Changing With the Times

NOT every newspaper reader may realize that there is a new New York Times.

After all, the Times still covers the great political and diplomatic events of the day in depth and with distinction; it still lacks comics or even an editorial cartoon; its Sunday book-review section, Sunday magazine, and arts coverage still dominate their competitors; and, despite a new state-of-the-art printing plant, it's still (almost) devoid of color.

But just beyond the obvious, much is changing at the ``gray lady,'' argues New York-based media critic Edwin Diamond in ``Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times.'' The changes are not only profound for the future of the Times itself, but also for all newspapers. The Times sets a standard for the industry. Because of its high-income, decisionmaker audience, one can argue that the paper's impressive circulation of 1.2 million readers understates its importance as a news-agenda setter.

So what is happening at the Times? The effort under way will sound familiar to those in the newspaper industry: Appeal to a younger, nontraditional audience (a new Sunday section entitled ``Styles of the Times'' is one unsteady lurch in this direction) to replace dedicated, but aging current readers.

The Times's track record so far is spotty, at best, Diamond concludes. He cites the example of a Times story on a member of the Kennedy clan, William Kennedy Smith, who was charged with committing a rape. It shows, he says, how the Times, however uncomfortably, is trying to engage readers on new, more populist turf.

By revealing the name of Mr. Smith's alleged victim, and even more through the ``salacious tone'' and ``nudge-wink details'' of the story, Diamond says the Times broke with its own practices and, by implication, set a new, coarser industry standard.

The story, eventually regretted in an ``Editor's note'' to readers, outraged female members of the Times staff. ``This isn't the Times I thought I was joining,'' a young Timeswoman said in a newsroom meeting on the subject. ``The Times is an elitist paper, and our editors have elegant, elitist minds,'' a woman with 20 years of experience offered in explanation. ``When such minds try to think in popular nonelitist terms, they miss badly. We get `wild streaks.' ''

Despite these embarrassments, the effort to redirect the Times goes on. Under its new young publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., today's Times is trying to create a multifaceted personality. If it is not all things to all people, at least it can be many things to many people: an outstanding source of foreign news, a national newspaper, and a local paper for certain upper-crust New York-area readers.

Editor Max Frankel sees Times readers as defined more by demographics than geography. ``The Times reader could live in Manhattan, or Highland Park, Illinois, or Santa Monica, California - wherever educated, affluent people resided,'' Diamond explains. Former publisher Arthur ``Punch'' Sulzberger Sr. ``expected the prototypical Times reader to worry about awnings, area rugs, and storage for the home fire extinguisher, and about how the president and the secretary of state were addressing the great issues of the day.''

``We're not an easy paper to fall into - you've got to work at it,'' the senior Sulzberger said, not apologizing for the intellectual demands the paper made on its readers.

To reach his new audience, Sulzberger Jr. has introduced a more open management style and aggressively sought more racial and gender diversity. Lines of communication have opened up. After a luncheon explaining the wonders of the Times's new $500-million printing plant in Edison, N.J., cultural reporter Grace Glueck noted ``it was nice to hear of our future plans from the company rather than reading about them in the Village Voice.''

But a look inside a Page 1 conference reveals something of the hard-edged, white-male-dominated, Ivy-League culture still in place. ``Well-spoken, well-prepared editors, able to argue for their stories clearly, won the contest for space,'' a visitor to the Page 1 meeting told Diamond. ``A deputy editor from the correspondents' desk tended to mumble his presentation, and on those days that the deputy represented the desk, its stories received less attention,'' Diamond says.

Yet for all its virtues, the Times has always had its quirks, reflecting the social and cultural background of its editors and the Sulzberger family. It loves food (``Will the New York Times never stop eating?'' a Harper's magazine profile once asked). It is Manhattan-centric: Upscale New York exists; the rest of the town flickers into view in spotty (though often good) coverage.

The Times as a business has mirrored the saga of the editorial content: years of unprecedented success that have lead to today's uncertainty and tough choices. In the post-World War II period, talented circulation and advertising executives, the equal of their counterparts in the newsroom, perfectly positioned the paper, Diamond says. Thus it was able to reap huge profits from the expansion of a well-to-do suburban New York middle class and the irresistible market they represented to big-money retail advertisers, such as major department stores.

The Times has thrived on this conservative business plan, even while missing what seem now like gigantic opportunities. In the 1950s, it sold off a subsidiary that had developed and patented facsimile phone transmission, the forerunner of today's fax machines and the basis for the growth and distribution of national papers like the Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1988 it sold NYT Cable television, turning its back on one of the chief news delivery systems of the late 20th century. Yet in 1993 it spent more than a billion dollars to acquire another newspaper, the Boston Globe.

The new New York Times, Diamond concludes, is ``a paper too smug to love, yet too important to leave.'' His readable, well-researched account should appeal to anyone interested in the present, and possible future, of the one of the world's most influential media empires.

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