behind the news

Apocalypse Now

The Times will die in May! But not really!
January 9, 2009

Plague. Pestilence. Stopped presses. Hold onto your horsemen, folks: It’s the end of times!

Or, at least, the end of the Times. Yep: per Michael Hirschorn and his much-buzzed-about Atlantic column, “End Times,” the Grey Lady as we know her (i.e., in print) is soon to draw her final, painful breath. Her long life, per Hirschorn, has an expiration date, too: this May. (Yes, of 2009.)

But the bucket-kicking scenario Hirschorn lays out–limited cash reserves and a poor market forecast leading the Times to default on some $400 million in debt, and therefore to stop its presses—isn’t at all likely. As Portfolio‘s Felix Salmon points out (and as the New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki reiterates), Hirschorn’s cavalier negativism belies an overly broad approach to the Grey Lady’s woes. The article, Salmon acknowledges, “has been generally well-received by [the] blogosphere.”

For me, however, the article makes very little sense: Hirschorn seems to think that, given a choice between defaulting on debt payments and stopping its print presses, the Sulzbergers might choose the latter. But they wouldn’t: for one thing that’s not a decision the NYT’s lenders would actually want, and for another thing the New York Times Company has any number of assets it could sell off, especially in Boston, before taking such a drastic move.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds echoes Salmon’s doubts, calling Hirschorn’s scenario “not the least bit plausible.”

The hypothesis of a May closing is pegged to the expiration then of a $400 million revolving line of credit. Hirschorn is aware that if the Times needs cash, it can borrow against the value of its new office building — as it has done now to the tune of up to $225 million. The company also announced on Christmas Eve that it has put its stake in the Boston Red Sox up for sale, which could fetch another $200 million.

New York Times Co. Chief Financial Officer James Follo reported at the UBS Global Media conference in December that the company has two $400 million “revolvers,” the second expiring in 2011. And it has only drawn down a total of about $400 million between the two. So the company could pay off the first entirely and get by on the second, though in practice it will refinance some of the debt to maintain reserves and flexibility.

Long story short, the company will be able to meet the May deadline.

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Hirschorn’s premise, however, is only part of his piece—which is, overall, really a comprehensive look at The Future of the Media, seen through the lens of the paper of record. With Hirschorn’s broader argument—that solid, committed, reporting is journalism’s ultimate value to a democratic society, and that whatever platforms we develop for journalism should serve as a means to that end—there’s very little to find fault.

And yet that’s partially because much of that argument is little more than a smart synthesis of conventional wisdom: the only thing really big or groundbreaking about Hirschorn’s article is its breezily superficial Dead By May! premise. One can’t help but wonder whether the sensationalistic sensibilities of the guy who ushered into the world “I Love the ’80s” and “Flavor of Love”—“He did not invent the high-low thing, but I think he is the unacknowledged master of it,” Hirschorn’s former colleague, David Carr, told the Observer—have permeated his more highbrow Atlantic persona.

Or whether, perhaps, it’s the other way around. The Atlantic, after all, commonly engages in the kind of sensationalistic bait-and-switchery on display in Hirschorn’s piece. (Tagline: “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Content of article: the strains Web infrastructure places on our attention. Tagline: “Is Israel Finished?” Content of article: the political and martial challenges facing Israel. Tagline: “Can Jesus Save Hollywood?” Content of article: the making of The Golden Compass. Et cetera.)

Of course, attracting readers with provocative questions is, in this age of media saturation, good business—and generally, The Atlantic‘s questions are backed up with solid, if not comparatively sensational, articles. But Hirschorn’s piece takes the enticement formula one step further. It doesn’t just come in a provocative package, but it writes the provocation into the article itself: The Times as we know it will be dead by May! Okay, just kidding, not really by May! But soon! (And for the rest of our lives!)

I’m reminded of an observation made by James Fallows, Hirschorn’s Atlantic colleague, in his 1995 book, Breaking the News: “For pundits there is no financial or professional penalty for being consistently wrong. There can be rewards for being spectacularly right.” Fallows was talking about political divinations, the favored currency of the punditocracy—but the observation applies just as readily to cultural and media critics. It’s the prediction itself that’s the currency of discourse, the thinking goes; it’s the prediction, not the result, that provokes conversation. Whether a given forecast bears out in reality is, therefore, an ancillary issue.

In that sense, Hirschorn’s Dead By May! prediction is cost-benefit savvy: If, by some remote chance, it proves true, then Hirschorn will be hailed as the Nostradamus of the Digital Age; if it doesn’t, well, hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? In his article—right after making his “death by May!” claim—Hirschorn admits that “the odds that The Times will cease to exist entirely come May are relatively slim.” He treats his obvious self-contradition with cheekiness, rather than sheepishness.

And yet there’s a deeper self-contradiction here, one subtler but also, for my money, more troubling. Hirschorn can’t seem to decide how he feels about the democratization of journalism that the death of print—and the Web—represent. The demise of the Times, he suggests, will also signal the demise of the elite media class that has both sustained, and been sustained by, the paper’s pages. Hirschorn’s words, in this sense, aren’t merely an elegy for print, but an odd fetishization of it: In his treatment, the printed page represents, you know, a way of life.

“The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things,” Hirschorn writes.

For those of us old enough to still care about going out on a Sunday morning for our doorstop edition of The Times, it will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives. It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.

It’s a great metaphor, perhaps, for the feelings of the industry at large: In a piece that goes out of its way to extol the obvious democratic virtues of a vigorous press, we get a concomitant anxiety about the very democratization of that press. A print product is, after all, inherently exclusive; inclusion, especially in the top publications, is the prerogative of a privileged few. In that sense, print isn’t merely analogous to an elite class of intellectuals—it also actively engenders and sustains it. (“Civilized ritual!” “Smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals!” “Semi-charmed lives of the mind!”) Compare the members-only salons that are the Times and its peer publications (as Hirschorn does) to the Web—a rollicking, no-rules party to which everyone with an Internet connection is invited: Journalism’s movement toward the Web shifts publication itself from being a privilege of a few to the right of the many.

There’s a subtle, but palpable, sense of cultural and intellectual xenophobia that seeps into Hirschorn’s treatment, one that mirrors the anxieties generally attributed, fairly or not, to mainstream journalists (those amateurs are coming in and taking our jobs! they’re not going to respect our traditions and values! they’re going to change our way of life!)—and one whose internal implications, indeed, feature certain parallels to our current debates about immigration, assimilation, and who and what should constitute a culture. I can’t decide whether it’s ironic or fitting, but it’s worth noting that “End Times” appears in the Atlantic issue whose cover story asks (provocatively!), “THE END OF WHITE AMERICA?” (Tagline: “Culturally, America is already post-white. Demographically, we’re headed there, too.”) The issue’s two articles may have more in common than we’d initially assume: Like the country at large, journalism, demographically, is headed toward diversity. The real question, Hirschorn reminds us, is how we all assimilate.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.