Cornell professor examines the difficult times at the Times
"EndTimes? Crises and Turmoil at 'The New York Times,' 1999 - 2009"
By Daniel R. Schwarz
Excelsior Editions/State University of New York Press, 2012, 474 pages
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The New York Times, like most newspapers, is facing difficult times. Readership is declining. Advertising revenues are dropping.
For years, many have considered the Times to be the nation's flagship daily newspaper.
Dan Schwarz, a Cornell University professor who has written several books, including studies of authors Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, said, "The Times is the worst newspaper in the world except for all the others."
Throughout his rather dense, but fascinating, book, Schwarz raises many questions about the future of printed newspapers and about how Americans will stay informed about news.
Newspapers still have many more reporters than television and radio stations or Internet news sites.
Newspaper reporters do far more research on daily stories and on more complicated investigative pieces. Television, radio and Internet news sources depend on newspapers for much of their own information.
Since 1990, newspapers have cut 25 percent of their jobs because readership has dropped. Today, less than 20 percent of Americans between 19 and 34 read daily newspapers. Those who do, spend fewer than 15 hours a month reading them.
But "reading paper-and-ink is a different, more reflective, and more contemplative experience then using the Internet," Schwarz insists.
The good and the bad
Schwarz praises the high points in The New York Times history, such as its courageous publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, exposing flawed government decision-making about Vietnam between 1945 and 1967.
"The Time's benchmark for revealing secrets, the Pentagon Papers represent the historical fault line between a press that stands with the government in mutual trust and one that has an adversarial relationship based on standing up to the government," Schwarz writes.
The Pentagon Papers revealed how top government officials repeatedly lied and manipulated the news media and the public to promote the Vietnam War.
"EndTimes?" stresses the continuing strengths of the Times, including investigative reporting, news bureaus across the world and the staff's continued enthusiasm working there.
Schwarz criticizes the paper's executives for editorial mistakes, ignoring major truths and overlooking irresponsible reporting.
"EndTimes?" also criticizes the increase of "fluffy" stories about topics designed to appeal to advertisers and many readers -- style, traveling, shopping, banking, investing, exercising and keeping healthy.
"In the Internet age, the paper changed greatly and is continually in search of a new identity," Schwarz said during a lecture he gave in March. "This is what has changed. The Times morphed into a hybrid newspaper-magazine-Internet site."
Today, the Times has become "a diluted product that is less an authoritative newspaper than a potpourri of information, some of it cutting-edge material in terms of news and investigative journalism but some merely prolix, soft, magazine-type articles."
The Times still has 26 foreign bureaus and more than 1,100 people on its newsroom staff. If the paper was transformed into a website, it would continue to lead in reporting international news, but there would be major cutbacks.
As the major news entity covering foreign affairs, Schwarz argues, the Times should "stop giving away its product" to websites like The Huffington Post and Politico, as well as to newspapers and cable channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
The Times, Schwarz believes, soon might "need to ask all the American television networks and cable stations . . . to share in some of the costs of sustaining 26 foreign bureaus." The paper also could partner with other news services, such as Reuters and the BBC.
During the past decade, the Times has become more socially liberal than it has ever been.
The newspaper openly challenged Bush administration views on sexual mores, gay marriage, stem cell medical research, abortion rights and creationism -- devoting an entire June 2007 section of the paper to debunking creationist theories.
However, Times' editors made dramatic mistakes by failing to edit some reporters more carefully, including Jayson Blair, who plagiarized and fabricated stories.
A young black reporter, Blair wrote stories about a spate of serial killings in Washington, D.C., that were completely fabricated. He also wrote reports about U.S. Army prisoner of war PFC Jessica Lynch as if he were at her Palestine, W.Va., home, although he never went there.
Rick Bragg, who had won a Pulitzer Prize, relied on stringers to do some of his research, but never credited them. In June 2003, Bragg resigned after publishing an article, under his own byline, that was written by someone else about the Gulf Coast's oyster industry.
Howell Raines, who became executive editor in 2001, resigned in June 2003 after these two scandals.
The central mistake the Times made since 2000 was probably allowing Judith Miller to report extensively, and falsely, about weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was supposed to have had.
Using undocumented information from L. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Miller reported that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger. That was also false.
"With the knowledge that it had been duped by the government during the Vietnam War and on many other occasions, the 'Times' nevertheless believed in the existence of WMDs," Schwarz writes.
"Miller played a large role -- along with Thomas Friedman's columns -- in giving cover to Democrats who were ambivalent about supporting the war with Iraq."
Clark Hoyt, public editor of the Times, told Schwarz in a 2010 interview there were "notable occasions where the Times has been less than properly skeptical of official government information, and the most famous, relatively recent example is the war in Iraq."
Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch editor, wrote, "There were no secret biolabs under Saddam's palaces; no nuclear factories across Iraq secretly working at full tilt. A huge percentage of what Miller wrote was garbage, garbage that powered the Bush administration's propaganda drive towards invasion."
Decline of newspapers
"The 'Times' will continue to have influence in the national and international community, but it will never be as dominant as it once was," Schwarz laments.
Similar problems plague newspapers across the nation:
| The Washington Post attracts record numbers of internet readers -- 9 million a month -- putting it third behind the Times and USA Today. But the Washington Post lost 136,000 subscribers, forcing it to cut its news staff by more than 400 by the end of 2009.
| Between 1998 and 2008, the news staff at the Los Angeles Times dropped from 1,300 to 720.
| Having been in business since April 1859, the Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009, leaving Denver a one-newspaper city.
| The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, both longtime daily newspapers, recently decided to print their papers only three times a week and cut off home delivery.
| The Seattle Post Intelligencer is now published only online, with a tiny news staff.
"Were the Times to cease publication, what would an Internet-only Times look like?" Schwarz asks. "Probably very much what www.nytimes.com looks like today but with a much smaller staff that focuses on newsgathering rather than on news distribution."
The ultimate victims from declining newspaper circulation are citizens who love to read the news and keep informed about the world around them.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.
Schwarz's brother, Bob Schwarz, worked as a reporter at The Charleston Gazette for many years before he retired.