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Daniel Okrent is a veteran journalist and editor who has worked for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers. From October, 2003 until May, 2005, following the Jayson Blair scandal,[…]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on: April 16, 2010