Peter Kafka

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New York Times Boss: We Know What’s Wrong With Our Business. But We’re Not Sure What to Do About It.

new-york-times-buildingGood news for everyone who’s been insisting that the New York Times (NYT) needs a radical overhaul in order to survive the digital era: Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. agrees with you.

The bad news: It’s 2009, and he doesn’t know what that overhaul should be.

Back to the good part. In a thoughtful speech he delivered at Stony Brook University on Long Island last week, Sulzberger did a nice job of laying out how the Times got to the position it’s in now–watching print dollars shrivel up while online dollars trickle in. Can’t argue with any of this:

* Let us start with the fact that a deep, cyclical downturn has dramatically affected key areas of commerce, including the real estate, employment, automotive and retail industries, the lifeblood of American newspapers and local television.
* The Internet has proved to be a far superior advertising platform for listings. The classified businesses are disappearing from newspapers and are unlikely to migrate in any significant way to news Web sites.
* Selected display categories are also subject to secular shifts as users move from print to digital consumption. Beyond that, marketers are growing skeptical of the ability of display ads on any platform to capture the consumer’s attention in a fragmented media landscape.
* And, Internet businesses have proven incapable of replicating the economics of print. Few people have been willing to pay for online news. Advertising rates for online inventory are relatively low. And news Web sites are poorly organized to take advantage of the contextual advertising model that dominates the Internet.

So what to do? Alas. “It is a little bit like the banking crisis. We know there is an answer out there somewhere, but we are not sure what it will turn out to be.”

Sulzberger does say, as his employees have mentioned before, that the Times will probably need to start charging some people some amount of money for its online product. But he also suggests that the bulk of the Times will remain free online because “we do not want to take any steps that significantly reduces our presence on the Web.”

He also makes a vague reference to “the protection of intellectual property,” though I think the paper has recently been demonstrating what that means. And he also insists that the paper won’t give up its print product, because “it is still a popular and profitable medium.”

In the end, Sulzberger basically punts: “What we have learned over the last decade and half is that the Web has very few generally accepted rules for financial success, and they are inevitably overturned by the next digital cycle and next breakthrough algorithm.”

The rest of the speech, available here, is well worth reading. But if you’re one of the people who despairs about the paper’s future–or finds delight in the notion of its demise–you may not find anything here that changes your mind.