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A Brief History of Pinch

Whatever your reading plans are for the next few days, make sure they include this outstanding Vanity Fair profile of NY Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The piece, by Mark Bowden, is a terrific read. And it makes a compelling case that, given the challenges the Times and other papers are currently facing--and thanks to his conservative, Times-ian faith that good journalism is bound to succeed--Sulzberger is very much the wrong man for the job. Here's a snippet:

Arthur has one big thing going for him, particularly with the reporters and editors who are the real stars in the Times building. Arthur is motivated, as he himself says, not by wealth but by value. He believes, to be sure, that wealth follows from value, but you can see, even as he says it, that the wealth part is not what drives him. Journalism drives him. The Times’s reputation and influence drive him. He is not just a newspaper publisher and a chairman of the board. He is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and the pride he feels in that name doesn’t have anything to do with how much is in his bank account. No matter what moves he makes, no matter what errors he commits, Arthur will remain every journalist’s dream publisher. He has long protected the newsroom from predatory managers with their bean-counting priorities, and today he represents its best hope, reporters and editors would like to believe, of weathering the crisis without the soul-killing budget cuts that turn great newspapers into little more than supermarket circulars. The same people who roll their eyes when they hear him wax nostalgic about his years in the newsroom pray for him daily, because, like them, he completely buys the myth: Journalism sells.

“This is ridiculous,” says a former business-side executive at the Times. “It flies in the face of logic and reason, this belief that if your news product is so good and so comprehensive the normal rules of business are suspended. Think about it. Think about the inanity of saying that you survived by putting in more news and cutting ads.”

Bowden also executes a devestating deconstruction of Sulzberger's approach to the Web, one that every newspaper employee in America would do well to ponder:

For 10 years or more, Arthur’s signature phrase about this seismic change in the news business, the one he repeats to show that he gets it, has been platform agnostic. “I am platform agnostic,” he proclaims proudly, meaning that it matters nothing to him where his customers go for New York Times content: the newspaper’s print version, television, radio, computer, cell phone, Kindle—whatever. The phrase itself reveals limited understanding. When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling. To be platform agnostic is the equivalent of recording stage plays.

Excellent stuff. Don't miss it.

[ Via Romenesko.]

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