when I first met the New York Times publisher AJ Sulzberger, I tried to hire him.
It was in 2014, turbulent times for digital media. I then worked for BuzzFeed, one of the newly created companies that intended to squeeze outdated and dying publications like The Times from their homes.
The Times shares were shaken, and the company was selling everything except furniture, just to stay afloat.
Mr. Sulzberger, then heir to the Times directorial portfolio, politely declined my offer. And today, eight years later, as the chief editor of Buzzfid, I myself became a columnist under his supervision.
I have to occupy a niche found ten years ago by the late David Carr, the chronicler of the explosion of new digital media. My theme, however, will be different: the enlargement of everything, starting from the cinema and ending with the news, since the media industry has been flooded with the very same day-to-day growing forces that previously crushed everything from airlines to pharmaceuticals on the principle that “the winner gets everything.”
And the main character of the chronicle of this enlargement in the media is The New York Times.
The gap between the Times and the rest of the industry is huge and growing: according to recent reports, the company has even more subscribers to a digital copy of the newspaper than the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and 250 local newspapers of the Gannett media holding ) combined. The Times employs 1,700 journalists, despite the fact that their total number in the country is, according to various sources, from 20 thousand to 38 thousand people.
The Times is so superior to the rest that it even lures competitors: the former chief editors of Gawker, Recode and Quartz all ended up in The Times, as did many reporters who made ” Politico ”(Politico) compulsory reading in Washington.
I’ve been competing with The Times all my career, so coming to work with them is like giving up. And I worry that the success of The Times is pushing the competition.
“The New York Times will be a monopoly,” predicts the founder of Axios, Jim VandeHei. Its publication started in 2016 with digital subscription plans, which have not yet been implemented. “The Times will grow, the niche will become smaller, and no one will survive.”
Janice Min, the former editor of Us Weekly, who gave new life to The Hollywood Reporter, described the expansion of the Times product line as a major obstacle to other digital subscription companies.
“Since we started talking about the publishing business, everything is still very sad, and in this parallel universe, people talk about the Times just like in Hollywood about Netflix,” says Min. “This is not only the tail that wags the dog, but the dog itself.”
The transformation of the Times from a wounded giant into a reigning colossus was no less rapid than that of startups. Back in 2014, print advertising was unprofitable, and the idea that the company’s expensive journalistic apparatus around the world would contain subscribers seemed delusional.
“We sold all the units we could to minimize journalism costs,” Sulzberger told me last week, he became a publisher in 2018. “All the bright minds in the media said that this is insanity, and our shareholders decided that this is irresponsible from a financial point of view.”
After only a few years, amid the widening crisis in American journalism and constant attacks by the US president, the Times ’shares almost tripled compared to 2014, and the staff was replenished with 400 new employees. The reporter’s starting salary is $ 104,600 a year.
Paper media is matched to dominion even in the related industry – audio. The Times is in exclusive talks to acquire Serial Productions, an advanced podcast studio with more than 300 million downloads.
The deal will require a substantial investment: according to two informed sources, the cost of the Series Production is estimated at $ 75 million, although the Times is expected to pay less. (The Wall Street Journal first reported the sale of the company last month).
Coupled with the popular weekly Times podcast, this deal could be the basis for a new ambitious paid product like recipes and crossword puzzles. Leaders believe that it will be some analogue of the company “HBO” (HBO), only in the world of podcasts.
In our conversation last week, Mr. Sulzberger reminded me of other figures in the digital economy who have achieved stunning and dizzying success and still cannot believe that they have become almost monopolists.
He sees a ton of Times rivals – in particular, he mentioned cable news, even if their future is vague. He believes that Americans will subscribe to several publications at once. According to him, The Times not only dominates the market, but creates it from scratch.
“It seems to me that the situation is not“ the winner gets everything, ”but when the tide raises all boats aground,” says Sulzberger.
His optimism, at least in words, is shared by a number of subscription media.
“The Times has shown the rest of the industry the path to success,” said Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe, which has over 100,000 digital subscribers.
Times executives say they are ready to offer assistance to weaker colleagues in the workshop because they see the collapse of local journalism as a threat to democracy.
“But as they say on airplanes: before helping others, first put an oxygen mask on yourself,” says Mark Thompson, executive director of the newspaper.
As the Times rises above the rest of the industry, cultural and ideological battles that previously erupted between different media outlets – for example, whether to report that President Trump has lied or not – are now being played out inside The Times.
The Times has swallowed up many of the so-called “new media”, and now the newspaper has faced a confrontation between rival schools: the “style” section has turned into a more sophisticated version of the “Goker”, and the author’s columns resemble the best and worst provocations of The Atlantic magazine (The Atlantic ) The newspaper publishes the most daring arguments about race and American history, and the detailed coverage of the presidential campaign is not inferior to the aggressive presentation of Politico with its revelations.
I am proud that I am leaving Buzzfeed one of the most powerful independent publications amid the ruins of universal enlargement. But I miss that time ten years ago, when a wave of new players rolled in, rethinking the news in their own way.
Here I have an exciting and inconvenient work to do at the same time – to cover the age of new media from inside one of the industry’s titans (I hope you can tell me if I suddenly get too far).
And I hope that the result of the era of innovation was not just a farm club for a newspaper analogue of the legendary New York Yankees of 1927.
“The moat is so wide that I just can’t imagine anyone forcing it,” said Josh Tyrangiel, a former vice president of news for Vice, who now works on television and makes documentaries . – In general, this is an old story. The BuzzFeed editor and almost the main rebel are now writing columns for The New York Times.
Ben Smith joined the New York Times in 2020, having worked for eight years at Buzzfeed. Prior to that, he covered political events for Politico and a number of New York publications.