Goodbye NY Times?

As if the reports of trouble in the newspaper world weren’t scary enough, now comes a piece in The Atlantic magazine suggesting the venerable New York Times could go belly up within a few months.  The Times has a billion dollars in debt on its books and less than $50 million in cash, the story says.

While it’s unlikely the Times will wink out this spring, it might have to start selling assets and slashing jobs.  Either way, says writer Michael Hirschorn, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist.”

What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation…In this scenario, would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post.

Hirschorn says the death of the Times’ print edition would be a severe blow to American journalism, but not a disaster.  He imagines a world in which the best journalists survive and thrive as independent operators.

The bracing experience of becoming “brands of one” could prove intoxicating, and perhaps more profitable than fighting as part of a union for an extra percentage-point raise in their next contract.

The piece makes a strong case that drastic change is coming, although its timeline may be a little off.  Or way off, according to Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who says the piece is based on “a series of howlers.”  A Times official also disputed the basis for the story in an unusual letter to the Atlantic, calling it “uninformed speculation.”

Hirschorn has a habit of overstatement; last spring he predicted the impending death of social-media. But the evidence that times are changing at the Times has been hard to miss–just last week the Gray Lady published its first-ever display ad on the front page.