The print version of the New York Times now looks like a great regional newspaper of 1990

I couldn’t help but notice the sudden outcrop of advice columns in the printed edition of The New York Times. The Times now has five weekly advice columns, one each for etiquette, job issues, ethics, real estate matters and consumer complaints, at least to my count. Who knows, maybe I’m missing one.

These columns are cheap to produce—the readers create half the content with their questions and the other half—the answers—are almost always warmed-over information or packaged homilies. There is no difference between these columns and the syndicated columnists like “Hints from Heloise” or “Dear Abby” that local newspapers have published for at least a century. I can remember when the Times had no advice columns, which typically are a staple of local and regional newspapers. Then for years the only advice column in the Times was the “Ethicist” in the Sunday magazine.

The front page of the Times is now also different from what it used to be, focusing very little on breaking news except for the very big stories like the Charlie Hebdo massacre or revelations that the Times investigative reporters have dredged up like the collapse of the market for taxi medallions. Instead, the front page contains analysis of news that happened earlier in the week, investigative pieces and high-end gee-whiz features. I suppose that the assumption of the editors is that you already know what the news is from perusing the Internet.

The print edition of the Times carries less news than ever before, and for most international and real non-political national news, is relying more on the Associated Press and other wire services than ever before.

Pick up a Times and if you’re older than 40, the first thing you’ll feel is the lack of heft to it. It kind of feels like a good regional newspaper from the 1990’s. You know, something like the St. Louis Dispatch or the Syracuse Post-Standard, with lots of local columns, frequent award-winning investigative reports and advice columns from national and regional experts. Of course, these regional papers typically used columnists from the Times, Washington Post and other national newspapers, whereas reading the Times, you got to see Charles Blow, Paul Krugman and Gail Collins a day early. No more, since you can easily find their columns on the Internet the day before the print version hits the streets.

I was enumerating these signs of the decline of what was once the greatest mainstream newspaper in the United States to someone the other day when she asked me what I would do differently if I owned the Times.

My response is that the Times management made all its mistakes early in the Internet game by buying into the nonsense that just because it’s on the Internet, it has to be free. If I had operated the Times at the dawn of the information age, I would have done the following:

  1. Charged the same amount to see the newspaper on line as to receive a home delivery.
  2. Not given any free samples to visitors to the website.
  3. Offered the newspaper or selected articles to various Internet news portals such as Yahoo! and Google News on a strict pay-for-usage basis.
  4. Hired a bevy of sharp minds to surf the net for copyright infringements and prosecute all of them aggressively. By copyright infringement, I don’t mean referencing articles or quoting from them in other news media and blogs, but printing an article verbatim without permission and payment.
  5. Given free subscriptions to the online edition of the Times to every public library and public school library across the country.

In other words, I would have defended the castle, which in this case means asserting that the basic value of the newspaper is not in its paper or electronic imagery, but in the information it contains. In effect, I would have had the Times say, “We can and will translate the value of the information we gather to dollars and cents and set a price on it. But we will always provide those who can’t afford direct access to the newspaper a free way to still get the information.” Sounds like the traditional relationship that news media has had with the economy and the community.

Taking the approach I suggested might have hurt the Times profit margin for a while, but newspaper profit margins were notoriously fat, so I imagine the owners could have afforded it. I’m convinced that the rest of the publishing industry would have followed this same strategy for transferring the media to the Internet, if the Times and other big media players would have shown them the way.

Although implementing this harsh approach would cost billions more today than it would have if the news industry had started with it 18-20 years ago, it could still be done. But instead, the Times and virtually all other American newspapers prefer to continue to slide—following fewer news stories, doing more rehashes and relying more on news services. It wouldn’t matter if Internet media were replacing the traditional print and broadcast media in covering and uncovering the news. But it’s not. The Internet relies more on quoting secondary news sources and giving commentary than even the daily newspapers.

The result is that newspaper revenues and readership continue to decline, while Americans are more ignorant of the world around them then they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

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