Stop Picking on Pinch

Vanity Fair—among others—is blaming publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for the downfall of the Gray Lady. Eric Alterman says at least he’s going down with dignity.

04.02.09 6:05 AM ET

It’s open season on Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Mark Bowden's lengthy feature in the May Vanity Fair is, to borrow a phrase, the talk of the town. (This being 2009, the TOTT takes place among people who sit all alone, often in their pajamas, or worse, in front of screen of some sort, for at least eight hours a day.) Close readers of Jim Romenesko’s Web site with a great deal of time on their hands—downsized journalists, for instance—have already masticated and regurgitated not only Bowden’s 11,000-plus-word opus but also follow-ups, including a sort-of, but-not-terribly-spirited-defense of Sulzberger by Dan Kennedy, who himself already noted everyone from Politico’s Michael Calderone (" fairly devastating") to Portfolio's Jeff Bercovici (" Ouch"), from Editor & Publisher (" The Incredible Shrinking Man?") to the Boston Phoenix's Adam Reilly (" very much the wrong man for the job"). These were followed by a Charles Murray-style genealogical indictment of the entire Sulzberger clan by Jack Shafer, and just the nasty bits (naturally) from the kids at Gawker. All of which finally resulted in a I-can-barely-be-bothered-to-reply-to-such-nonsense-reply from Times Executive Editor Bill Keller published this morning, which, I imagine, will set off yet another agonizing round of same. This is all rather amazing given the fact that, at least according to my walk-around-the-neighborhood-style of reporting, the damn Vanity Fair story hasn’t even been “published” yet.

If say, Paul Krugman or Warren Buffett or George Soros, etc., cannot figure out how to save this dying industry, why blame poor, likeable Arthur?

What’s the upshot? Well, Bowden’s reporting, while prodigious, is usually anonymous. Any journalist who has ever been profiled can tell you there is no surer way to invite small-minded nastiness than to invite one journalist to comment on another journalist without attribution. (The Times professes not to allow people to stick knives in others’ backs without giving their names, but in practice, it breaks this rule whenever it’s convenient.) What makes the piece work is not so much the reporting but the sensibility. The guy writing it strikes you as pretty smart and fair-minded. He appears to be saying that, well, “Nobody has any idea how to save the daily-newspaper-as-we-know-it, but if anyone is going to do it, it sure as hell isn’t going to be this Bozo.”

Obviously, this is an unfair indictment. If say, Paul Krugman or Warren Buffett or George Soros, etc., cannot figure out how to save this dying industry, why blame poor, likeable Arthur? It’s not his fault the stock has tanked. Every single newspaper stock in the country has tanked or been taken off the table. (How’s that Journal purchase looking today, Mr. Murdoch?)

Most of us senior citizens of Mediaworld—that is, people out of the "desirable" 18-to-29 demo—have a love-hate relationship with the Times, much as we do with our own families. It drives us crazy on a daily basis but we wouldn’t want to live without it and prefer not to imagine a world in which we might have to. But a full-service newspaper of record based on a combination of print advertising and paid subscriptions is already a relic of another era; one that is disappearing more rapidly than almost anyone—save a few hedge-fund managers—could have imagined just a few years ago. Even more so, its force-fed, “here’s what happened yesterday” style of presentation is being rejected by millions of people, including the 20 million or so who click on its pages once a month. But that’s what these people know how to do, and say what you will about them, they do it better than anyone else, anywhere.

Last March, I published a lengthy piece in the New Yorker about the death of the newspaper in which I reported that among its 1,300 or so newsroom employees, the Times then employed 11 individuals merely to moderate its message boards. That was, and still is, I believe, more than the number of reporters employed by The Huffington Post, which attracts its millions of monthly readers by cannibalizing the reporting of the Times, and others, and leaving its commenters to attack one another unmoderated (save for libel, deliberate falsehood, etc.). In other words, yes, they “get it.” People want to comment on the stories they read and they want to see their comments posted where they can argue with other people about them. But the Times cannot allow this unless someone reads, on behalf of the organization, every single comment before it is printed. We are, as Clay Shirkey argued, in the early stages of technological/cultural revolution whose ultimate shape literally no one can predict. All we really know is that what worked yesterday will probably not work anymore the day after tomorrow.

So Arthur Sulzberger has a thing for Star Trek—as do I by the way—and an odd obsession with moose (Mousi? Meese?). Isn’t he doing the only honorable thing anyone could do in his place? The dude is going down fighting. He’s investing in journalism, strengthening the brand of the company, and maintaining the honor of his forefathers. He sees the iceberg, damnit; we all do by now. But he and his fellow Timesmen (and Timeswomen) were schooled for a world where the only command the captain knows in a crisis is “Full Speed Ahead.”

At least he’s taking the ship down with dignity.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.