Can Jill Abramson save the New York Times?

Photograph: Fred R Conrad/the New York Times

I highly recommend Ken Auletta’s profile of Jill Abramson published in the New Yorker last month. Abramson is the first female executive editor of the New York Times– the first woman to make it all the way to the top. The first lady to head the Gray Lady, if you will.

The piece offers a fascinating glimpse into newsroom politics at the Times, particularly during its most controversial and turbulent periods in the last ten years. I am talking of course about its reporting on WMDs and the War on Terror, the Jayson Blair scandal, and most recently, the launch of its digital subscription service in March 2011.

As I do with everything I read these days, I also read for information relevant to my field (journalism).

Drawing on his interviews with Abramson and many other Times editors at various levels, Auletta raises some pertinent questions about the future of the New York Times, and about newspaper journalism in general.

“Can the New York Times Company, which derives more than ninety per cent of its revenues from the Times and the seventeen other daily newspapers it owns, defy the bleak recent history of newspapers?” he asked.

I immediately thought of internet scholar Clay Shirky’s conversation in 1993 with Gordy Thompson, a former manager of internet services for the Times.

“When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem,” Thompson said to Shirky. The conversation was part of a blog entry that Shirky wrote called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable in 2009. It’s an intelligent piece of commentary about the rise of the internet and the inevitable fall of newspapers as a result. The 14 year old kid in question was one of the unlicensed distributors of a popular syndicated column in the Miami Herald- basically copying and pasting text, and sending it out to others online because he thought it was just way cool. It’s what I do all the time now on Facebook, Twitter, and email. In fact, I check the ‘Most Emailed’ sections of a news site just because it’s usually the best place to get a quick laugh in the morning.

So what does Auletta’s piece have to say about the New York Times’ prospects in 2011? Nothing new, it turns out. Newspapers cannot survive as they are: just newspapers. Perhaps the most telling passage of the piece that speaks to this uncertain future is this passage and quote from Gerald Marzorati, former editor of The Times Magazine.

One thing that Abramson does know—as she described, generally, in her memo to Sulzberger—is that she’s going to have to turn the Times into something more than a newspaper. She must plan for new multimedia possibilities—audio, video, archives, and the participation of readers. Should the Times create online news programs? Should the Times work more closely with Twitter and Facebook? Should the Times publish e-books? ‘These are the kinds of strategic questions that Jill is going to have to grapple with in a way that none of her predecessors had to,’ Gerald Marzorati says. ‘We’re not just a newspaper anymore.’

I can’t help but go back to thinking the ‘unthinkable’ when I read that.

“When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works,’” Shirky wrote in 2009. “And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

As much as I love the New York Times, ‘whatever works’ is starting to look like the most practical and realistic way to approach journalism in the brave new social networked world that we live in.

I’m curious to hear thoughts from fellow newspaper readers. What do you think about the future of newspapers? Is what they’re doing today working?

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I’m a journalist and Masters of Journalism candidate at UBC. I am co-editor-in-chief at Schema, an online magazine that blends pop culture and identity for the interculturally-minded. You can follow me at metrolens or visit my site at BethHong.com.

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terryman

I am a freelance journalist and Masters of Journalism candidate at UBC. I’ve written for Vancouver Observer and OpenFile Vancouver. Currently, I am co-editor in chief at Schema, an online magazine for 1.5 generation and beyond Canadians. I’m interested in youth culture, social justice, and the future of Canadian identity. I also like to read long-form journalism, fiction, and dabble occasionally in some current affairs commentary at my blog, Paper Fetishist.

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