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Volume 45, No. 3
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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.


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
 
   
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.

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 consumers.

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 presence.

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 advertising revenues.

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 we need.”

On that uncomfortable truth, I agree.

This article is adapted from a speech Bill Keller ’70 delivered at Stanford University in April 2009.

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