February 24, 1998
A bitter argument rages today over an issue that originally seemed to be merely an innocuous, logical progression in the makeup and style of the mighty New York Times. The newspaper is widely held to be the embodiment of all that is good and right in the world of journalism. Its entitlement to that accord is being called into question now as readers and media critics alike take their shots and choose up sides. Does this have anything to do with coverage of President Clinton and the latest sex accusation's? No, it is nothing so insignificant as that. The public anger stems from a noisy debate over the publisher's recent decision to add color and new sections to the venerable old newspaper. Color? In the sedate New York Times? Horrors!
At least, that's the reaction we're hearing and reading about in the trade journals that reach us here in the hinterland. The newspaper is perhaps not widely read or distributed in these parts and so we are isolated from the great noisy controversy that is racking the urban areas where digesting the Times is regarded as a necessity if one is to be informed on anything of importance that happens in our world. The paper's motto is the familiar "All the news that's fit to print," and for generations it has attempted to remain absolutely true to that lofty line. The content and the quality have not changed and they are not being challenged now. It's the look of the pages in the newspaper that has drawn fire from many who are considered expert judges of such things. Those critics include many, many readers.
Management of the newspaper concluded some time ago that the Times must change with the times (no pun intended) and abandon its policy against the use of color. They weighed the merits of limiting the use of color only to select advertisements and not using it in news photos or to brighten up the editorial pages with pie-charts, boxes and other typographical tricks. Such gimmicks have been popularized by the nationally distributed USA Today, an upstart which has taken over some of the exclusive readership territory once reserved for the New York Times. USA Today's splashy colors and other eye-catching graphic devices have perhaps changed or at least mightily influenced the look of virtually every newspaper in the country, and that now includes the Times.
In the end, editorial poo-bahs at the Times decided to use color on page one photos and elsewhere throughout the paper on a daily basis, and to add several new sections dealing with topical matters they believed of interst to their readers. I am sure they were not prepared for the avalanche of carping, hooting and derision that has descended upon them as a result. They are being accused of trivializing news coverage by choosing page one photos for their feature value, rather than their reflection of hard news items. The news sections have not escaped the wrath of professional newspaperwatchers and everyday readers. They believe the newspaper is making itself over into a magazine and abandoning its traditional role of covering "all the news."
It appears that change, or at least such drastic change, does not occur in a newspaper without trauma. Readers have a tendency to feel they are part owners of the paper, which of course they are not. The fact that they react so emotionally is an indication of how intricate is the relationship between readers and those who provide the newspaper for their information and, yes, entertainment. Wisely, the editorial and managerial board at the New York Times has elected to weather the storm and give everyone a chance to adjust before doing anything else. It will be interesting to see how all this turns out. In the meantime, we'll have more about it in the next column.