Thursday, January 08, 2009

Decline and Fall

Let me begin by saying clearly and without exaggeration that The New York Times is the record of civilization.

Some of you may find that to be an odd statement; Fosco stands by it. He's not saying the NYT is perfect, nor is he an apologist for its many failures. He generally finds their coverage of things they don't understand to be snide or dismissive. And yes, he recognizes that their sports coverage is really myopic. But despite all of those flaws, there is no other publication in the world that attempts as ambitiously (and mostly succeeds) to tell the story of life in our world. Like I said, the Times is the record of civilization. I just don't see how anyone, even a hermaphroditic skeletal lizard, could maintain otherwise.

And yet, according to an article by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic, the NYT is already dead and will be decomposing more quickly than any of us could have expected:

[W]hat if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?
Don't laugh. It's actually a serious possibility. More likely, however, is that The Times won't shutter entirely. Rather, Hirschorn lists a number of potential alternatives that will save the paper from complete insolvency. However, none of them will save the paper as we know it. As Hirschorn argues:
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist.
Fosco is very upset about this. Really. And not just because the fiance of one of Fosco's favorite people writes for The Times. No, this is something that will have serious consequences for our society. As Hirschorn notes:
The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things. 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. And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.
And suppose that The Times does become an online-only concern. It still won't be The Times as any of us know it:
Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.


In this scenario, would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting.
Now don't get Fosco wrong: he loves The Huffington Post immoderately. But there is no question that a HuffPo-style tabloid/blog hybrid (tablog? blogloid?) is not a substitute for a real newspaper of record. A world without The New York Times will be a world that is a bit less worth living in.

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