The Decline of the
At the December 2001 media week conference for investors, sponsored by Credit Suisse and staged in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. led the New York Times presentation team. Business was only fair after eight months of recession, but Chairman Sulzberger bantered lightly with then CEO Russ Lewis. Putting on his publisher’s hat, an exuberant Sulzberger turned to editorial matters. He bobbed on the balls of his feet at the podium as he talked about his flagship paper’s coverage of the September 11 tragedy and its aftermath, still unwinding in hundreds of “Portraits of Grief” profiles. “We absolutely own that story,” he crowed.
A lot has changed in the years since. The venerable Plaza quit the hotel business and mostly converted to condos. Credit Suisse was one of many investment houses to drop its newspaper analyst position, and ceded hosting the December conference to its competitor UBS. Sulzberger doesn’t come to these meetings anymore. His designee, CEO Janet Robinson, is a stern, all-business presenter. If she speaks of the New York Times content at all to investors, it usually is to tout growth of the luxury-advertiser-driven “T” magazine supplements.
With dismal 2008 results and 2009 expected to be worse still, there is no bounce left in the industry’s step. Clearly, newspapers have entered a race against time to trim costs as quickly as print advertising revenues are tumbling—more than 15 percent year-to-year as the current deep recession plays out. At the same time, newspaper execs—not exactly guys who cook up brilliant inventions in their garages—are pressed to experiment to find new, sustaining revenue streams. Success is by no means assured. Serious discussion has begun to turn to which prominent metro paper will fail first. Print, some new media critics say, could be largely a relic by early next decade.