Reading the Times With a Critical Eye

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

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

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

\r\nOn the other hand, it wasn’t my job any longer to be the cop, so I left \r\nthat to my successor.

\r\n Question: What are the biggest problems the New York Times is \r\nfacing?

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

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

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

And they made the same mistake that the \r\nmusic business made.  And the music business lost control of their \r\nindustry.  They lost control to the Steve Jobs because they wanted to \r\ncontinue to sell CD’s for $15 each.  And I think that the same thing is \r\nhappening in the print business.  

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

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

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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