Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chronicle of a death foretold (cont.)

A day of reckoning is fast approaching for the New York Times, owner of the Boston Globe (and other local properties). The Gray Lady is facing hundreds of millions of dollars of debt coming due in May, but has only about $50 million in cash on hand. It's already mortgaging its brand-new building in Manhattan, but most observers feel that will hardly generate enough money upfront, given the downward spiral of the paper's other revenues, to pull it all the way out of the hole. In the meantime, however, the paper has announced a new financial patch: ads will now be appearing on its front page, at a special premium price (the Globe will soon follow suit, reports the Herald - which itself has had front-page ads for some time).

There are other possible rescues for the Times: a white knight like Rupert Murdoch, for instance (!) could swoop down and purchase it (due to its low stock price, the whole company is technically available for not much more than $1 billion, but its non-voting stock might never be for sale, given who owns it). Still, even if that scenario came to pass, it's almost certain that sometime soon the Times will either sell the Globe and its other local properties at fire-sale prices, or will cut their operations back to the bone, or will attempt to transfer their operations entirely to a web-based platform (intriguingly, the Herald may prove viable in print for some time longer).

Meanwhile, in a very thoughtful and timely piece on the Atlantic website, Michael Hirschorn blogs about the once and future Times, and lays out a nice survey of "possible futures". Like me, he sees the Gray Lady surviving as a kind of Huffington Post-style website featuring star reporter-bloggers. The only problem with this model is that most folks-in-the-know estimate web revenues could only cover about 20% of the organization's current labor costs. Hirschorn argues this could merely mean the Times would be stripped back to its star reporters and columnists, which would not entirely be a bad thing (good-bye, style section!).

He doesn't, however, ponder the even more draconian reductions that would be required to make the Globe viable online. Simply put, the Globe has very few stars that a large readership would pay in advance to read. I can imagine a core of Bostonians would be willing to pay for an investigative reporting team, and perhaps a sports section, but it's hard to believe the web version of the Globe could afford many full-time cultural writers - and in a (fairly likely) model in which the Times retained the Globe as a "local" online version of itself, it's hard to understand why they wouldn't simply push their own movie and TV critics through the digital pipeline to Boston.

I think at a minimum this would mean the loss of many of the Globe's full-time, career critics - the ones who get a weekly pay check and benefits. There will still no doubt be reviews on the online version of the Globe, but they will largely come from fee-based contributors (as I imagine Jenna Scherer is at the Herald). This means, I think, that some sort of shake-out will soon take place - older writers with others skills or connections (and families to support) will seek work elsewhere. This doesn't mean, of course, that there will be a terrible decline in the writing at the Globe; Scherer does okay - at least as well as Kennedy or Byrne - and there are probably more smart kids like her willing to go to a show and cough up 400 words for $100.

But it does mean, I think, that there will be a major shake-up in the tiny world of publicity and reviewing in this town. The hierarchy will definitely be under stress; it may for a time even disappear. Hierarchies, of course, always re-appear - indeed, the web is in general an engine of centralization, not diversification, so expect an eventual web hierarchy with even sharper slopes than the old print one. But how will the hierarchy re-constitute itself? The lack of a daily print edition of the Globe - and the reduction of the print edition to Sunday is, I think, inevitable - will immediately undermine the paper's aura of educated-middlebrow hegemony; somehow the fact that its reviews will be buried in blogs like the Exhibitionist (and this one) will, I believe, be a great leveler in the popular mind. Perhaps some other media institution will move into that vacuum - WBUR may re-invigorate its arts web page (we've already begun hearing more from Ed Siegel), or WGBH may step up to the plate. Who knows? But soon theatres and performing arts organizations will have to negotiate a shifting media landscape along with the economic stresses of the recession.

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