January 23, 2018

NY Times, Lower Revenue, Fewer Pulitzers

The NY Times recently announced its first quarter 2007 financial results, which showed lower revenue than last year, and in last week’s announcement of annual newspaper Pulitzer Prizes, the Times received three awards, fewer than it has in the last three years. Is there any connection?
First, the facts: For the first quarter of this year, the NY Times reported a 33 percent decline in quarterly earnings, from $.21 per share in 2006 to $.14 in 2007, and 10 percent decline in quarterly operating profit from $60.5 million to $54.5 million, even though Internet revenue was up 22 percent over the same period last year. The NY Times’s fight with Morgan Stanley’s Hassan Elmasry, who runs Morgan Stanley’s American and Global Franchise Strategies Portfolio, has been widely reported. Elmasry’s fund owns about 7.5 percent of NY Times stock and isn’t happy, to say the least, about the stock’s 40 percent decline over the last two years. Of course, the NY Times isn’t the only newspaper with declining revenue, circulation, and advertising—the entire newspaper industry is suffering—many worse than the NY Times.
In terms of Pulitzer Prizes, this year the NY Times won one award and got two honorable mentions, for a total of three. In 2006, it received a total of seven awards, five in 2005, and four in 2004 for the year 2003, when current executive editor Bill Keller took over from the embattled Howell Raines, under whose leadership the paper won 11 awards in 2002 for its superb 9/11 coverage, up from four Pulitzers in 2001.
Some people believe the NY Times is the best newspaper in the country. But what does “best” mean? To Wall Street and investors, “best” probably means most profitable, for that’s all they care about—don’t talk to them about quality, coverage, or awards. To individual readers, “best” is probably a subjective judgment based on the coverage of what interests them and agrees with their positions on a number of issues. To professional journalists and journalism educators, “best” might be a combination of subjective and objective judgment, with Pulitzer Prizes being a big factor in objective considerations. Pulitzer Prizes have long been a signal of quality in a newspaper. So, by these criteria of quality, what is the best newspaper in the country?
If we use Pulitzer Prizes as the standard for quality, then the NY Times, over the last eight years (2001-2007), is the best newspaper in the country with a total of 37 Pulitzers. The LA Times over the same period was second with 34, the Washington Post third with 25, and the Wall Street Journal fourth with 14. The Chicago Tribune was fifth with 10, The (Portland) Oregonian and the AP were tied for seventh with eight, and the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald each had six over those eight years.
However, if we look at the four years of Bill Keller’s reign as executive editor of the NY Times (2003-2006—the 2007 awards were for the calendar year 2006), then the NY Times has not been as good a newspaper as the LA Times. In that period, the NY Times has been awarded a total of 22 Pulitzers and the LA Times a total of 26. Awards include first place and honorable mentions, of which there are typically two. What is the reason for the decline in the number of Pulitzers? Is it Keller’s leadership, the NY Times’ leadership, newsroom layoffs because of budget cuts due to lower revenue, the Public Editor’s (Byron Calame) harping, complancency, or hubris?
For as many readers of this blog as there are, there will be an equal number of reasons for the decline in Pulitzers and for the LA Times being awarded more Pulitzers over the time of Keller’s reign. However, if the reason were layoffs due to budget cuts, the LA Times had as many, if not more cuts, as the NY Times did and much more turmoil in the newsroom. What about NY Times leadership? Arthur Sulzberger has been the CEO of the NY Times during the period under examination, including in 2001, when the NY Times won an unprecedented 11 Pulitzers, and he chose both Howell Raines and Bill Keller as executive editors. He can conceivably be blamed, to some degree, for the stock and revenue declines, but there is evidence that the NY Times, under his overall leadership, has suffered fewer circulation lower revenue declines than many other major-market newspapers. Furthermore, under his leadership, the NY Times website has flourished. It has continually improved, been redesigned as is now perhaps the best newspaper and news website in the country.
My assessment of the NY Times’s decline in quality (as measured by Pulitzer Prizes received) is the result of hubris, most of all, and complacency. I don’t know if this hubris, this we’re-the-best-and-untouchable attitude comes from Sulzberger or Keller or is in-bred in the newsroom, but I suspect it comes from the very top. Sulzberger doesn’t seem to be a great listener, doesn’t appear to be in tune with the mood and attitudes in the newsroom. He seems to be aloof and overly defensive, as evidenced by his taking the family fortune away from Morgan Stanley’s stewardship because he was peeved at Elmasry’s harping (see my blog on the subject).
I think the complacency comes from the staff drinking their own Kool Aid based on the reputation that the NY Times is America’s “journal of record.” The NY Times executives, editors, and reporters seem to accept this trophy based on the efforts of previous journalism all-stars. Unfortunately, the current staff hasn’t earned this reputation (columnists excluded) and don’t seem to have the competitive drive to keep their reputation. They don’t realize it’s much harder to stay on top than it is to get there. Sulzberger seems to believe that the Times’s reputation, like his job, is his birthright.
I think Keller takes Sulzberger’s lead and is equally as tone-deaf and defensive. It seems to be a chicken-and-egg situation. Which came first, Sulzberger’s aloofness or Keller’s? Is Keller copycatting to keep his job or is it his nature? I don’t know, but whichever it is, I believe an aloofness, an arrogance, and a we’re-the-NY Times-and-can-do-no-wrong culture is manifested in the decline of Pulitzer Prizes.
I believe this attitude might be as strong or stronger in the coverage of culture and the arts, where the NY Times as been traditionally without peer. Many of its theater, art, movie, and book reviews are too long and unreadable. They are often muddy, highly pretentious, convoluted, and overly intellectual and theoretical ramblings that reflect more of the writer’s need to show off his or her vocabulary than to give insight or understanding.
This type of hubris and complacency, as evidenced in this style of writing will drive more and more people to the NY Times website in an attempt to 1) save trees and 2) to view short, understandable video reviews. I recommend this solution.