New York Times Moves From Distrust to Detente
They were known as “the Mohonk group"--named for a resort near the weekend homes of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, and his executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld.
The group--which grew out of an earlier “futures committee” at the paper--consisted of three assistant managing editors and three senior vice presidents from the paper’s business department. They met every week for more than three years, trying to address major interdepartmental concerns and issues at a newspaper where mutual suspicion and hostility between the news and advertising staffs had often resulted in what Allan M. Siegal, one of the Mohonk assistant managing editors, calls “guerrilla warfare.”
The Mohonk group completed its work last fall, with the introduction of color photographs and several new sections in the daily paper--changes that most major newspapers initiated several years ago. But the New York Times is a unique institution, both in its standing as the country’s most highly respected, general interest “paper of record” and--not incidentally--in the almost missionary zeal with which its news department has resisted any intrusion by the business departments of the paper.
New York Times reporters and editors traditionally felt that their advertising and marketing colleagues should have no say in the development of the editorial content of the paper, and they “recoiled from their description of our beloved newspaper as a ‘product’ that could be changed on the basis of audience testing and other well-established Harvard Business School techniques,” as Lelyveld puts it.
Journalists at most major papers have long held similar views about their business-side colleagues, and they have worried in recent years that their ability to give readers complete, independent coverage of the news will be compromised as newspapers increasingly break down the barriers between their news and business departments.
But newspaper executives say that joint efforts between the two sides is essential to reverse declining circulation, develop new revenue streams and battle competitors in other media.
Ending Generations of Distrust
At the New York Times, the work of the Mohonk group in fashioning a cooperative, productive venture out of generations of animosity and distrust was regarded as so successful--journalistically, economically and psychologically--that the group was reconstituted and expanded early this year to “Mohonk 2.”
Now consisting of five representatives from news and five from business, Mohonk 2 reports--as did its predecessor--to a top-level management team made up of Sulzberger, Lelyveld and the paper’s president, managing editor and editorial page editor.
Discussions between the news and business sides of the paper are necessary, Sulzberger says, not to “move the wall” between news and advertising but to “clearly define it” in a way that will enable the paper to avoid the crippling problems of the U.S. automobile industry, where the engineers and designers “never would talk” to each other.
In the pre-Mohonk days, when the paper’s news and business departments did talk to each other it was often “a dialogue of the deaf,” Siegal says. He still remembers with some chagrin the editors’ attempts to create a weekly City section for the paper several years ago. “The business side kept coming up with profit and loss projections that showed that with the amount of advertising they expected to sell, we couldn’t support a journalistic enterprise of the magnitude that we proposed.”
Editors told the ad department, “Sell more advertising.” The ad department told editors, “Cut your cost structure.”
“It got quite nasty,” Siegal says, “and when, ultimately, we got together . . . we discovered that the business side was low-balling its advertising estimates because they didn’t like our journalistic concept, which they felt was too gritty, not celebratory enough about the town. But they weren’t allowed to say that because the prevailing values forbade them to talk about news content.”
Out of that experience, Siegal says, came “the determination that we would start telling each other truth. . . . We don’t always agree. There is still a real, almost religious understanding that some things are off-limits to the business side . . . but in tactical ways, we can talk to each other. . . . This process works.”
He says the business side now understands, for example, that new sections of the paper can’t succeed “unless they have journalistic validity” that’s accepted by the editorial department, and the news side now understands that “since we have a clear responsibility to make a profit, they can’t succeed if they have an adverse impact on the [profit] margins of the paper.”
Proposed new sections are now “consensus products . . . subjected to hardheaded business analysis,” Siegal says. But the paper still makes a distinction between “the core mission"--foreign, national and local news, business, culture, sports, the Sunday magazine and the book review section--that don’t have to be profitable, and lifestyle sections like Dining In/Dining Out and House & Home that must be profitable.
Other newspapers make similar distinctions. Standards for most travel, food, fashion and real estate sections tend to be considerably looser than for the main news sections. A generation or two ago, they were even looser--everywhere.
In her book “The Girls in the Balcony,” longtime New York Times reporter Nan Robertson recounts her experience at the paper in the mid-1950s, when fashion writers at the paper were “required to come up every month with articles whose total column inches reflected the relative advertising strength of every store. “There was hell to pay . . . every time an advertiser was not adequately represented in the ‘news’ columns of the women’s page.”
These days, any arrangement even approaching such a quid pro quo would not even be considered at the New York Times--or at any other reputable paper. Indeed, reporters and editors who come to the Times from other papers--even other very good papers--often marvel at how aloof the paper’s day-to-day news operation appears to be from any financial considerations.
But in search of profits, the New York Times--like most other newspapers--is greatly increasing the number of special sections it occasionally publishes, sections that are designed primarily to attract advertising--sections on automobiles, charities and women’s health, among other subjects.
At the New York Times--as at many other papers--the news department controls these special sections. They are not “advertorials,” sections labeled as “advertising supplements” that many newspapers (including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times) periodically publish under the aegis of their advertising departments. (The Los Angeles Times also publishes special sections produced by its news department.)
A special desk is in charge of the special sections at the New York Times, and that desk reports to top Times editors, who have final say both on which subjects are worthy of special sections and on the content in those sections.
“The aim is to make them sections of real value to readers and of journalistic integrity,” Lelyveld says. But he acknowledges that the sections are “advertising driven--nobody can deny that.”
Regular lifestyle sections that now appear weekly in the New York Times also have a strong advertising tie-in. When discussions began on Dining In/Dining Out--one of several sections that debuted last fall as part of the expansion of the weekday paper from four to six sections--Lelyveld says, editors listened carefully to the advertising department’s “critique of what we had been doing” in its precursor, the Living section, and to suggestions about the need to create a “good environment for advertising.”
“Specifically, the food section had to be more about food,” as opposed to the Living section’s mix of culture, family life and profiles, Lelyveld says. That would enable it to attract more advertising from grocery stores and other food-related enterprises.
Thus, many of the food stories that appear in the Wednesday Dining In/Dining Out section of the paper that is available in New York do not appear in the section that appears in the national edition; local New York advertisers don’t want to pay for circulation in Los Angeles or Chicago or Seattle, so the Wednesday section in the national edition is called the Living Arts, and it still features a broad mix of cultural and other non-food stories, as well as a few food stories and the weekly restaurant review.
Many critics complain that the paper’s new, “softer” sections undermine its general seriousness of purpose by embracing materialism and the culture of conspicuous consumption. Those charges were also levied against the Times in the mid-1970s, when the paper added its first consumer-oriented lifestyle sections. In fact, criticism was so strong then that A.M. Rosenthal, then the executive editor, argued successfully against making the last of the new sections another soft section--on fashion, as the advertising department wanted. He persuaded the publisher to start the Science Times section instead, even though it then seemed certain to lose money.
But when the personal computer revolution began in the next decade, Science Times wound up drawing so much advertising revenue from the digital world that it is now one of the paper’s most successful sections. Early this year, the Times spun off a new weekly section on technology called Circuits.
Advertising from all the new sections created in the mid-1970s helped bail the Times out of serious financial difficulty, and that lesson has not been lost on top Times executives today. The lifestyle sections introduced last fall came at a time when the paper and its parent company was financially strong--operating profits for the New York Times Co. were up 34% last year--but these sections, too, are designed to attract advertising.
“If you’re going out of your way to create new sections,” Sulzberger says, “you don’t go out of your way to create a new section that’s going to be a money-loser.”
The New York Times is the only daily newspaper in the country that has both a large local base--the New York metropolitan area--and circulates nationally. (More than 35% of its circulation is outside its designated market area.) The country’s two other national dailies, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have no local base. But its national strategy notwithstanding, the New York Times is facing many of the same challenges confronting more typical local and metropolitan dailies and is embarking on many of the same ventures
Like about 500 other daily newspapers in this country, for example, the New York Times is trying to make money in cyberspace--which presents potential dangers of its own in terms of business and news cooperation and conflict.
Visitors to the online edition of the New York Times can now read about a new book, and--thanks to a business arrangement between the paper and Barnes & Noble, the “principal sponsor” of the paper’s online Book Review--they can click on an electronic link that enables them to buy the book directly from that chain. (Barnes & Noble is also a major sponsor of the Los Angeles Times online Book Review, but the bookstore links are not attached to individual reviews as they are on the New York Times site.)
The link was “a business decision, not an editorial decision,” says Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times Book Review, and he insists that the link “doesn’t constitute an editorial endorsement.” The link has no effect on his book review policies, he says.
But independent booksellers complained that such links threaten their livelihood. In protest, more than 50--perhaps as many as 100--have stopped reporting their sales to the paper’s bestseller list.
Sanj Kharbanda, manager of Wordsworth Books in Cambridge, Mass., says this could distort the bestseller list, which is the most influential such list in the country.
Although Lelyveld says that distortion of the bestseller list “has not yet become a problem,” the paper’s online Book Review now publishes separate bestseller lists for chain and independent stores, at least partially in response to the complaints of the independent booksellers.
The impact of the Internet on “journalistic rules and standards . . . is something papers have to look at because there’s going to be more of this, not less,” McGrath says.
The same could be said--and has been said--of the impact on journalistic rules and standards of various other new media ventures as newspapers throughout the country scramble to maintain their audience and their advertising base without losing their independence and credibility.
That’s why, when Lelyveld talks about various joint ventures between news and business departments at the New York Times, he--like many other editors--refers to his job as something of a balancing act.
Jacci Cenacveira of The Times’ editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
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Like many other newspapers, the New York Times now publishes several “special sections” a year. The sections are designed primarily to attract advertising, but the content is created, assigned and controlled by a special sections desk in the news department. The sections are intended to be “of real value to readers and of journalistic integrity,” says Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the paper.
ON THE WEB: This series will be available today on The Times’ Web site at:
About This Series
The Times today presents the last in a three-part series examining the controversy and implications involved in the rapidly changing relationships between newspapers’ editorial and business departments.
* SUNDAY: In an effort to increase revenue in a time of growing competition and diminished readership, many newspapers are taking the risky step of breaking down “the Wall” that has long separated (and insulated) their news departments from their advertising, circulation and other business departments. Many reporters and editors worry that this could compromise their editorial independence.
* MONDAY: When Mark Willes took over as publisher of the Los Angeles Times last fall and announced several radical changes in traditional newspaper structure and operations, The Times immediately became a controversial case study on an issue confronting newspapers everywhere: Will lowering jurisdictional barriers inevitably lead to lower journalistic standards?
* TODAY: The “Mohonk group” forged cooperative ties to replace “guerrilla warfare” and “a dialogue of the deaf” between the news and business departments at the New York Times, where reporters and editors have historically protected their turf with missionary zeal. Also: Magazine editors, long more vulnerable to business pressures than their newspaper counterparts, feel the heat more than ever these days.