August 23, 2006

After reading the Vanity Fair article on troubles at The New York Times, I think the magazine may need to stick to topics
like how Hilary Swank and Sheryl Crow are mending their respective broken
hearts (both actual stories in the August issue).

Contributor Michael Wolff, who is long on impressions and
short on conventional reporting in the best of times, goes wildly dis-informational
in this outing, “Panic on 43rd Street.”

I suppose that doesn’t matter greatly in the scheme of
things.  But it is irksome to see a
backward-looking, hand-wringing and elitist take on the business — and in a
magazine that increasingly aspires to top-notch serious reporting.

How so, panic?  Wolff
is a little vague on this and other key points. But as best I can tell, Exhibit
One is that the paper offered too many explanations instead of just hanging
tough after it published the bank secrets story.  On the business side, Wolff faults the
company for driving its respected brand over the cliff into “cyberia,”
especially in its $400-million purchase of the déclassé About.com product
information site.

In the second paragraph we are told that business reverses
during the Bush years have made “the entire media… so much easier to
threaten.” As evidenced by? Wolff doesn’t
really say, he just asserts. In fact, The Times was
mistaken but not bullied in Judith Miller’s reports on weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq.
There was an element of picking a fight with government in Miller’s going to
jail, rather than revealing her source for a Valerie Plame story she never
wrote. The Times’ reporting, and
even more so its stable of columnists, are relentlessly tough on the Bush
administration.

But Wolff’s piece is at heart a business story, and we soon
turn to a Times strategy (in place
since 1998) he finds flawed and personally offensive:  gradually replacing New
York metro circulation with national circulation. To
Wolff this signals “a doomsday scenario, foreseeing a one-newspaper nation, a
last-man-standing paper.” Oh really? In five years on this beat I’ve never
heard the whiff of a suggestion that the Times’
success depends on the unlikely failure of the other two national papers, USA Today and The Wall Street
Journal
.

Wolff sees the Times
largely abandoning its loyal East Coast establishment readers for who-knows-who
out in unwashed red state territory. Unnamed “people at the Times,” he writes, are aware of these nouveau
readers’ “likely lack of constancy.”

Well, the $600-plus a year subscription price may be chump
change in Manhattan, but it looks
like real money in St. Paul or here
in St. Petersburg.  So these out-in-the-boonies readers must be reasonably
well off  (a good thing for selling
advertising) and perceive enough value in the Times‘ take on the news to read it thoroughly (another good thing
for selling advertising).  Given the high
sticker price, the Times makes
extensive use of reduced-price, get-acquainted offers, and many of these trial
readers are churned. But the retention rate for established subscribers is
extremely high — 90 percent after two years, according to the company.

After a brief riff on Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s tendency
toward occasionally flippant and tone-deaf public statements, Wolff’s piece
gets back to business matters, this time the Internet.

He faults Sulzberger and the Times, among other things, for being “so willing to disregard the
conservative, wait-and-see approach favored by Rust Belt-like industries.” Yikes! Behemoths like Bethlehem Steel or the Akron
tire cluster failed precisely by waiting and seeing. Hence, the “Rust.”  There may be examples where conservatively
shepherding a top brand paid off, not that Wolff is big on examples. But there
are many more companies — Xerox and Kodak, for instance — that failed to spot big
changes in their lines of business and are now scrambling to catch up.

To argue that going online is off track for the Times, Wolff tries some number crunching
that falters on the industry’s own misleading audience measures.  He correctly observes that the 10 million
unique visitors per month to the online site and 30 million to About.com are worth far less to
advertisers than the paper edition’s 1.1 million daily circulation and 1.7
million on Sunday.  But of course — the
average unique visitor spends only about 30 minutes a month at NYTimes.com,
according to the company.

So it is not the case, as Wolff calculates, that the two Times sites must increase to 400 or 500
million visitors per month to “replace” the traditional business. Getting
visitors to return more often and spend more time at the sites could feed
continued fast revenue growth. Also, ad budgets are only just starting to move
in a big way online — there are almost bound to be more such campaigns looking
for online exposure in the near future. 

About.com is a
particularly sore point with Wolff. 
Clearly a guy who doesn’t buy his underwear at Wal-Mart, he trashes the
product information and shopping site as hopelessly down-market and out-of-step
with the paper’s lofty traditions, “a place you never go by choice” unless
tricked there by a search engine.

I’m not a comparison shopper either, but out here in the
hinterlands at least, plenty of people are. Once they have picked among About.com‘s 500 product and service
categories, they become qualified targets, as the company’s annual report puts
it, for display advertising, pay-per-click advertising or e-commerce. Makes
sense as a business model to me, not unlike that other little outfit, Google,
that Wolff never references by name. And, in fact, About.com‘s revenues were up 60 percent year-to-year in the second
quarter, and profits tripled.

There are other odd oversights and assertions in the Vanity Fair story.  The Washington Post Co., cited positively
several times, has achieved much of its revenue momentum with a non-news
business, Kaplan for-profit schools and test prep. The Boston Globe has not, as Wolff asserts, “performed poorly ever
since” the Times acquired it in 1993. The Globe
did fine during the rest of the 90s before experiencing the circulation
declines and stalling ad revenues typical for most metropolitan papers this
decade. 

Wolff comes close to coming clean as a nostalgist in a conclusion
arguing that the Times’ natural audience ought to be “over 50 Manhattanites,
over-50 Jews, over 50 liberal-minded people, over 50-journalists,” in short “a
dwindling number of us.”  He can’t
stomach the prospect of a declining, then disappearing New York Times. Neither can
I, but the case that that might happen is mostly dither.

To give Wolff his due, he is always an entertaining and
elegant read. Sometimes his borderline boorishness — confronting the generals
at stagy press briefings in Qatar
or spilling the beans on an off-the-record mogul party — yields bracingly fresh
perspective on beaten-to-death big media topics.

But in the course of brief background research, I stumbled
on an eerily predictive Wolff profile two years ago in The New Republic. The author, Michelle Cottle, the editor of his media column at New York
magazine, Caroline Miller, and several fellow media scribes speculate that his shift
to the longer stories and longer deadlines at Vanity Fair could be problematic. More time for more reporting?
Reporting isn’t really Wolff’s thing.

This particular piece looks enough like an honest-to-God business
story that the proof by assertion, minimal and un-sourced reporting and leaps
of logic don’t play well.

I think of Vanity Fair
as a motley mix of celebrity
fluff, high-society snobbery and in-depth journalism. The magazine has been a 20-year-plus
success with that editorial formula. Maybe nostalgia and New
York hauteur have their place in a revival of a glam 1920’s
concept.

But if Wolff appears in the magazine’s serious reporting
zone (his story precedes dispatches from Iraq
and Gaza), editor Graydon Carter is
risking a wobbly base for this three-legged stool.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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