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NYT's Sulzberger: 'We can't care' if newspapers die

Publisher and chairman of The New York Times Company says at WebbyConnect conference that the company is willing to embrace radical change to stay afloat.

DANA POINT, Calif.--Could the Information Age's fast-paced news overload be a boon to the old-media companies that it was supposedly going to force out of business?

That was one of the suggestions brought forth by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of The New York Times Company, at his keynote address at the WebbyConnect conference here Wednesday morning.

"Our 21st-century news cycle, with its trials and tribulations, feels even more immediate because of our access," he said. "It is reasonable to ask: Do we need all this news and information? Do we want all this news and information? Can we tolerate all this news and information?"

In an age characterized by both extreme uncertainty and a glut of outlets to hear about it, Sulzberger said people will turn to trusted and pragmatic voices.

Trustworthy voices are more important than they have ever been.
--Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

"Now that everyone is in their end-of-the-world mode, we should make a conscious effort to reject the increasingly frenzied 'apocalypse now, tomorrow, and forever' talk," he said. "Quality content matters...trustworthy voices are more important than they have ever been."

As Sulzberger addressed the small, exclusive crowd of media industry and digital-strategies types at a luxury hotel just down the road from the upper-crust towns that inspired The O.C. and Laguna Beach, the setting wasn't a perfect fit for his sobering message of adapting and keeping focused in hard times.

Neither was some of Sulzberger's underlying optimism about the Times' own future. The New York Times Company's stock has been trending downward for years now, its quarterly earnings haven't been sunny for quite some time, it underwent newsroom layoffs earlier this year, and no one's denying that many of the ad dollars once enjoyed by a few national news outlets are well on their way to distribution across a vast array of new-media publications.

Sulzberger would brand this not as a crisis, but rather as change that requires adaptation. "It's important for traditional companies to adopt strategies that enable us to be of the Internet, not on the Internet," he said. "There must be an institutional commitment to engage in reinvention, especially as the information revolution picks up steam."

That's why, he said, the Times has undergone some digital initiatives unusual for the print media business. It launched bookmarking and sharing service TimesPeople earlier this year. Soon, it will launch TimesExtra, which integrates acquisition Blogrunner onto the publication's home page to provide related links from across the Web. And it has also announced an API for developers to work with one of its most popular online features, the "Most Emailed" list.

The publisher also spoke about the Times' decision to stop requiring a paid subscription to access some of its online content, including its archives and op-ed columnists. Sulzberger said the subscription service, called TimesSelect, was a good idea in 2004 but not a good idea a few years later, and that the company's choice to get rid of it was a sign of its willingness to evolve--even though TimesSelect brought in $10 million in revenue annually.

"In those three years, the Internet changed so dramatically, and we had to adapt to those changes," he said. "Online news and information became unambiguously commoditized. Search became a titanic influence, as we all know today."

Since axing TimesSelect, Sulzberger said growth of the Times' Web site accelerated.

He acknowledged that the "evolution" pursued by the Times could mean that it will become less reliant on its venerable print edition. WebbyConnect organizer David-Michel Davies asked Sulzberger if the newspaper will even exist in 10 years.

"The heart of the answer must be (that) we can't care," Sulzberger responded, though he added that the radio, the television, and even the telegraph were all supposed to kill print reporting. "We do care. I care very much. But we must be where people want us for our information. It's the thought of cannibalizing yourself before somebody else cannibalizes you."