Baquet’s big job

The Times' new editor must navigate business-side challenges, and still match the great journalism that Abramson produced

Dean Baquet faces a different set of challenges than Jill Abramson faced when she took over as editor of The New York Times nearly three years ago.

At that point, the NYT was beginning a rebound. Left for dead by some just two years earlier, the Times had launched a digital subscription program that was already proving successful. It gave the paper a significant source of new revenue growth—and importantly, digital growth—for the first time in five years.

As Baquet takes charge as The Times’s executive editor, replacing the fired Abramson, there’s no similar surge of new revenue in the works, and while the Times’s balance sheet is in far better shape than it was in 2011, The New York Times Company is now entirely dependent on the fortunes of the Times itself.

The Times—and this really matters in an industry that’s been in existential danger for seven years—is now a much more confident and secure institution than it was three years ago. The paper’s revenue is actually up slightly from 2011, and its digital-only business hit $312 million last year.

But the Times is on its own now, more dependent than ever on the quality of its own journalism and its ability to make money from it. When Abramson ascended to the editorship, the company still owned About.com, The Boston Globe, 17 other regional newspapers, and a chunk of the Boston Red Sox. It has since unloaded them all, which is why the company’s balance sheet is so much stronger. The NYT no longer has to subsidize the money-losing New England papers, but it also no longer has sure profits rolling in from Fenway Park and the like to offset another downturn.

Baquet has the difficult task of trying to maintain the high journalistic standards of the Abramson era while the Times expands into new and potentially problematic areas in search of revenue.

Not an enviable position.

While the paper had an excellent first quarter this year—so good, in fact, that print ads rose nearly 4 percent—management says it suspects that was a fluke. Ads will resume their long decline this quarter, according to their projections.

It has been circulation that has bolstered the paper’s prospects over the last three years, but that growth is slowing considerably.

The Times has expanded its digital-subscription offerings with NYT Now and NYT Premiere, but these are effectively tweaks to the core reader-revenue product, which is the original nytimes.com/tablet/iPhone paywall, and are unlikely to bring in much new money. The Times has other paid products in the works, but these, too, are likely to have marginal impact. The paper has to continue to grow the core paywall, both by adding subscribers and by raising prices, which are still where they were when the wall went up.

The more reliant the paper becomes on reader revenue, the more important it will be for Baquet & Co. to maintain the high quality of its journalism—something my colleague Dean Starkman has called the “quality imperative.”

After all, when the paper had a lock on New York advertising, the quality of the paper could fluctuate and it wouldn’t matter as much since advertisers’ options were limited. Today they are decidedly not, and the same goes for readers, who are now the primary source of revenue for the paper.

Indeed, the subscription side has pulled its weight in recent years, but the ad side has lagged. Digital ads have declined for the better part of two years, and ticked up, finally, in the first three months of this year. The big push in digital ads underway at the Times are in native ads and video, both of which raise questions about the paper’s mission.

So far, the Times has handled native ads well, but the business-side pressure will be to loosen standards, not increase them.

Meanwhile, the NYT, like many publishers, is rushing into video, and herein lies what might be Baquet’s trickiest challenge.

The hard fact is, no newspapers are making money at it yet, as Columbia’s Tow Center reported recently, and it’s not at all clear if they ever will. Video online is subject to much of the same brutal economics that text is, although the barriers to entry (read: costs) are higher for high-quality video. Perhaps the best bet for the Times would be to get a Vice-style contract with HBO, Netflix, or CNN. The paper once had a partnership with the Discovery Channel, but it didn’t last.

But if the Times goes “post-text” by diminishing the resources it devotes to written journalism, that will be a big mistake. There are warning signs that that is already happening. The Washington Post reports this was a problem for Abramson:

There were also clashes with Thompson over his emphasis on increasing the Times’s digital video offerings and hiring of more digital editors. Abramson felt that this diverted resources from more basic coverage of major stories, the executive said.

Despite that, the Abramson regime produced superb journalism that arguably surpassed that of her immediate predecessors.

Under Abramson, the paper unleashed major investigations of the Chinese government, Goldman Sachs, and General Electric, for instance. A lesser editor wouldn’t have devoted 30,000 words and innumerable resources to Andrea Elliott’s remarkable “Dasani” series, for one, or to “Snowfall.” Abramson also put out David Barstow’s high-wire Walmart bribery probe, one of the most amazing investigations you’ll ever read.

Unlike Bloomberg News, the Times didn’t back down when it suffered the resulting business pressures from its newsroom’s nosiness in China. We don’t know how much of that was due to Abramson, but there’s no doubt that having a tough editor steeled the business side. The quality and integrity of the paper’s news report was as high as it’s ever been.

Which brings us to the most disturbing piece of reporting on Abramson’s firing. Gabriel Sherman reports this about Thompson and Sulzberger:

After Thompson had been hired for the job but before he’d started, Abramson sent Matthew Purdy, a hard-charging investigative reporter, to London to examine Thompson’s role in the Jimmy Savile scandal at the BBC. Abramson’s relationship with the two executives never recovered. “Mark Thompson was fucking pissed,” a source explained. “He was really angry with the Purdy stuff.” So was Sulzberger. “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

That story, ironically, was about how Thompson’s BBC killed the network’s investigation into its own star’s history of sexually abusing children.

It was always impressive that the Times did that story.

That’s a standard of newsroom vitality and independence that will not be easy for Baquet to meet.

(This post was updated from an earlier version)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,