Modern Times

On the day after the NYT won five Pulitzer Prizes, Reuters reported that the company suffered a first quarter loss "of $74.5 million, or 52 cents a share, compared with a loss of $335,000, or nil cents a share, in the quarter a year ago." Bill Keller claimed that Pulitzer Prizes showed why the NYT was an indispensable institution, citing its ability to hire lawyers to break a story. But if so, why is it losing its shirt?

Executive Editor Bill Keller of The New York Times said today's Times sweep of five Pulitzer Prizes shows why his and all newspapers are still relevant -- and should not be written off so quickly in the growing Web world.

"It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t," Keller said just hours after the Pulitzer winners were announced. "Taking more than a year on a deep investigation, it helps to have lawyers who can file FOIAs and go to court when you need to."

That year-long investigation was a reference to the David Barstow Investigative Pulitzer win for his work on the way retired generals were being used by the Pentagon to spread positive views on Iraq. The other Times' winners came in Breaking News, for the Eliot Spitzer scandal; International reporting for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan; Criticism for art critic Holland Carter; and Feature Photography for Damon Winter's photos of Barack Obama on the campaign.

The quality reflected by the Prizes failed to pay dividends in ad revenues which declined severely last quarter and look to decline again. The Reuters article said that "ad revenue fell 27 percent. At its news media group, which includes its daily papers, it fell 28 percent. The second quarter's ad declines, Times Co Chief Executive Janet Robinson said in a statement, so far looks similar to the first." The indispensible NYT is being dispensed with by the market.

If Pulitzer Prizes are a reliable proxy for "quality" then why didn't the Pultizer Prizes return business dividends? One possibility is that ad revenues and circulation are not functions of "quality" journalism as Bill Keller understands it. Simply because the Pulizer gauge went "up" didn't mean the commercial metrics would follow suit. Most businesses recognize that the 'customer is always right'; but journalism may be an exception. The NYT may have assumed that if they built it -- according to their lights -- then the circulation and ads would come. Because of an editorial policies favoring certain kinds of stories, they may also have been paying too much for product: goldplating stories of marginal interest to the general public. Keller cites David Barstows expensive investigation into the "way retired generals were being used by the Pentagon to spread positive views on Iraq" as an example of the NYT's prowess. But it may have been a testament to their obsession; and the result was a news product that readers were neither interested in nor regarded as important, at least to a degree that generated a correspondingly increased readership.

Yet another problem with using Pulitzer Prizes as indicators of quality is that while they might reflect the craftsmanship of what the Times chose to cover, they don't provide any measure of what the NYT has failed to report on. Just as Naseem Taleb coined the term antilibrary to represent all the books a person hasn't read, it is possible to speak of anti-news as all the news the NYT saw as unfit to print. The anti-news may have been a far more important factor to the Gray Lady's circulation than the Pulitzers Keller is so proud of.

From a news reader's point of view the ideal news source would be one which would sensibly improve his ability to anticipate trends; that would help him increase his predictive power. Yet the primary function of many news outlets, on both sides of the political aisle, is often to make excuses for the past and as such, undermine their ability to provide information which can help the reader think clearly about what lies ahead. My guess is that a large part of the reason why the Times is failing is that for too long it has lived for itself. The readers existed to admire its handiwork. The Gray Lady has now adorned itself with five more Pulitzers, which can join the one earned by Walter Duranty. Whatever befall, the baubles will look good at the funeral.