This month I left my part-time job at The New York Times. Actually, now that I’m done, I can forget about Times style conventions and write “the New York Times” or even “the New York Times”! Very satisfying. Anyway. It was a fine place to work (particularly thanks to the cafeteria) but after a year, the moment came to move on.
A part of me, though, has a fantasy. You see, the Times is in huge trouble. Stock value is down, the shimmering new building is mortgaged, subscriptions are dropping, and the website isn’t remotely paying for itself. And they’re not alone. The Tribune is in big trouble. So is trying to sell news on paper. A new business model is necessary. My fantasy is to go back there and make it my mission to save the institution. Come up with a new plan, implement it, and rescue the precious newspaper somehow with my youthful ingenuity. But… I guess I’m just going to sit around and write articles about stuff instead.
Regardless of what I do, all this anxiety has got some really interesting articles about publishing into the Times lately. Yesterday, there was a solution-minded op-ed, “News You Can Endow.” The author, the chief investment officer at Yale, suggests that newspapers should take a hint from universities: go non-profit, get an endowment, drop the political endorsements, and play the august cultural institution. It might just work.
The next one’s a quickie from a Times blog. A video of “How the Future of Online News Looked in 1981.” Gives us a sense of how dinosaur-like everything in media is gonna look in 30 years.
And another sign of systemic demise: the Washington Post Book World, an old standby for me in my Arlington days, will no longer appear in a separate section. Makes sense—nobody’s reading books, nobody’s buying newspapers, so nobody needs a newspaper section about books. Too bad book reviews are where some of the most exciting intellectual exchanges happen.
Finally, speaking of books, there was a front page article yesterday on print-on-demand book publishing. I’ve been a big proponent of this since my own Small’s Clone Press switched from hand-made crafts to PoD. It is an incredibly exciting phenomenon that puts book publishing within reach of people without big investment capital. The sad casualty of PoD, however, is design. Almost without exception (I like to think that my books lean toward the exception), these things are ugly. And, as the head of PoD company Lulu.com admits,
“We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” Mr. Young said.
As my fantasy suggests, I really hope that we can take these trials and troubles as an opportunity. Don’t wait for Rupert Murdoch to buy everything up, but work to develop new, economically-sound ways to keep intellectual and civic discussion alive. I’m not staying at the Times, but I am testing out the pamphlet as a new/old medium for exchanging crazy ideas. Not to mention some websites here and there and other, secret things not yet unleashed. This is a plea. Let’s think hard about this and exchange our ideas. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a buck or two in the process.
P.S. Another goodie not from the Times but the Review, “Google and the Future of Books.” A reminder that these are critical times:
Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever.