Times’ Angry Inch: Latest Vogue Slices Paper Coulter-Thin

On the evening of July 17, The New York Times announced plans to cut the width of its pages by one and a half inches, or 11 percent.

On July 18, New York Times stock dropped from 23.18 cents a share to 22.67 cents–a decline of 2.2 percent.

In joint memos announcing the page shrinkage, executive editor Bill Keller and Times president Scott Heekin-Canedy both described the smaller format as “reader-friendly.” Mr. Keller also described it as the emerging “industry norm,” which was true: Whatever readers may or may not think of the floppy (or generous) old broadsheet size, the newspaper business has agreed that it is too much–a symbol of archaic inefficiency.

Cutting, then, has become an efficiency ritual: a way of demonstrating that a newspaper is not too attached to … well, to newspaper.

Or to employees. When the smaller Times appears in April 2008, according to plan, the company will have consolidated its printing at its College Point facility, closing its Edison, N.J., plant and eliminating 250 of 800 printing jobs. Pressmen’s Union No. 2 signed a 12-year contract extension with The Times in 2004, agreeing to a 50 percent reduction in its ranks by 2017. Those cuts were supposed to have come through gradual buyouts, after one major initial cutback.

Mr. Keller wrote in his memo that the announcement had come late in the day so that the company could first break the news to the production workers when they arrived for the night shift.

“We just found out,” said John, a pressroom clerk at the Edison plant, who declined to give his last name, when reached by phone July 18. “We’re just trying to digest this.”

The Times’ own news story about the move described papers cutting size industry-wide “as the price of newsprint climbs and newspapers lose readers and advertisers to the Internet.” But correlation is not causation–and in this case, it’s not even correlation. Last year, Slate’s Jack Shafer, following on the work of Philip Meyer in the Columbia Journalism Review, noted that inflation-adjusted newsprint costs are well below their historic peaks.

And trim-size reductions are not a flexible reaction to a sometimes-volatile newsprint market. They’re just cuts. If The Times chose to cut its pages in half, it could budget 50 percent less newsprint. For the ultimate savings, try printing no newspaper at all. (See: losing readers and advertisers to the Internet.)

“This is a business that is in utter panic,” a senior Times staffer said. “And it’s not a well-run business, so Bill’s sort of stuck.”

Mr. Keller used his memo to deliver a bluff, Panglossian reassurance that the paper would not be diminished by getting narrower. Though the pages themselves will be 11 percent smaller, Mr. Keller wrote, the paper will add pages, so the overall loss of space will be more like 5 percent. Citing “flabby or redundant prose” in the paper’s current form, Mr. Keller declared, “I’m convinced that, with good editors and a little time, I could take 5 percent out of any day’s paper and actually make it better.”

“People are depressed,” said another senior Times staffer. “I’m sure you can squeeze 5 percent out of everything. That’s what they always say.”

“It’s an insult to the people doing substance here,” the staffer said.

And the individual parts of the paper are not as fungible as the total amount of space. The two-page spread of editorials and opinions, for instance, can’t instantly pick up another quarter-page to recoup its three-inch loss. Editorial-page editor Gail Collins said her department has no specific plan yet for the smaller format. “I’ve told people up here, of the things to worry about in the near future, this would not be in the top 25,” Ms. Collins said.

Restaurant critic Frank Bruni shared that sense of acceptance. “If these are realistic real-world adjustments we need to make to navigate these times, I don’t think anyone has a problem with that,” he said.

“Do you succeed in reading 95 percent of the paper every day?” Mr. Bruni said. “It suggests to me that we could lose 5 percent and probably live.”

A Times spokesperson wrote via e-mail that answers about page distribution among sections “are yet to be determined.” So what is The Times minus 5 percent? The paper’s current motto runs to 31 characters and spaces. Shaving off roughly 5 percent: “All the News That Fit to Print.”

Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times’ new deputy metro editor for regional coverage, said she has been shopping for a home in Hoboken or Jersey City. The Times itself is less interested in life across the Hudson: Unlike her predecessors, Ms. Rudoren will not be in charge of putting out a weekly New Jersey section.

Last month, in a cost-cutting move, The Times rolled out a combined regional weekly–lumping together the formerly separate New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Westchester sections. With the change, The Times eliminated the four autonomous weekly editors and a batch of regional weekly staff-reporting jobs.

“You have to look where the bread is buttered,” one metro staffer said. “And for The Times, the bread is buttered in covering Lebanon, Iraq and Washington. The Times is not known for how we cover Maplewood, N.J.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Rudoren wrote for The Times about adopting a new married name–and byline–by combining her past name, Wilgoren, with her husband’s old surname, Ruderman. Now she will be directing coverage of a portmanteau territory: New Jernecticichester Island, a hazy area just outside the city, like the middle ground of the old Saul Steinberg view from New York.

And where past region editors were fully in charge of the bureaus, parceling out stories between the daily metro report and the weeklies, Ms. Rudoren is only in charge of the metro section report; the combined weekly is edited by former Trenton bureau chief Jennifer Preston, who reports directly to metropolitan editor Joe Sexton.

Mr. Sexton declined to discuss the regional overhaul; Ms. Preston did not reply to a message seeking comment. “The same reporters provide copy for both,” Ms. Rudoren said. “I had a long meeting with Jennifer Preston, and we’ll work together.”

Staffers for the old regional weeklies are not happy at the consolidation–particularly in the case of the New Jersey Weekly, the most robust of the four operations.

“Of course the news hole is smaller,” said Trenton-based metro reporter Laura Mansnerus, who worked at the New Jersey Weekly before being assigned to metro recently. “It has to be–you’re dividing four sections into one. The total is going to be less.”

The squeeze in New Jersey began last year, when reporter George James retired and wasn’t replaced. Ms. Mansnerus said that staffers at the New Jersey Weekly were tightly knit.

“It was our own little planet. I got to do almost anything I wanted to do,” she said. “[Former New Jersey Weekly editor] Mitch Blumenthal is a madman when it comes to news.

“It was great able to reach around the state. I think we did really serious coverage. I think we did especially good political stuff,” she said.

Now, the coverage will be more general-interest, less local-interest–on the model of the national desk, where Ms. Rudoren worked as Chicago bureau chief.

This is Ms. Rudoren’s first editing job in her eight years at The Times. She was managing editor of the Yale Daily News, but she came to The Times from the Los Angeles Times as a metro reporter, then moved on to cover the Presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry.

“I always thought I’d be an editor eventually,” Ms. Rudoren said. “It’s happened a little earlier than I expected, and a little earlier than many people at The New York Times.”

“I do think that for the region, I have something to offer, having done national reporting,” Ms. Rudoren said. “The regions, in a way, are the part of New York that is most like the rest of the country. We have too few people covering too much territory. And you have to find the best local story with the widest resonance, that has the deepest impact. The story that people will cry over and talk about.”

Since June 23, when The New York Times disclosed a secret Bush administration program to track international bank transfers, conservatives have called for the paper to face prosecution. Republican Congressman Peter King said The Times should be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, and taking it a step further, one radio host, Melanie Morgan, declared that Times executive editor Bill Keller should get the gas chamber if found guilty of treason.

How seriously is The Times taking the demands for prosecution?

Not very. According to Times sources with knowledge of the paper’s legal strategy, Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen have not retained lawyers. Mr. Risen was recently represented by Cahill Gordon during the civil suit brought by Wen Ho Lee, but according to a source with knowledge of matter, Mr. Risen has not retained the firm this time around.

Additionally, The Times’ preferred First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams, hasn’t been called into action.

The Times has not retained me,” Mr. Abrams said. “My sense is they’ll wait and see what happens before taking any additional steps.”

Mr. Lichtblau declined to comment, and Mr. Risen did not return calls seeking comment. Times in-house counsel George Freeman did not return calls seeking comment. But a Times spokesperson said the paper hasn’t heard from the government about the banking story or the paper’s earlier coverage of N.S.A. wiretapping: “We have not been received subpoenas nor have we been contacted by the government. Beyond that, we don’t have anything to add.”

Sources inside the paper suggested that in the event of a real legal crisis, The Times will have learned from its awkward strategy in the case of former reporter Judith Miller–in which it staged a public crusade on press-freedom grounds to keep Ms. Miller from testifying about confidential sources, then saw Ms. Miller cut a deal to testify after 85 days in jail.

The Times is never again going to get on its high horse and say, ‘This is nothing but a First Amendment case,’” one senior Times staffer said.

Ms. Miller’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, said that reporters should retain criminal-defense attorneys in leak investigations.

“In any major criminal investigation,” he said, “it’s always a good idea to have an experienced criminal lawyer who has only one interest in mind, and that is you.”

–G.S. Times’ Angry Inch: Latest Vogue Slices Paper Coulter-Thin