Friday, November 6, 2009

How Many Axes Can Be Made?

Newspaper folks used to think that, while everyone has his own ax to grind, most people were grinding one or another version of the same couple of axes. The length and brand name might be different, but, as we were taught, there were two sides to a story, we tried to get both, and people who were dissatisfied with us thought we hadn't sharpened their side of the ax enough.

A blogger named Tyler Cowen, who appears to be an economist, posted a sort of throwaway question on his blog, "Marginal Revolution": Should the New York Times drop its sports section to save money? This, of course, is the same question the New York Times has been fencing with since it added food and wine and other topics to the daily paper in the 1970s, in that pre-everything era: Should the New York Times devote itself only to serious political and cultural topics, for its serious political and cultural readers who feel that having less serious matters in the Times lessens the sense of their own seriousness they expect reading the Times to give them? The Internet has made that question harder, but it's essentially the same question as: If Oprah recommends reading your novel "The Corrections," does that mean you its writer are not an artist?

The question isn't that interesting, but the range of responses is, and really shows why our friend the newspaper is in such straits. Some examples, with comment:

"You have to wonder, does The Times really need 103 people working at the Metro desk? Does it even need 50? Does the paper need 14 book editors? My guess is, there are quite a few people that could be cut without drastically undermining the quality of the paper." Posted by Brian J. I wonder, if the Times came into Brian J.'s workplace and started asking how many fewer people it could run with, his reaction would be: What the heck do you know? But everyone thinks they know how a newspaper should run.

"The sports section is the best part of almost all newspapers because it is the section that is within the personal area of expertise of the largest part of their readership. If they screw that up, they'll lose more readers than they lose from screwing up any other section. The NYT can live without comics, but it can't live without sports." Eric, I suspect a lot of NYT readers would say that the sports section is the farthest from their personal area of expertise.

"America would be a better place if the NY Times failed -- the NY Times is a truly crappy journalistic product and it crowds out superior rivals." Thanks, Newsjunky, and if it's so truly crappy, why does it crowd out superior rivals? We've seen it's not the business acumen of its owners.

Nobody buys the NY Times for the sports section. They buy it for the A news section, for the Science on Tuesdays, for the Lifestyle sections on weekends and the Week in Review. Outsider, please get together with Eric above.

"The NY Times Sports section only concerns itself with 1 issue, RACE. Bill Rhoden is a joke. Every article re mgmt vs vs players.....mgr vs players always and everywhere goes back to....yep u guessed it...RACE....without player as slave metaphor u really don't have a NYT sports section." Well, at least this brings us newsroom types back to the most-familiar ax.

"maybe if the NYT would break more stories like this:
'The CIA relied on intelligence based on torture in prisons in Uzbekistan, a place where widespread torture practices include raping suspects with broken bottles and boiling them alive, says a former British ambassador to the central Asian country'
Instead we have to rely on the internet for real news." Well, perhaps. This is from a left-leaning Web site called Rawstory, which is based on a speech he gave, which was rebroadcast by the Real News Network, which is a Canadian-based operation that seems, from a cursory review, to be the 2009 equivalent of Pacifica radio or Ramparts or a really good underground newspaper. In other words, they may well be legitimate stories, but there are legitimate stories on Fox News as well. The question is: What is your motivation in putting them into play -- i.e. to what degree do you check for facts that are discordant with your theory of the world, or does the theory (the triumph of conservatism, the need for social justice, whatever) create its own facts? In a world where every story exists to further a worldview, newspapers -- which have their own biases to be sure, but whose base worldview is "what happened?" and not "why?" -- appear flaccid and irrelevant.

"I read an article in the Sunday Travel section, about a place that I visited a few months ago, that was a parody of what is wrong with the Times. The writer completely missed the main reasons one would want to visit the place and wrote mainly about motorbiking with his friends and trying to pick up girls. It managed to combine being annoying with giving no information to potential travellers about why you would want to visit the destination or what to do when you get there." And here's the other problem newspapers face -- their love of "the interesting well-told tale" over people who are looking for basic information. Let's say this is about Chiang Mai. The reader above went to Chiang Mai and saw the sights, enjoyed the cuisine, and looks to other articles to tell him of interesting places. The editor of the Times Travel section is bored by stories about sights, cuisine and interesting places. He or she may even be bored by stories about Chiang Mai. He or she wants to read something he or she hasn't read before. This will appeal to a number of readers, but not as many -- and presto, we're back to Gourmet magazine.

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