Gray Lady—Gone By May?

Virtually all the predictions about the death of old media have assumed a comfortingly long time frame for the end of print . . . But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May? It’s certainly plausible.  -- End Times, by Michael Hirschorn, The Atlantic, January/February 2009 [emphasis added]
The prospect of the disappearance of the New York Times within a matter of months will bring wildly varying reactions in different quarters. Those gleefully anticipating its demise should know that Hirschorn goes on to conclude that the odds of the paper going away in May are "relatively slim."  He anticipates a number of scenarios that would permit the paper to survive, including:
  • sale of its share of its $600 million HQ, designed by the prestigious Renzo Piano
  • sale of its ownership interest in the Boston Globe and/or other subsidiaries including About.com and the Boston Red Sox.
  • sale of the paper outright to potential buyers such as David Geffen, Michael Bloomberg, Carlos Slim or even . . . Rupert Murdoch.

Still, Hirschorn doesn't entirely discount the possibility that the Times could actually go bye-bye.  As he observes [emphasis added]:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400 million in debt. With more than $1 billion in debt already on the books, only $46 million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

“As part of our analysis of our uses of cash, we are evaluating future financing arrangements,” the Times Company announced blandly in October, referring to the crunch it will face in May. “Based on the conversations we have had with lenders, we expect that we will be able to manage our debt and credit obligations as they mature.” This prompted Henry Blodget, whose Web site, Silicon Alley Insider, has offered the smartest ongoing analysis of the company’s travails, to write: “‘We expect that we will be able to manage’? Translation: There’s a possibility that we won’t be able to manage.”

The irrepressible Thomas Lipscomb, Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, a veteran observer of the media scene and fomer NYT executive, has shared with NewsBusters his thoughts on End Times.  While finding his analysis generally plausible, Lipscomb scoffs at Hirschorn's notion that there's no substitute for the kind of reporting that institutions like the Times can do. Snarks Lipscomb:

Really? Tell me ONE important story in the past three years the NYT broke with its “resources” etc. I can give you dozens it didn’t and dozens more that HuffPo, Powerline, Media Matters, LGF, etc. broke that mattered.

Lipscomb is equally dismissive of Hirschorn's view of print media serving as "a bulwark of democracy."

The total collapse of MSM into an uncritical sponsor of an unexamined Obama candidacy and a cheering section for a socialist remake of the American democracy makes it about as useful a “bulwark of democracy” as the sea wall of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans was in keeping Katrina out of the 9th Ward.

Concludes Lipscomb darkly: "There is still NO business model for any of this. Hirschorn is just hoping the Goths will preserve the better institutions of the dying Roman Empire."

Bottom line: many might have viewed the New York Times as a grand, virtually immortal institution.  But ultimately, it is a business. If Lehman Brothers, another staple of the New York scene, could go under, why not the Times? One thing that Hirschorn did not discuss was the way the Times's decline can be attributed not only to mega media trends, but the way the paper debased its franchise with an excess of partisanship.  If it does go, many fewer will mourn its passing than would have a generation ago.  
 

Mark Finkelstein
Mark Finkelstein is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.