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12.30.08

Stop Picking On the Times

Why are journalists, at a moment like this, still sniping at its family owners, the Sulzbergers, even as they pour money into it?

A surprise bestseller this holiday season is The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages 1851–2008 (Black Dog and Leventhal). It got as high as number 13 on the New York Times Book Review nonfiction list, was sold out at Amazon, and retailing at $60 was a pricey gift, for a book. As an artifact for a history buff, it is worth every penny. The immediacy of next day coverage of great events is irresistible. Almost every story of our time has its forebears. On Friday, October 25, 1929, the headline was “Worst Stock Crashes Stemmed by Banks . . . Leaders Confer, Find Conditions Sound.” On the day after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, the off-lead was “Worst City Crisis since 1933 Is Seen in State Tax Plan.” The last page in the book is March 19, 2008, and the main headline is “Fed Trims Rates Sharply Sending the Markets up . . . Signs of Split on Policy at Central Bank.”

On the weekend before Christmas this year, the New York Times Book Review had one paid ad on its inside pages.

The book comes with three DVD-ROMs “with all 54,267 front pages and links to the full articles.” In his introduction, Times executive editor Bill Keller writes, “The front page is imperfect, evolving and quite possibly, endangered. . . . This album of faces from the past century and a half is a treasury of ourselves.” Right on all counts.

I have been casting around for some time to find a way to say that the New York Times is one of the core institutions of American life and that acknowledging this reality is not an act of sycophancy, earnestness, or friendship (and yes, over many years, including those I worked at the Washington Post, I have had many friends at the Times). The Complete Front Pages gives me that chance. You need a table or a very good armchair, as well as a computer, to navigate through this massive volume. But what you find is nothing less than a record of what has been happening in our world for a very long time.

Everyone who follows the subject knows that the New York Times has serious financial problems. The stock is trading at about $7 at year’s end, one-third of its end of 2007 value. The Sulzberger family had to give up most of the dividends that made up their annual monetary take-away. The magnificent new building on Eighth Avenue is about to be mortgaged to provide cash when a bank-supported credit line expires in the spring. On the weekend before Christmas this year, the New York Times Book Review had one paid ad on its inside pages—an example of how bad the advertising situation has become.

Until the rest of the economy went into a tailspin, turning a serious problem for the newspaper industry into a catastrophe, it was fashionable in some financial and journalistic circles to belittle the Times’ senior management for mistakes. A London-based Morgan Stanley fund manager named Hassan Elmasry criticized Times chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. in terms that were scathing and deeply personal as he waged his unsuccessful battle to force the Sulzbergers to give up control of the newspaper or, at least, bring in outsiders to run it. By coincidence, I had a conversation with Elmasry on the night he gave up his crusade. He seemed startled when I asked whether he really thought a foreign-based, previously unknown banker who had mercilessly attacked the Sulzbergers could intimidate them into giving up what they clearly regard as an age-old trust.

It is easy and satisfying to be a critic of the Times. Almost every reader, and certainly anyone who operates in the political, business, cultural, or sports precincts, among others, can tell you what the paper has done wrong. Times reporters and editors are so powerful in their fields that they tend to be regarded with fear and loathing. But inside the institution, there are roiling insecurities and other symptoms of abundant talent vying for prominence in one place. Because the Times is so ingrained a factor in American life, its every flaw, foible, and stumble is magnified, making the insignificant seem serious and the serious monumental.

But the New York Times accomplishes so much, in so many ways, every day, that on scale alone, its role as a chronicler is indispensable. What matters most though is its core values as a gatherer and interpreter of news. In the midst of a crisis in which its very survival is at stake, the Times’ commitment to quality and depth has not wavered. All that is being done to fortify the Times brand—Sulzberger has been talking for almost twenty years about the need to be “platform agnostic”—is about covering the news in all of its dimensions.

What is also true is that the Times’ commitment to protect its primary role does not extend to the Boston Globe (and presumably its smaller newspapers), where cutbacks have been deep and damaging. If ever there were a candidate for a benevolent takeover by community leaders or financiers, the Boston Globe would be it. Ultimately, whatever other holdings the Times may have to sell, including its very valuable partial ownership of the Boston Red Sox, its most important asset to the family that controls the company and the nation that relies on it for journalism is the standards and range reflected in all those tens of thousands of newspaper front pages.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the Founder and Editor-at-Large of PublicAffairs Books. He is Vice-Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House Inc. and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post. Visit TCF.org for a full archive of Platform columns.