Thursday, October 15, 2009

All The News That's Fit To Print Money: Launch Of NYT's San Francisco Edition A Sad Milestone In Newspaper's History.

Tomorrow's launch of an expanded San Francisco edition of the NYT -- complete with columns and local reporting from several new contributors -- might look, on the surface, like a step forward for journalism. It means work for some unemployed writers, and a chance for the NYT to scrape together a few extra bucks towards the cause of keeping itself alive.

But to us, it's an insult to the city that gave the NYT its name.

Even kids can remember the old days -- oh, you know, back before the fall of 2008 -- when the NYT had a stand-alone Metro section seven days a week. When the Sunday paper had zoned local sections that offered long, discursive features about issues that mattered to New Yorkers and suburbanites who considered the NYT their hometown paper. When multiple full-time NYT correspondents were based in the outer boroughs, in New Jersey, on Long Island, in Westchester, in Connecticut.

Nowadays, the NYT's metro coverage is a shadow of its former self. Entire Sunday papers arrive without a single local breaking-news story from the day before. The new Sunday "Metropolitan" section wastes valuable column inches on stories like last Sunday's embarrassing profile of the blonde twins who make $800 a week at their bartending jobs, while haphazardly applying for journalism positions on Craigslist. Or on Ariel Kaminer's bizarre weekly column, "City Critic," a poorly-written, first-person pursuit of ephemeral notions like wandering the city in a Hazmat suit.

Yes, of course the NYT can still kick ass with the best of them on local stories that matter. Witness its Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of 9/11 and the Spitzer scandal, and its consistently top-flight columns from Jim Dwyer. Metro editor Joe Sexton deserves to be commended for doing an enormous amount with the dwindling resources at his disposal.

But to see the NYT spend its valuable, limited capital on coverage of San Francisco -- as it continues to cut back on local news -- seems to us a misappropriation of badly-needed news resources. It's a business decision masquerading as an attempt to offer "enterprising coverage" to local San Francisco readers.

In fact, of course, it's a way for the NYT to sell more local advertising in its zoned national edition. The NYT doesn't explain its choice of San Francisco as its first place for expansion of coverage, except in executive editor Bill Keller's mention in the news release that he grew up in the Bay area. But clearly the calculation has been made that San Francisco is the right place to start, for business reasons -- as opposed to, say, Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle, all in need of better local coverage.

All this must be particularly galling to the residents of Boston, who have seen the NYT-owned Boston Globe ravaged by budget cuts in recent months. We're sure that for Globe reporters who've taken pay cuts, it's easy to imagine the money being used to pay the new San Francisco contributors better spent on their salaries instead. And for local readers, it's insulting to see the NYT shift its newsgathering resources from Boston to San Francisco.

The NYT's move supports the widespread belief that local advertising, in support of hyper-local news coverage, will keep newspapers alive in the future. It's an odd twist on the paper's move to go national in the 1980s; now, in the face of the new local emphasis, the NYT is using its national distribution as a means to create a local news element in the paper outside of New York.

It makes sense as a business decision, perhaps. But as a harbinger of the future, we find it depressing that the NYT has begun to stake its future on the expansion of coverage in cities other than the one that gave it a reason to exist.

Someday, we fear, it will be the New York Times in name only.


+John Scott said...

I can empathize with the sadness of feeling that a great institution is waning but I think the sorrow is a bit short-sighted in this context. Rather than folding like so many other papers have done, the NYT is fighting to prove it has a place in the modern world. To do that, it has to adapt to the new information age.

Instead of lamenting the change, all media should have started transforming themselves 10 years ago when the writing was on the wall. I don't mean merely starting a website and having something online. I mean embracing online content delivery and advertising as core elements of their business models. Instead we have Music, Cinema, TV, and News all pouting today because they didn't respond until their necks were on the chopping block.

The NYT can use the same formula for success as fast food and soft drinks. Giving people a familiar, trusted name they can rely on no matter where they find themselves has value. In the end, providing value to the customer is the best hope for the survival of all.

People complain that the USA Today is not comprehensive enough. Now, the NYT can show the world how this should have been done all along. Wouldn't that be something to be proud of?

Anonymous said...

You know, I guess you're right about the thinness of the Metro section, but I don't see anything wrong with trying to expand in SF. Both of the local papers are disappearing. There's room for more news coverage. Why not give it a try?

Anonymous said...

Send Clyde Haberman to San Francisco, please.

Michael said...

In the long run there will most likely be only a handful of national newspapers left, with The Times being one of them. When people go to London they notice several newspapers, what they forget is that those newspapers have national reach in England, with similar reach for Scottish newspapers. Likewise France, where newspapers are for the most part national newspapers with some local content.

Newspapers that will survive will survive by becoming national media, and the NYT realises that it has to make a land grab before a rival does.
San Francisco works due to the teetering nature of its local daily and the large base of high value Sunday readers there. It is a good place to start.

As for local coverage: be glad to get any in the new national media world of newspapers. That is all that is left.

Anonymous said...

It seems the Times has long had a difficult balancing act of being a national paper and a local paper. It seems to choosing the national route. And it is for the better. As metropolitan news organizations close or shrink, the Times can come in and fill the void. It'll be the best for both the residents and the company.

Does anyone know how big the Metro desk is compared to National and Washington?

Anonymous said...

I don't buy the times for NY coverage, but I'm happy with the NY coverage I get. There ain't no money in local or hyperlocal and I want to know wtf is going on in Baghdad. If they have to pander to a few other cities, so be it. I don't see the networks or the blogs stepping up.

CrosbyStreet said...

I agree with you that the new SF edition is sad for us NY subscribers. The NYTime's coverage of New York City is really failing since they dropped the Metro section.