Reporter: Richard Pérez-Peña ’84. "Hi, Richard here, Defensive Crouch Reporter for The New York Times."
Essay by Richard Pérez-Peña ’84 / Photo illustrations by Mark Wood
Editor's Note: This is one of a four-part series in which Pomona
journalists discuss the future of the news. In this installment,
Richard Pérez-Peña ’84, a reporter for The New York Times, offers his opinion.
A few months again, I went to Arlington, VA., to interview the guys who run Politico, a highly successful online news
organization. Before founding Politico two years ago, these two men had been among the top journalists
covering politics for The Washington Post, which made them a big deal in my world.
Now, their operation looks like the big, new thing that might supplant struggling newspapers. But at the time, I asked, didn’t
going from their exalted former status to a Web start-up look like a crazy leap? One of them replied, “Yes, but I didn’t want
to spend the rest of my career in a defensive crouch.”
Defensive crouch, I thought. That could be the title of my job. As in, “Hi, Richard here, defensive crouch reporter for The
New York Times. Could I get you off that ledge long enough to give me an interview?”
I write about my own industry, print journalism, for The Times, an assignment I accepted two years ago in innocence and
ignorance. I knew that it would be unlike my previous beats in 15 years with the paper, like health care or politics, but I really
had no idea what I was getting into.
An English professor in my days at Pomona used to say that writing about writing was like a bird flying up its own … well,
you get the idea. (I’ve always loved that mental picture.) So what does that make journalism about journalism? The editor
who asked me to take on this assignment warned me that, yes, there’s a lot of navel-gazing and you need to try to keep it
under control. He also warned me, “All of your colleagues will think they know your job better than you do, and you
have to be willing to piss off Bill and Arthur.” (That would be Bill Keller ’70, the executive editor of
Times, and Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the paper and chairman of the company.)
At last, I thought, my obnoxious readiness to butt heads will be seen as an asset! That editor was right
on all counts. But what no one warned me, because no one knew, was that my new assignment would be primarily
about the bottom falling out from under the newspaper business—my own livelihood—and, to a lesser degree, the magazine business, which I also cover.
The Rocky Mountain News and the Cincinnati Post shut down, and The Ann Arbor News says it will soon. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped printing, becoming a much smaller,
all-digital operation. The Christian Science Monitor went from daily to weekly. The San Francisco Chronicle has been threatened
with closure. Companies are trying to sell once-prized papers, like The Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times, at bargain-basement
prices, but there are no buyers.
Stocks in many newspaper companies have plunged more than 90 percent—more than 99 percent in some cases. When I
wrote that the market value of one fairly large newspaper chain had fallen below $1 million, an editor, thinking that was a typo,
said I had left off some zeroes, right? Or I meant $1 billion? I said “No, one million, with an ‘m,’” and there was a long,
painful silence as he tried to absorb this news. Wave upon wave of downsizing has left thousands of journalists, including some
friends of mine, holding pink slips and wondering what the hell they’re going to do with the rest of their lives.
I’ve covered all of it. Fun.
Readers and advertisers shifting to the Internet have squeezed newspapers hard, and the trend is accelerating.
I recently wrote that Craigslist and eBay are to print advertising what internal
combustion was to horse-drawn buggies. So this business was headed for crisis even if it did everything right.
But it turns out that a good chunk of my job is dissecting the spectacularly dumb deals made with borrowed money in 2005,
2006 and 2007, when hundreds of newspapers changed hands.
This binge only made the industry’s inevitable misery worse. The pattern was eerily similar to the mortgage meltdown:
Buyers paid ridiculously high prices for assets they didn’t need, they put down too little cash and took on far too much debt,
and banks were inexplicably eager to lend mountains of money to people who had no realistic prospect of paying it back. And,
as in the housing mess, many of the buyers were new to this particular sector, and didn’t have a clue what they were doing.
I have also watched my own employer make some pretty desperate moves, like borrowing money at an interest rate that
would make a credit card company proud, from Carlos Slim Helú, a bazillionaire who controls most of the cell phones
between Tijuana and Tierra del Fuego.
You can cry or laugh, so my colleagues and I lean heavily on gallows humor. Some of the people I work with call me the
Grim Reaper. I tell them newspapers are trying the nonprofit model … but not on purpose. When people ask me for the latest
news, I say, “Oh, didn’t you hear? Clear out your desk.” My editors keep raving about what an amazing time it is to
have my job. It’s a great story, they say. Uh, yeah, I say, trying not to sound despondent, and reminding
myself that I’m lucky to have this job.
The strangest part of my work, by far, is writing about my own paper and its owner, The New York Times Company. My editor wisely told me that nothing we say about our own
employer will be believed; people in the building will think we were too tough and revealed too much, and people outside will
think we were too soft and hid things. At every layer above my head, editors feel compelled to weigh in, in a way they never did
when I was writing about, say, diabetes or campaign finance. Our many critics would never believe this, but when I write
about The Times, the problem my editors create is not a particular bias, it’s the injection of more ideas (often conflicting ideas)
than one story can hold.
Being The Times, we get an inordinate amount of attention, and much of what’s said and written about us is wildly off the
mark. It’s not my job to respond to what appears elsewhere in the media. But I get a lot of reader email, and if the threats,
obscenities and traitor-liar-tool epithets are kept to a minimum, I respond to that. I am especially vigilant about correcting one
very common misconception.
Readers on the left and right (usually right) write me daily to say that newspapers are going out of business because they’re
awful, biased, trivial or wrong, and many of them add thoughtfully that they can’t wait for the day
The Times crashes and
burns. As politely as I can, I reply that the problem isn’t a shrinking audience. The demand for what we do is greater than
ever. Thanks to the Internet, vastly more people read newspapers than ever before, and that is more true of
The Times than
any other paper. Each month, about 20 million Americans read The Times online, several times as many as read it in print. Yes,
there are fewer people buying dead-tree papers, and that’s a problem for the industry, but not the major one. The real threat
is plummeting revenue from advertising, which accounts for about 80 percent of newspaper revenue. The same thing has
happened to the serious papers and the trivial ones, the careful ones and the sloppy ones, the left, right or center ones.
I think (I hope, I pray) that The Times will survive in some form, at least until 2028, when I turn 65. There will always be
organizations collecting and telling the news, even after the word “paper” stops being part of the description. But most of
established players are becoming smaller, poorer and weaker, less able to shed light in dark corners, and I worry about how long
that will continue.
We cover the business of journalism a lot more than other industries of comparable size. It goes back to that weirdly self-referential
aspect of the job. (Remember that bird and where it flew?) This is about a conviction, usually unstated, that what we
do matters greatly. It feels weird to write those words, but there it is. Recently, in the company cafeteria, as soon as I sat down to
lunch, the previous conversations around my table halted and my co-workers set about grilling me about the latest bad news.
After a while, I pleaded with them to change the subject. After lunch, I took a walk to clear my head, and in Times
Square, I ran into an old friend.
“Hey, Rich,” he said, with a look of concern. “What’s going to happen to The Times?”
I smiled—and resisted the urge to get into a defensive crouch.