[ed. - Man, do I love the New York Times. Expecially when they give me an excuse to repost an old CNS column from 2003.]
New York, N.Y. - Like the corpses that lazily bob along in the nearby East River, life obeys its own pace in this isolated island community of 8 million in southern New York State.
It is an ancient pace, its cadence dictated by the steady whirr and click-a-clack of word processors, plied by the gnarled hands of skilled opinion craftsmen who once supplied nearly eighty percent of the world's refined punditry output.
To some ears, the din from the mighty opinion mills of this gritty Ink Belt town may be grating; but it has served as a siren call for generations of hungry immigrant OpEd workers.
Each year they come here, from Cambridge and Ithaca and New Haven, young and eager social critics seeking nothing more than an honest day's wage for an honest day's condescension, and perhaps a decent squab pate in white wine reduction.
For the newest generation of polemic workers, though, the promise of that simple Anti-American Dream seems ever more distant. Most of the mills have long fallen silent, tragic victims of cheap foreign radio talk shows and the growing monopoly of multinational corporate blogs.
Now, even the grandest of the old mills - the venerated New York Times 43rd Street Opinion Works - stands at risk. A recent spate of quality control problems, product recalls, management turmoil and a painful round of layoffs is leading many here to worry if the plant is destined to go the way of automats, five cent Cokes and international socialism.
A Family Affair
Like the fertile farms of Iowa and the lucrative protection rackets of New Jersey, New York's newspapers are a family enterprise. And, for the Times, that family is the Sulzbergers.
The family dynasty dates back to 1896, when financier Adolf Ochs purchased the struggling Times for $70,000. Defying his many skeptics, Ochs soon built the Times into a powerhouse. He introduced such innovations as the words 'esne' and 'ern,' which made possible the first crossword puzzle. In 1903 the Times published the first illustrated corset advertisement for Gimbles, creating an awkward sensation among 13-year old boys.
Under Ochs, the Times carefully honed a market niche as purveyor of progressive opinions to New York's growing upper class. Many well-heeled townsmen valued the paper's growing heft, which proved a useful tool for fending off pleading gutter urchins and ragged little match girls.
Ochs retired in 1927, passing control of the factory to son in-law Arthur H. Sulzberger. Under Sulzberger's leadership the Times branched out internationally, sending famed ace reporter Walter Duranty to the Soviet Union to chronicle the annual record wheat harvests from the Ukraine.
The elder Sulzberger remained at the helm from the New Deal through the New Frontier, a period in which the Times garnered praise for its growing professionalism and gravitas. Cartoons were dropped in 1954 in favor of columnist Anthony Lewis, a bold gambit at seriousness that was not detected by readers until 1961.
Control of the business passed to his son, Arthur O. "Punch" Sulzberger, in 1963. Some doubted whether the new scion would measure up to his legendary father and grandfather, but he quickly proved the skeptics wrong.
The tumultuous Sixties were an unprecedented period of growth for the business, as Sulzberger shrewdly positioned the Times to capitalize on the growing demand for liberal opinions.
"They really had a knack for listening to their customers," says Irwin Rothbard, professor of Marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Before columnists would publish an OpEd, they would always carefully test market it at with a representative cross section of heroin junkies at Andy Warhol's Factory, or at one of Leonard Bernstein's weekly Black Panther Fondue & Twister parties."
By 1975 the Times was firmly established as the leading opinion manufacturer in the Northeast, earning plaudits for its bold 'Pentagon Papers' and 'Watergate' lines. Even an ill-fated Asian editorial joint venture with the Khmer Rouge was not enough to dull its market leadership, where it remained throughout the decade.
After 30 years of leading the Times, Sulzberger retired in 1993. After an exhaustive international search of candidates, the board of directors named as his replacement Arthur O. "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr.
"To the casual outside viewer, this might at first seem to have a whiff of nepotism, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Times spokesman Thomas Wilmot. "Pinch is not Punch. Pinch is his own man, honing his keen natural newspaper management instincts at some of the top tennis academies of Sarasota. Plus, we saved over $300 by not having to print new business cards and stationery."
Also denying charges of nepotism were corporate board members Jerome "Poke" Sulzberger, Norbert "Slap" Sulzberger, Richard "Thwack" Sulzberger, Leonard "Spank" Sulzberger, and Harriet "Wedgie" Sulzberger-Smith.
The younger Sulzberger quickly put his strategic imprimatur on the Times , hiring Howell Raines as head of the Editorial Division and Gerald Boyd as his second in command. Raines, a hard-charging Alabaman, was given his orders: increase productivity, by any means necessary.
"Howell really went postal on that," says one line worker who asked not to be identified. "He'd always be over your desk... it was always 'more! more! more! Flood The Zone, dammit!' but, man, there's only so many column inches you can squeeze out of a minor story about a golf club in Georgia."
Some workers say that the emphasis on productivity began to take a toll on morale. Worse yet the company began to experience inventory problems.
"We have so much editorial piling up on the dock, we have to put it somewhere," says a longtime foreman in the paste-up room. "So we started shoving it on the front page, just to get the boss off our backs. Plus, that OpEd stuff really starts to smell if it lays around too long."
Perhaps not coincidentally, the paper began losing its vaunted knack for opinion marketing. While it retains strong loyalty in its hometown, it essentially abandoned the more sophisticated opinion export market west of the Hudson River.
"It's not an easy time to be a company salesman," noted writer Chris Hedges. Delivering a commencement address at an Illinois college in May, Hedges was pelted with ripe tomatoes and cabbages after previewing the Times' new 'Bloodthirsty American Baby Killers' OpEd line.
Hard Times at the Times
Amid the mounting inventories and plummeting demand, nothing prepared the Times for the crushing quality control problems it experienced this spring. Long proud of its tradition of obsessive attention to detail and fact checking, a red-faced Times began the cathartic admission of myriad errors that threatened to overrun its allotted space on Page 2.
By May, the Times had introduced a new daily Section E for previous day corrections, followed by daily Section F, containing meta-corrections of previous day corrections. By the end of the month, it introduced daily Section G, containing open letters from Sean Penn.
Managers were shocked to discover that one worker, 26-year old Jayson Blair, was single handedly responsible for nearly 40% of the corrections reported from February through April, and some began to ask for an inquiry.
Descent Into the Maelstrom
However, in other quarters, there was trepidation. Being African-American, an inquiry into Blair's competence and honesty would likely create tensions on the Times' diverse shop floor. Secondly, Blair was virtually handpicked by Raines as a journalistic wunderkind.
"Everyone knew that Jayson was Howell's favorite and a really fantastic reporter," said one plant insider. "He was so dedicated that he would sometimes fly to France, Australia and Kentucky on the same day to get a good story."
"No wonder he had the stamina to pick up three doctorates by the time he was 16," she added.
Despite his glowing credentials and support from top management, Blair departed on May 1, the result of gross journalistic fraud, plagiarism, and failure to chip in for the office coffee fund.
Another Times writer, veteran correspondent Rick Bragg, was left soon afterwards when an investigation revealed that he was taking byline credit for the plagiarism and fraud of younger workers.
The Blair and Bragg departures sparked a great deal of grumbling among rank-and-file staffers, and some began openly questioning Raines judgment as plant editor.
To quell the growing labor unrest, Sulzberger, Raines, and Boyd called an emergency 'town meeting' for all workers, where they performed a motivational hand puppet show entitled 'Mikey the Moose and His Pals Say: Turn That Frown Upside Down!"
While some in the audience were held spellbound by Raines' and Boyd's dazzling puppetry and infectious singing, the damage was done. By June, they too were gone.
Picking Up the Pieces
In the face of low morale and plummeting demand, Sulzberger remains defiant, steadfastly insisting that increased production will, in fact, create more and more interest in the Times aging product line.
In an interview with Business Week earlier this week, he predicted that "just like the New Beetle, there is a huge retro-Sixties opinion craze out there, just waiting to happen."
Other proponents of management's "make the market" strategy include Bob Herbert, director of the Times ' sprawling Republican Lynch Mobs Are Coming To Get You facility, and Paul Krugman, general manager of the Times' gleaming new 1.2 million square foot Enron Scandaltorium Outlet Mall.
Like Krugman, many on the shop floor maintain a brave face against the specter of additional layoffs. Others, like longtime employee Maureen Dowd, seem to have given up hope.
Described by many as a "spinster with a heart of gold," the matronly Dowd has long been one of Sulzberger's staunchest loyalists. A fixture in the production floor, she has been a popular 'surrogate mom' for generation after generation of OpEd writers.
While her particular production skill - breezy schoolgirl political chat sprinkled with 1979 pop culture references - has long lost its usefulness, she remains ready to help others pundits should they ever need a childish nickname for a Bush administration official
But, as those who know her well explain it, something in Dowd recently changed. Whether it was the increasing pressure for ever-more extreme opinions, or her humiliating jilting at the hands of an elderly Hollywood lothario, co-workers say that Dowd has succumbed to the cheap comforts of ... ellipses.
"At first it was one or two ellipses in the morning before press, 'a little editorial pick-me-up,' you might say," said one co-pundit. "Hey, no big deal. I pop a few every now and then myself."
"Before long, though, she went on wild ellipsis benders - downing entire paragraphs, knocked senseless, completely blotto," he added. "We knew that she hat become a full-on dot head."
Somewhere Over the Raines-bow
Some here worry that mounting financial and production troubles will spell an end to the New York Times, and with it a way of life. For many younger pundits, though, the idea of the hard and gritty work of the mills holds little appeal, even if the Times survives.
"To tell you the truth, I don't know if I want to end up like my old man - punching the clock down on 43rd, chained to an iMac, pushing out another 4000-word whine about tax cuts or Ariel Sharon or looting Baghdad's museums," says Ethan Moran, 19. "Pretty soon you're 50, and all you have to show for it is carpal tunnel syndrome, a permanent sneer and extensive wine vocabulary."
Moran looks out pensively at the cars whizzing by on the nearby interstate. He fixedly gazes on its undulations, how it vanishes on the horizon, a magical gray carpet carrying its passengers to magical distant lands with names like Dayton and Des Moines and Tulsa.
The talk turns to dreams.
"I want to get out of this boring town, go somewhere exciting," he says. "I want to see new things -Mormons, tractor supply companies, parking spaces. I want to see people wearing John Deere caps without grunge irony. I want to grab life, suck the marrow from its bones, and then wash it down with a Pabst Blue Ribbon."
It is an ambitious plan, but Moran may have no choice.
"My parents are probably going to kick me out of the apartment, anyway," he explains. "I'm outing my self as a Republican."