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How to Build a Smarter Times, According to the Times’ Own Journalists

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In 1976, legendary Timesman A.M. Rosenthal, faced with the rising cost of newsprint, tasked his equally legendary deputy, Arthur Gelb, with formulating new sections to attract extra ads and readers to the newspaper and, as Gelb later wrote, “rescue the Times and secure its future.” By 1978, “SportsMonday,” “Science Times,” “Living,” “Home,” and “Weekend” were in place. Traditionalists cried foul. But the additions were cash cows whose spawn now feel as stubbornly natural to the paper as the Gothic logo and refusal to use the Oxford comma.

Today, The New York Times is wracked by a new crisis, which, like that past one, stems from economics but must be solved partly through editorial strategy. The Times Company’s quirky dual-stock structure means the Ochs-Sulzberger clan is less likely than The Washington Post’s Grahams and The Wall Street Journal’s Bancrofts to feel pressure to sell. But sustainability ultimately depends on cash flow, and revenues at the Times have declined for three years running. Cost-cutting its way out of the problem risks turning the paper into a journalistic shadow of itself, thereby defeating the whole point. That has left CEO Mark Thompson and executive editor Jill Abramson to plot a new path forward. Mindful both of the ways people read the paper today (digital subscriptions now approach weekday print subscriptions, and nearly half of digital traffic comes from mobile devices), and by which the paper makes money (advertising: not a growth area), they must sign up more subscribers and perhaps induce some subscribers to pay beyond what they do now.

A key difference from 1976 is that the newsroom is generally on board. I spoke to two-dozen current staffers, on and off the record, and emerged with the impression that most are buying into the new initiatives, many of them pushed by the well-liked Thompson. I also heard an appetite for further, bolder experimentation. Inspired by these conversations, some immodest proposals for how the Times can survive while staying the Times we know.


The facts on the ground: Last year, annual circulation revenue—people people paying for the paper in all its forms—surpassed advertising revenue for the first time in the Times' modern era. "The launch of the pay model," Thompson said in May, referring to the Internet pay wall, "is the most important and most successful business decision made by The New York Times in many years."

The problem is that the paper may now be hitting a paid-circulation plateau. To keep readers ponying up, the Times is beginning to narrowcast content to fit their habits: "New York Today," a popular Metro tipsheet, is featured prominently on the mobile app from early morning through noon to tap into smart-phone traffic, which spikes around 8:00 a.m. Its next logical move is to create pared-down and subject-specific editions that can be purchased for less than the cheapest current subscription, which runs $15 a month. "Need to Know," an informal name (snappy abbreviation: N2K) for a forthcoming news digest, is one example. Another is the food app that outgoing national editor Sam Sifton was assigned to run as part of the new digital portfolio he has been given. A third—which you're reading about here first—is a new opinion app.

What the Times SHOULD do next: The food and opinion apps are the fruits of a Times-commissioned McKinsey study, which also identified markets for mobile and tablet applications covering technology, politics, and the arts. As the food app might say: Fire ’em up! Then keep iterating: Launch an evening retrospective, for example, for doctors and the like who can’t get to the paper during their morning duties. If the Times can convert freeloaders into micro-subscribers forking over $7 or $8 a month to receive content that largely already exists, that’s money in the bank.


The facts on the ground: More than a fifth of visits to come from outside the United States, but only 10 percent of subscriptions do. The Times is taking steps to close that gap, including a Chinese-language site overseen by veteran correspondent Philip Pan; a beefed-up India blog; and the rechristening, this October, of the International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times. (Onetime politics editor Dick Stevenson will run the newly integrated European newsroom; two-time Pulitzer-winner and closet Formula One fanatic John F. Burns is taking a new beat as roving sportswriter.) The company is even making it easier to buy Times subscriptions in foreign currencies.

What the Times SHOULD do next: Keep exploring. Ian Fisher, an assistant managing editor, notes that Times stories about Brazil do particularly well, traffic-wise. “The protests in Brazil were like number one on Chartbeat,” the traffic-monitoring software, “and it was about half through social,” he says. “People have thought about some kind of Brazil edition.” Plans to make an actual play for the world’s fifth largest country are only tentative at this point, but just considering it reflects the right mindset.

The New York Times


The facts on the ground: An underappreciated aspect of “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” the browser-crashing, Pulitzer-winning, multimedia extravaganza that the Times sports desk produced last December, is that it was never pitched for the front page. That marked a significant shift in the culture of the newsroom, where digital blockbusters are now seen as a way to become a star. The Times is producing so much interactive whizbangery that Abramson has tasked Sifton with creating “an immersive digital magazine experience” to collect, showcase, and make more money from those kinds of stories—somehow. “I’ve taken to calling it ‘the MacGuffin,’ since we’re not sure exactly what it is yet,” says Sifton. Meanwhile, the Sunday magazine team, which knows a few things about long-form narratives and story packaging, remains sequestered up on the sixth floor, cut off from the newsroom’s stellar interactive graphics team, and its online layouts pale in comparison. 

What the Times SHOULD do next: Move the Sunday magazine into the newsroom. Fold it into the MacGuffin, or vice versa. If the paper believes so strongly in this sort of content, broadly defined, why not just build one excellent magazine operation to publish lush features for the website and mobile apps, curate the most magazine-y digital content from other desks, and put out a Sunday print edition? Setting up dueling fiefdoms, as the paper risks doing with Hugo Lindgren’s existing magazine and the newsroom’s Untitled Sifton Project, is so old Times.


The facts on the ground: The Opinion pages have a staff of roughly 50 that is responsible for the bulk of the “Sunday Review” and the two-page opinion spread that runs daily. About one-third of those 14 weekly pages consists of editorials and “Notebooks” and “Observers,” the bulk of which are written by a twelve-person conclave staffed by veterans who very likely cost a few million in payroll.

What the Times SHOULD do nextIt can’t fire Maureen Dowd or David Brooks (or insert your least-favorite op-ed columnist here). Hate-reading drives traffic, and the conversation. But the paper need not invest so heavily in anonymous editorials that—with rare exceptions—would not be widely missed.

Earl Silver/The New York Times/Redux


The facts on the ground: The paper is not set up to outbid the likes of ESPN, the $40 billion Disney subsidiary to which Silver decamped. (It is telling that Thompson is said to have been less invested in keeping him than Abramson was.) At the same time, it can’t afford to lose out on his interstellar traffic numbers.“It’s not a blemish,” said one Times editor, summing up the feelings of many at the paper, “but it’s certainly a bummer.”

What the Times SHOULD do next: “What the Times does best is pull back the curtain on politics,” says politics editor Carolyn Ryan. “But clearly Silver demonstrated that our readers also crave a sophisticated understanding of numbers and trends and what they say about the electorate right now, and somebody who can present that in a way that is both accessible and smart.” Another such somebody: David Leonhardt. The Washington bureau chief is a Pulitzer-winning economics writer with a reporter’s chops and an engineer’s mind (which is to say, he does not have the ideal bureau-chief personality). He’s already writing articles expertly and empirically analyzing health care reform, abortion, and inequality. In 2004, he wrote a column called “Keeping Score” about sports analytics. This is a no-brainer.

Getty Images


The facts on the ground: “The importance of Grantland as a successful precedent was very important to me,” Silver said last month, explaining his decision to leave by reference to Bill Simmons’s ESPN-hosted magazine. The only thing vaguely like it in the Times universe is Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook. This shortage hurts the Times in today’s Internet media economy, in which mini-empires built around distinct voices (such as Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at The Washington Post) can give a larger outlet separate channels through which to attract both readers and rising talent.

What the Times SHOULD do next: Build some of those “successful precedents” and become home to the Silvers and Sorkins and Kleins of the future. As a full-time media columnist, part-time culture feature writer, sometime magazine contributor, occasional unofficial Times spokesman, and all-around Twitter savant, Carr is a smart candidate for this bet. Give him his own small crew, and turn them loose on an old-school New York Observer, mixing media- and entertainment-industry reporting and commentary with vaguely edgy cultural coverage. Then try the same with, say, Tara Parker-Pope and her Well blog.


The facts on the ground: Obviously not every Times staffer is happy with every management decision. But collectively I heard from newsroom sources a genuinely anachronistic and genuinely valuable loyalty to the broader enterprise not found at an outfit like ESPN—or Bloomberg, Reuters, or The Huffington Post, to cite other places that have poached its staffers in recent years. This sentiment (sentimentality?) enables the Times to retain ace journalists who work for less-than-market value in exchange for the privilege of knowing that, as Sifton put it, “your last name here is ‘New York Times.’”

What the Times SHOULD do next: See previous entries! Times journalism is expensive. But it’s also the perk that keeps its practitioners at the paper, doing the kind of reporting that sustains the brand, which keeps readers paying for subscriptions, which help pay for more ambitious work. It’s not exactly an innovate-or-die situation for the paper. It’s more like: Innovate or find yourself a Bezos—who might tinker more drastically than you’d like.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic.

An earlier version referred to the "editorial board" when it should have referred to "the Opinion pages."