The New York Times, since 1851 a chronicler of world history spanning three centuries has turned its final page. The global definer of news, the cultural arbiter of the civilized world, the leader in innovative print publishing, defender of free speech and the free market has bought the farm, kicked the bucket, checked out, croaked, snuffed it, flat-lined. It’s finally happened. This paper is dead.
The publisher and his immediate family fled in the early hours of the morning and are in hiding, fearing retribution at the hands of senior editors and reporters armed with sophisticated material, explosive revelations and long-range memories. Arthur Sulzberger Jr came under withering scorn from night editors, IT troubleshooters and ragtag bands of interns as the few security personnel still loyal to the fallen leader rushed him to safety.
Some say the reason for the paper’s demise was that its vaunted exceptionalism turned out to be a chimera. Like every other self-described iconic American newspaper, it fell victim to a far-flung, squabbling and rapacious family who could not produce heirs of sufficient caliber to lead the publication through dire straits. Says historian and media squeeze Niall Ferguson: “the Times’ decline was not unlike that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
The newspaper went to many lengths to stay alive. Example: putting the word “fuck” in articles and columns. The thinking was: it had worked for the New Yorker. Why not for the Times? A recent David Brooks column was the first uncensored use of what had previously been referred to as ‘an obscenity which cannot be printed here’.
Intensive market research revealed that ‘fuck’ had no measurable effect by any known metric. No-one, researchers concluded, read beyond Brooks’ anemic interchangeable titles or as it were, gave a fuck about his obsessive need to bring the sensible ever-so-slightly right-of-center together with the sensible ever-so-slightly left-of-center.
Pushing the fuck concept further, the paper transitioned its soft-core T magazine into the hard-core P magazine - adult coupling suitable for those with discerning palates, lively minds and obscure academic sexual triggers.
They preferred Redtube.
Republican political gains in New York and yawning inequities in income found the paper torn between its traditional support for a progressive tax system and wanting to get its mitts on some of the dirty money sloshing around Manhattan. One British observer described the quandary as “trying to please the Upper East Side (coincidentally to the right looking north) as well as the Upper West Side (ditto to the left).” However defined, it was no contest. An emerging ruling class with unregulated access to the nation’s wealth? Who wouldn’t want a slice of that? Who wouldn’t want to shill for that? ‘Follow the money’ changed from being the first lesson a great editor teaches a cub investigative reporter, to the first thing management and editorial did every morning.
Corporate advertisers were approached with all manner of, some felt, degrading premiums. An infamous example was offering to sell potential sponsors individual letters in the Times iconic masthead. Amongst others McDonalds was offered the M in ‘Times’; the Oprah Winfrey Network the O in ‘York’. No-one bit. Nor when the on-line edition offered to put an option button on every article: ‘Skip this story’
As revenues plunged The Times’ fabled foreign bureaus shrank, then shriveled then expired altogether. As of this final edition going to press the paper had only one surviving foreign bureau - in Tel Aviv.
To make a virtue of its growing losses, the paper sought to register as a non-profit. No luck there either. The IRS promptly responded that there was an enormous difference between a non-profit institution and a no-profit one.
Finally two weeks ago in one last act of desperation The Times declared itself tax-exempt on the grounds that it was a religion. Its IRS brief argued that:
1. The New York Times has a hermetically insulated, tone-deaf and ossified hierarchy; 2. The New York Times promotes a fixed set of beliefs and a dogmatic version of truth; 3. The New York Times originated and presides over a time-honored Sunday ritual.
The paper was denied an exemption.
There is little that remains of value. E-bay is flooded with various Times memorabilia: hundreds of obscure Pulitzers are being offered for pennies. Items like William Safire’s rejection letter from the New York Athletic Club, Judith Miller’s dominatrix gear and David Carr’s old bong are finding few takers. One thing that is not for sale and may be of considerable value is the re-naming rights to Times Square. However the paper may not own them.
“They’re mine” said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr from his undisclosed location. “Anything of value is mine.”