Jill Abramson had a cold. Her throat constantly required water and lozenges, and it was impossible, for someone who never heard her voice before, to know whether its husky assuredness stemmed from needing each syllable her pained vocal chords issued to be deliberate, or because she felt a leisurely security, ensconced at the helm of The New York Times. Either way, at a talk hosted by The New Republic on the “unexpected future of media,” alongside HBO CEO Richard Plepler, Abramson depicted the Times as the king of newspapers, just hours after the most recent cost-saving buyout offer expired on Thursday evening. (If too few people took the buyout, layoffs will follow.)
“Because of the quality of our newsgathering,” she told an audience of high-powered media types, the Times “has an agenda-setting function, still, even with the multiplicity of different news organizations and so many different stories. People still trust the Times to give them a sense of what’s important or what’s interesting.”
Neither Plepler nor the moderator, TNR editor in chief Franklin Foer, were inclined to disagree with her; throughout the 90-minute discussion, the three depicted the paper as an elite haven for ambitious, pricey reporting projects—one that requires continued reader support to finance.
“Digitally what we’ve found is if your content is sort of a unique, high-quality mix of news—and it isn’t even that it’s all serious, though much of it is,” she said, “in the digital space, we could ask people to pay.”
Asked if this price tag made the Times a luxury item, Abramson said, “No,” but then quickly followed that with, “but if you are hungry for the kind of deeply reported” stories at the Times, she said, “It costs. We’re still in Afghanistan. We’re in Iraq.” (The Times is also, according to a CJR story from last May, running 45 percent more dog-related stories since the author of The Puppy Diaries took over.)
Either way, the Times has proven that a paywall can work, at least at the Times—with hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers signed up since the paywall’s 2011 launch, revenues at the paper are about 50-50, advertising and subscriptions, a move away from the industry’s more traditional reliance on print advertising.
“The Times has a highly educated, very intelligent audience. Its financial security is very much built on that,” Abramson said, again failing to mention that day’s buyouts, which included assistant managing editor Jim Roberts (and his 77,000 Twitter followers).
Don’t misunderstand: This reporter loves The New York Times and reads it daily. The institution is doing all the wonderful, innovative things Abramson extols, both in pioneering digital payment plans and in its coverage—the recent multimedia Avalanche package is just one notable example. But Abramson sounded like she spoke from a bubble, or an ivory tower.
“I despise talking about trends,” she said, though the Times’s Style section famously prints fatuous “trend” stories regularly. Style is likely lucrative, too—the Sunday section is printed on higher-quality paper than the rest.
And folks only think the Times’s coverage is liberal, Abramson said, because of its liberal op-ed page, rather than because its reporters’ homogeneity may not reflect the concerns of much of the country. Then Abramson said the paper seems “liberal” because critics conflate liberalism with the cosmopolitan sensibility that comes from being based in New York City, the kind of statement that causes a Michelle Obama eyeroll outside the northeast—or even in it, when a Timesian perfect-storm combination of trends, dogs, and cosmopolitanism results in the likes of that 2009 article about “doga.”
That sort of story probably won’t go away.
“The Times’s commitment to covering high culture, low culture, is complete, and that doesn’t change,” Abramson said.
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