Yesterday, a Times internal memo went around outlining the paper's upcoming width shrinkage. (It's happening August 6.) But there are a few curious items in the memo that seem to be at odds with what's been proposed in the past.
Last July, Times executive editor Bill Keller sent around a memo detailing the changes that would be occurring. He started by saying that the NYT's printing plant in College Point, Queens would be adding another high-speed press, and the Edison, N.J. plant would be "subleased"—i.e., closed. He also said that "when this consolidation is complete—in April 2008—The Times will adopt the narrower format that is now becoming the industry norm."
Of course, the move to narrower pages is happening in August 2007, not April 2008. And yesterday's memo also said: "a large number of press mechanics will changeover prepared presses at College Point, Edison and national plants on Sunday to be able to print at the new size." Curious! Why would the Times go to the (expensive!) trouble of getting a new press for a plant they're about to close? Why not wait until the original appointed date, next April, to make the change, when they're going to be closing the plant and putting all those people out of work anyway?
It also seems as though either the size changes have turned out to be more significant than Keller originally thought, or else he has deliberately downplayed their significance to his staff. In last year's memo, he wrote:
The smaller format will affect the newsroom in big ways, but not in dire ways... The narrower format will mean some reduction in our news hole, and it will require an extensive redesign. Since this will not happen for nearly two years, we'll have plenty of time to adapt.
So, the newsroom didn't have the "nearly two years" to adapt that Keller originally thought. He also tried to put a brave face on the reduction in the "news hole" of the paper:
If we just cut the page size and did nothing else, we would lose 11 percent of the news hole. That would be a serious loss. But the plan is to add more pages to the paper so that the net loss of news space is approximately 5 percent, which I believe we can absorb without significant damage to the report. We will look for ways to report incremental news developments in digests or other abbreviated forms, and to police flabby or redundant prose in longer pieces. I'm convinced that, with good editors and a little time, I could take 5 percent out of any day's paper and actually make it better.
But are the stories actually going to be even shorter? Yesterday's memo said:
A dress page column now with headline and blurb might be 720 words; without a jump, the equivalent column will be about 50-60 words shorter. While Bill Keller has been asking overall for shorter stories, the start of the narrow-measure paper will reduce specific news holes. Page designers are working out samples to share with individual sections. Merrill Perlman is working with News Technology on a guidance sheet for copy editors. With the start of this project looming, it seems a good time to ask all to think anew about how the measures may alter story lengths or layouts.
So, 50-60 words out of a 720-word column is around 7-8 percent. That's what they're starting with, and that last sentence sure seems to indicate that reporters and editors should be prepared for even more shrinkage. Our money's on 10 percent. And note that there's no mention here of adding pages to the paper, as Keller had promised in last year's memo.
Not that we're saying that the Times couldn't tighten up. May we suggest that it begin with Thursday Styles?