Saturday, 1 December 2007
Bill Keller's Hugo Young lecture
From The Guardian:
Full text: Bill Keller's Hugo Young lecture
Not dead yet: the newspaper in the days of digital anarchy
This is the full text of this year's memorial lecture which was delivered tonight at Chatham House in London
Here you can read the comment of Jeff Jarvis
Bill Keller, executive editor, New York Times
Thursday November 29 2007
It's an honour to be invited to speak at an event commemorating Hugo Young, whom I never met but much admired. Alan [Rusbridger, the Guardian editor] mentioned that I spent a brief time as a columnist. It was not so much a career move as a consolation prize. What happened was, in 2001 I was the dark horse in a race for the top job at The New York Times. I lost to a candidate with more experience and charisma, and column-writing became my blissful exile for 20 months - until the other guy's charisma ran out.
As it happened, my 20 months as a columnist coincided with the end of Hugo Young's life. I presume no comparison. He was a master, I was a novice, and my approach to the job of having opinions was constrained by a life spent in an American journalistic culture that obliges us to keep our opinions to ourselves. (More about that later.) Hugo was also wiser than I on some things, including the biggest issue of the day. He foresaw the catastrophe that the war in Iraq would become, whereas I - out of a combination of contrarianism and wishful thinking - thought the United States was capable of eliminating a murderous tyrant without making a lethal hash of it. Someday I may pass back into the land of opinion-writing, and if so I will revisit the columns I wrote in those days. I expect Hugo's ghost will be there to help me on with my hair shirt.
I do feel, despite our obvious differences, a kind of kinship. Hugo and I each found a happy marriage to a woman from the opposite side of the Atlantic. (His Lucy and my Emma are here tonight, both praying that I do no harm to what's left of the special relationship.) Hugo and I shared an opportunistic, love-hate relationship with the New York Yankees baseball team. We both grew up Catholic, and we both felt that our upbringing entitled us to weigh in on the imperiousness of the church. My favourite piece of reader feedback, which I still keep propped on my desk, is a postcard from an angry nun named Sister Veronica McRooney who was upset by a column in which I suggested certain similarities between the Vatican and the Kremlin. The postcard is a picture of Pope John Paul II with this message typed on the back: "Obey your holy priests and bishops or risk excommunication, anathema and eternal hellfire!!" - two exclamation points. If Sister Veronica read the Guardian she might well have posted some anathema and hellfire to Hugo, who once declared that the pope's policies on contraception amounted to "literally, a crime against humanity".
What I most respect in Hugo's work, and aspire to in my own, is a sense that things are complicated - a distaste for glib simplification, a resistance to the craving for moral clarity that has been so much the fashion in my country in the years of George W Bush. Hugo once wrote, in the introduction to a collection of his writing, "The duty of elucidation falls more heavily on the columnist than simple side-taking, and I hope the complexities, and my sense of agonised indecision, show through the prose."
I don't know how successful I was at elucidation in my own columns, but I had no shortage of agonised indecision, and I consider that a point of pride. If we have a higher purpose, those of us in the press, I think it is to challenge lazy certainty, conventional wisdom and complacency.
My assignment tonight is to talk about the state of newspapers in America. No doubt you have read that newspapers, at least in my country, are beleaguered. That is undeniable. Let me count the ways.
To begin with, we have endured nearly seven years of the most press-phobic government in a couple of generations. I don't intend to blame the plight of the newspaper business on George Bush. He did not invent our great disrupter, the internet. (That, you recall, was Al Gore.) The Bush administration has merely fed a current of public antipathy that has been running against us for a long time, a consequence of our own failings and, perhaps, a tendency to blame the messenger when news is bad. But Mr Bush has contributed to that unwelcoming environment in at least two significant ways.
First, he has rejected out of hand the quaint idea of our founders that the press has a constructive role to play in American society, and that this role consists in supplying citizens with the information to judge whether they are being well served by their government. The Bush administration believes that information is power, and that like most other forms of power it is not to be shared with those the regime does not trust. It most decidedly does not trust us.
Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated freedom of information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration's determination to dominate the flow of information - from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army.
The most acute conflicts between the Bush administration and the press have concerned our handling of sensitive information about how our government has waged its war on terror. Since September 11 2001, editors in America have faced some excruciating choices, as the attempt to wage a war against a new kind of enemy sometimes strained the boundaries of our laws and values. On several occasions, editors of major American papers have withheld information because we were convinced that publishing it could put lives at risk. On other occasions, however, we have decided to publish classified information over strong objections from the government.
My own paper's most serious run-in with President Bush, as I'm sure you all know, concerned our disclosure in 2005 that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of Americans without the nicety of a legal warrant. We held this story for more than a year, and listened to fierce appeals from a galaxy of officials, including a sobering admonition from the president himself - before we were thoroughly convinced that the importance of the story to our readers outweighed any conceivable utility to terrorists.
We have no Official Secrets Act in the United States, which means we have considerably more license than the press in this country to publish classified information when we can get our hands on it. The only prior restraint is the restraint we choose to exercise. But the government has plenty of weapons at hand after publication, and in this case they were fully deployed, beginning with attacks on our integrity and patriotism, continuing with an FBI leak investigation and the convening of a grand jury to consider criminal charges, and ending, well, we know not where, since the official pursuit continues, and it continues for the most part in secret.
Similar official outrage and retribution have followed upon press disclosures of secret CIA prisons, of the treatment of inmates in Guantánamo and Afghanistan, of extraordinary rendition, which is the outsourcing of interrogation to countries less squeamish about torture. Honourable people may disagree with any of our choices - a decision to publish or a decision not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government, which has no interest in disclosing its own transgressions or abuses. That is what sets us apart from the kind of deferential, mouthpiece journalism common to countries with one-party governments.
The White House and its allies have done an excellent job of putting the press on the defensive. Much of my time in the past few years has been consumed explaining why the founding fathers entrusted someone like me with the right to defy the president. It's instructive, though, to turn the spotlight around, and pose this question: what are the consequences for our national security of the White House zeal to tighten controls on the flow of information?
For one thing, I strongly suspect that these attempts to enforce a single, authorised version of 'The Truth' have backfired. The evidence for that lies in the identity of some of our best sources. They are military
officers appalled by the rosy portrayal of our triumphs in Iraq, government lawyers disturbed by what they see as a cavalier attitude toward civil liberties and the balance of powers, career intelligence officers who feel their work has been massaged to conform to what their superiors want to hear. As our media columnist David Carr once wrote: leaks tend to affect ships that aren't seaworthy to begin with.
The distaste for debate and dissent has another, higher cost. Fighting terrorists, whatever method you choose, depends on making alliances at home and abroad. It depends on a consensus of the civilised world. And I wonder whether the discrediting of honest critics, the unwillingness to trust anyone except a cohort of diehard loyalists - has undermined the unity of purpose essential to such a struggle.
If that is true, then the coverage I've been discussing is not just something to defend as our constitutional right; it is something to be celebrated as an obligation fulfilled. I believe this coverage has raised important questions about the proper balance between liberty and security, and about the limits on executive power in our democracy. It has emboldened the courts and Congress to better play their assigned roles in the system of checks and balances. It has blossomed into one of the most urgent political debates of our time, joining the question of how we protect ourselves to the question of what exactly it is that we are protecting.
Later I'll get to the question of how the newspaper will survive; but I think the role the press has played in holding the government to account for its war on terror reminds us why it must survive.
Besides a decided preference for operating in the dark, the Bush administration has contributed to the woes of the press in another way. It has helped create a toxic climate for the press by inflaming the polarisation of our public. At least since the election of 2000, with its attendant questions of legitimacy, some of the wide, reasonable middle of the American electorate has gravitated to angry and intolerant fringes, right and left. There are many reasons for this - including the proliferation of partisan blogs, hate-mongering radio broadcasts and intemperate television shout shows - but a president plays a considerable role in setting the tone of public discourse, and the tone of public discourse in my country has been nasty. It has been nasty by design; dividing the electorate into mistrustful camps and pandering to their fears was an explicit strategy of the president's political wizard, Karl Rove.
Polarisation, wrote David Frum, who was a speechwriter in Mr Bush's first term, was Karl Rove's specialty. He united his own base on one side, and united his opponents on the other side.
Now, as the journalists present can attest, newspapering is not a business for the thin of skin. At the [New York] Times we have always had bright, opinionated readers who felt fully entitled to tell us when we did something stupid. We have learned to live with a swelling chorus of media critics, professional and amateur. A the Times, we actually pay somebody good money - a public editor, we call him -- to periodically air our dirty laundry in the pages of The New York Times. As a believer in free speech, I have always expected to be hoisted on my own petard.
But I think the polarisation of our political life together with the free-for-all of the internet have contributed to a climate of intolerance, a closing of minds, a sense that competing viewpoints are not merely to be refuted, but obliterated. We don't debate, we demonise. Occasionally the hostility is clever. Earlier this year the New York Times announced that it would be converting to a narrower page format. Somebody immediately posted a message that shot around the right-wing blogosphere: "One and a half
inches down" it said. "Twelve inches to go."
Too often, though, the critics are shrill, personal, and humourless - neo-Bolsheviks and mini-McCarthy's. After our decision to report on the government's warrantless wiretapping program, some members of the administration's amen chorus proposed that the Times be charged with treason under the Espionage Act. A right-wing radio pundit suggested that I be put to death. And another defender of the national interest posted maps to my apartment - and my publishers' - on the internet, for the benefit of any lunatics who wanted to drop by and set us straight. Those of you who are acquainted with New York apartment life can imagine how that went over with my co-op board.
And then there is the business of our business. As has been widely reported, many daily newspapers are staggering from an exodus of subscribers, a migration of advertisers to the web, and the rising costs of just about everything. Newspapers are closing bureaus and hollowing out their reporting staffs.
At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, "How are you?" in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce.
A journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, named Philip Meyer, has done some studies about the decline of American newspaper readership. His extrapolation of the data shows that, if newspapers do nothing to change their ways, they will lose their very last reader in the year 2044. In October, if you want to mark your calendars.
On the stock exchanges, the value of newspaper shares has declined. Of the dwindling number of quality titles in the US, several are being bought up by new owners who seem completely free of nostalgia for the idea of journalism as a public trust.
It is possible to find a silver lining in the fact that billionaires are lining up to buy newspapers. Sam Zell, the colourful real estate mogul who is in the midst of acquiring a proud chain that includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, recently told an interviewer, "All I can tell you is that for a dead industry with no future, there are an awful lot of schmucks who want to take it away from me!" As a shareholder, I'd like to take heart from that thought, but as an editor I'll wait until I see what Mr Zell and his peers actually do with their new trophies.
I am comparatively lucky. The New York Times is a national paper - one of only three, along with the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, or three and a half if you could the Washington Post - which is a local paper with a national website. Our paid circulation has held up better than local and regional newspapers, because we continue to open new markets to home delivery. More important, like my friends at the Guardian, I work for a news organisation that is protected from the worst panics of our business - in our case, not by a trust but by a family of proprietors with a rare sense of civic responsibility, by a stock structure that insulates us to some degree from the upheavals of the market, and by executives who understand that you can't produce journalism without journalists. We have tightened our belts, to be sure, and there are days when we feel that we are defying gravity, but while many of our competitors have been retreating, we have continued to invest in more and better journalism - knowing that it is the strength of our brand. While some newsrooms are at war with the people who run the business, at my paper we've managed to sustain, at least so far, a sense of shared purpose that unites the people who make the journalism and the people who sell the journalism. That collaboration has helped us to engineer more rigorous management of our costs; it has created a spate of profitable new print products; and it has driven a company-wide focus on our flourishing web platforms that has put us, I think, several laps ahead of most other news organisations in the transition to a more digital world.
For all of the woes besetting our business, I believe with all my heart that newspapers - whether they are distributed to your doorstep, your laptop, your iPhone or a chip implanted in your cerebral cortex - will be around for a long time. Newspapers, including at least a few very good newspapers, will survive, simply put, because of that basic law of market economics: supply and demand. The supply of what we produce is sadly diminishing. And the demand has never been greater.
I probably don't have to convince this audience that there is a demand for news. People crave trustworthy information about the world we live in. Some people want it because it is essential to the way they make a living. Some want it because they regard being well-informed as a condition of good citizenship. Some want it because they want something to exchange over dinner tables and water coolers. Some want it so they can get the jokes on the late-night TV shows. There is a demand, a market, for journalism.
And I would argue that in this clattering, interconnected, dangerous world, journalism that cuts through the noise has never been needed more. We have a war going very badly in Iraq, and another one in Afghanistan where our declaration of victory looks very premature. We have nuclear Pakistan on the brink of chaos. We have an America whose standing in the world is at low ebb. We have a global terror threat that makes us wish for the simple enmities of the Cold War - although anyone who follows Russia these days has to think, be careful what you wish for. We have, at last, a consensus that our climate is warming at a dangerous pace. North Korea has joined the club of nuclear nations, and Iran seems determined to follow. Technology and demographics have rocked the foundations of many industries (not just my own). We have new leadership in Britain, France and Germany, among other places. In America we have the most interesting presidential campaign since at least 1968 - possibly the first campaign with more candidates than voters. We have Darfur. Hugo Chavez. China and India.
In other words, something is happening out there, and if we don't understand it, it's not just the newspaper business that is in peril.
And at this time of desperate need for reliable news reporting, the supply is dwindling.
That may sound like a strange thing to say in the age of 'too much Information'. You turn on your computer and there is a media tsunami: blogs, Google News, RSS feeds, social sites like MySpace and file-sharing programs like YouTube. You can harvest it from around the world. You can customize it. You can have it delivered to your cell phone. You know where many thousands of younger readers go these days to follow breaking news stories? They go - or at least they are sent by search engines - to Wikipedia, an online, communal encyclopaedia written and edited by ¡ well, essentially written and edited by any passerby who wants to log on and contribute.
My friend Jeff Jarvis, a blogger of long-standing and professor of journalism at the City University of New York - refers to news bloggers as "citizen journalists", which has a sweet, idealistic ring to it. Jeff, like many of the most ardent true believers in the blog revolution, suggests that the mainstream media can be largely replaced by a self-regulating democracy of voices, the wisdom of the crowd.
It is certainly true that technology has lowered the barriers to entry in the news business. The old joke that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one is now largely inoperative. Freedom of the press now belongs to anyone with an Internet Service Provider. This is all unsettling to the traditional news business, but it is also an opportunity. In an easy-entry business, success goes to those who - and here you must supply those ironic quote marks - move up the value chain. That is, you succeed by offering something of real value that the newcomers cannot match.
As it happens, newspapers have at least two important assets that none of the digital newcomers even pretend to match. One is that we deploy worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events and help our readers understand them. This work is expensive, laborious, sometimes unpopular, and occasionally perilous.
The New York Times has six correspondents assigned to Iraq, plus a rotating cast of photographers, plus Pentagon correspondents who regularly travel with the troops. We employ, in addition, about 80 brave Iraqis - many of them handpicked stringers based in towns that are no longer safe for westerners. Sustaining the Baghdad bureau costs several million dollars a year. We take extraordinary precautions to keep our people safe, but two of our Iraqi colleagues have been murdered in cold blood, almost certainly because they worked for an American organisation.
There are lots and lots of places you can go for opinions about the war, but there are few places, and fewer by the day, where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening. Here's a statistic that should make your heart sink. When Saddam Hussein fell, there were more than 1,000 western reporters in Iraq. Today, at any given time, there are about 50.
Baghdad is an extreme example of the retrenchment in journalism, but it is not an isolated one. Survey the newsrooms of America and you will find that in most places foreign bureaus have been cut or eliminated - this in the time of globalisation. You will find that Washington bureaus have been squeezed and consolidated, that election coverage has been hollowed out by staff cuts and buyouts - this at a time when American politics is going through a period of profound upheaval.
The civic labour performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens. It cannot be replaced by a search engine. It cannot be supplanted by shouting heads or satirical television shows.
What is absent from the vast array of new media outlets is, first and foremost, the great engine of newsgathering - the people who witness events, ferret out information, supply context and explanation.
Google News and Wikipedia don't have bureaux in Baghdad, or anywhere else. With a few exceptions, they do not, in the cold terminology of the 21st-century media business, create content Wikipedia's policy actually forbids original material; it is a great mash-up of secondary sources. Wikipedia and Google aggregate information from, well, from us. From the Times, from the Guardian, and from a lot of less dependable sources. They can pool reporting from hundreds of news outlets but what if there aren't hundreds of news outlets? Or what if many of them are simply unreliable? And how would you know? Here's an experiment you can perform at home: If you are inclined to trust Google as your source for news, Google yourself.
I am a convert to blogs, those live, ad-libbed, interactive monologues that have proliferated by the millions, with an average audience consisting of the blogger and his immediate family. The Times actually produces more than 30 of them, in which our reporters muse on subjects ranging from soccer to health to politics. Blogs can swarm around a subject and turn up fascinating tidbits. They allow you to follow a story as it unfolds. And, yes, there are bloggers who file first-hand reports of their experiences from distant places, including Iraq - and sometimes their work is enlightening or intriguing. But most of the blog world does not even attempt to report. It recycles. It riffs on the news. That's not bad. It's just not enough. Not nearly enough.
"Reporting is the bedrock of journalism," Hugo Young wrote. "Columns", he continued, and he might have extended this to blogs, "seem more like the shifting sands of tide and fashion - undisciplined, unreliable and, possibly, in the basic scheme of things, unnecessary". Hugo could say that because he considered himself a reporter at heart - "a watcher, a finder-out, a discloser, an alerter".
So, our first and most important advantage is that we have journalists in the field. And the other is that we have a rigorous set of standards. We have a code of accuracy and fairness we pledge to uphold, a
High standard of independence we defend at all costs, and a structure of editorial supervision to enforce our standards.
I want to digress for a few minutes to state some basic tenets of journalism, or at least the kind of journalism we aim to practice at The New York Times. What I'm about to say is taken as a given by most people who work in the serious news media in America, yet it is regarded by many people outside our business with suspicion verging on disbelief. Even with audiences like this one, who are presumed to be well read and world-savvy, I'm constantly surprised by the presumption of bad faith when people talk about our business. That is in some measure the fault of our own shortcomings, the well-publicised examples of journalistic malfeasance, the episodes of credulous reporting in the prelude to the war in Iraq, the retreat of some news organisations from serious news into celebrity gossip, and so on. It also reflects the fact that we live in cynical times, in a clamorous new media world of hyperventilating advocacy. And so I always feel obliged to pause and state what, to me and many of you, is obvious.
One of my colleagues at our sister paper, the Boston Globe, surveyed a number of editors and reporters within our company a couple of years back in an attempt to identify the essentials that set us apart as serious journalists. At the risk of sounding didactic, I'll list the main points.
First: We believe in a journalism of verification rather than assertion, meaning we put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Now, of course, newspapers are written and edited by humans. We get things wrong. The history of our craft is tarnished down the centuries by episodes of partisanship, gullibility, and blind ignorance on the part of major news organisations. (My own paper pretty much decided to overlook the Holocaust as it was happening.) And so there is a corollary to this first principle: when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.
At the Times, we are obsessive about owning up to our mistakes, from the petty to the egregious. Connoisseurs of penitence find the Times a bottomless source of amusement. I offer one collector's item of a correction published a few years back: "An article yesterday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white - not two thousand of each."
At the other end of the culpability scale, I've had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction. It's not fun to take yourself to the woodshed, but it is essential to our credibility, and it is not something all institutions do. Come to think of it, we're still waiting for the White House mea culpa on those elusive weapons of mass destruction.
Second on my list of precepts is this: We believe in transparency - that is, we aim to tell you how we know what we know, to attribute our information as much as possible to named sources, to rely on documentary evidence when we can. When we need to protect our sources, which is often necessary to bring you information powerful people don't want you to know, we should explain why we regard the information as credible, and whether the source has an axe to grind. As my math teacher used to say, we show our work.
Third, we are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with an agenda or a pre-conceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests, including our own advertisers. We do not work in the service of a party, or an industry, or even a country. When there are competing views of a situation, we aim to reflect them as clearly and fairly as we can.
Perhaps it is worth belabouring this point a little, particularly here, where the press, like the press in most of the world, practices a less detached form of the craft. I'm not here to proclaim the moral superiority
of the American way - God knows, there has been more than enough of that lately - but I do believe our journalistic practice has its own advantages, especially at a time when our country is already so driven by competing prejudices.
My paper, in addition to being a source of news, is a forum for punditry and public debate. Polemic we offer in abundance. But we try to enforce a separation between reporting and advocacy. Even sophisticated readers of the NYT are often surprised to learn that I edit every page of the paper except the opinion pages, where the editorials and columnists hold forth. I have nothing to do with the daily editorials, I do not have a say when the newspaper decides to endorse candidates. Tom Friedman is a friend, but he doesn't work for me.
My little realm, the newsroom, consists of about 1200 people, journalists and support staff off all kinds. Every one of them has opinions about a lot of things. But just as doctors and lawyers, teachers and military officers, judges and police are sometimes expected to set aside their personal politics in the performance of their duties, so are our employees. This is not just a matter of pretending to be neutral, although appearances matter. Nor is it a matter of according equal weight to every point of view, no matter how far-fetched. (Our science writers do not give equal time to Creationism.) Impartiality is, for us, a useful intellectual discipline. I think you are more likely to present a full and fair-minded story if your objective is not to bolster an argument, but to search out the evidence without a predisposition - including evidence that might contradict your own beliefs. Once you have proclaimed an opinion, you feel compelled to defend it, and that creates a natural human temptation to overlook inconvenient facts or, if I may borrow a phrase from the famous Downing Street memo, fix the facts to the policy.
As my country grows more polarised and cynical, there is pressure on journalists to abandon the effort to be impartial, to openly take a side, and to write accordingly. Some of our critics insist that pure objectivity is unattainable, so why try? To me that is like saying that because much of our children's future is ordained by nature, by genetics, we should abandon the business of being parents. Impartial journalism, like child-rearing, is an aspiration, but it is a worthy one. And unlike your children, a daily newspaper affords you the chance to start all over the next day, and this time get it right.
Finally, on my short list of precepts: We don't do this as a hobby but as a career. Whether you call it a craft, or a profession, or an occupation, it is something we take seriously, and we demand levels of training and experience that we seek to pass on from one generation to the next.
In short, to sum up this little detour through the protocols of American-style journalism, our mission is not to tell readers what we think or what they are supposed think, but to supply them, as best we can, the basis to make up their own minds.
There is one other priceless thing a company like the Times provides, and that is an institutional bulwark against powerful forces that would tame or silence us. I was reminded of this the other day, reading the obituary of David Halberstam, a former New York Times correspondent, a great student of the news business, and an inspiration to generations of reporters. Halberstam would have been the first to tell you how important it is that journalists have the support of strong institutions like mine - institutions willing, when necessary, to stand up to Wall Street, to stand up to lawsuits and leak investigators, to stand up to advertisers, to stand up to our most vociferous readers, and even to stand up to presidents. The obituary in our paper recounted one of my favourite bits of New York Times lore. President Kennedy was furious at Halberstam's aggressive reporting from the battlefields of Vietnam, and he complained to the publisher at the time, Punch Sulzberger, the father of our current publisher. Maybe, the president suggested, the Times should send Mr Halberstam to London or Paris. Punch Sulzberger was pretty new in the job, and had never encountered an angry president before, but he firmly declined. Then, and this is the part I love, when he got back to the office Punch sent Halberstam instructions to cancel his upcoming vacation. The publisher didn't want the White House to see Halberstam heading for the airport and get the idea that the Times was giving in.
I know how Halberstam felt. I've sat in the company of an angry president myself, and I can tell you it was awfully comforting to have a Sulzberger sitting beside me and the New York Times standing behind me.
Now, think back to the stories you have read about some of the big internet companies in China, pressed by that Chinese government to collaborate in the suppression of information and the hunt for dissidents, and tell me if you are ready to trust Google or Microsoft as your window on the world.
The truth is, people crave more than raw information. What they crave, and need, is independent judgment, someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. The more discerning readers want depth, they want scepticism, they want context, they want the material laid out in a way that honours their intelligence, they might even welcome a little wit and grace and style.
The newspaper companies that will offer these things 20 years from now will be different, even more different than today's newspapers are from the newspapers of 20 years ago. We are already changing before your eyes, morphing into hybrid newsrooms that produce journalism in print and on-line, and racing to invent enough revenue from our growing websites to compensate for the diminishing returns in print.
I can't draw you a neat map from our current predicament to this new destination. Indeed, I would regard with deep suspicion anyone who claims to have such a map. Isaiah Berlin famously divided the intellectual world into foxes and hedgehogs -- the hedgehog knows one big thing, the more promiscuous fox leaps from idea to idea. The internet is a fox medium, that's fox with a lower case 'f'. It is perilous to get locked too firmly into one big idea - that people will pay for content on the web, or that they won't; that the key to success is brand loyalty, or, on the contrary, that it's all about scale. Anyone who gets too declarative about this medium is likely to be hedgehog road kill. But while I can't tell you quite when, or quite how, we reach the Promised Land, I will offer up a few reasons for my optimism that we will get there.
First, the printed newspaper has a good bit of life left in it, and that buys us time. The New York Times, that loveable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose, is still a profitable undertaking. We sell more than a million copies a day, more than a million and a half on Sunday, and included in those numbers is a large pool of loyal subscribers who stick with us through controversy and price rises. I expect they will tide us over nicely until the digital revenues rise enough to keep us afloat. The printed newspaper may eventually become a cult product, like vinyl LP records, but we are some years from that day.
And the people who bring you high-quality newspapers turn out to be rather adaptable and entrepreneurial. Newspapers, including my own, have periodically reinvented themselves, adding features, revising formats, redefining markets. At the moment, we are demonstrating a good deal of agility in tapping the potential of web journalism. The Guardian is an excellent example of this, and so is my paper. Two years ago we began merging the staff of our website, who are mostly young and mostly not raised in the church of mainstream journalism, into the newsroom of ageing, technologically challenged hacks like myself. I won't pretend this has been a marriage entirely free of quarrels and misunderstandings, but with some counselling the newlyweds have discovered a bedrock of common interest and mutual respect. The collaboration of high journalistic standards and engineering proficiency has produced quite an explosion of creative energy.
If you want to sample the possibilities of high-quality web journalism, I invite you to go to nytimes.com, click on the word 'politics' in the left margin, and examine how we have been covering the 2008 presidential campaign. I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about how the new medium has influenced our coverage of this quadrennial marathon.
As I said earlier, this is easily the most interesting presidential contest since I reached voting age, an election with enormous stakes and no clear outcome, with two parties struggling to figure out just what they stand for, with the country's self-confidence and diplomatic capital on the verge of bankruptcy. Candidates began declaring themselves nearly a year ago, and with a year still to go until the election there are 16 of them still standing, many of them with the kind of credentials that, in a normal time, would put them in the mainstream of the election. Not only is it unclear who the main-party nominees will be, it is not entirely clear what the election is fundamentally about. What seemed, at the outset, almost certain to be a referendum on President Bush's venture in Iraq has now digressed into other issues, on the Republican side, illegal immigration, on the Democratic side, how to handle Iran, in both parties questions of experience and character, and, more profoundly, about what kind of country we want to be. Despite the obscene duration of the campaign, voter interest appears to be quite high, in part, I suspect, because there is a weary eagerness to turn the page on the present.
One of the more improbable features of this campaign is that the two leading candidates in the national polls are politicians from New York, which occupies a place in the national mythology just south of Gomorrah. My state has not produced a president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or a serious contender since the 1960s.
Of course, as many of you know, the national polls don't mean much; our electoral system is a strange obstacle course that begins in Iowa, a little farm state with an overweening sense of its own importance, and a place that apportions its favours in a ritual that is as inexplicable to non-Americans as the customs of fox-hunting are to non-Brits.
This, then, is the kind of story that calls for all of the journalistic skills at our command. And, complicating the whole affair, this is also the first election where newspapers like mine will be judged as much for our coverage on the web as for what we put in the newspaper.
Into this madness we have deployed a political staff of something like 50 people. We have correspondents travelling with the major candidates, watching how they handle what I think of as the crash-test dummy stage of the campaign. We have others writing serial biographies, focusing in depth on formative events in the candidates lives, looking for signs of conviction and character. We have other reporters investigating the campaign finances, business dealings and lobbying connections of the candidates. We have a polling staff striving to look deep into the temper and motives of the electorate. We have drawn in some of our more expert correspondents for extensive sit-down interviews on critical issues. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain, for example, have all submitted to hour-long interviews with our chief military correspondent aimed at getting past their slogans on the war in Iraq. Our Sunday magazine has the space and time to go even deeper into the dynamics of the campaign; the magazine's most recent campaign cover story revealed the deep divisions among evangelical Christians that have greatly diminished the legendary power of big-name Christian conservatives.
If we took all of this material and dumped it on our website, embellished with a few campaign videos and maps, it would be a great treasury of journalism, but it would not begin to exploit the possibilities of the web, or to sate the appetite of political news junkies. What we are attempting to do is use technology - not just to decorate our journalism, but to enlarge it, to prolong its life, to tap into our rather elite audience as an asset, and to make our work more accessible.
Because the web demands immediacy and favours informality, we have a running political blog, replenished throughout the day with intelligent kibitzing, anecdotes and insights from the road, a survey of the arguments going on in the political blogosphere, observations on how the press is covering the campaign, trends that are just beginning to show up. We often use blogs to keep the running story fresh without diverting reporters too much from the actual work of reporting on more ambitious and enterprising coverage.
Because the web is organised more by search than by the configuration of pages, we have turned all of that biographical and investigative material into a robust reference work. Stories that used to live for one cycle and then disappear into microfilm now are repackaged into candidate pages. If you are interested in how Rudy Giuliani really performed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, or in Hillary Clinton's tortured relationship to the war in Iraq, or in who is supplying Barack Obama with foreign policy advice, you can get it in a click.
We supplement this repository with audio and video, including revealing moments from the candidate debates, campaign ads, interviews and mini-profiles.
We also give readers tools that allow them to browse through databases of the candidates' financial backers, political records and positions on the issues. If you want see which candidate is favoured by the
pharmaceutical industry or compare the candidates plans for health care, we've made that easy.
We now have eight of our political writers posting regular, more conversational on-line columns on more specialized subjects such as polling, foreign policy, and how the campaign itself is playing out on the Internet. The columns give our readers another reasons to keep returning to the web, knowing they will find something smart and a little different from what they read in the paper.
The web is also ideal for tapping into our audience, drawing them into the political conversation, and even using them to help us gather the news. When former Senator John Edwards announced this summer that he intended to continue his campaign after his wife was diagnosed with an advanced case of cancer, we were naturally curious to know how voters would respond. We noticed that the comments posted on our website by readers reacting to the news included many extraordinarily personal and thoughtful messages from families that had faced similar choices. That pool of comments became the starting point for a follow-up story that was unusually rich. More recently we have inaugurated what amounts to an online focus group of undecided voters. We plan to follow them through the campaign and engage them in regular conversations about the candidates and issues.
It may seem paradoxical, but this medium that seems so immediate and transitory - because it is also cumulative and almost boundary-less - allows us to serve readers a depth and breadth of coverage far greater than we could offer in print. It is, I think, an antidote to the superficiality of a modern political campaign.
By the way, if you'll forgive one more slight detour: as much as I revel in our increasing mastery of web journalism, it is not entirely clear to me that what we are now inventing on the web, nytimes.com, or Guardian Unlimited, will replace the newspaper as we know it. There is something tremendously appealing about a portable, authoritative package of dispatches from all corners of the world, from all corners of the culture, selected and written for you by intelligent people. That, I think, helps explain the continuing popularity of a weekly magazine like the Economist, or The Week, which I think of as Economist Lite. Turning the pages of a newspaper or a news magazine also offers a reader serendipitous encounters that are hard to replicate in the quicker, reader-driven format of a website. It's the difference between a clock and a calendar. Maybe, just maybe, our websites will continue evolving into what they will become, and the newspaper will simultaneously take on a digital form of its own - something you read like a newspaper, but on a portable tablet or a sheet of electronically charged plastic. That, too, is something we are looking into.
So, my confidence in our future depends on the continuing vitality of the printed paper, the entrepreneurial energy we have unleashed at our website, but above all it depends on one other thing. While some newspaper companies are cutting the heart out of their core business, our company continues to invest in it. At least twice in my lifetime The New York Times has seemed to be on the verge of extinction - once, during the New York City financial crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the deep national recession of the late 1980s. Both times my paper resisted the temptation to panic. It invested in new things, it adapted, and it flourished. I believe that this time, too, newspapers that stay true to their mission will endure. In the end, I believe the gravest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a business model upended by new technology, it is a loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the part of the people who make newspapers.
The curse of a journalist is that he always has more questions than answers. A question at least as interesting as 'will we survive?' is, how will the new medium change us? There is no doubt that as we manipulate the medium, it manipulates us back, so that for someone in my job the challenge is not just to generate revenues, but to retain the best qualities of the New York Times. How do we meet a deadline every minute, while giving our reporters the time for depth, reflection and analysis? How, in a medium built for snap judgment, do we make time for that "agonised indecision" Hugo Young prized so highly? How do we conjoin text with video and audio without becoming, like much of television news, a slave to the loudest and most garish stories? How do we succeed in a world where every click is measured, without succumbing to the pull of ratings and neglecting the important, complicated story that lacks sex appeal?
I'd love to answer those questions for you, but thankfully I am out of time. Thank you very much for your patience. I'd be happy to answer - or possibly evade - your questions.