“As part of our analysis of our uses of cash, we are evaluating future financing arrangements,” the Times Company announced blandly in October, referring to the crunch it will face in May. “Based on the conversations we have had with lenders, we expect that we will be able to manage our debt and credit obligations as they mature.” This prompted Henry Blodget, whose Web site, Silicon Alley Insider, has offered the smartest ongoing analysis of the company’s travails, to write: “‘We expect that we will be able to manage’? Translation: There’s a possibility that we won’t be able to manage.”
The paper’s credit crisis comes against a backdrop of ongoing and accelerating drops in circulation, massive cutbacks in advertising revenue, and the worst economic climate in almost 80 years. As of December, its stock had fallen so far that the entire company could theoretically be had for about $1 billion. The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without The Times. Perhaps we should start.
Granted, the odds that The Times will cease to exist entirely come May are relatively slim. Many steps could be taken to prolong its existence. The Times Company has already slashed its dividend, a major source of income for the paper’s owners, the Sulzberger family, but one that starved the company at precisely the moment it needed significant investments in new media. The company could sell its share of the brilliant Renzo Piano–designed headquarters—which cost the company about $600million to build and was completed in 2007, years after the digital threat to The Times’ core business had become clear. (It’s already borrowing money against the building’s value.) It could sell The Boston Globe—or shutter it entirely, given what the company itself has acknowledged is a challenging time for the sale of media properties. It could sell its share in the Boston Red Sox, close or sell various smaller properties, or off-load About.com, the resolutely unglamorous Web purchase that has been virtually the only source of earnings growth in the Times Company’s portfolio. With these steps, or after them, would come mass staffing cuts, no matter that the executive editor, Bill Keller, promised otherwise.
It’s possible that a David Geffen, Michael Bloomberg, or Carlos Slim would purchase The Times as a trophy property and spare the company some of this pain. Even Rupert Murdoch, after overpaying wildly for The Wall Street Journal, seems to be tempted by the prospect of adding The Times to his portfolio. But the experiences of Sam Zell, who must be ruing the day he waded into the waking nightmare that is the now-bankrupt Tribune Company, would surely temper the enthusiasm of all but the most arrogant of plutocrats. (And as global economies tumble around them, the plutocrats aren’t as plutocratic as they used to be.) Alternatively, Google or Microsoft or even CBS could purchase The Times on the cheap, strip it for parts, and turn it into a content mill to goose its own page views.