Times Assesses Its Relationship To Discovery TV

The New York Times is considering pulling up stakes in its great venture into television.

Though the award-winning but ratings-deficient Discovery Times channel is a 50-50 partnership with Discovery Communications, Discovery currently controls four of the seven seats on its board. According to sources at The Times and the Discovery Channel familiar with the negotiations, The Times wants to add an eighth member.

Or perhaps Times executives may decide not to have a television station at all.

Later this month, The Times will reach a window in its three-year-old deal with Discovery: It will have an option to sell back its stake, for which The Times paid $100 million.

If The Times chooses, the company may exercise that option to sell, or negotiate for a future opt-out window. The Times’ option was first revealed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, and was reported last week by the Rocky Mountain News.

In November, Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. told Charlie Rose that Discovery Times “is our big step into television,” and the paper’s strategy was to “create a television leg as well.”

But now, a senior Times staffer described the discussions going on inside the paper this way: “What kind of video should we do? Is it the stuff for the Web? For podcasts? While the documentaries are wonderful and they win prizes, are they worth the money?”

Three years ago, The Times created its Internet video unit. Lawrie Mifflin, The Times’ executive director of television and radio, oversees both Web and television operations.

Last year, The Times closed its in-house television-production company, located in the West Village. According to Times sources with knowledge of the decision, the paper decided that the facility could only be profitable if the unit produced a large volume of programming.

This week, on April 3, The Times unveiled a redesigned Web site, where Web video is given prominent presence. The Times currently produces 14 or 15 Web videos a week, which range in length from two minutes to as long as seven minutes. The Times’ Web site currently holds close to 300 video clips.

“I’ll be glad to talk to you about this after this Discovery thing is resolved one way or the other,” said deputy managing editor Jon Landman, who oversees the paper’s Web operation.

According to Times and Discovery sources, the channel is profitable, but viewership remains scant. While Discovery Times is available in 36 million households, the channel resides in the exurbs of cable land. Currently, Nielsen doesn’t release Discovery Times’ ratings.

“We have a position on the dial you couldn’t find with a Sherpa,” one Times staffer said.

One report in BusinessWeek last January put Discovery Times at 27,000 nightly viewers.

In February 2006, according to Nielsen NetRatings, The Times’ Web site had 12.7 million unique visitors.

“We couldn’t be happier with the Discovery Times channel,” said Discovery spokesman David Leavy. “ The New York Times has been an excellent partner; journalistically, the channel has created wonderful programming. The channel is profitable, and the brand has a lot of strength after three short years.”

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis declined to comment.

The Times and Discovery Communications are being sued by 5,000 medical patients in New Jersey. Gerald Clark, an attorney with the New Jersey firm Lynch Keefe Bartels, represents the plaintiffs. He said that Times camera crews for Trauma: Life in the ER filmed his clients without consent and violated medical-privacy laws.

Already, Mr. Clark said, The Times has settled with two individual plaintiffs. The judge did not uphold the national class-action suit, and the case is awaiting an appeal with the New Jersey Appellate Court in Trenton.

“As you know, the plaintiffs sought a national class action, which was defeated,” said Ms. Mathis. “They were only able to get a class in New Jersey, which we are currently appealing. We believe we will be successful with the appeal.”

In 2001, a Times deal to partner with NewsHour and air a nightly newscast on PBS was not consummated. In 2003, it was reported that The Times flirted with CBS’ 60 Minutes II; also in 2003, The Times and ABC News discussed a potential partnership to cover the 2004 Presidential campaign. Neither venture materialized.

Last summer, The Times tested a pilot 60-minute newscast called Times Seven, which the paper co-produced with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The test was cancelled after four episodes.

Lord Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower is open for business: On Monday, about 60 Hearst I.T. employees moved into the 10th floor. They are the first of the company’s staffers to populate the gleaming 46-story shaft thrusting up out of the landmarked Art Deco façade of William Randolph Hearst’s media headquarters on Eighth Avenue.

“We’re telling people, ‘When you pack your boxes, you can leave your old ideas about architecture behind,’” Hearst spokesman Paul Luthringer said.

That’s not all they’ll be leaving behind. Between the building’s energy-efficiency rules and its high-toned aesthetics—waterfall-accented 10-story atrium, in-house gym, 164-seat screening room—staffers have been given strict guidelines over what items will and will not be permissible in the new space. Furniture, wall-hanging artwork, desk lamps and a host of appliances are all banned. Items that don’t make the cut will be shipped to staffers’ homes.

Mr. Luthringer confirmed the moving protocols.

“We’re telling people we’ll be providing state-of-the-art computers, so they don’t need to bring TV’s, VCR’s, DVD players, devices with speakers and fax machines,” Mr. Luthringer said. “Also space heaters, fans, microwaves, coffeemakers, wall clocks—with the idea being that all of this is going to be provided in some way or other.”

If Hearst staffers are confused over what is and isn’t allowed, the company has appointed “move captains” for every magazine and division at the company to answer questions. Each “move captain” will direct groups of 25 employees.

Beginning next month and continuing through August, Hearst will be gathering the rest of the 2,000 staffers from its 18 magazine titles—currently spread across nine Manhattan locations—and move them into the building, starting from the 10th-floor and working up.

Mr. Luthringer said the staggered move dates have been scheduled so as not to interfere with the magazines’ closing schedules.

—G.S.

When Lewis Lapham appeared at the April 4 luncheon in his honor at Michael’s, the now-emeritus editor of Harper’s radiated satisfaction. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was on his way out of Congress, under the weight of scandal, and Mr. Lapham could scarcely contain his glee as he spoke about malfeasance brought low at last, a rare victory for the forces of light in an age of—

Actually, that whole paragraph was fabricated before lunch. When in Rome—and we are in Rome, as Mr. Lapham has written. Or Weimar Germany, or the Mayan empire. Some place, at any rate, that Mr. Lapham can peer at through the fat end of a telescope, with haughty distance. Hence the 2004 episode in which Mr. Lapham expressed his disgust with the speeches at the Republican National Convention, in an essay published before the Republicans had, technically speaking, convened.

Harper’s, Mr. Lapham said in his post-lunch remarks, “puts a great premium on the singular voice. What people have learned from their own experience.” This was at the actual luncheon, hosted by the American Society of Magazine Editors, in the Garden Room at the rear of Michael’s. Mr. Lapham’s cantankerous writing persona was not in evidence. Nor did he dwell on the day’s headlines. He is the editor-to-be of Lapham’s Quarterly, a historical publication.

Still the essays will keep coming, with Harper’s under the supervision of Mr. Lapham’s chosen successor, Roger Hodge. There were enough major editors in attendance to make one table around Mr. Lapham: GQ’s Jim Nelson, Glamour’s Cindi Leive, Sports Illustrated’s Terry McDonell. No New Yorker, no Atlantic. Mr. Hodge, in angular spectacles, sat at the next table over. In the far corner was a spray of pink blossoms.

Mr. McDonell had introduced Mr. Lapham by recalling the Lapham of yore, one of a class of dashing correspondents who seemed to have “a lot of new friends in their lives.” The phrasing brought knowing chuckles from the alpha table.

Mr. Lapham told stories. His anecdotes are polished to pleasing smoothness, like stones from a river. He told the one about his first assignment, writing 4,000 words on a flower show and having it cut down, draft by draft, to a paragraph: “And that was my introduction to the art of editing.” He told about having the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine die out from under him.

In a press release for the event, Mr. Lapham was quoted as saying he had “arrived at the point where I would prefer to read Machiavelli than listen to Karl Rove.” Mr. Lapham told the story of how he moved up at Harper’s, in the wake of Willie Morris’ resignation. “On Monday, I was a contract writer who had been in the office twice,” he said. “On Tuesday I was the acting managing editor.” Morris’ memoirs fill in some of the other details.

The hubbub of the main Michael’s dining room drifted in. Mr. Lapham talked about the glories of writing and the rise of the curious notion that working for the press was a respectable trade. It had not always been thus. He told the story of a cocktail party on the Upper East Side, long ago, when he was a reporter for the Herald Tribune—“the happiest kid in the world.” A beautiful girl had asked him what he did for a living. He told her.

“She looked at me with indulgent, faint contempt,” Mr. Lapham said. “And she said, ‘Oh, what are you going to do when you grow up?’”

The editors laughed. “It wasn’t a classy profession,” Mr. Lapham said, “and it wasn’t particularly in love with itself.” And that was O.K.

“Now,” Mr. Lapham said, “you have to have a fur coat.”

Mr. Lapham sat down and tucked into his chocolate cake and ice cream.

—Tom Scocca

Next month, Howell Raines’ memoir, The One That Got Away, lands on bookshelves. It will be accompanied by a national media blitz that begins with a Today show appearance. But until then, Mr. Raines isn’t giving much away.

On the afternoon of March 24, the former New York Times executive editor spoke to a roomful of Nieman journalism fellows at Harvard University in an off-the-record seminar at the Lippmann House in Cambridge. While the Nieman Foundation runs off-the-record seminars for its 23 fellows, Mr. Raines’ talk was given special off-the-record status: Nieman fellows were told by e-mail before the Friday-afternoon session that no outside guests were permitted at Mr. Raines’ chat.

Off the record or not, Mr. Raines remained tight-lipped during the talk about his Times career and his unceremonious exit from the paper following the Jayson Blair debacle. Inquisitive Nieman fellows were told by Mr. Raines that if their questions were about The Times, they would have to wait for the book.

“We all hoped to get some insights into his tenure at The Times,” a fellow said. “We hoped that would occur. It just didn’t. He was so guarded, a lot of us were frustrated.”

Nieman curator Bob Giles said the terms of Mr. Raines’ off-the-record session were no different from those of the outside lecturers who are brought in during the academic year to speak to Nieman fellows.

“We set up our seminars on an off-the-record basis to encourage people to come in and be open and candid with Nieman fellows,” Mr. Giles said. “This is not a press conference—no one will be writing anything out of these discussions.”

—G.S.