David Warsh: Two developments in big newspapers economic drama

In The New York Times newsroom.

In The New York Times newsroom.


Like most people, I am forever curious about what constitutes the baseline narrative of our times – all the more so for being the news business. My routine for some years now has been to skim the front pages of four newspapers when I get up, then when I come home at night read the three newsprint editions I received in the morning — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. The Washington Post I read on the Web.

I don’t watch any television, except when I travel, but I listen to NPR for half an hour in the morning. I subscribe to four magazines (The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker and Science). I look at Politico’s Web site once or twice a day. And last week I read most of Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts (2019), by Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times.

The daily newspapers are definitely where I get my news. I often think that entering the worlds of their news pages is like listening to a quartet: the Times is a daily violin, exciting and emotional; The Post resembles a viola, warmly supportive of The Times’s themes, but less jittery; the WSJ is something of a cello, understated and lower-pitched; and the FT, a different voice altogether, is more like a piano.

As in any quartet, each institutional player seems well aware of what the others are doing, at least as a daily matter. Long term, I am not so sure. At least in my experience, two developments stand out.

The first is purely local. After some years of disruption, my three papers are always there on the porch in the morning. It is dispiriting to see, as I walk to work, how few houses take delivery of one or the other national papers, compared to 15 years ago – never mind the precipitous decline of The Boston Globe, my local newspaper. But the evidence is of a newsprint-delivery service that once again takes itself seriously as a going concern, after several years of disruption.

The other development has to do with the price that readers pay for their annual print subscriptions: the Times, $1,092; the WSJ, $540; the FT, $406; and The Post, $150 for digital access, plus second subscription to the paper to give away, a month at a time.

Is the print edition of The Times really worth twice what the WSJ charges for its own? If I could read only one newspaper, which would I choose? I understand that the Times’s pricing policy is, in essence, a branding device, the Tiffany among newspapers, and all that. The Times’s cultural and science reporting has been without peer, though cultural reporting is definitely in decline.

Abramson’s book supports that strategy. The tradition of its former staffers burnishing the paper’s reputation goes back to Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power (1969), about The Times; The Powers That Be (1979), by David Halberstam; and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind The New York Times (1999), by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones.

Halberstam weaved together The Times’s story with four other organizations that had assumed the mantle of media royalty: Henry Luce’s Time Inc.; William Paley’s CBS; Katharine Graham’s Post and the Chandler family’s Los Angeles Times. Forty years later, CBS News and Time are ghosts of their former selves, and the LA Times has a new owner.

Abramson intertwines the tale of her paper’s recent ups and down with the story of the Graham family’s sale of The Post to Amazon magnate Jeff Bezos, and the tales of two all-digital up-and-comers that The Times perceives as threats, BuzzFeed and Vice Media. Neither organization has yet delivered on its early promise. Web-based news start-ups Axios and Quartz may pose more serious challenges, not to mention well-established competitors, such as Reuters and Bloomberg News.

Meanwhile, the New York Times Co. reported earlier this month that digital ad revenue had surpassed print ad revenue in the quarter that ended Dec. 31 for the first time in the company’s history. Digital ad sales were up 23 percent, as opposed to 5 percent increase in advertising revenues overall in the period.

That’s good news, surely, except that the surging growth in The Times’s digital-only subscribers may disguise shrinking circulation of its costly newsprint edition, where a full page of advertising costs more than $100,000, according to Abramson. It’s been conventional wisdom for years that print editions are doomed – that it is only a matter of time before they disappear.

Yet print ads have continued to keep newspapers afloat. It’s not the majority of consumers of news who prefer print to digital devices – just a relatively small audience of elite readers for whose attention some kinds of advertisers are willing to pay, all the more so once they see print editions culturally supported by, among others, the papers themselves.

The contest between the very different print and digital pricing strategies of The Times, on the one hand, and the WSJ and the FT on the other, has implications for the long-term narrative of American politics. Who will call the tune? (Because I don’t see the print edition of The Post, I have no real idea what’s going on there.) Those books by Times authors scarcely mention the biggest Times competitor for influence since the 1960s, the WSJ.

Today’s contest between the Murdoch and Sulzberger families deserves more attention than it has been getting. It has implications for the rest of the newspaper industry as well. How many more copies of the big regional newspapers – LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe – would flop up on front porches if subscriptions were priced more like the WSJ instead of The Times? In their golden era, before the advent of search advertising, American newspapers resembled symphonies. If the industry paid more attention to the importance of price, perhaps newspapers might become chamber orchestras again.

David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this essay first ran.