New York Times Buyout Package Discloses Insider Secrets

ny_times_chi_fire_mhsLast week, news spread that the New York Times would need to cut 100 of its 1,250 editorial staffers by year’s end. But instead of just flat-out firing people, the Times decided to lead with a buyout option open to any newsroom employee, which they delivered to everyone the next day.

And when the packages arrived, via UPS Next Day Air, they had some surprising details, as uncovered by the New York Observerwho managed to snag an envelope. The buyout, the Observer is reporting, consists “generally” of “three weeks pay per year of service and up to two years pay for longtime employees.” Times editor Bill Keller explained the option thusly:

[T]he Company will be sending buyout offers to everyone in the newsroom. Getting a buyout package does NOT mean we want you to leave. It is simply easier to send the envelopes to everyone. If you think a buyout may be right for you, you have up to 45 days to decide whether you will accept it or not.

As before, if we do not reach 100 positions through buyouts, we will be forced to go to layoffs. I hope that won’t happen, but it might.

In essence, the paper would dare its employees to consider themselves safe in a twisted journo-job version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

 

The paperwork also includes a list of every single Times employee, sans name, by “department, job title, birth date and age,” including “the printers, the security guards, the reporters.” Then, the Observer broke down some telling numbers:

Editors at the Book Review: 14

Number of Pressman Journeymen at the College Point plant: 106

Reporters at Metro: 50

Size of the Opinion/Editorial Department: 49

Size of Sports Desk: 57

Critics in the Culture Department: 18

Editors at The Times Magazine: 21

Average age of the Obituaries Desk: 58 years old

Size of Thursday Styles: 7

Size of Business Desk: 85

Size of Washington Bureau: 45

Size of the Dallas Sales/Advertising Staff: 4

Size of Week in Review: 5

Total size of Art Department: 113

Size of Dining: 5

Size of Metro: 103

It’s no secret that the paper has been bogged down by a bloated staff and excess legacy costs when nearly every other giant paper in the country tops out at around 700 editorial employees to the Times‘ 1,250, but these numbers are revealing. On one hand, it’s impressive that such seminal sections as the Dining and Thursday Styles run on such little manpower, but a team of 103 for the Metro section of an international paper? Let’s just say it will be interesting to revisit this list again in 3 months, one year and again in five.


Jayson Blair To Address Journalism Ethics Institute (No, Really)

Jayson BlairHard as it may be to believe, one of this decade’s biggest disgraces has been asked to present a speech on the very subject that was his downfall.

No, I’m not referring to George Bush’s speech about leadership. I’m talking about Jayson Blair’s upcoming address to Washington and Lee University. To their Journalism Ethics Institute. (Now that I re-read that first paragraph, I can see how it may have been misleading.)

Blair, you likely recall, rose quickly as a reporter at the New York Times, eventually landing several major assignments, including filing over 50 pieces on the Beltway Sniper (who is also back in the news, but for a different reason). Eventually, another writer identified instances in which Blair had plagiarized her work, and under additional scrutiny other problems surfaced: false quotes, high error rates, more instances of plagiarism. In May of 2003, the paper took to the front page to apologize for Blair’s actions. He, of course, lost his job. (Well, he resigned, but so did Nixon.)

As first mentioned on Slate’s Twitter feed, Blair will travel to Washington and Lee next Friday to give a speech entitled “Lessons Learned.” W&L Journalism and Ethics Professor Edward Wasserman told the Rockbridge Weekly that inviting Blair to speak — as the keynote, no less! — was “a departure for us” from their usual slate of “heroes…of great accomplishment and stature” but they were bringing Blair this time precisely for that reason:

“Jayson Blair, on the other hand, was at the center of one of the signature journalism scandals of this still-new century, and there’s no way to imagine that his role in it was heroic…My expectation is that he’ll talk not just about his own susceptibilities, but about the pressures and temptations that might induce ambitious and talented young journalists elsewhere in the business to do the wrong thing.”

Wasserman also said that Blair has not spoken publicly about the NYT scandal, but that Blair suggested that this “might be the right time and right occasion.” If so, then it differs from the bio on his website, which, though detailed, fails to mention it.

It does, however, mentions his qualifications as a life coach — his new full-time career. His qualifications?

My knowledge base comes from personal experience, working relationships with psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals… organizational development and other areas driven by interest and personal necessity.

Fair enough. Those of you at the event — please tweet about it! And, if you decide not to go, tweet about it anyway. Sometimes the made-up details are the most fun.

With Rachel Sklar


NBC Grabs a High-Profile Blogger to Boost Its Local Site: Eater Co-Founder Ben Leventhal

leventhalIf you follow the New York blog and/or blog/foodie scene, this one’s for you. The rest of you folks can probably move on.

Okay? Okay. Ben Leventhal, co-founder of the influential Eater blog, is headed to GE’s NBC Universal (GE), where he’ll oversee “lifestyle content” for NBC’s growing local Web unit. More details here, from Leventhal himself.

Eater is noteworthy because it’s a great read if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in an exit interview with former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, conducted over a meal at Mario Batali’s Babbo. And also because it’s part of a larger network of blogs that Leventhal helped build up along with Lockhart Steele, who was one of the early architects of Nick Denton’s Gawker Media empire.

Steele says his sites, which encompass two other brands beyond Eater (real estate at Curbed, retail at Racked) and local sites in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, pull in a million uniques a month. Two years ago he raised $1.5 million from a group of investors including Denton, Spark Capital’s Mo Koyfman, real estate publisher Brad Inman and NetSuite (N) CEO Zach Nelson.

NBC, meanwhile, has been busily staffing up its network of local sites, which it overhauled earlier this year. The idea is to replace the lame extensions of its local stations’ lame newscasts with sites designed for people who actually use the Web–and to help the company break into the local Internet ad market that everyone wants a piece of but that no one has cracked yet.

Soundbite: Arthur Sulzberger Thinks Journos Might Have Better Chance On Titanic

WrightBros2“The best analogy I can think of is — have you ever heard of the Titanic Fallacy?” he asked. We hadn’t. “What was the critical flaw to the Titanic?” We tried to answer: Poor construction? Not enough life boats? Crashing into stuff? “A captain trying to set a world speed record through an iceberg field?” he said, shaking his head. “Even if the Titanic came in safely to New York Harbor, it was still doomed,” he said. “Twelve years earlier, two brothers invented the airplane.”

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. demonstrates the correct Titanic analogy to employ when discussing the future of print. The fact he is clear on the problem (and the future!), alas, does not mean he has a solution. Where are the media world’s Wright Bros.? Will the Zuckerbergs one day fill the void?


Do Establishment Book Reviews Matter Anymore?

viral-loop-cover

Which is more likely to make you buy a book: a glowing writeup from a published book reviewer, or a bunch of four- and five-star Amazon ratings? Adam L. Penenberg, whose book Viral Loop explores social media and crowdsourcing, thinks with some empirical justification that it’s the latter. In a Fast Company column, he charts the declining influence of professional book reviewers, a shrinking group who are often agenda-driven. Exhibit A: the New York Times reviewer who dissed his first book.

From Penenberg’s column:

In my case, business reporter Alison Leigh Cowan of The New York Times wrote an over-the-top, scathing review of Spooked, in which she not only attacked the book, she questioned my ethics, because I refused to cooperate with the Justice Department, which was threatening to subpoena me so I would out a confidential source at a grand jury hearing and potential trial. I quit Forbes where I was a senior editor because the magazine’s lawyer was pressuring me to work out a deal with prosecutors. Who was the source? He–along with his minions–had hacked nytimes.com, replacing Times content with their own, which was largely obscene and highly critical of tech reporter John Markoff. (History buffs can read up on the incident here , here, here, and here.)

Not only did Cowan have a conflict of interest because The New York Times–and one of its best-known reporters–had been attacked by the person whose identity I was protecting, she was friends with a top Forbes editor who never forgave me for taking my battle with the magazine public. According to those who witnessed it, the editor danced in the hallway the day the review came out.

Penenberg doesn’t dispute the fact that online reviews are biased too, but he holds out hope that the sheer number of reviews gives the biases room to cancel each other out. Positively biased reviews by family and friends are tempered by negatively biased reviews by enemies and trolls, and with a healthy stock of unbiased reviews floating around as well, equilibrium will hit somewhere in the middle. He does mention, quoting a study by Yale economics professor Judith Chevalier, that “while positive reviews increase a book’s sales and negative reviews dampen them, ‘the impact of 1-star reviews is greater than the impact of 5-star reviews.’”

His pithy conclusion? “Cowan wasn’t reviewing the book. She was settling a score. And so do many of those littering book pages on Amazon with 1-star reviews. The difference is that these Amazon evildoers really do dampen book sales. Cowan’s ax job probably didn’t.”

The witty, light tone of Penenberg’s piece doesn’t take away from the weight of the shift he’s documenting. Book reviewers are an especially vulnerable flank of the media establishment, but all cultural critics are subject to the same logic. In the age of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, what individual film or music critics matter? Why bother with the incomplete catalogue and glacial pace of printed restaurant reviews when there’s Yelp?

The sanest answer to this line of questioning may be that for the new critics, voice, tastes, and style matter much more than definitiveness of opinion, which can always be crowdsourced away. Which means that as those jobs continue to vanish from newspaper and magazine payrolls, the survivors, ironically, will come to resemble the opinionated bloggers they used to pooh-pooh.


What Does the New York Times Really Know About Apple’s Tablet? “I Ain’t Sayin’,” Says Editor Bill Keller.

bill-kellerLeave it to the Apple-obsessed to go nuts over a three-word phrase in a week-day-old video of a two-week old event. But that’s what they did yesterday.

The text in question: The passing reference to an “impending Apple slate” by New York Times (NYT) executive editor Bill Keller in an address to his staff. That’s it.

How is that considered news? Because while everyone in Appleland is positive Steve Jobs has a wonderous tablet computer up his sleeve, no one has actually seen one. But if the guy running America’s newspaper of record mentions it, then it must be true, right?

I had a different take on this: The Times, like every other big publisher, assumes Apple (AAPL) is working on a tablet, and would like to figure out how to get its stuff onto the device. But I assumed that the Times, like every other big publisher, hadn’t had any contact with the famously secretive company about its plans.

That is–Keller could have said “the Apple slate, or tablet, or whatever, that I believe the company is working on, but don’t know about firsthand”, but whittled that down to three words. Because he’s good at writing and words and stuff like that, the way you’d think the guy running America’s newspaper of record would be.

But just for kicks, I checked in with Keller yesterday to clarify: Does he actually know what Apple is up to? Or is he in the same boat as the rest of us?

His answer, delivered via a PR rep: “I ain’t sayin’.”

Okay, then!

Let’s start by noting that it’s possible that Keller is simply tweaking a reporter’s earnest query with a purposefully delphic remark.

And even if Keller does know something about Apple’s plans, that doesn’t mean he knows much. Apple is famous for keeping its vendors and partners in the dark about its product plans until Jobs unveils the devices on stage.

Still, if Apple has talked to Keller and the Times about its tablet in any way, that news will come as a surprise to other publishers I’ve talked to, who can’t get Apple to even wink or nudge about the device.

Earlier this month, for instance, I reported that executives at Time Warner’s Time Inc. (TWX) couldn’t get Apple “to even acknowledge to Time Inc. executives that it plans to produce a tablet device.”

Yesterday, I talked to an executive in charge of digital efforts at another big, brand name publisher who said the same thing. “You can’t even joke with them about a tablet,” said the executive. “They get very serious and cut the conversation short.”

Has Keller, or any other Times executive, had a longer conversation? I pinged Keller again last night for clarification, but haven’t heard back. If I do, I’ll update here.

In the meantime, if you want to read the tea leaves yourself, they show up around the 8:30 mark in this video, first published by the Nieman Journalism Lab:

Bill Keller speaks to the digital group at The New York Times from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

All The News We’ll Pay For: Why Newspapers’ Shrinking Circulation Isn’t All Bad

newspaperlessNo surprise that Americans are dropping their newspaper subscriptions, as a new batch of numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed yesterday. But before you file this under “death of newspapers”, do ponder this for a second: Declining circulation might not be the worst news in the world.

Tough times have forced many papers to rethink their circulation strategies. An obvious conclusion: Much of the money publishers were spending to print and deliver dead trees has gone to waste. New strategy: Print fewer copies, and charge more for the ones you do sell.

That’s a tactic, not a strategy, but in the near-term it might work.

In its last quarter, for instance, the New York Times (NYT),  saw its daily circulation drop by more than 7%, but saw circulation revenue jump 6.7%, due to price increases. Last spring a single copy of the Times at a newsstand jumped from $1.50 to  $2.00, and a Sunday Times now costs a staggering $6. But people are buying them.

Meanwhile, News Corp. (NWS), which owns the Wall Street Journal as well as this Web site, has been steadily increasing WSJ pricing. And circulation revenue is up at the McClatchy (MNI) and Media General (MEG) chains.

Again, the industry can’t shrink its way to recovery. There are fewer people paying for news — on or offline — than there have been in decades, and there’s no way to paint that as a positive. But the people who still subscribe to papers value them, and it’d be foolish not to capitalize on that. Editor & Publisher:

There are several reasons as to why circulation keeps dropping, aside from former readers who have kicked the print edition to the curb. Publishers have been purposely pulling back on certain types of circulation, including hotel, employee and third-party sponsored copies. No longer are they distributing newspapers to the outer reaches of the core market. The cost of delivery and the cost of materials have forced publishers to scale back.

Another shift has occurred: volume has taken a back seat to dollars.

Several major newspapers across the country have aggressively hiked prices of single-copy and home-delivered papers in search of circulation revenue and a renewed focus on loyal readers. Circulation is guaranteed to go down as prices go up, but publishers have opted to wring more revenue from readers as advertisers keep their coffers closed.