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.