The Times’ Pinch of a Paywall
On March 28, that sound you hear will be the influence of the New York Times dropping like a rock.
March 21, 2011 - 12:00 am
I grew up in New York. In Queens. In the ’60s. There are plenty of things I can blame on my parents, but the Times isn’t one of them: unlike a lot of other New Yorkers of my generation, I can’t say I had the Times inflicted on me from the beginning. My dad was a very busy man, a working physician as well as full-time editor of two medical magazines, and on the few occasions when I remember him having time to read a newspaper, in my recollection it was usually the Daily News. My mother, by contrast, was and is a newspaper junkie, and back when I was a little kid she was, for some reason, a devoted reader of something called the Journal American. Itself the product of a 1937 merger between two dailies called (what else?) the Journal and the American, in 1966 the Journal American participated in the newspaper merger of all time, joining with the World-Telegram and Sun and the Herald Tribune (all three of them being the products of mergers involving no fewer than seven great old Gotham newspapers) to form a broadsheet called the World Journal Tribune, which folded only a few months later. After that, my mother switched to the Long Island Press, which bit the dust in 1977. (Obviously, when it comes to newspapers, my mother has the kiss of death.) Shortly after the Long Island Press kicked off, my mother moved to L.A. — and, of course, began subscribing to the Herald-Examiner.
Meantime, however, I had become a grad student in English, and was on my way to become a professor or writer or (God forbid) “intellectual,” or something in that general ballpark – which meant that at some point I fell into the daily habit of reading the Times religiously, obsessively, without fail. Which, in those days, wasn’t all that bad a thing to do. Back then, it was a more serious newspaper than it would later become. Most of the fluffy sections had yet to be invented, and most of today’s fluffy regulars had yet to come on board. Indeed, the paper actually had some really first-rate reporters and cultural critics, some of them now deservedly legendary. Nowadays, of course, with the hindsight of the Internet age, we can look back on that era, when the Times and other traditional media enjoyed an outrageous monopoly on the news, and can realize that the Gray Lady never actually gave us the whole truth about anything. It was the Times, after all, that back in the day had shamelessly whitewashed the Holocaust, covered up Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine, and helped grease Castro’s way to power. In some way or another, it was always in the business of slanting and covering up, shading the truth to its own ideological ends.
Still, at least as newspapers went, the Times was comprehensive, serious, wide-ranging, delivering a massive daily dose of literate, informative prose that made you feel you were getting, over your morning coffee, a handle on what was going in the world. At a time when the World Wide Web was beyond anyone’s imagining, the crisp, clean, newly printed pages of each day’s Times were, for millions of us, the ultimate emblem of the new day aborning. Certainly for me, as a grad student, the Times was indispensable. I never knew whether sometime during the day one of my professors would bring up in class a news story from that day’s paper, or if I’d get together in the evening with my friends for a couple of beers and find myself swept up into a conversation about a Times op-ed that I damn well better have read. In later years, living in Manhattan, where most of my friends were writers or editors, I could hardly imagine a life without the Times. In Manhattan (1979), Diane Keaton phones Woody Allen on a Sunday to find out what he’s up to. He tells her he’s looking through the Magazine section. She asks if he’s read the piece on China’s faceless masses; he replies he’s looking at the lingerie ads: “I can never get past them. They’re really erotic.” He didn’t have to say the Magazine section of what. His audience knew. The Magazine section was a part of their Sunday, too. And they knew all about those lingerie ads.
But time rolls on. The Internet came along, and sooner or later all of us — well, many of us, anyway — realized how much we’d been missing, and how much we’d been taking on faith. The Times settled into its proper place as one source of information and opinion among many others. Well, no, actually it didn’t. It still had cachet. Far too much cachet, in fact. But it did get knocked down a few pegs. Its prejudices and omissions fell into sharp relief. Once upon a time, its readers had thought of it as flawless, a rose without a thorn. Now its errors — and its outright lies — could be corrected immediately for all the world to see. Meanwhile, on top of all that, the paper just plain got crummier. More tendentious. And, if it’s possible, more consistently and blatantly dishonest. In the fullness of time, it became embarrassingly obvious that this icon of American journalism, this quintessential symbol of all the high and noble American values that we had grown up hearing defended by, um, Ed Asner on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, had a strong and unwavering and rather alarming agenda. And it wasn’t exactly the same agenda it had once been, or that some of us had always assumed it was. No, it was, frankly, pretty nasty. We had always thought of the Times as a champion of classical liberal values; now it became quite clear that somewhere along the way it had become a mouthpiece for that monstrous, chilling, inhuman ideology known as multiculturalism. And where that ideology conflicted with the truth, the ideology pretty much always won.
As the years rolled by, reliable sources of online news and opinion multiplied to the point where it was impossible for any one person to read even a tiny fraction of them every day. Yet many of us still clung to the Times habit. We checked its website every day; it was, in fact, the first site some of us looked at in the morning. Some of us even continued to have the dead-wood version of the paper plopped down in front of our doors every morning, if only because the sound of that plop was, for us, the sound of the break of morn — a part of nature, a part of life, the urban equivalent of the cock’s crow, an inevitable accompaniment to the smell of bacon and coffee. Habits, after all, are hard to break. It certainly wasn’t that we still believed everything we read there — far from it. But the damn thing was still there, like the Kaaba in Mecca or the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey — an imposing, impressive, enigmatic thing, an object of faith, a sacred symbol around which we all circled like a mob of mindless, mouth-breathing morons, arguing with it endlessly, perhaps, but never turning our backs on it, never ignoring it, and always keeping one eye on it, as sailors keep an eye on the North Star. Now and then, in spite of itself, it coughed up some terrific reporting, but was it really worth having to pore through thousands of words of insipid, mendacious, feckless prose in hopes of happening upon a few column inches of worthwhile content? We were, in short, caught up in an addiction, involved in an act of co-dependency — the Times needed us, and we, for some reason, still needed it, if only as a lingering standard against which to measure all the other sources of news and opinion at our disposal, a Greenwich meridian by which to chart the other major players in the world of information and ideas. Like it or not, we seemed to be tied to the Times for life, much as Catherine Sloper in Henry James’s Washington Square was bound to her tyrannical father, much as Elizabeth Barrett was lashed to old Mr. Barrett before Robert Browning happened along.
And then — now, rather — there came sweet release. A most magnificent man named Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., who happens to be the publisher of the New York Times, has taken pity on us poor souls and announced that Times will soon be a subscription service. As of March 17, the new plan went into effect in Canada; on March 28, it will take effect everywhere else on the planet. Henceforth we will be allowed to view only 20 articles per month without charge (though if we find our way to those articles via links on Facebook, Twitter, and other such sites, we will still be granted access). There will now be a range of new “subscription packages” for people who want to read the Times on their cell phones or other devices. Whatever. What matters is the bottom line: the Times has put up a giant paywall — not just around Maureen Dowd and other regular columnists, as it did a while back (only to reverse itself after a while), but around virtually all of its content. Which means that on March 28, that sound you hear will be the influence of the Times dropping like a rock. We will no longer be turning to its reportage for an at least tentatively definitive account against which to measure all other accounts; we will no longer look to its columnists for opinions to argue with. No, we’ll be free. Free! Free to roam the Web, read a range of accounts of a subject from a variety of sources and decide for ourselves where the truth might lie; free to ponder opinions by people across the political spectrum, most of whom the Times would never think of hiring, and to figure out for ourselves what we think about the topic at hand. Oh blessed day, oh holy release! God bless you, Mr. Sulzberger. The committee that hired you — you, out of the hundreds of eminently qualified men and women who must have applied for your position! – certainly knew what it was doing. Three cheers for the Times as it sinks to the seabed, the waves rolling over it and rendering it gradually invisible. When, in living memory, has the Gray Lady looked more lovely?