The New Republic, a small magazine and chronically unsuccessful business enterprise, turned its attention today to the problems and prospects of the New York Times, a large and historically solvent newspaper. What should the Times do? Who ought to buy the Times? What does Times executive editor Jill Abramson plan to do to get things "figured out"?
Those are popular sorts of questions to ask, even though the real answers are boring: "Publish the news." "No one, or possibly someone with a lot of money." "Publish the news."
It is the boringness of the answers that makes the Times the Times. "What are we?" the Washington Post asked itself, over and over. "A national paper! A local paper! How about a local-national paper?" Eventually the answer was "a dumpster fire" and now "a charred dumpster that Jeff Bezos bought because he could."
The Times believes in its mission. It has adapted, as every surviving news company has, to new business and distribution models over the past 15 or 20 years. But the underlying question has been: How shall we continue to deliver our self-evidently useful and valuable product to the public?
When the Times gets reflective or intentional, things get embarrassing. The emblem of the Future of the Times, when it's discussed on those terms, is "Snow Fall," the cascading multimedia showpiece that won this year's Pulitzer in the category still officially called "feature writing." Possibly you read its account of a fatal avalanche, or watched it, or scrolled down it. (Probably, you did not get all the way through.)
"Snow Fall," the New Republic reports, is the model or at least the metonym for the Times' ambitions to make "an immersive digital magazine experience," whatever that means (Sam Sifton, the editor newly assigned to preside over such things, told the New Republic "we're not sure exactly what it is yet"). The first follow-up, "The Jockey," ran last week.
As a story, rather than a collection of digital effects, "Snow Fall" was mediocre, or mediocre stretched out to dreadfulness. The piece was, at heart, a conventional old-fashioned example of Times bigfooting, a ponderous re-creation of a ski-disaster story somebody else had already done. Within the first 200 words, it managed to compare the avalanche to a wall, a thousand cars, ocean swells against a ship's prow, and a roller coaster.
"The Jockey" might have been a marginally better story, but it came equipped with yapping autoplay video pullquotes to discourage anyone from finding out.
The Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote today that the "innovation" of such projects is "nothing short of necessary," though she wondered why such efforts had so far focused on "sports-related feature stories" rather than newsier matters. She also wrote that "Snow Fall," which "took many months—and many talented people—to produce" had "initially generated more than 3.5 million page views."
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]