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May. 26 2009 - 12:11 am | 560 views | 2 recommendations | 18 comments

Is Thomas Friedman bankrupting the New York Times?

thomas friedman

Image by Charles Haynes via Flickr

Pehaps you’ve already taken a gander at the New Yorker’s thoughtful profile of Carlos Helu Slim, the Mexican telecommunications mogul who appears to be either the only hope for or the worst nightmare of the New York Times. Lawrence Wright’s profile accomplishes a lot, including a description of his love of the Times as an institution and the content it produces. It also seemingly hints that Slim believes the paper’s future is online, perhaps linked to his observation on his cell phone successes that you go where the demand is, you don’t try to create a marketplace with your business.

But injected into this thoughtful profile is some bonehead chowder from one of the Internet’s favorite pin cushions, Thomas Friedman. After this quote, you wonder if the Times’s problems are not flagging advertising revenues and reduced print subscriptions, but Friedman himself:

Thomas Friedman, the Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist, lauded the efforts that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., has made to keep the newsroom intact, saying, “I just have a great deal of admiration for him.” He told me that since taking his current post, in 1995, he has never been asked by Sulzberger what he was planning to write, or how high his travel expenses would be. “To be able to say what I want to say and go where I want to go—other than a Sulzberger-owned newspaper, you tell me where that exists today.” (Of course, star reporters like Friedman live in a special universe, even at the Times.) Friedman said that there will always be a demand for “quality, branded news that people can trust,” but he believes that the shakeout of news organizations is going to be extreme: “It’s going to be us and the BBC and the Wall Street Journal and not a lot more.” At some point, Friedman said, the Times is “probably going to need a partner of one kind or another. I just hope it’s a junior partner to the Sulzberger family.” Friedman proposed a candidate—“someone with the ethics and journalistic integrity of Michael Bloomberg,” the mayor of New York, who has his own news empire.

I hardly know where to begin, but this has to be one of the worst-timed statements in the history of public relations.

The flat-worlder just got dinged by his own paper’s public editor for an ethical violation – accepting a (later returned) $75,000 speaking fee from a group that was neither educational nor nonprofit in nature. While Friedman fessed up to his transgression, he doesn’t seem to care about its broader ties to his megastardom as a public intellectual who gets paid a lot of money to do and write whatever he wants while still masquerading as a ‘journalist.’

Really, while the lumpen proletariat of the Times’s staff await quarterly reports to be issued to see if they’ll still have jobs in 2010, Friedman is boasting that he can go wherever he want, write whatever occurs to him, and spend however much he wants to do those things without any attention to how his profligacy harms the paper’s ability to survive. And he’s insinuating that his boss doesn’t really care.

Then, what’s his solution to the Times’s economic dilemmas? Not for him and other fameballs to spend less, or write things that make more people want to buy his paper/click on the Times’s website/purchase ad space in either medium. His solution is to wait for a Michael Bloomberg-like savior who will invest in the newspaper like it’s behind glass and hanging in the fricking Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So while Friedman is begging his fans to write him with ideas for ‘Chapter 18′ in the next edition of his brilliant book, he might want to think about how his approach to journalism is contributing to the Times’s march to Chapter 11. Instead of treating the Times as an AMEX Black card, I have a modest proposal. Maybe Friedman should keep his speaking fees (more than the annual salaries of many junior staffers, one would imagine), and instead give back his salary and pare his expenses in these lean times, and commit to writing stories that will help sustain the health of the tree his perch is mounted in.

And if that’s too much to ask, Tom, do you think maybe you might boast a little less noisily in the future about how great you’ve got it?


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 18 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    What about Maureen “The Paster” Dowd? She flies around regularly to “report” her column. As I recall, recent excursions have been a trip to a spa in Florida to get a take of the economy among the swells, and one to San Francisco to do a grousing piece on the Twitter guy. Most reporters now are lucky to get cabfare to go across town.

  2. collapse expand

    I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, but if you had done some reporting, or even made a call to the NYT’s flak, you might have found out that an unlimited travel budget applies to all Times columnists. So you can pick on Friedman for talking too much, but I think this story is more about the Times’ approach to journalism than Friedman’s.

  3. collapse expand

    Really? Tom Friedman is the problem with the New York Times? His personal brand, and that of people like Dowd and others, create word of mouth that keeps the paper branded in the minds of people. I couldn’t name a single person writing front page news articles, or metro beats or entertainment reports – I figure I’m an average intelligent reader who isn’t obsessed with the media business. The real problem with the New York Times and many others is that they spend to much and charge too little. At the end of the day they either need to cut costs or charge a lot more. But I’m not sure curbing Friedman’s travel budget (miniscule compared to the cost of printing the Sunday edition) is the way to do it.

  4. collapse expand

    Friedman was, until very recently, considered to be the “wealthiest journalist on the planet,” thanks less to his books or speaking fees than to his wife’s fortune. She’s an heir to General Growth Properties, a massive developer of shopping malls. In Nov., 2008, though, Vanity Fair reported that with that firm’s stock down 99%, “[t]he assorted Bucksbaum family trusts, once worth a combined $3.6 billion, are now worth less than $25 million.” Another factoid, Friedman and spouse live in an 11,000 sq.ft. house.
    Clearly, Friedman brings the Times lots of attention, much of it quite valuable, but less from the kind of younger readers the paper must court, who don’t generally subscribe, than from oldsters who grew up and can’t quit the newspaper habit. When they leave the planet, though, what then?
    I have to say, I always wondered, in shock and awe, at Friedman’s datelines, which seemed, day to day, to move faster across the globe than a Concorde jet. The guy must be having a ball out there, consorting with “Western diplomats” and inspecting car and chip factories and having various government ministers kowtowing left and right. I don’t recall his reporting from the Middle East, but his column is pretty much a snore, even to this paying oldster.

    • collapse expand

      Jealous that I can’t single-handedly say that my personal ego isn’t more important than a (mostly) esteemed news publication? Sort of.

      Since I wrote this blog post about 8 months ago, revelations have emerged that Friedman almost single-handedly got the Times to back off from its early pay wall experiment because he was losing readers in India and China, implication being that it was harder for him to book speaking engagements in those places. Sure, I wish I had that kind of unnatural market power for mostly making shit up from frequent fliers’ lounges and luxury hotels talking to developing world elites, that’d be awesome.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I'm waiting for the day when I can get the news directly into my brain. Until then, I'll be lit up by the electric glow of screens, chasing the latest breaking like the hopeless news junkie I am. Ever since the Encyclopaedia Britannica tried to launch a web portal ten years ago, I've seen many ends of the online news spectrum, from my time as a political news reporter for both RawStory.com and the Huffington Post to the better part of a year I spent running the late New York Sun's website. There have been a lot of other stops in between. Now I am your homepage editorial overlord. But I haven't let it go to my head. Yet.

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