In Praise of The New York Times

If the Internet ceased to exist tomorrow, I could learn to live without e-mail, Facebook, Youtube and even online games. My real crisis would be the loss of The New York Times website, which has allowed me to make the world's best publication my daily newspaper.

My relationship with this media icon predates the Internet, but the Internet has afforded a closeness that previously was impossible in a locale far removed from circulation routes. Before the Web, access to the Times here in northern Michigan was restricted to mail delivery and a few Sunday copies procured by the downtown bookstore. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can now peruse the current day's stories every morning with my coffee. As such, my dependency has reached the point that I cannot leave the house or begin any productive activity until I have clicked on

Reading the Times helps me feel like I have at least the minimum knowledge to be an informed citizen in our participatory democracy. Almost any topic that matters eventually finds its way into the pages of the Times, where it is made relevant and understandable by a superbly-skilled team of writers and editors. The Times is perhaps the only general interest newspaper that regularly scoops specialty publications; after all, it was the NYT, not Food and Wine or the website of Organic Consumers Association, that first published the ground-breaking work of eco-food journalist Michael Pollan.

I hope I never see a world without The New York Times.

This love affair began during my college years. As a child and teen, I was aware of the Times only as the dubious voice of authority in an Elton John song and the ringleader of the “liberal media” scorned regularly by my home state's infamous U.S. Senator, Jesse Helms. I cannot recall having seen an actual copy of it until I matriculated at Duke University, where a daily subscription was offered at a student rate and -- as would be expected at a school sometimes referred to as SUNY-Durham – the Times was more popular than the local daily.

Even with the discounted student rate, a daily subscription was too luxurious for my budget, so I read it at the library. By my junior year, I discovered that I could pick up a free copy of the Sunday Book Review in a local bookstore and so began a lifelong shameful habit of discussing important books as if I had read them when I had only read the review. This habit was surreptitiously encouraged by an actual Sunday Book Review editor (although I doubt that was his intent), who I met during my senior year as a student ambassador in Duke's Visiting Journalists program. My duties primarily consisted of explaining Duke to him while he explained the intellectual realm of book reviewing to me. I surmised that the NYT review was often just as important and informative as the book itself. The Sunday Book Review was not the Consumer Reports of books, guiding the reader on a purchase decision. Instead, its reviewers were hired to weigh in on whatever theory or discussion might be presented by the book.

I graduated from Duke and landed my first full-time job at the struggling wire service, United Press International. There, the NYT began to take on a more central role in my life as it was UPI's most important client. Every reporter hoped to write a story the Times would use, although that rarely happened as the Times was one of the few newspapers on the planet that didn't rely on wire copy to fill holes in its coverage. The Times had no coverage holes; it was everywhere, and most other media just followed its lead.

After a couple of years at UPI, I moved to the staff of the Raleigh-based News and Observer, the “newspaper of record” for North Carolina. At the time, the N&O was owned by the Daniels family and helmed by the legendary Claude Sitton, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who had been a reporter and editor for the Times. One of the first things a rookie reporter learned in Sitton's newsroom is that Times style was N&O style. If the Times clung to the archaic practice of courtesy titles, so would we, despite the awkwardness of inquiring after the marital status of every female quoted in the paper so that we would be correct in our use of “Mrs.” or “Miss”, and the inevitable guffaws of readers when we inevitably had to grant the dignity of “Mr.” to various scoundrels.

Marriage ended my employment with the N&O as I set off for the nation's capital with my new husband. There I enjoyed the luxury of being on the daily delivery route of another icon of journalism, the Washington Post. But delightful as the Post was, we still couldn't resist picking up a NYT regularly, and always on Sundays. To do otherwise would have been professional sabotage; everyone who worked in D.C. journalism was expected to have thorough knowledge of the Times' coverage.
We moved to northern Michigan, after three years in D.C., and entered a Dark Age of limited Times access until the World Wide Web arrived.

As a former newspaper reporter and wife of an AP reporter, I'm intimately aware of the financial challenges faced by print journalism in the Internet age. Every newspaper is struggling to find a business model that will enable it to survive in a climate in which readers expect news content for free. The technology that enables me to enjoy my daily NYT is threatening its existence. A few years ago, the Times experimented with a limited Internet pay service, restricting on-line access of its popular op-ed columns to those who would subscribe for $50/year. My husband and I immediately forked over the credit card number, unwilling to be parted from Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. After little more than a year, the Times ended this subscription service and returned the columnists to the realm of free content. Aside from the Wall Street Journal, which has a particular customer niche, newspapers have not yet figured out how to get readers to pay for news online.

I don't know how to save the NYT for future generations. Its readers can only hope that the Sulzberger heirs will continue to view their family's great legacy as a public trust and not as a disappointing profit line on the annual trust fund report, unlike other family newspaper heirs. I'm not the only person who depends on the Times; our nation, and our world, needs it more than ever. Democracy cannot function without a strong press, and I doubt the ability of the press to function without The New York Times.