Pot calls kettle black in New York Times piece on Washington Post business troubles

I am a huge David Carr fan. Great writer, great eye for news-about-news, a shoe-leather reporter when he needs to be (as when driving the frat boys from the Tribune Co. executive suite). Plus he originated the delightful Carpetbagger Oscars-watch blog in his spare time and found himself in a starring role in a documentary about The New York Times. Wow.

But Monday’s take-down of The Washington Post (one in a series if you have missed others), left me grinding my teeth.

Carr recycles newsroom scuttlebutt about Publisher Katharine Weymouth’s stylistic stumbles. But his is a business section column and near the end, Carr reaches for commentary on the Post as an endangered business:

The Post retains a toehold on its former greatness by virtue of its family ownership — its election coverage showed significant muscle — but those dynamics are now hard against an age that requires decisive, confident leadership. The cushion of profits from other endeavors like the Kaplan education division are all but gone, and if The Post is going to endure, the motor of the enterprise will be the people who occupy what is still one of the most talented newsrooms in the business.

Even a cursory look at the Washington Post Co.’s financials shows how off the mark that last sentence is.

Through the first nine months of this year, the Post’s newspaper and other smaller publishing enterprises lost $56 million on operations. Kaplan was about break-even. Cable and broadcasting units generated $240 million in earnings. Those profits covered publishing losses by a ratio of more than 4 to 1. I would call that a great cushion, not a cushion “all but gone.”

Is a talented newsroom “the motor of the enterprise” at The Post? If Carr means just the newspaper, sure it must have a strong news core on whatever platform. Metaphorically, with Newsweek gone, the paper houses the company’s journalistic soul.

But those same financials show that publishing now accounts for only 14 percent of the company’s revenues. Kaplan, which may or may not regain its growth mojo, plus cable and broadcast, do not rely at all on the newspaper’s editorial talent.

Turn quickly for comparison to the New York Times Company’s financial report for the first three quarters of 2012. The pared-down company essentially has no businesses except The New York Times and Boston Globe. Hence no cushions beyond their earnings, and nothing much more in the cupboard to sell to raise money for new investments.

As a company, New York Times revenues are about half the Washington Post Co.’s. The difference in market capitalization between the two is even bigger: Washington Post — $2.58 billion, New York Times — $1.19 billion.

The Washington Post’s pension plan has a surplus. The New York Times will need to make big contributions to keep its plan solvent in coming years. The Times has a reasonable debt level and cash on hand; the Post is barely debt-leveraged at all.

Having heard many investor presentations by Post CEO Don Graham (of whom I also am a big fan), I know that he consistently has said:

  • The Post newspaper will never be cast off on his watch.
  • Management agrees that the newspaper needs to return to profitability.
  • The company has had enough financial strength to operate the newspaper at a modest loss, which it has done.
  • New revenue streams are of the essence.

So, whose new revenue stream is bigger? Neither company is forthcoming with numbers that could resolve that question, but the Times Co. is not an obvious winner on this dimension.

Carr could, for instance, step upstairs and ask Arthur Sulzberger Jr., how financially rewarding the International Herald Tribune has been since the Times bought out the Post’s 50 percent share a decade ago.

For this week only, Carr seems to have lapsed into a backward, semi-nostalgic take on the top end of the newspaper industry — lamenting the Post’s “toehold on its former greatness” and more in that vein.

C’mon David, you know better than that. For both companies and their flagship newspaper organizations, it’s all about defining hybrid business models and heading revenues and profits in the right direction.

The shared challenge of getting that right will (or perhaps won’t) sustain two indispensable American news operations. Weymouth’s success in getting her leadership legs is relevant. Graceful optics in making executive changes are mostly beside the point.

Related: Don’t blame Weymouth for Post’s woes (Financial Times)

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  • Clayton Burns

    I have been waiting to see if David Carr or Margaret Sullivan will engage with Edmonds. Will they attempt a refutation of the consensus that Carr overextended himself?

    I object to the Joseph Burgess filter at the NYT public editor. Joseph has responded to many comments that I have sent him, but it has become increasingly evident that the public editor, except for the Mark Thompson case, for example, often prefers the easy ones.

    Photo captions and restaurant reviews. Not much of a challenge there.

    If the NYT public editor and its business section, including media, were to establish a stronger tradition of interns, some of the obvious obsolescence could be dealt with.

    There is no excuse for Carr’s failure to engage fiercely across all formats with his critics on this story. His apparent inability to focus the Modern Library “Absalom, Absalom!” fiasco is exasperating.

    David Carr has a wealth of experience and some good ideas, such as his suspicion of standardized tests. He is letting himself down by being passive of late, and letting people walk all over him, so to speak. Not really, of course.

    Is there some hard iron law that prevents The NYT from engaging Edmonds at this site?

  • Clayton Burns

    How sleepy we are at The NYT.

    The Public Editor should have been all over this useful piece by Rick Edmonds. The Public Editor should have commented here, rejecting or accepting various aspects of what Rick is saying.

    Despite the fact that The NYT is the world’s best paper, it is obsolete in far too many ways. I get the paper as printed in Seattle. There are just too many stale headlines from the night before on the Internet.

    As for its vast acreage of mediocre reporting on national politics and foreign affairs, The NYT could take cultural life more seriously. If you challenge David Carr on The NYT’s mishandling of the Random House “Absalom, Absalom!” fiasco, he sleeps. The Public Editor contributes her distraction.

    We might compare the silly gothic of the title of the paper with the attractive typeface of its ThursdayStyles. Why does The NYT insist on being so uncool?

    Mark Thompson, sort it out, unless you are just another cipher in the making.

  • Clayton Burns

    The Gray Lady’s new CEO, in black and white

    By Paul Farhi, Nov 11, 2012 11:49 PM EST

    The Washington Post Published: November 11

    –One of the newspaper’s most prominent voices has yet to offer his take on Thompson: David Carr, the Times’ media columnist, who has written unsparingly about other news organizations. Although he contributed to a story about Thompson, Carr says he hasn’t been moved to write about Thompson and the Times.

    “I guess it does seem weird that I haven’t,” Carr said on Friday. “I always want to have something interesting and smart to say. I just didn’t feel I had much to add beyond that I don’t see anything that would prevent him from doing his job.”

  • Clayton Burns

    David Carr did not write on the Mark Thompson matters as he should have. That was lame.

    An example sentence from the Oxford Dictionary of English: “it’s vital that team members step out of their silos and start working together.”

    The NYT has a serious silo problem. In a sense, because he could do something about it, Carr is at the center of this.

    Let’s take as an example the 2012 Modern Library “Absalom, Absalom!” The NYT Magazine published the foreword by John Jeremiah Sullivan as an essay in June (I have to be sure to get John’s name in so that he will be able to find my comment).

    Without going into exhaustive detail, I will say that the kernel is that this text, as nobody denies, is corrupt. It is a Random House fraud on the reader. Carr does not answer e-mail about this because he does not have the depth of intellect to deal with it.

    Carr should write on the failure of The NYT to initiate integration projects among Books, Magazine, and Education, for example.

    A great focusing text would be Helen Vendler’s “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries” (Harvard, 2010). This is the very best book for introducing American students to American literature. In the UK, they know no more about Dickinson than I do about derivatives.

    The most embarrassing thing about The NYT is not Carr, but The Choice, the blog that churns the SAT. Every Education and Books writer at The NYT should study Vendler’s “Dickinson” minutely, learn in detail the sound systems of the 12 poems I have chosen from that text, and have New York schools work on the same project.

    Carr could monitor how The NYT manages to break out of some of its silos in this project.

    Instead of writing payback for The Washington Post’s comments on his failure to focus the Thompson matter.