We just want to put our words and pictures out there."  But they were so intent on protecting the current revenue stream.  The money the advertisers pay, and the money that individuals pay for the paper, that they didn’t see that this was a boon for them.  

And they made the same mistake that the music business made.  And the music business lost control of their industry.  They lost control to the Steve Jobs because they wanted to continue to sell CD’s for $15 each.  And I think that the same thing is happening in the print business.  

I’m glad to see that The Times is moving and I think once The Times moves, many other institutions will move as well.  Charge people for your product; if they’re not willing to pay for it, maybe you’ve got a problem with your product.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010