This past year has been catastrophic for the New York Times. Advertising dropped off a cliff. The stock sank by 60 percent, and by fall, the paper had been rated a junk investment, announced plans to mortgage its new building, slashed dividends, and, as of last week, was printing ads on the front page. So dire had the situation become, observers began to entertain thoughts about whether the enterprise might dissolve entirely–Michael Hirschorn just published a piece in TheAtlantic imagining an end date of (gulp) May. As this bad news crashed down, the jackals of Times hatred–right-wing ideologues and new-media hecklers alike–ate it up, finding confirmation of what they’d said all along: that the paper was a dinosaur, incapable of change, maddeningly assured as it sank beneath the weight of its own false authority.
And yet, even as the financial pages wrote the paper’s obit, deep within that fancy Renzo Piano palace across from the Port Authority, something hopeful has been going on: a kind of evolution. Each day, peculiar wings and gills poke up on the Times’ website–video, audio, “drillable” graphics. Beneath Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column, there’s a link to his blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and YouTube videos. Coverage of Gaza features a time line linking to earlier reporting, video coverage, and an encyclopedic entry on Hamas. Throughout the election, glittering interactive maps let readers plumb voting results. There were 360-degree panoramas of the Democratic convention; audio “back story” with reporters like Adam Nagourney; searchable video of the debates. It was a radical reinvention of the Times voice, shattering the omniscient God-tones in which the paper had always grounded its coverage; the new features tugged the reader closer through comments and interactivity, rendering the relationship between reporter and audience more intimate, immediate, exposed.
Half the battle, in Bilton’s experience, is fighting older readers’ nostalgia, which to him is a kind of blindness. “ ’I like the way paper feels,’ ”
he scoffs. “To the next generation, that doesn’t mean anything. You
know, if we were all reading Kindles, and someone began raving about
this new technology, the ‘book’–here’s something you can’t share, can’t
search, that only holds 500 pages–no one would be interested.
“Print is just a device. The New York Times
is not just a newspaper, it’s a news organization.” For those who
believe these changes are gimmicks, he has no patience: “This isn’t a
storm! This isn’t something that’s going to pass! It’s the ice age.
People aren’t going to suddenly open their eyes and we’re back in
print.” — Emily Nussbaum, New York