The New York Times' future lies with its digital offering rather than its fabled print newspaper, according to a report compiled by a seven-person committee led by the impressively multi-tasking columnist David Leonhardt, who seems one of the few journalists who has some conception of math.
Digital subscriptions rather than advertising will be the profit engine, according to the report. That will be the Times' lifeboat as the company recognizes that digital advertising won't generate sufficient revenues to make up for plunging print advertising. The digital subscriptions are already bringing in $500 million a year, and the report sees a leap to $800 million by 2020.
The report is spiked with internal contradictions. The committee calls for the hiring of a more diverse staff with greater digital skills. Yet despite the projected leap in digital subscriptions, top editor Dean Baquet says the future will bring staff reductions.
The underlying reality is that the digital subscription model is unlikely to ever produce the amount of revenue as the old print model, which depended more on advertising than subscriptions and gave the Times enough money to support its global bureaus.
Even with the less secure base of digital ads, the Times unconvincingly believes it can still offer the same in-depth news coverage that made it successful.
In his staff reduction advisory, Baquet says that traditional editors will be sent adrift on the ice berg of the future; the report condemns the layers of line editing traditionally seen as the newspaper's glory. But, the report assures readers, copy editing will remain strong.
The Times will also continue its abandoning of its traditional role as the "newspaper of record." The report calls for fewer "dutiful stories" covered by the wire services and other media. What that means is not defined: cabinet confirmation hearings? New York City government budgets?
In a coda offering selected comments from newsroom staff, someone points out that the 800-word "dutiful stories" were the core strength of the newspaper once called "the old gray lady."
Now, the report calls for the company to move away from print-driven decisions to those made according to the best use of graphics and video. "Digital native journalism," as the report awkwardly puts it.
In a sad statement for newspaper purists, the report calls for the newspaper - someone should invent a word that better describes the new reality - to move away from its "written word" foundation.
Coupled with the cutting of editors, the report also calls for a move away from stilted institutional writing to a clearer, more conversational style.
The report, and an accompanying Times article, offered several amusing examples of Times corporate speak. Most laughable was a section that said that most Times departments have no clear mission, and the reporters and editors have no idea what their mission is supposed to be.
Memo to staff: Your mission is to keep the Sulzberger family in business.