For Times ‘Gold Medalists,’ A Place in the Back Pages

otr1 0 For Times Gold Medalists, A Place in the Back PagesOn Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m., The Times will round up the newsroom on the third floor at its Eighth Avenue building to toast the accomplishments of the 32 reporters and editors who covered the Olympics—the majority of them from the sports department. There will be Champagne and egg rolls to reward the “stunning” coverage The Times produced on the Web, and in the newspaper, wrote executive editor Bill Keller in a staff memo. In an earlier staff e-mail, he lauded the staff and subjected the note, “Our Gold Medalists.”

But in these difficult times, journalistic success is not a protection against the inevitable downscaling affecting the newspaper industry. Just five days earlier, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. informed the staff that starting in October, for four days a week, the sports section would lose its stand-alone section, and would be tucked inside the business section

Similarly, the Metro Section, for six days a week, will be inserted into the A-section, behind the International and National reports.

“The aim, of course, is to save money—and, importantly, to do it without cutting back coverage,” wrote Mr. Keller in a follow-up memo to the announcement by Mr. Sulzberger.

The Metro Section, too, has had a good year—journalistically speaking. In March, Metro editor Joe Sexton’s staff scored the scoop of a lifetime when it broke the story that Eliot Spitzer was caught up in prostitution ring scandal; Spitzer announced his resignation two days after the story broke online.

But since, Metro has been the biggest victim of this very rough year: It lost bodies amid the larger 100 job cuts the paper enacted through buyouts and layoffs; the department was forced to virtually shut down its suburban bureaus in New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island; and every day other than Sunday, it will now be buried behind the International and National reports.

Coincidence or not, Metro and sports are two sections that have been complimented, time and time again, for their Web coverage; the Metro report for its City Room coverage, and sports, most recently, for its Rings blog during the Olympics.

Multiple sources described Mr. Keller and his masthead colleagues resisting the proposal, which originated in the business side of the paper. But these are tough times—and the elimination of these two section fronts stands to save the newspaper a “significant” amount, according to a source who said that Mr. Sulzberger put the savings at $4 million to $5 million a year.

Like many newspapers, these sorts of display and printing changes allow editors to save the overall amount of space reserved for these stories—and to avoid firing any “Gold Medalists.”

Sources with knowledge of the unfolding situation said sometime in the last month, editors left The Times building on Eighth Avenue and watched through one-way glass as the proposal was put before a focus group of regular readers.

“There was concern about how our readers would react,” said a newsroom source. “There was concern whether we were taking something important away from them. It turned out in the reader interviews that it wasn’t a huge deal for them. They kept saying, ‘But will it be the same content?’”

It will, Mr. Keller has since assured the staff. Or at least, they do “not expect” to lose page numbers, content, or more reporters.

But the industry downturn doesn’t show much sign of letting up, does it?

Other solutions had been proposed, according to sources, including one in which the Metro and sports sections were combined into a single section. (Sort of like a mini-New York Post flopping out of the Times?) But that proposal was not seriously considered for very long.

Mr. Keller wrote in an e-mail to staff that they would strongly consider each section for better A1 placement. A source said that both editors pushed for full-color pages when they’re within other sections, but that there was no guarantee that would happen; according to a newsroom source, neither Metro editor Joe Sexton nor sports editor Tom Jolly was “thrilled with the decision, but they understood.”

“I feel bad for not feeling worse about it,” said Mr. Jolly, the paper’s sports editor, to Off the Record. “We would love to have a section front seven days a week, and we would love to have more space. We are also realistic. We’re confident we can maintain the quality work we’ve been producing in print. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.”

And the way things are looking these days, it still could be.

jkoblin@observer.com