We’d just like to have more and more and more,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the New York Times editorial-page editor.
Mr. Rosenthal was discussing the newspaper’s opinion content on the Web—whether from name-brand op-ed columnists or outside contributors, blogs or video.
“We’ve got composers, astronomers—the guy from Queen,” Mr. Rosenthal said by phone April 9. He was referring to two recent blogs, The Score and Across the Universe. The latter features onetime doctoral student Brian May, whose previous writings include “We Will Rock You.”
In the three months since he took over the top editorial-page job from Gail Collins, Mr. Rosenthal has been waving his TimesSelect banner all over the place. “College kids are writing for us—who are about to graduate,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Gawker, which insists it never reads TimesSelect, did an item on one of our college bloggers.”
As the opinion staff prepares to vacate its 10th-floor offices on 43rd Street for the lucky 13th floor of the Times Tower, Mr. Rosenthal is shoveling resources toward the Internet—and toward the opinion section’s much-debated online pay-to-read section.
“Andy is so incredibly smart about the Web,” Ms. Collins said. “He’s way more attuned than I was.”
In July, Ms. Collins is due to go back to a previous job, as a twice-weekly op-ed columnist. As editor, she helped herd the pundits—accustomed to free distribution and domination of the Most E-Mailed List—behind the TimesSelect pay wall. “Nobody likes it,” Ms. Collins said. “But I was always grateful that when we started the first time, that the columnists who hated it were so reasonable about the Times experimenting with this.”
Now? “I’m in that grumpy-but-understanding state the columnists were in,” Ms. Collins said.
And Mr. Rosenthal is smitten with his premium-paying—or, in the latest paywall gap, .edu-address-having—readers. “They tend to post with greater frequency than elsewhere,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “It’s extremely good. A lot of them post with their full name.”
“You don’t wonder, when it says ‘Joe Blow,’ whether there’s a Joe Blow at the other end,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
According to The Times’ figures, there are about 218,000 Joe Blows who’ve signed up to read TimesSelect online (another 414,000 get it thrown in with their paper subscriptions). Mr. Rosenthal has assigned deputy op-ed editor George Kalogerakis—the Robin Gibb of Spy magazine—to take a more active role with TimesSelect, bringing in top contributors. Current TimesSelect staff editor Mary Duenwald will take on a matching deputy-editor job, concentrating more on the print side.
In December, Mr. Rosenthal set up another dual-role arrangement, bringing in a pair of deputy editorial-page editors: David Shipley to focus on the Web and Carla Anne Robbins to concentrate on print and to run the page when Mr. Rosenthal is away.
Both Mr. Kalogerakis and Ms. Duenwald will report to Mr. Shipley. “David’s been given a big mandate to do Internet stuff,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
Mr. Rosenthal said he envisions print and the Web complementing one another, with “stuff that starts online and continues in the paper, or stuff that starts in the paper and goes online.”
Certain contributors are straddling the formats: Deadspin editor Will Leitch, who has written for the print op-ed page, wrote an NCAA basketball blog last month for TimesSelect. And Stanley Fish, the Florida International University law and humanities professor, has been through three permutations—print op-eds that are free online, guest print columns for the vacationing Maureen Dowd that are TimesSelect online, and Web-only TimesSelect pieces.
Mr. Fish said his involvement at The Times “has been gradually increasing” over the last 12 years. In late 2006, as Mr. Rosenthal was preparing to take over the top job, Mr. Fish signed a one-year renewable contract to write a once-a-week Web column.
“The primary difference between TimesSelect and the op-ed page is the restriction in length,” Mr. Fish said. “It’s quite specific when you’re writing for the op-ed page. It’s about 730 words—800 if they feel generous.”
“They say the proposition of hanging clarifies the mind,” Mr. Fish said. “Saying something significant in 730 words also clarifies the mind.”
On TimesSelect, Mr. Fish has written a piece stretching to some 2,200 words.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, Mr. Rosenthal said. “Going into the Internet business,” he said, “there was this holy writ that no one would read past the screen. I think that’s proven to not be true.”
After writing a 1,300-word column on the 2008 election, posted late on the evening of April 8, Mr. Fish said he has already received enough feedback that he’s planning to write a response on the Web.
Even more recursively, TimesSelect includes an opinion blog about opinion, called The Opinionator. The blog’s author, Chris Suellentrop, has been working from Boston as a contract writer. He is scheduled to join the full-timers as a staff editor in late May, just after the three-block move. The position he’s taking is one due to be vacated on May 4 by Laura Secor. Ms. Secor, who wrote 5,000 words for the Times Magazine on Iran in January, is off to write a book on the subject of Iranian reform and democracy movements.
Mr. Rosenthal said that he currently plans for Mr. Suellentrop to keep writing The Opinionator, though that may prove difficult with his new duties.
“We’re moving forward,” Mr. Rosenthal said. Also westward! He will be giving up what he calls an “incredible office,” which includes two rooms and a private bath—and a building full of memories, where his father, the late A.M. Rosenthal, was executive editor.
“We’ve been in this building a long time,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “The nostalgia started to wear off when it stopped smelling like ink.”
To Arms! Shareholders Gird For Battle With Sulzbergers
I’ve spoken to Hassan Elmasry at Morgan Stanley,” said Paul Munn, the commercial director of Hermes Equity Ownership Services. “We broadly feel that the points he’s making are correct.”
Mr. Munn’s London-based firm owns just over 31,000 shares of the New York Times Company. While not a significant holder, Hermes advises major investors and met with The Times in late 2006, according to Mr. Munn. He was on the phone April 10, two weeks before the Times Company’s annual meeting.
Last year, Mr. Elmasry used the meeting to stage a shareholder revolt, in which nearly 30 percent of voters withheld their ballots for the company’s Class A directors. It was a protest against the dual-class stock structure—which gives ultimate power to the Class B shareholders of the Ochs-Sulzberger family trust—and the corporate governance that has followed from it.
That means the leadership of chairman and publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.
“We generally try not to withhold votes against directors,” Mr. Munn said. “We’re still weighing things up. We’ve yet to come to a conclusion.”
Mr. Elmasry, on the other hand, appears to be set on another round of punching. He has spent the past year continuing to criticize the company’s structure, in letters to the Times Company if not on-the-record press interviews. And other disaffected investors are following his lead. This month, two proxy advisors called for a repeat of last year’s non-vote: On April 5, Institutional Shareholder Services issued a report, with Glass Lewis & Co. weighing in four days later.
“Those [Class A] directors that receive the high withhold should take that as a signal that they should prod the [Class B] directors into making changes,” said Robert McCormick, a vice president at Glass Lewis, by phone from San Francisco.
“It’s obviously unrealistic for a minority group of directors in a family-owned structure to force change,” Mr. McCormick said. However, he added, the Class A directors “are not fostering improved corporate governance.”
Although I.S.S. and Glass Lewis are “fierce competitors,” as Mr. McCormick put it, both firms have also called for disallowing one person to serve as both publisher and chairman, as Mr. Sulzberger does now. Glass Lewis, however, is not recommending changing the stock structure that allows the family to choose nine of 13 board members.
“The newspaper industry is going through a very challenging time, a transformation that’s unlike any other—at least in my lifetime,” said Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis, in response to the two reports. “Shareholders are concerned about the future.”
Ms. Mathis noted that The Times is the Web’s leading news site. “The difference between No. 1 and No. 2 has widened over time,” Ms. Mathis said.
Additionally, Ms. Mathis said that the company had reduced its expense base and increased its dividend since last year. And she said it was bringing the Class A investors deeper into governance: “At least one member of the audit, nominating and governance, and compensation committees is always on the Class A slate,” Ms. Mathis said. “All of our independent directors rotate through the Class A slate once every three years.”
But will people be willing to participate in the election?
“Some of these smaller things; they have been important steps,” Mr. Munn said. “But there is clearly a skepticism amongst investors that is felt at a deep level. I get the impression that what’s been addressed are easy wins.”
Both Mr. Sulzberger and C.E.O. Janet Robinson are expected to address the meeting, which is scheduled for April 24 at the New Amsterdam Theatre.
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