The public loves a shocking statement. If you're Britney Spears, the nation stands still to ogle your bald head. If you're Paula Abdul, your woozy interview on a local Fox affiliate gets played more than 2.7 million times on YouTube. If you're Arthur Sulzberger Jr., people take your pronouncements about the future of news literally.
In January the chairman of the New York Times Co. seemed to go off the tracks just a bit at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
"I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either," Sulzberger was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
Like a photo of Barack Obama lighting a Marlboro, Sulzberger's brazen statement whipped up the blogosphere and the press. "NYT Owner Sees End of Print Edition," proclaimed a widely distributed United Press International headline. "New York Times Print Edition Dead?" asked one blogger; "NYTimes Publisher Planning to Fold Print Edition," speculated another.
A week later, Sulzberger clarified his remarks. The Times Co.'s newspapers "will be around for a very long time," he said. "But I also believe that we must be prepared for that judgment to be wrong. My five-year time frame is about being ready to support our news, advertising and other critical operations on digital revenue alone...whenever that time comes."
So paper mill operators, delivery truck drivers and journo-saurs can sleep at night knowing that newsprint will survive for a while...probably. However, the push for digital viability is still on. Sulzberger's call for a self-sufficient digital newsroom within five years is no less bold and thought-provoking than his original statement.
If any newspaper in the U.S. can pull off a digital transition, it probably is the New York Times. The Times Co. has a 10-person research and development team- � including a futurist-in-residence- � devoted to innovating and experimenting with new digital products. It can buy entire content companies to enhance its Web offerings. President and CEO Janet Robinson projects a 30 percent- � or $80 million- � increase in digital revenue in 2007. (For a detailed look at the Times' traditional and digital business strategies, see Rachel Smolkin's "Challenging Times," February/March.)
On the other end of the spectrum, the switch to digital makes sense for small publications that can no longer afford to do business on paper. A few days before Sulzberger's Davos declaration hit the press, it was reported that the world's oldest newspaper- � Sweden's Post-och Inrikes Tidningar- � had abandoned print to become a Web-only publication. The momentousness of that change is tempered by the fact that the paper had a daily circulation of around 1,000 and mainly publishes legal announcements.
That leaves the newspapers in the middle- � the papers that are so paralyzed by layoffs and ownership changes that planning a digital revolution sounds like a joke. As crazy as it feels to plan five years out while worrying about tomorrow, that is what they need to do.
Also around the time Sulzberger was stirring things up in Davos, a seven-page report by the Spring Street Project, a team of Los Angeles Times staffers charged with producing ideas to strengthen the newspaper and its Web site, was leaked online.
The report begins with a litany of things LATimes.com lacks, from user-friendly features to adequate staffing levels to newsroom integration. "As a news organization, we are not web-savvy," the report says. "If anything, we are web-stupid." The report concludes with six recommendations to help the company reinvigorate its digital platform, including company-wide training and a "special assistant for innovation."
Despite the scathing internal review, LATimes.com is not a shoddy Web site. It's deeper, cleaner and more navigable than many newspaper sites. But even the best local and regional papers have a long way to go before their sites could be anywhere near self-sustaining. Some brutal introspection is not a bad idea.
When Sulzberger said he "didn't care" whether the print edition of the New York Times survives, he meant that he's committed to reinventing his company as technology and consumer preferences evolve. His remarks caused a ruckus not because he predicted the demise of print, but because he placed a possible timeline on it.
Newsrooms aren't ready for that kind of reality. Most newspaper managers continue to act as though print operations will continue to provide 90 percent of their revenue for the foreseeable future. That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sulzberger may have exaggerated a little bit back in January, but the spirit behind his words still stands. The challenge is not about the date the printing presses shut down; it's about the day newspapers' print customers and advertisers can no longer support the costs of journalism. Whether that day is five or ten years down the road, it's coming.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the New York Times' projected online revenue growth. Times President and CEO Janet Robinson had projected a 30 percent--or $80 million--increase in digital revenue in 2007.