Kicking the Tires at The New York Times Company

Fortune has some fascinating reporting on the future of The New York Times as a business.

It scoops that David Geffen tried to buy nearly a fifth of the company’s shares but was turned down by their owner, the hedge fund Harbinger Capital.

Even more interesting, former NYT reporter Richard Siklos reports that Google of all companies “seriously” considered a plan to purchase the company after a Harbinger rep lobbed it an idea, but recently decided against it.

Siklos runs down the usual litany of missteps and problems facing the Times Company. But I think he’s wrong to call the company’s commitment to excellent journalism a “problem” for a public company:

More broadly, the company suffers from a kind of genetic disorder stemming from the high-minded public goals of the Ochs-Sulzberger trust - whose chief mandate is to protect the editorial independence of the Times - and the demands of running a public company, which the Times became 41 years ago.

The only way the Times can survive is to invest in its business. The reason it’s still so valuable, with tycoons kicking the tires, is precisely because it hasn’t slashed its news staff in half and reined in its ambitions like nearly every other paper in the country. It has a premium product that’s worth a lot of money to many, many readers and advertisers. It should charge them for it, which it’s exploring:

Meanwhile, the company is looking at everything the pundits are calling for and more: charging for some content via its Web site, embracing Kindle-like devices, publishing a less sprawling and comprehensive paper, maybe even less frequently, written and edited by fewer people and targeted at a narrower, even more elite, audience. Or, as some have proposed, figuring out a way for all or part of its operation to become a not-for-profit.

That last sentence is interesting. I threw out a wild idea several weeks ago wondering if the company could structure its news operations—its website, say—in such a way that it wouldn’t be subject to taxes, while also allowing reader-funded donations that would be tax-deductible. Here’s what I wrote then:

Riffing off of that, here’s something out of left field: Lots of bloggers have “tip jars.” If you’re not going to charge people to read your site, why not stick a PayPal bug at the top corner of every page with a disclaimer that says “Good journalism is expensive. Please consider tipping your local newspaper.”

You might not get much, but every dollar counts now. Even crazier: How about spinning off the newsroom as a nonprofit entity within the overall for-profit company? That way your tippers could write off their donations and papers could have PBS-style pledge drives!

I still think newspaper, if they’re not going to charge for their websites, don’t have anything to lose by at least asking readers to contribute to help pay for the journalism they read. That would be even easier if those contributions could be written off on readers’ taxes.

At bottom, there’s been a huge secular shift in the industry, and that’s that advertisers no longer pay nearly as much as they used to. Their bucks subsidized subscribers, but they’re not going back to the good old days. The pie, which used to be two-to-one ads to circulation revenues or so, is going to have to shift toward the circulation side. Subscribers are going to have to pay more for news like the NYT’s if they want it. I believe they do.

The Times is making some of the right steps by increasing the price of a daily newsstand copy by a third to $2. I think it should go even higher.

And, to beat the drum here, it should charge people who read its website.

UPDATE: Reuters quotes Scott Galloway, the NYT board member whom Fortune reported talked to Google, as saying he did no such thing. I’ll note, though, that Galloway doesn’t deny that Google seriously considered trying to purchase the Times.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.