How The New York Times Got Its Groove Back

Plus, outgoing editor Bill Keller is headed for the Op-Ed page

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In 2009, the business model of The New York Times appeared "doomed," writes Seth Mnookin in this week's New York magazine cover story. The triumphant mood at The Times comes as it adjusts to new leadership. Bill Keller, who will officially step down as executive editor in September, is already adjusting to life after managing the newspaper's financial headaches. John Koblin reports at Women's Wear Daily that he will cease his widely-criticized New York Times Magazine column in September and move over to the Op-Ed page of the paper.

With steep declines in both circulation and ad pages, the newspaper had to borrow $250 million from Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim Helú and raise $225 million through a sale-leaseback deal on its newly-built headquarters, all amidst the backdrop of a newspaper industry struggling to cope with the rise of news websites and blogs. But on July 13, The Times announced it would pay off Slim's quarter-billion dollar loan by August 15, three and a half years before it was due, and last week, its second-quarter financial results showed promise for the newspaper's much-debated paywall strategy. The paper has "brought itself back from the precipice," writes Mnookin. Here's what he attributes its comeback to:

  • Newsstand pricing "Though the Times’ circulation dipped during the crash years, much of the lost revenue was made up for by doubling the newsstand price, from $1 to $2—evidence, the paper insisted, that its premium audience understood the value of a premium product."
  • Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Mnookin applauds the paper's publisher scion for his uncompromising support for shoe-leather journalism during the rise of aggregation. "The Times has taken a do-or-die stand for hard-core, boots-on-the-ground journalism, for earnest civic purpose, for the primacy of content creators over aggregators, and has brought itself back from the precipice. And if that does indeed end up being the case, there’s one unlikely person who deserves most of the credit: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr." By taking the path of most resistance, Sulzberger ensured that the Times would continue to distinguish itself from its competitors, especially in its international reporting, which is "as robust as ever," writes Mnookin.
  • The Paywall "It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success," Mnookin writes. "The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website. Combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook readers who were paying for subscriptions and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another 756,000 print subscribers have registered their accounts on the Times’ website.)"
  • Bill Keller He is credited with keeping the paper together during its tumultuous post-2003 era in which The Times received criticms for Judith Miller's misleading WMD reporting among other things. "One of the most remarkable things about Keller’s stint in the executive editor’s office is how placid his tenure has been," writes Mnookin. "Which is to say, he’s had to deal with less griping and backstabbing than any other editor in the history of the institution. Part of that is undoubtedly owed to his nonconfrontational demeanor and a purposeful campaign to restore a sense of calm to the newsroom."

The entire piece is well worth reading in full, and elaborates on The Times's rocky post-9/11 era and the promise of incoming executive editor Jill Abramson.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.