Times Scores a PR Win in WSJ Battle

bill keller getty1 Times Scores a PR Win in WSJ BattleOn Tuesday morning, The New York Times filled a seven-month vacancy and announced the hiring of a new spokesman. Bob Christie, a seven-year veteran as spokesman for The Wall Street Journal, will be the Times Company’s senior vice president of corporate communications starting March 22. 

In the increasingly visible war between The Times and The Journal, score a point for The Times! Mr. Christie’s defection comes in the midst of a bitter war between the two papers, as The Journal prepares a New York section to launch on April 12.

But it may be a score in a more meaningful way for Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

In recent years, as revenues have eroded and bad press has piled on, the paper’s PR strategy, which was led by Catherine Mathis, then the communications director, hasn’t been entirely clear.

The Times has always seemed most comfortable with a posture of dignified silence when a bit of bad press came at it. After all, at the end of the day, The New York Times is The New York Times. No comment, thank you very much, even if we are a newspaper.

But in an age of partisan screaming and endless sniping on the Web, keeping to itself hasn’t done much to shield the Times brand name.
In 2008, after the paper published its famously opaque Vicki Iseman–John McCain story, the paper stayed quiet. And for that, The Times was roundly ridiculed on the Web and on television. The narrative seemed established: The Times blew it. Bill Keller later told his staff he regretted sitting on his hands.

And yet, little changed. In 2009, after The Atlantic and Vanity Fair each wrote fairly blistering commentaries on the State of The Times, the paper responded, however awkwardly, with responses in the Letters to the Editor section in each magazine. The Times felt compelled to dignify the stories with a response after the fact, but still, letters to James Bennet and Graydon Carter don’t appear to be the most brass-knuckled tactic in defending the paper’s good name.

At a meeting last spring, when reporters directed questions to the company’s executives, a metro reporter wondered why The Times was slow to respond to negative coverage. Ms. Mathis grabbed the microphone and said she was working on a charm offensive with media reporters like Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff. When we contacted Mr. Wolff to ask him about it, he said he had barely heard from her

Ms. Mathis also said she was hard at work putting more reporters on television. The best way for the people to know The Times is to know its reporters, she argued.

When The Times opened its doors and let the world take a look at its news operation a month after that meeting, it was in an interview with Jason Jones of The Daily Show. The appearance was a widely panned debacle. Two months later, Ms. Mathis left The Times for a job at Standard & Poor’s.
Will Mr. Christie be able to bring a coherent press-relations policy to The Times? Mr. Christie said he didn’t want to comment on his new job until he gets there, but there are signals that he may be able to get things under control. Mr. Christie is a veteran of rough press—he oversaw The Journal’s communications during the Rupert Murdoch takeover, and its aftermath—and he was well known and well liked within the Journal newsroom. The same could not be said of Ms. Mathis, whom reporters and editors seemed to know in passing, if at all.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Mr. Christie might be able to reveal a few secrets about The Times’ biggest enemies in the press these days, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson.

jkoblin@observer.com

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