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Not With a Bang
The Editor: Bill Keller '70: "I believe the printed
New York Times, that old-fashioned bundle of ink
and cellulose, has a lot of life in it."
Essay by Bill Keller '70
Editor's Note: This is one of a four-part series in which Pomona journalists discuss the future of the news. In this installment,
Bill Keller '70, executive editor of The New York Times, discusses the future of
The Gray Lady.
There is no end of faith-based polemics on the subject of newspapers’ survival. Print
is dead! Online readers must pay for content! Online
readers will never pay for content! We should be a
little suspicious of ironclad certainty. The fact is, we don’t really
know yet how the behavior of readers and advertisers will
evolve. We don’t really know how to separate the consequences
of a calamitous economic crisis from the enduring changes in
behavior provoked by new technologies.
In March, Bill Keller '70, executive editor of
The New York Times, addresses the newsroom about pending salary cuts.
Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Perhaps it reflects a lack of imagination on my part, but my
best guess is that there will be no Big Bang, no magic bullet, no
commercial us ex machina. The remaking of newspapers will
come in stages, and it will involve some trial and error. For the
midterm future our business will probably continue to be a mix
of print and online journalism, advertising and payments from
I’m often asked how soon The Times will go all-digital. I
believe the printed New York Times, that old-fashioned bundle
of ink and cellulose, has a lot of life in it. As The Times design
director, Tom Bodkin, likes to say: print is portable, shareable
and disposable (which means you don’t have a heart attack if
you suddenly realize you left it on the subway). It is recyclable,
convenient and durable (which means it will not break if you
fold it and put it in your coat pocket.) And it has an elusive
quality Tom calls “thingness”—a weight and substance and tactile
We sell about a million copies a day—and included in that
number is a large pool of loyal subscribers who stick with us
through controversy and price increases. Even if we fail to grow
a new young audience of print newspaper readers, our median
age is still under 50. I expect they will tide us over until the digital
revenues rise enough to keep us afloat.
One way or another, though, we need to make our journalism
pay better online. Our online display advertising revenue is
substantial, and growing—though not as fast as it was before the
recession. We hope and expect that growth to pick up when
businesses crawl out of their recession bunkers.
Beyond that, we’re closely studying the experience of others
who have erected pay turnstiles at their Web sites—and we are
recalling the lessons of our own Times Select experiment, which
charged for access to our marquee columnists.
The best known paid news Web sites are The Wall Street
Journal and the Financial Times, which sell specialized business
information to consumers who think they need it to make a living.
But there is invariably some degree of tradeoff. Charging
for content tends to reduce traffic, which in turn diminishes
I’m pretty sure that if the NYT and the WSJ Web sites
opened their books, you’d learn that we make considerably
more money with our advertising model than they make with
their subscription model. I’m not saying we won’t find a paid
model that works for us. I believe we will. I’m just saying it’s
more complicated than it looks at first blush.
The same is true of the various proposals for voluntary contributions
to our well-being.
When you think about it, an awful lot of the best journalism
is subsidized in one way or another. BBC gets government support.
NPR raises foundation money and listener donations. The
Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are propped
up by other ventures of their parent corporations. (The Journal is
underwritten by News Corp.’s TV assets and The Post by the company’s profitable Kaplan
test prep business.)
We should give serious study to anything that holds promise, but there are serious downsides to a
not-for-profit model. For one thing, charity, however well intentioned, can
come with strings attached. For another, endowments are no insulation against
economic hard times. (Just ask universities.) And marketplace competition is,
mostly, good for journalism. True, the scramble for readers’ attention may
contribute to tabloid sensationalism. But it also serves as a goad to aggressive
reporting—and a check on the accuracy of our facts and analysis.
I’m not saying I’d turn down a $5 billion endowment—though at the
moment my position on that subject is, alas, entirely academic.
When it comes to online journalism, my confidence in the future has less to
do with the allure of any grand solution than with the versatility of the people
in my company.
At The New York Times we are now doing things that would have seemed
inconceivable 10 years ago, and improbable five years ago. We break news constantly
through the day—something we used to dismiss as the work of wire
services. We assemble topics pages—essentially living news archives—that once
felt more like the work of a librarian. We invite our readers to our Web site, and
we engage them, which is a cultural sea change for an institution that used to
deliver the news from a lofty height.
Even in times like these, when anxiety is large and budgets are tight, we
keep launching new things: This week it’s a college admissions blog.
Where does this end?
An NYU professor named Clay Shirky writes about this subject with considerable
common sense, although he is more pessimistic than I am about
newspapers. His analogy for the disruptive power of the Web is the Gutenberg
printing press, invented in the 15th century. Gutenberg’s press is credited with
being an important factor in the spread of literacy that produced the
Renaissance. But in the years immediately after the invention, Shirky points
out, there was chaos. All the accepted philosophers, faiths and accounts of history
were open to challenge, and nobody quite knew whom to trust.
“As novelty spread,” Shirky writes, “old institutions seemed exhausted
while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t
know what to think. ...This is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff
gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”
So how will things work when the Internet finishes shaking our world?
“I don’t know,” Shirky replies. “Nobody knows.” Now is the time for
experiments, “lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch
as Craigslist did, as Wikipedia did. ... For the next few decades, journalism will
be made up of overlapping special cases...No one experiment is going to
replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over
time the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism
On that uncomfortable truth, I agree.
This article is adapted from a speech Bill Keller ’70 delivered at Stanford
University in April 2009.