With the Jayson Blair affair, the Times finally succumbed to criticism and appointed an internal review committee, with outside members, charged with investigating the scandal and its implications for management. This yielded the Siegal Committee Report, named for Timesman Allan Siegal, an assistant managing editor and guardian of the paper’s accuracy and style (available at www.nytco.com/pdf/siegal-report050205.pdf). The investigation identified systemic problems in the tracking and processing of content and recommended a public editor (subsequently appointed) and other internal controls. The report sought to ensure accountability to the public, opportunities for the staff, and improvements in newsroom organization and performance management as well as overall communication. And, importantly, the Siegal report dismissed the “bad apple” theory that Mr. Blair alone was accountable for the debacle. Some critics think the procedural recommendations of the Siegal report clearly did not go far enough in the direction of organizational overhaul. Still, in this change-resisting organization, it was a dramatic start.
The larger question raised by the travails of the Times, despite its overall success and its position as the foremost American newspaper, is whether it is a leadership or management model relevant to other newspapers and media organizations. Publisher Mr. Sulzberger, from the early 1990s, wanted to improve the paper, ultimately transforming it from “solely a newspaper…to a multimedia content provider,” Mr. Mnookin says. Indeed, Mr. Sulzberger frequently proclaims he is “agnostic about the platform,” with the emergence of new technologies and channels as a survival strategy. The search engine Google, for example — free from the stranglehold of journalistic traditions — could eventually become a more important competitor for the Times and other newspapers than such legacy media as magazines, television, and cable.
This scenario is graphically depicted in an eight-minute “Flash movie” making the rounds on the Web in 2005, titled “EPIC 2014” (www.robinsloan.com/epic). It predicts a future in which “Googlezon” (the result of a merger between Google and Amazon) has triumphed with an omnipresent, Web-based news service, and in which the New York Times has become a print-only newsletter for “the elite and the elderly.”
Whereas the business-side leadership of the media long ago accepted managers with analytic and strategic capacities, the content side has lagged well behind, resisting organizational reforms as dollar-driven intrusions inconsistent with its editorial values. From the early recommendations of Chris Argyris to the present, no one has proposed a truly seamless, unified management structure that takes into account the very real possibilities for corruption on both sides of the media house. Both need a new regime with the capacity to accommodate the radical changes of the digital age, in which everyone can be an editor and reporter and in which generating revenues for high-caliber professional content will require more cooperation and collaboration than ever before. The ultimate survival of the New York Times and other editorial enterprises is clearly at stake — and it is theirs to lose if the paradigm does not change, and soon. Other enterprises can and likely will take their places.
Everette E. Dennis ([email protected]) is Felix E. Larkin Distinguished Professor of Media and Entertainment Industries at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business in New York City, director of Fordham’s Center for Communication, and author of several books about media industries.