The New York Times: Doomed, and deservedly so?

shrinkageI was looking for quotes from this highly enjoyable Vanity Fair article (via AoSHQ & And Still I Persist) that would illustrate the haplessness of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. (“He is a lifelong New Yorker, but there is no trace whatsoever of region or ethnicity in his speech” was a good example*) – or at least complement the vicious, yet accurate analysis that the picture above represents – but these two paragraphs blew me away completely. Particularly the second one:

Some at the Times anticipated this tectonic shift years ago, but Arthur wasn’t listening. Despite lip service about change, he presides over a slow-moving beast. Diane Baker, who was regarded as an energetic and forceful outsider, ran up against this in her years as C.F.O. When she took the job, in 1995, she was shocked to discover that the company was still doing all its accounting by hand. “They literally did not have the ability to produce spreadsheets,” she says. “They had not invested in the software you need to analyze data. It is a company run by journalists. The Sulzbergers are journalists at their core, not businessmen.”

Her biggest disappointment came when she crafted a potentially lucrative partnership with Amazon.com**, already the biggest bookseller on the Internet. The Times would link all the titles reviewed in the paper’s prestigious Sunday Book Review section, ordinarily a money drain, to the online bookseller and receive a percentage on every book sold. “We could have made the Book Review into a big source of revenue,” she recalls. Baker knew that Amazon.com planned to eventually sell everything under the sun, to become the first digital supermarket. Not only would the deal have produced revenue from book sales, it would also have cemented a partnership with a tremendous future. She envisioned the newspaper as a virtual merchandising machine. Instead of the old carpet-bombing model of advertising, it would in effect target ads to readers of specific stories. “You know what they said?,” Baker recalls. “They said, We can’t do it, because Barnes & Noble is a big advertiser.”

If you felt any sorrow for the New York Times‘ travails, stop right now. Never mind that it’s a liberal-leaning paper that doesn’t want to admit it (the first part of that is no big deal, the second part of it is); never mind that it’s being run as essentially a vanity press (on an epic scale not seen elsewhere, to be sure); never even mind that the publisher’s so self-evidently a schlub that not even Vanity Fair could hide it. All of these things are survivable.

But shutting down an alliance between the NYT Book Review and Amazon.com? Do you have any idea what kind of revenue stream that would have entailed? As the article itself notes, the NYT website gets 20M/month: not bad, especially for a site that’s apparently getting all of its hits from one-time views. A program of interweaving Amazon links into NYT content – and I’m not talking offensively, or misleadingly; even merely linking book, movie, and video game titles in the electronic version would pay for itself – would have been, and would still be, an excellent way to generate revenue. And, more importantly, it’d be a way to generate revenue that doesn’t offend the reader. But they didn’t do that. Because Barnes & Noble would have been mad.

Throwing away a chance at a critically important revenue stream because you think that your advertisers’ business plan is more important than yours. Yeah, just kill the paper and be done with it, already.

Moe Lane

*So was “‘In everything he does, he means well.'”

**Links added by me. Because I am not an idiot.

Crossposted to Moe Lane.