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
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