A sign of the Times.

The New York Times building logo

Might the Times one day go the way of Pan Am?

The New York Times arrived at my door on Saturday morning like the half-dead victim of a Mafia hit. It lay face-down on the fold, hurled by a delivery man who no longer expects a Christmas bonus next December. In a month, maybe two, he may even toss the poor anemic broadsheet into a mass grave down in the lobby, and we tenants will be forced to identify our own copies by the toe tag: an apartment number marked in black ink at the top of the front page.

The Times in this post-newsprint economy stirs my pity in the same way that the Twin Towers did in 1993 after a car bomb attack attempted to bring Tower One down onto Tower Two. What once looked like an indomitable journalistic edifice now looks as vulnerable — and as outdated — as the nineteenth-century serial novel.

I remember the time — was it only seven years ago? — that I joined a boycott of the paper to protest what I saw as unfair bias against Israel. Back then the Times was a mighty media giant with the power to project an all-knowing, albeit tendentious, journalistic voice. For my friends who were diehard Democrats, just saying “I read it in the Times” was evidence enough for them that their point-of-view was persuasive and mine wasn’t. When we argued about Israel, or any number of stories in the paper, I often felt like the therapist who has to assure her clients that it’s okay to skewer the parents. The Times wasn’t an infallible authority figure and its critics weren’t wayward children.

I don’t regret participating in that short-lived boycott. But I wish I had foreseen just how fragile the Times would become in an economy buffeted by the new media and a new financial instrument called the credit default swap. Because whither goes the Times also go The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal and all the rest of the old-economy papers. Who could guess that by March 2009 the weekend edition of The New York Times would start to look as insubstantial as South Jersey’s Courier Post?

How I am contributing to the erosion of the Times

In my own defense, I never intended to contribute to the Times’ debt — estimated now to be about $1 billion. In fact, for 35 years, I have been precisely the kind of reader the Times has nurtured.

In college, for example, when our dorm chipped in to buy the Sunday Times, I was the first one early Sunday morning to tear into the “Arts & Leisure” section. When I got my first corporate job and discovered the vagaries of the capitalist system, I poured over “The Week in Review.” As a 23-year-old staff writer for Liberation News Service, I read the international news so that I could understand how the Times supported the status quo. In my more conservative years, I read the same news and concluded that the Times‘ editors were in favor of any social movement, the more radical the better. As a novelist and book reviewer, I read the “Book Section” from cover to cover to see what the competition was writing. When I wanted a break from my graduate school studies, I studied the Saturday crossword puzzle as if it was a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle. And if the “Sports” section had a human interest story, I even read that. Reading The New York Times was like working for a global organization: If you got tired of one department, you could try to find something interesting in another one.

In my view, what’s contributing to the welterweight size of The New York Times is my getting laid off from IBM. The Times marketing people were not wrong to have their telemarketers call me during my boycott years. In spite of my curmudgeonly relationship with the paper, they knew I would “come home” some day. Their own demographic surveys had long tracked my interactions with the paper’s various sections, its advertisers, its online features. The Times understood that somebody with my vocation, educational background, cultural interests and religious affiliation would philander with the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. But when it came to defining a political and cultural reference point, I could always say — with respect or mockery — “I saw it in the Times.”

Consider that this year IBM has laid off an estimated 4,600 employees like me — people who have either an BA, MA, MBA or Ph.D. Consider further that a lot of those former employees are 45 and older. Now you’re talking about a well-educated, semi-affluent demographic that consumed just about every section the Times ever published. It’s true that this same Internet-savvy demographic has been responsible for a precipitate slide away from the Times‘ print subscription in favor of the el cheapo Web version sans ads. But I for one can vouch that I continued to look at the print edition for clothing sales, restaurant and food news and home furnishing ads. Without the job, I’ve put a moratorium on all discretionary spending.

What I do look at these days are the advertising circulars. Did you know that you can save 40 cents on a box of Ziploc (R) Brand Bags and a dollar on any size of Woolite Dry Cleaner’s Secret? Who knew that “just 20 minutes in your dryer delivers affordable dry cleaning results?” As for all of you erstwhile fashionistas, you can get a complete pair of single-vision eyeglasses at Factory Eyeglass Outlet in Queens, Long Island and Staten Island for $39.95. I always knew those Calvin Klein frames were a rip-off!

I am also beginning to rue my annoyance with the pound or more of advertising circulars that used to fall out of the Times as I carried the paper from the door to my L-shaped sofa (great Times-advertised deal at Fortunoff’s). Nowadays the pickins are slim. This Saturday I found only three thin circulars. They too are vanishing along with the Times itself. Just when I need them the most.

See a pictorial implication of this blog post in Wordle.

See also: Seattle Paper Shifts Entirely to the Web. Could you cry?



  1. Amy said

    Great – well-put!

  2. Pesha said

    Amazing how getting fuloughed narrows your concerns from wrong-doing in places near and far…to how to keep a nickel in yer pocket! Good post!

  3. modestine said

    I wouldn’t consider myself much of a blogger if I cared only about keeping a nickel in my own pocket. There’s a great big world of wrongdoing out there, and I hope to comment on it in “As It Happens.” Thanks for reading, sister!

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