Does the New York Times have to be productive?

By Conor Clarke

James Surowiecki and Felix Salmon (and to some extent Megan) bop Henry Blodget on the head for suggesting that the New York Times make itself more productive by, among other things, getting rid of writers who don't haul in enough traffic. Writes Blodget:

Productive writers can be retained and unproductive ones can be released (thanks to the web stats, this can be determined scientifically: look at a several years of click data and it will be crystal clear)

To which Surowiecki responds:

Blodget's analysis is based on a flawed idea of what makes the Times successful with readers. It isn't simply that it publishes some stories that are popular--the ones that "productive writers" write. It's that it offers, as I've argued before, an unmatchable combination of pieces, and that combination is valued by readers even if they don't read everything the Times publishes.

To this I would add a very small dose of woolly idealism: Blodget's argument sounds a bit odd because the New York Times isn't a company that exists solely for the purpose of maximizing profits. Part of this is about the relationship between the press and democracy: Even if consumers and advertisers prefer the Modern Love column, a lot of people think we're better off with a paper that can produce the unprofitable five-part series about Watergate or Darfur.
But to some extent the above theory is just wired right into the ownership structure of the newspaper: unlike the vast majority of publicly traded companies, the Times issues two classes of stock. Only one class, held mostly by the Sulzberger family, gets to vote on the important issues. (The Journal used to do something like this too.) This was supposed to be a way of gaining access to public capital markets without becoming responsive to them. And maybe it was a terrible idea. But the shareholders (at least those not named Sulzberger) should have had no illusions about what they were getting into.

And even for companies that don't have the The Times' eccentric ownership structure might not be saved by measuring productivity. After all, Tribune tried something similar to the Blodget plan over the summer.

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