Friday, August 10, 2007

Shrinking Times

I know I feel there's never enough time. Now I feel there's barely enough Times -- New York Times, that is. This week, the New York Times changed the size of the broadsheet page it's been printing on for generations.

The Times made the change as a cost-cutting move, and joins the Wall St. Journal as broadsheet newspapers that have shrunk the size of their pages.

From a media business perspective, I understand the need to cut costs (especially in a post-Bancroft-family-owned Wall St. Journal, whose lackluster performance made its ownership by Rupert Murdoch possible, and pressures the Sulzberger-family-owned Times). But that's not going to solve the Times' business challenges. You can't cut costs to greatness. In other words, shrinking its pages is a short-term move. The more important, long-term moves will be those that position the Times as a 21st-century media property, embracing multimedia channels. (For an interesting look at what one newspaper, the Washington Post, is doing, check out Fortune's "Hard News: Newspapers are dying. At the Washington Post Co., CEO Donald Graham is banking on the Internet to save serious journalism" by Marc Gunther.)

From a reader's perspective, I don't like this move because it shrinks the editorial and op-ed pages. The section devoted to letters has been cut in half; the Times says it publishes more letters on its website -- but that's not the same thing, at least for those of us who still, anachronistically, feel there is more prestige to be in the print edition.

There is also less space on the op-ed page.

Since both the letters to the editor and the op-ed page are designed to provide a sense of dialog between the Times (comprised of its editorial writers, reporters, and editors) and its readers, the cost-cutting decision seems to say the Times is less interested in a dialog. The only other way readers can communicate with the Times is through its ombudsman; while that has been an interesting outlet, appearing every other week in the Sunday Op-Ed pages, letters to the ombudsman do not have the prominent placement either online or in the print version as compared with the letters to the editor or the op-ed page.

This is significant in that, given the advent of Web 2.0 tools and social media like blogs, other companies are moving in the opposite direction -- to having more dialog with their customers (aka readers).

The Web 2.0-isation of PR is significant, even in a discipline that always said its communication process was much more of a two-way street than advertising and other marketing initiatives. It opens new opportunities and new challenges. The same is true for journalism. The road to survival for PR and journalism alike will be to adapt to the new ways that people use and interact with content.

But in shrinking its pages and limiting dialog with its readers, the Times is taking a step backwards.

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