Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Who killed the newspaper? (From The Economist print edition)

The future of newspapers
Who killed the newspaper?

Aug 24th 2006
From The Economist print edition
The most useful bit of the media is disappearing. A cause for concern, but not for panic

“A GOOD newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” mused Arthur Miller in 1961. A decade later, two reporters from the Washington Post wrote a series of articles that brought down President Nixon and the status of print journalism soared. At their best, newspapers hold governments and companies to account. They usually set the news agenda for the rest of the media. But in the rich world newspapers are now an endangered species. The business of selling words to readers and selling readers to advertisers, which has sustained their role in society, is falling apart (see article).

Of all the “old” media, newspapers have the most to lose from the internet. Circulation has been falling in America, western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand for decades (elsewhere, sales are rising). But in the past few years the web has hastened the decline. In his book “The Vanishing Newspaper”, Philip Meyer calculates that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition. That sort of extrapolation would have produced a harrumph from a Beaverbrook or a Hearst, but even the most cynical news baron could not dismiss the way that ever more young people are getting their news online. Britons aged between 15 and 24 say they spend almost 30% less time reading national newspapers once they start using the web.

Up to a podcast, Lord Copper?

Advertising is following readers out of the door. The rush is almost unseemly, largely because the internet is a seductive medium that supposedly matches buyers with sellers and proves to advertisers that their money is well spent. Classified ads, in particular, are quickly shifting online. Rupert Murdoch, the Beaverbrook of our age, once described them as the industry's rivers of gold—but, as he said last year, “Sometimes rivers dry up.” In Switzerland and the Netherlands newspapers have lost half their classified advertising to the internet.

Newspapers have not yet started to shut down in large numbers, but it is only a matter of time. Over the next few decades half the rich world's general papers may fold. Jobs are already disappearing. According to the Newspaper Association of America, the number of people employed in the industry fell by 18% between 1990 and 2004. Tumbling shares of listed newspaper firms have prompted fury from investors. In 2005 a group of shareholders in Knight Ridder, the owner of several big American dailies, got the firm to sell its papers and thus end a 114-year history. This year Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, attacked the New York Times Company, the most august journalistic institution of all, because its share price had fallen by nearly half in four years.

Having ignored reality for years, newspapers are at last doing something. In order to cut costs, they are already spending less on journalism. Many are also trying to attract younger readers by shifting the mix of their stories towards entertainment, lifestyle and subjects that may seem more relevant to people's daily lives than international affairs and politics are. They are trying to create new businesses on- and offline. And they are investing in free daily papers, which do not use up any of their meagre editorial resources on uncovering political corruption or corporate fraud. So far, this fit of activity looks unlikely to save many of them. Even if it does, it bodes ill for the public role of the Fourth Estate.

Getting away with murder

In future, as newspapers fade and change, will politicians therefore burgle their opponents' offices with impunity, and corporate villains whoop as they trample over their victims? Journalism schools and think-tanks, especially in America, are worried about the effect of a crumbling Fourth Estate. Are today's news organisations “up to the task of sustaining the informed citizenry on which democracy depends?” asked a recent report about newspapers from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a charitable research foundation.

Nobody should relish the demise of once-great titles. But the decline of newspapers will not be as harmful to society as some fear. Democracy, remember, has already survived the huge television-led decline in circulation since the 1950s. It has survived as readers have shunned papers and papers have shunned what was in stuffier times thought of as serious news. And it will surely survive the decline to come.

That is partly because a few titles that invest in the kind of investigative stories which often benefit society the most are in a good position to survive, as long as their owners do a competent job of adjusting to changing circumstances. Publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal should be able to put up the price of their journalism to compensate for advertising revenues lost to the internet—especially as they cater to a more global readership. As with many industries, it is those in the middle—neither highbrow, nor entertainingly populist—that are likeliest to fall by the wayside.

The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account—trying them in the court of public opinion. The internet has expanded this court. Anyone looking for information has never been better equipped. People no longer have to trust a handful of national papers or, worse, their local city paper. News-aggregation sites such as Google News draw together sources from around the world. The website of Britain's Guardian now has nearly half as many readers in America as it does at home.

In addition, a new force of “citizen” journalists and bloggers is itching to hold politicians to account. The web has opened the closed world of professional editors and reporters to anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection. Several companies have been chastened by amateur postings—of flames erupting from Dell's laptops or of cable-TV repairmen asleep on the sofa. Each blogger is capable of bias and slander, but, taken as a group, bloggers offer the searcher after truth boundless material to chew over. Of course, the internet panders to closed minds; but so has much of the press.

For hard-news reporting—as opposed to comment—the results of net journalism have admittedly been limited. Most bloggers operate from their armchairs, not the frontline, and citizen journalists tend to stick to local matters. But it is still early days. New online models will spring up as papers retreat. One non-profit group, NewAssignment.Net, plans to combine the work of amateurs and professionals to produce investigative stories on the internet. Aptly, $10,000 of cash for the project has come from Craig Newmark, of Craigslist, a group of free classified-advertisement websites that has probably done more than anything to destroy newspapers' income.

In future, argues Carnegie, some high-quality journalism will also be backed by non-profit organisations. Already, a few respected news organisations sustain themselves that way—including the Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. An elite group of serious newspapers available everywhere online, independent journalism backed by charities, thousands of fired-up bloggers and well-informed citizen journalists: there is every sign that Arthur Miller's national conversation will be louder than ever.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The next phase of instant messaging (by David Kirkpatrick, Fortune)

image source

meebo could be a hit with the MySpace generation - and a boon for big businesses, too.

FORTUNE Magazine
By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor
August 2 2006: 9:21 AM EDT

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- A tiny software company called meebo Wednesday opened a new channel of communication on the Web. Now, if you have a Web page your visitors can talk to you using instant messaging, even if you're away from your home computer. (That includes all you MySpace users.)

If this doesn't sound interesting, you are probably over the age of 25. The founders of meebo are, but just barely.

"Like Hotmail put e-mail into the Web, we put IM into the Web," says meebo CEO Seth Sternberg, who is 28.

meebo got its start when its three founders, Sternberg and Elaine Wherry, 27, and Sandy Jen, 25, were all meeting repeatedly at one another's houses in Silicon Valley trying to come up with ideas for a consumer Web company.

As a company history on explains: "Sandy kept having this problem where she couldn't easily IM her friends from Seth's and Elaine's houses. Hence, meebo!"

That was meebo's first innovation - a very efficient and rapid Web-based IM service, which enables you to combine your AIM, ICQ, Yahoo or MSN instant message accounts in one place.

Meebo wasn't first to offer Web-based instant messaging - but it is, by most accounts, the most efficient and easiest.

It isn't the ability to consolidate accounts that gets users excited, according to Sternberg and Wherry, who I met with recently, but simply the fact that meebo works as well on the Web as an IM software client works on your PC. Now you can be in touch with your IM buddies from any computer.

Wednesday's innovation is to take that capability and insert it into any page on the Internet, private or commercial. Once your Web site has a meebo window, when you log into meebo you not only see your usual buddies. You also can see a special group on your buddy list that represents visitors to your Web page.
Not just for the MySpace generation

"This is going to be really big with the MySpace kids," says Sternberg. I think he's right. After you've displayed yourself to the world in all your tasteless glory, won't you want to find out who's looking at it all? (I'm assuming you're 18.) Won't you want to have the capability to talk to them?

But meebo could be used as readily on eBay or, or for that matter. The company will let any site use its service, with the only caveat that past a certain level of usage they might ask you to pay something. Otherwise it's free.

To use this meebo capability, just go to its homepage and get an account. Then download the code for the meebo "widget" and insert it into your Web page.

The earnestness and enthusiasm of meebo's founders is as endearing as the simplicity and apparent usefulness of its service. In a reversal of the usual pattern, the top technologists are the two women. Sternberg is the front man and marketing guy.

The company's ethos is resolutely informal and silly. The founders' actual names don't even appear on the site. Identified only by their first names, the founders are listed as "Biz Guy," (Sternberg) "Server Chick" (Jen), and "AJAX Girl" (Wherry). (Ajax is a software technology for creating interactive web pages, which Wherry uses for creating the meebo user interface.)

But meebo's software code, by all appearances, is rock solid and serious. It's backers are serious, too. Sequoia Capital, the venture capital firm that backed YouTube, invested in January. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen is an investor and advisor.

meebo, founded in September 2005, already has 700,000 user logins per day, up 60,000 in the three weeks since I met with the founders. Each user stays on the service an average of 69 minutes. That's a lot of time to show advertisements, which meebo will almost certainly eventually do.

Sternberg and Wherry say there will be plenty of ways to make money from meebo, but in classic old-school Web fashion that hasn't been their focus just yet. They expect, aside from traffic-based charges for heavy users, to make money with subtle targeted ads as well as by charging for personalization features.

We may be more than a decade into the Web, but it's still a pleasure to find a tiny 12-person company with a great product, enthusiastic founders and the potential to change the world.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Panic on 43rd Street (by Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair)

The New New York Times Building Project:
In development
Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Fox & Fowle Architects
New York Times Company New Headquarters
New York, NY

"Each architecture tells a story, and the story this new building proposes to tell is one of lightness and transparency."
-Renzo Piano

The Current New York Times Building and the pictures:

Panic on 43rd Street

By attacking The New York Times for reporting secret anti-terrorism measures, the White House has evoked the government-defying glory days of the “paper of record.” But even as the Times builds a soaring $850 million headquarters, its newsroom, its leadership, and its business are in a crisis of confidence

It's a different, much less awesome New York Times under attack for its decision to publish secret details of how banks are cooperating with the Bush administration to track terrorist finances. In the past, if you took on the Times, you took on its powerful eastern-establishment base; you took on the media itself. But the base this administration is most concerned with is always its own, and going after the Times—more a label for large parts of the country than a brand, a liberal caricature—seems to thrill it.

During the Bush years, the entire media has been so much easier to threaten because every company is under such relentless shareholder, financial, advertiser, and interest-group pressures—media organizations will do anything not to have politicians and prosecutors sniping at them, too. While the Times—historically, more like a branch of government than a mere commercial enterprise—has often operated as an exception to the rest of the media, it's hard to be a Cadillac in a fading American auto industry, and hard to be even the Times in the imploding newspaper business. The Times's current predicament—its share price has fallen by 50 percent since 2002; almost 30 percent of its shareholders protested the company's slate of directors at the annual meeting this spring—gets closer and closer to that of the Knight-Ridder papers, forced into a sale; the Tribune company, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, locked in a more or less mortal boardroom war; and Dow Jones, with its worried family members fretting about a sale of The Wall Street Journal. The Bush people cannot be unaware of this. In such a state of play, the Times is also doing that one thing that so often calls attention to a corporation's weaknesses and vulnerabilities and inflated sense of grandeur—a classic precursor to calamity. It's building a fabulous new corporate headquarters on Manhattan's West Side—a Renzo Piano–designed $850 million tribute to itself.

The calculation in the White House may well be that the Times is one of the few organizations that the weakened Bush people are strong enough to go after.

While the administration's anti-Times rants juice its base—made up of people who don't read the Times—the White House appears to be trying, with its drumbeat about treason and banking secrets, to stir up trouble with Times readers too (banking, unlike other hot-button conservative issues, is something that Times readers might get huffy about). The rub is that no one at the Times can be confident this cannot succeed.

The familiar Times reader, the eastern-establishment reader—as dedicated and loyal and homogeneous an audience as few newspapers have ever had—has largely been abandoned by the Times. Or—a supposition the Times may share with the Bush administration—that audience simply may not exist anymore. Or it's just aged out of the economic mainstream. The new Times reader is … well, it's not exactly clear who the new reader is.

Unlike The Washington Post, which has put much of its editorial and business energies into dominating its local market, the Times's strategy—a doomsday scenario, foreseeing a one-newspaper nation, a last-man-standing paper—has been to make the paper national. Hence, The New York Times is no longer principally a metropolitan paper. With a daily circulation of 260,000 in the five boroughs, it's no longer even creditably a New York paper. (Its two tabloid competitors, the Daily News and the New York Post, have far more readers in New York City.) It's an Everyman suburban daily.

Here's the identity crisis: when the president is attacking it with all the media available to him, can the Times count on this new reader, and the advertisers who are courting him, not to doubt it? What beats in the heart of a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press whom the Times circulation-promotion campaign has persuaded to read the Times too? (In media-marketing terms, this new reader, the national urban-suburban yuppie type, overloaded on media choices—broadband, digital cable, satellite radio—is among the most fickle.)

Not only are the people at the Times aware of their new readers' likely lack of constancy, they're paranoid about it. In some sense, it's the central obsession at the Times, the driver of the place, this very un-Timesian concern with what people are thinking about it, as the paper increasingly becomes a hot topic in the national court of public opinion. And it's a crazy court. Every politically and emotionally addled information consumer wants to convict the Times of something.

Its two big scandals—the first about Jayson Blair, the reporter who made up an impressive catalogue of vivid stories, and the second involving Judy Miller, who, with the Times urging her on, went to jail for protecting her sources, whom the Times subsequently decided she should not have protected so much—were notable not just for the holes they revealed in the Times's journalistic operation but also for what they revealed about the Times's uncertainty about itself and its tendency to panic under pressure. Howell Raines, the Times executive editor whom the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, appointed to turn the Times into a national paper—it was under Raines's watch that Blair wrote his fabricated stories—had the publisher's absolute support until the day he didn't and was fired. Judy Miller likewise had the publisher's absolute support until it was clear that P.R. considerations and the court of public opinion called for the opposite position.

The imperturbable Times has become ever so thin-skinned. Instead of a simple, traditional "We stand by our story" response to its critics over the banking revelations, the Times has offered a menu of defenses and rationalizations—on its editorial pages, in public letters, in interviews by editor and publisher. Its essential and contradictory defense—that it agrees some things should not be revealed because of national-security considerations, except when, in its own wisdom, it decides they should be—has not exactly helped. Its rather frantic need to explain itself to the Twin Cities reader—to stay in the good graces of both Middle America and an Internet of doubters—is too painfully obvious.

Karl Rove undoubtedly understood he could play on this desperation.

The Court of Arthur

And then there is the Arthur issue.

The Times, famously impersonal, suddenly has a flamboyant, hard-to-control, easy-to-dislike face. The right-wing editorialists at The Wall Street Journal, which also printed the story about the banking secrets, hurried to distance the Journal not so much from the story but from the Times, and particularly from the 54-year-old Sulzberger, by quoting gleefully from a self-aggrandizing commencement speech, delivered this spring at SUNY New Paltz, offering a vapid political message about the glories and disappointments of the 1960s and how they related to the Iraq war: "Sorry. It wasn't supposed to be this way."

The vulnerability that the Times critics see here—one that causes people inside the Times to gulp—is that difficult, less-than-humble, not-ready-for-prime-time descendants of 19th-century newspaper owners have been the cause of the decline and fall of a great many newspapers.

At the height of the Judy Miller business, just after he had fired her, after operatically standing behind her, Arthur appeared on The Charlie Rose Show. The most riveting thing about this appearance, more than his relative inarticulateness, was that there was no scenario under which it would be possible to imagine Arthur's father, Punch Sulzberger, the company's chief executive for more than 30 years and the steward of the modern paper, having done this—that is, publicly claiming to be the voice and the exemplar of the Times and its journalism.

The Times has prospered, and maintained its not-a-little loopy tradition of primogeniture, because the family, which holds voting power, has exercised it so lightly. If at all. The Sulzbergers—according to a former Times Company executive who was one of the designers of the Times management and shareholder structure—are supposed to be the British monarchy to the parliamentarians who actually run the show.

But there was Arthur on Charlie Rose—defending his company, his newsroom, his editorial decisions, his team. I remarked to this executive, an eminent and longtime Sulzberger adviser, on the oddity of a member of the Sulzberger family's actively managing the policies and editorial decision-making in the newsroom—in fact, representing the newsroom. My interlocutor drew back and said, "Editorial?… He's running the business side too! This wasn't supposed to happen!"

Arthur, on his own say-so, has accomplished a radical management restructuring of the company. He's consolidated, under his control, executive, shareholder, and editorial power—subverting the traditional autonomy of the Times newsroom. Indeed, executive editor Bill Keller is probably the weakest editor in the history of the paper. A company with a historically diffident management structure, where lines of power were always purposefully obtuse, now has a by-the-book, top-down org chart.

With such a figure—attention-seeking, immature, verbally feckless—at the center of the stage, it's hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief, let alone a straight face, about the rights of the firstborn. (This situation must have some resonance in the Bush White House.) The Times, with the scion insisting on his protean leadership, becomes, like any other corporation, judged by its top executive—it's not stronger than he is. Except, profoundly complicating matters, if he turns out to be weak, you can't easily replace this one.

It's Arthur himself who has most consistently articulated the fragility of the Times—its being-and-nothingness struggle in the changing media world. He seems so willing to embrace the sudden-death possibilities of the Information Age, so willing to disregard the conservative, wait-and-see approach favored by executives in Rust Belt–like businesses, that you wonder if there isn't, just a bit, a Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy aspect to all of this. He gets to make the crisis; he gets to rescue the paper.

His strategy is to have the company face its core mortality—the inevitable end of a paper world—and then figure out what of its DNA can survive: Arthur is the baby Superman being jettisoned from planet Krypton. In modern management terms, the brand might theoretically be able to grow even if the physical product falls away. The newspaper might shrivel, but the Times can be a free-floating idea, somehow continuing in whatever guise offers itself and by whatever forms of delivery might be available—now or yet to be imagined (as they say in publishing contracts).

His vision of an ideal Times company sounds a lot like—without any sense of irony—Time Warner. (Once, during the boom years, I questioned Arthur about this enthusiasm for everything new-media. If this were the 50s, I asked, would he want the Times to buy a television network? "You bet I would," said Arthur.)

Seeing the Times as an acquisitive, multi-platform media company puts it, of course, in the same, ever compromised world of marketing and politicking as all other media companies. On the eve of the Iraq war—which it covered with a guilelessness that it has since apologized for—the Times, along with every other media giant, was petitioning the Bush F.C.C. to relax media-ownership rules to allow it to greatly add to its portfolio of television stations. (The Times's last annual report points to the television duopoly it owns in Oklahoma as one of its core achievements.)

Before scandal and a falling share price crimped their style, Sulzberger and Raines would talk openly about what they'd like to take over. They wanted the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal and were looking for cable opportunities. (In 1993, the Times, in some misbegotten futurist idea that the Northeast was going to unite in a gigantic megalopolis, anchored by New York and Boston, bought The Boston Globe, which has performed poorly ever since.) When the chance arose, they snatched—for almost no logical reason, other than that they could—control of the International Herald Tribune (an enterprise with virtually no prospects of being anything more than a sentimental artifact) from The Washington Post, the Times's longtime partner in the paper. They did a convoluted deal with the Discovery network. They bought a piece of the Boston Red Sox.

But at the end of this deal-making spree, the most substantive and possibly transformative deal was the acquisition, for $410 million, of It's as unlikely an acquisition for the Times as any could be. may actually establish the baseline for the lowest level of information available on the Web (which is saying a lot): a multi-million-page mishmash of superficial, often out-of-date, dumb, frequently wrong info bits, a place you never go by choice, but only because a search engine has been "optimized" (that is, tricked) to send you there.


The Internet is the great leap forward at the Times—with vastly more disruptive implications for the paper's future than the caviling of politicians.

For two generations, the Times business model has been to adeptly counter-program against more entertaining and technologically efficient ways to get news. It spent a lot (its news budget is among the largest of any news organization's) on deep and broad coverage, serving an elite, need-to-know audience, which, in turn, advertisers were keen on reaching.

Then, gamely, it gave in to the Internet. The premise is that, via the Internet, the Times can more easily deliver the Times. And, indeed, it's created the richest site of any newspaper in the world, a site whose depth and efficiency inevitably undermine the paper itself. At a conference earlier this year, hosted by Google, Arthur gave a talk about "real journalism," saying that the Times would succeed online because its brand had a proven record of probity—that people would always want the real thing. (His talk was accompanied by video clips of lots of older, exhausted-looking white men working in the newsroom.)

But more and more there is the sinking sensation at the Times that the Internet isn't Kansas. It's not just the relentless reductiveness of the new medium—the Times's long version becomes fodder for everybody else's short version. Or that the Internet requires, according to one hollow-eyed reporter, "everyone to do more and more for no more money." Much more unsettling than that: the Internet, once thought of as the ideal vehicle for reaching a targeted audience, is turning into a high-volume business, super-mass-media, dependent on cheap advertising. Success demands vast numbers: tens of millions or hundreds of millions of habituated users.

The Times, in newsprint form, with its daily 1.1 million circulation, and Sunday 1.7 million, makes between $1.5 and $1.7 billion a year (the company does not break out the exact figure)., with its 40 million unique online users a month, likely makes less than $200 million a year. Cruelly, an online user is worth much less—because his or her value can be so easily measured—than a traditional reader.

To replace its $1.5 to $1.7 billion traditional business with its online business—as it keeps suggesting it will one day do, and as critics have urged it to do on an even faster timetable—the Times might, impossibly, have to increase its online business to 400 or 500 million users a month. Or it will have to remake its content to more accurately reflect its advertisers' interests: oversize-shoe advertisers pay more to be next to a story about oversize shoes than they do to be next to a story about the Iraq war. Or, in another approach, it could look to MySpace: while the Times's 40 million monthly users generated, in May, according to ComScore, 489 million page views—this is the number that interests advertisers—MySpace's 50 million monthly users, deeply entertained by its user-created content, generated 29 billion page views.

The Times as we know it, as a pastiche of its paper self, can't succeed online (the whole idea that an old-time business can morph seamlessly into a huge, speculative entrepreneurial enterprise is a kind of quackery). At best, it might become a specialized Internet player, having to drastically cut its current, $300 million news budget. What it might providentially become, however, is, a low-end, high-volume information producer, warehousing vast amounts of advertiser-targeted data, harnessing the amateurs and hobbyists and fetishists willing to produce for a pittance any amount of schlock to feed the page-view numbers—and already supplying 30 million of the Times's 40 million unique users.

They'd get red in the face disputing this at the Times. They'd say new business models may develop online, possibly paid models, or the price of advertising may increase, or something—because people will always want the Times, won't they? On the other hand, these same managers bought They know the future is equivocal.

Taking Stock

And then there are the shareholders—much scarier than the Bush people. The owners of the Class B stock—the Sulzberger-Ochs family, who hold voting control—are, in a very real sense, supported by the A shareholders, who own most of the company. It's the A shareholders who maintain the price of the stock. It's the B shareholders—50 or so descendants and spouses—whose daily lives are supported by the dividends produced by the stock.

The traditional assumption is that, for media companies, the market understands and accepts two tiers of stock (Murdoch's News Corp. has two tiers; The Washington Post has two tiers; Viacom has two tiers). If you don't like it, you don't buy it in the first place. But in this new age of shareholder activism, two tiers suddenly become a juicy wedge issue.

The activist shareholders are—not dissimilar to the Bush White House—waging a press campaign against the Times. The dissidents—only Morgan Stanley Asset Management, with 5 percent, has taken a public stand, but Bruce Sherman's Private Capital Management, which forced Knight-Ridder into a sale, is one of the Times's largest shareholders—are claiming that the B shareholders, presiding over scandal, are being reckless with the Times's brand and with their stewardship of a national treasure. (To cut costs and raise revenues, management is trimming the width of the paper by 1.5 inches, reducing news coverage by 5 percent, and selling ads on the front page of the Business section.)

They're characterizing the B shareholders as, in effect, being in it for themselves, pointing to Arthur's ever increasing multi-million-dollar compensation package—$3.2 million in 2005.

They are also using the "governance" word. By challenging the "governance" of a company—the independence and responsibility of its board—you question its integrity and uprightness (i.e., its fundamental Timesness). And, truly, the Times board—controlled by its B shareholders—is a passive and lackluster bunch. Whereas Warren Buffett is on the Washington Post board, the Times board's one corporate star, IBM's former C.E.O. Lou Gerstner, resigned in frustration several years ago.

In any conventional sense, control of the company, as long as the family stays united, is invulnerable. And most people take the fact of that unity as a historic given. But now it's being tested in the face of shareholders whose activism effectively talks down the price of the stock, the point on which management, the board, and the family are most accountable, and does it with the one other thing the Sulzbergers are perhaps most touchy about—bad press.

What will the B shareholders give to make it stop?

The fear in the newsroom is that the first thing to be given up will be bodies—fire enough people and earnings improve and stock creeps up and that takes immediate pressure off management. (It's already begun: "There's no money here," hissed a reporter to me recently in what had been a little gossip about expense accounts.)

But if that's not enough—and it never is enough—then what's next is more independent board members, followed by little changes in the nature of control, and then asset sales, and lots of secret meetings among family members on the subject of what to do about Arthur, and then a plan afoot to take the title of publisher from him, and on and on … until … the powers that be face the dreadful discrepancy between the declining fortunes of business as usual and a more probable upside of dismantling, selling, and letting the market have its certain way.

The form for projecting and maintaining great authority is, most classically, to talk softly. But that's not a modern media idea. The modern idea is to fight it out in the marketplace. All media is big media, rising and falling. Operatic. Building corporate as well as architectural monuments to itself. The Bush administration, as much a media enterprise as a governing one, has gone into the media marketplace to try to upend the Times, which it sees as one of its brand and message competitors—one that it can efficiently take on. This seems to me another Bush miscalculation. Its invective is actually brand enhancement for the Times, recalling the Times's real journalism, and evoking an era before the Times cast its fate with all the players and all the visions and all the clashes of the titans in the great media soup, or, worse, before—despite all its efforts to be something else and to forestall the inevitable—it got caught out as just another newspaper company coming to its natural end.

For a dwindling number of us—over-50 Manhattanites, over-50 Jews, over-50 liberal-minded people, over-50 journalists—that's a "God is dead" sort of statement. It's too big. Too existential. And, anyway, how do you exactly define "end"? You mean NO New York Times? Nada? Darkness?

Well, yes, in effect.

Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, is the author of Autumn of the Moguls (HarperBusiness) and Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet (Simon & Schuster).

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My Home: Alain de Botton, philosopher and writer (by Tessa Williams-Akoto, The Independent)

Note to the Caption: 'There are hundreds of books around, everything from Proust to the complete collection of Freud - every library should have one.'

Storage space, white walls and Freud are all vital for soothing the mind, says Alain de Botton. Take a look inside the philosopher's home

Interview by Tessa Williams-Akoto
Published: 23 August 2006

The philosopher Alain de Botton, 36, lives in west London with his wife Charlotte and 22-month-old son Samuel. He wrote his first book, Essays on Love, aged 24. His last television series, The Perfect Home for Channel 4, was an adaptation of his book The Architecture of Happiness.

I knew that I wanted to live in this street - as much as anything else, the houses are not huge, but they have very high ceilings. So one day, I put leaflets through every single door, asking whether anyone would sell. I waited a few weeks and it worked - someone responded.

It was a wreck when we first got it - the man who owned it, who had been going through a divorce, had just left it completely without doing anything to it for about 30 years, so it looked terrible. The walls were cracked and buckling, the floorboards were rotten, there were damp and leak stains all over, the roof was missing tiles, the plumbing was ancient and the wiring needed an overhaul. But looking beyond all that, we could see that it was a great Victorian building - it's from the 1890s - set over four storeys.

Both my wife and I have studies here, and we have two other bedrooms and our son's room. We also have two identical bathrooms, which are in the same position in the house, one on top of the other beside the stairway. My office is on the top floor, and I have views over London from there.

It took a long time to renovate; during these two years we stayed at a rented flat near Elephant and Castle. It is very different from where I grew up - which was a modernist house in the suburbs of Zurich.

The house is painted white throughout, apart from the sitting room downstairs which is a pale green colour called celadon. The most important thing for me was making it a calmer interior than I have within myself. There is so much going on in life it is very important to create an interior that is peaceful to live in.

The one main luxury that I have here is that I have built in a lot of storage. Cupboards and bookshelves make a big difference. That is why I have managed to create a very sleek minimalist look. However, I think I am now verging on the maximalist. But it is very difficult with a child to keep things looking minimalist.

My favourite room is the sitting room, which has now become a play room, but it is still a very relaxing place. There are hundreds of books around, always something to pick up and read. Everything from Proust to the complete collection of Freud - every library should have one, you never know when you might need to look up something, a neurosis, a fear or an obsession, just in case you have a problem.

The downstairs is quite open plan. The dining room is between the kitchen, which overlooks a patio, and the sitting room. We have a large oak table which was given to us as a wedding present and a set of dining chairs from Habitat.

Books are my one indulgence. I usually have about 10 on the go at the same time - right now I'm reading Andrew Solomon, Geoff Dyer, Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, Roland Barthes, Paola Antonelli, Stendhal and Philip Roth. I don't know if you could take that lot to the beach.

I must have over 2,000 books, I buy more every week, sometimes one or two, sometimes 20. I don't watch much television, we have a very small simple black Panasonic TV. But I do like going to the cinema, one of my favourite films is Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders.

My wife and I have similar taste in art, we like things that are modern realist. As soon as you come through the door, there is a painting by Chris Kenny of little bits of pages of books stuck on to pins on the wall. I have another of his pieces, and upstairs a photograph of a school, by an Israeli photographer who went round taking pictures of schools in Britain in the 1950s.

Ideally I'd like to knock this house down and build something more contemporary. I like this area a lot. It is great for children and very central.

The one interiors look I really don't like is Russian new oil billionaire style. It doesn't really ring bells with me, or the leopard skin and gold tap look. I could go on and on, but one other style I don't like very much is the traditional English Chintz look.

A lot of our furniture comes from Habitat. I do think it is worth getting furniture that someone has thought about. Ikea can have some good things too, but it's all about knowing what to choose.

It is a bit like going to TopShop and mixing and matching with couture. If you have one key designer piece, it tends to look better amongst some other things that are different.

If I were to live anywhere else I would choose Amsterdam. It is a very liveable city and everyone speaks English. London doesn't really work like cities should. It is far too spread out, it is too big. It has become rather like Los Angeles, it doesn't have that tight city feel which is what makes cities attractive. People tend to stick to themselves too much as it is too vast, and I think it is quite ugly as well in parts - especially places like Shepherd's Bush.

Architecturally, so much has gone wrong in London. I'm more of a fan of the European city model, where things are more tightly packed together. Places such as Paris, Berlin and Barcelona are a lot more appealing - both visually and physically.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rural Oregon Town Feels Pinch of Poverty (By Erik Echholm, the New York Times)

Karen Kephart, a former lumber mill worker in Oakridge, Ore., had the kind of good-paying job that has all but vanished from the town of 4,000.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

On the west slope of the Cascades, Oakridge is an hour from Eugene. A shack is all that remains at a former lumber mill site.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

Dazzle Deal lives in a trailer park with Dillinger, 5, and Viviana, 3. To make ends meet, she sometimes cleans motel rooms and braids hair.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

On the edge of town, where the old Pope and Talbot mill burned down in 1991, an industrial park was created, but it is covered largely with weeds.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

Kaydee Huffman, 22, gets ready to work the graveyard shift at the Village Inn Restaurant. She makes Oregon’s $7.50 minimum wage, and tips. She lives with her mother, Tami Parrish, 44; her son, Derrick Cologna, 1, who receives medical care under a federal medical program for poor infants; and Ms. Parrish's husband, an unemployed cook.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

Above the fog line and below the snow line, with herds of elk in the surrounding hills, Oakridge offers a peaceful beauty, and residents say it is a perfect place to live, except for the lack of jobs.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

Wade Miller, 47, left, and George Marlow, 51, are unemployed and live in trailers in Mr. Miller’s mother’s yard.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

When jobs dried up, many of the more enterprising families left Oakridge.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Shella Hylton, with her daughter Genesis, 1. The transient family lives in a camper in the forest.(Leah Nash for The New York Times)

by Erik Echholm

OAKRIDGE, Ore. — For a few decades, this little town on the western slope of the Cascades hopped with blue-collar prosperity, its residents cutting fat Douglas fir trees and processing them at two local mills.

Into the 1980’s, people joked that poverty meant you didn’t have an RV or a boat. A high school degree was not necessary to earn a living through logging or mill work, with wages roughly equal to $20 or $30 an hour in today’s terms.

But by 1990 the last mill had closed, a result of shifting markets and a dwindling supply of logs because of depletion and tighter environmental rules. Oakridge was wrenched through the rural version of deindustrialization, sending its population of 4,000 reeling in ways that are still playing out.

Residents now live with lowered expectations, and a share of them have felt the sharp pinch of rural poverty. The town is an acute example of a national trend, the widening gap in pay between workers in urban areas and those in rural locales, where much of any job growth has been in low-end retailing and services.

Most parents here, said Shelley Miller, who heads the family resource center at the public schools, are “juggling paycheck to paycheck.”

Ms. Miller included herself. She makes $20,000 a year, and when she and her 16-year-old daughter make the hourlong drive to Eugene, she said, “It’s a treat.” They go to Subway for dinner, then to Wal-Mart to shop at far lower prices than they could at Oakridge’s single supermarket.

Expressed in 2005 dollars, the average pay for a full-time worker in rural Oregon fell to $27,600 in 2005 from $34,200 in 1976. Over the same period, average pay in urban counties in Oregon climbed to $37,800, putting the rural-urban gap at $10,200 and rising, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

About 700 Oakridge residents, from a population of about 4,500 in Oakridge and the surrounding area, visit a charity food pantry each month to pick up boxes of groceries worth $100 apiece. Two-thirds of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning their families are near the poverty line or below it. About 260 of the town’s 1,200 housing units are single-width trailers.

“Every fall we discover that a few families have lost it over the summer and are camping out in the woods,” Ms. Miller said. “So we help them find some kind of housing in town.”

Above the fog line and below the snow line, with herds of elk in the surrounding hills, the town offers a peaceful beauty, and residents say it is a perfect place to live, except for the lack of jobs.

Today, a latte-serving cafe caters to mountain bikers and travelers on their way to a ski slope or parts farther west. A few new fast-food outlets are interspersed with graying motels and empty storefronts. Former workers fondly recall how the town’s 10 bars were mobbed every payday; now, a few old-timers gather in one of three tired bars and a dingy Moose Lodge, needing little prompting to carp about the Forest Service and environmentalists.

Oakridge has struggled to find a new economic base. On the edge of town, where the old Pope and Talbot mill burned down in 1991, an industrial park was created, but it is covered largely with weeds.

The town has authorized water and sewer services for up to 200 prime home sites in the hills above, and it hopes to attract retirees and commuters from the Eugene area, said Don Hampton, a City Council member.

Along with a growing trade in outdoor recreation, becoming a distant bedroom and retirement community may be the town’s best hope, bringing tax revenue and service jobs, though it is not clear how much opportunity this will offer ambitious young people.

“There’s no substitute for having a payroll,” said Dan Rehwalt, 77, who worked for decades as a machinist with lumber mills and the railroad.

When the logging and mill jobs dried up, many of the more enterprising families left. Some fathers commuted for nine months at a time to log in Alaska. Others found jobs an hour or two away in Eugene and other towns, but almost always at lower wages.

Karen Kephart, 63, who has five great-grandchildren, was one of the first women to work alongside men at the giant Pope and Talbot mill. When she was laid off in 1989, she was running a saw for $13 an hour, equal to $21 in 2005 dollars. Her husband tried other mill work in the region, then retired. To make ends meet, Mrs. Kephart turned to caring for the elderly in Eugene, sometimes for $7 an hour.

“We had to use our savings to live on,” Mrs. Kephart said in the trailer park that she and her husband moved into after selling their house on the hill, and where they get by on Social Security and modest pensions. “It changed our retirement considerably.”

Their daughter Tami Parrish, 44, the second oldest of five children, remembers having “to scrimp and save everything we had” after the mills closed.

Ms. Parrish and her two sisters live in the same trailer park as their parents. She too has worked as a caregiver in Eugene, in a home for Alzheimer’s patients. She grossed $1,900 a month, but she recently had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and is not working.

Crowding into her trailer are her husband, an unemployed cook; her 22-year-old daughter, who just started a waitress job making Oregon’s $7.50 minimum wage, and tips; and the daughter’s baby boy, who receives medical care under a federal medical program for poor infants.

The two Kephart sons have fared better: one, after leaving the mills, was hired as a railroad conductor, rose to engineer and lives “uptown” in Oakridge with his wife and five children. The other works in a fiberglass plant in North Carolina and helps out with money sometimes, Mrs. Kephart said.

Dazzle Deal, 26, with tattooed arms and a pink pony tail, has three children, ages 7, 5 and 3. She is part of a more recent influx of poor people who moved to Oakridge because it seemed a safe place to raise kids on little money.

Ms. Deal moved from Las Vegas four years ago, paying $3,000 for a dilapidated trailer in the park where the Kepharts live and fixing it up as best she could.

For nine months she worked at a charity in Eugene, hitchhiking 55 miles each way because she had no car. Then the charity closed. More recently, she has occasionally found work cleaning motel rooms and braiding hair.

“If I worked at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, it would almost cost me more to pay someone to care for the kids,” she said. She gets $400 worth of food stamps and is on Medicaid; her main challenge is coming up with $205 each month for lot rental in the trailer park.

A swing set outside her trailer attracts other children from the trailer park, and on a recent warm day she took a group of them to wade in the nearby river.

One family, the Hyltons, live in an RV in the forest and describe themselves as transients, after returning to Oregon from a spell in the Southeast. But it is not clear how and when they might move on.

Robert Hylton, 42, was living hand to mouth on a river bank with his wife, Shella, 30, and their daughters, ages 1 and 2. Strain showed on the face of Mrs. Hylton as she washed clothes in a tub.

The family catches trout to eat three times a week. Mr. Hylton drives, or bikes when there is no gas money, into Oakridge for food baskets and the occasional construction job.

“We’re trying,” he said, “to figure out what to do next.”

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Harvard or Bust (Review by Eugene Allen, the New York Times)

THE OVERACHIEVERS The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.
By Alexandra Robbins.
439 pp. Hyperion.

August 6, 2006

I was sick of college talk. Sick of reciting the names of the schools my 16-year-old has visited, which ones she liked best, and why. Sick of listening to other parents do the same. Sick of discussing the finer points of the new SAT, class rank and recommendation letters. Sick of the chatter about Opal Mehta, the fictitious Harvard applicant and heroine of a recent plagiarized novel. So sick of it all that I was considering a ban on extrafamilial college talk from now until spring, when my daughter will finally belong to someone’s class of 2011.

Then I read “The Overachievers,” which is almost nothing but college talk. Alexandra Robbins profiles eight students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., in-depth over three semesters in 2004 and 2005; they talk about college. She pans wide to include overachievers across the country; they talk about college. She consults experts on college. She surveys the literature about college. She calls for new ways of thinking about college, preparing for college, and applying to college. I couldn’t get enough of it.

“The Overachievers” is part soap opera, part social treatise. Robbins identifies her main characters — four juniors, three seniors and one alum who’s a college freshman — by how they’re perceived at Whitman. Then she stands back and lets them prove otherwise. Julie, the Superstar, is so plagued by self-doubt that she worries she will be voted “Most Awkward” by her senior classmates. Sam, the Teacher’s Pet, runs out of time to find and interview a Muslim for an assignment in his Modern World class, so he makes one up and writes a fake transcript of their conversation. And A.P. Frank, who took a grueling all-Advanced Placement course load his junior and senior years of high school, wants nothing more than a decent social life when he gets to college. I was so hooked on their stories that I wanted to vote for my favorite contestant at the end of every chapter.

The book is less effective when Robbins leaves Whitman to gather supporting anecdotes from students in other parts of the country. After a while the kids at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., sound like the kids in Kentucky, who sound like the kids in Vermont, who sound like the kids in New Mexico. There’s also a detour into the cutthroat world of private schools in Manhattan that would have worked better as the seed for another book. Nice coup, sitting in on interviews and admission decisions at the Trinity School, but can we please get back to Bethesda?

When “The O.A.” is on location, it reads like very good young-adult fiction, thanks to its winning cast, its surprising plot twists — the Stealth Overachiever turns out to be the kid you’d least expect — and its pushy parents, including one truly disturbed mother. In one funny-sad scene, the Popular Girl, torn between Penn and Duke, stands at the post office with acceptance letters to each. She finally mails one, then decides she’s made a terrible mistake and begs the clerk to retrieve her letter. Twice. In another episode, it takes three hours of instant messaging for Julie, the Superstar (SAT verbal 760), and Derek, another senior (verbal 800), to establish that they like each other — but only as friends.

Robbins has a lot in common with her young subjects. A 1998 Yale graduate and the author of the 2004 best seller “Pledged,” about sororities, she graduated from Whitman a decade before she began researching this book, and she quietly admits that she, too, is an overachiever. Robbins is also a good writer, and she must be a good listener, because she more than delivers on the promise of “secret lives” in the subtitle. Her main characters confide in her about everything from cheating and test anxiety to underage drinking and self-mutilation. (Curiously, there’s no sex to speak of in “The Overachievers”; it must be the only area in which these kids don’t outperform their peers.) Robbins handles these private struggles with a minimum of fuss, offering economical, generally dispassionate digests on often disturbing topics.

Occasionally, however, she weighs in on education policies and parenting practices that she considers especially egregious, including the No Child Left Behind Act (because it favors test scores over teaching); grade inflation in high school and college (she’s surprised teachers and administrators often cave to student and parental pressure); and pre-professional sports for children as young as 8 (she worries about their mental and physical well-being). At the end of the book, Robbins offers sensible suggestions for reform: elementary schools should reinstate recess and high schools should drop class rank, she argues, while colleges should scrap the SAT and eliminate early decision. In Robbins’s utopia, where children and adolescents are free to learn at their own pace, without the burden of standardized tests, carefree Huck Finn would have a better shot at the Ivy League than overprepped Opal Mehta. Better still, Huck would choose a smaller, more nurturing school because he would know that name-brand schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, which is another of Robbins’s arguments.

A quibble: Overachievers or not, the kids in this book are way too well-spoken. Anyone who has tried to have a conversation with a teenager recently will doubt that this series of complete sentences, from an interview with a senior in California, was uttered by a member of the same species: “I was definitely very stressed, and I worked very hard. Long nights studying, job shadows, college classes, internships, SAT’s, sports, all at the same time as balancing a social life. This could be why students do things to such extremes. There is a sense of urgency and pressure.” Meanwhile, one after another, the Whitman students offer long, articulate confessions to a “friend” who seems not to be their contemporary and who surely must be Robbins herself. The device wears thin. And it’s disconcerting to learn, in the endnotes, that Robbins encouraged the Superstar to keep a journal “about moments she felt were significant to her high school experience.” Was the author already thinking ahead to how it would look in print? (The girl happens to write beautifully.)

But Robbins gets the big picture right. Yes, this is a terrible time to be applying to college. With too many talented students vying for too few spots at a handful of top schools, we shouldn’t be surprised that many are buckling under the pressure to be perfect. There are signs that the tide is turning, starting with colleges themselves. Fed up with the hegemony of the College Board and the predations of some private college counselors, more schools are making the submission of SAT scores optional, and adding application questions that invite students to talk about what they do for fun. From a Stanford admissions officer: “It’s that idea of packaging and coaching, students trying so hard to make themselves stand out — we’re not able to see how they really are. There are no life experiences that would get you into Stanford. It’s not what you’ve done; it’s how you’ve experienced whatever has happened to you.”

Some readers will undoubtedly mine “The Overachievers” for hints on how the Teacher’s Pet got into Middlebury early, or why a student with the ideal transcript was wait-listed at Yale. They will miss the point. These kids may have learned how to play the game, but as Robbins makes clear, it’s time to change the rules.

Eugenie Allen has contributed articles about family life to Time and The New York Times.


August 6, 2006
First Chapter

‘The Overachievers’



Julie, senior | perceived as: The Superstar

On the surface, Julie seemed to have it all. A straight-A student without exception since sixth grade, she took a rigorous high school curriculum that had included eight Advanced Placement classes thus far. Walt Whitman High School's most talented female distance runner since her freshman year, Julie had co-captained the varsity cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams as a junior. School and local newspapers constantly heralded her athletic accomplishments. An aspiring triathlete, Julie was president and co-founder of the Hiking Vikings Club (named for Whitman's mascot), a yoga fanatic, a member of the Spanish Honors Society, and a big buddy to a child at a homeless shelter.

As a freshman and sophomore, Julie was one of three elected class officers and, as a junior, co-sports editor and co-student life editor of the yearbook before she quit. To top it off, she was a naturally pretty sixteen-year-old with a bright, mesmerizing smile, cascading dark blond ringlets, and a slender figure that she was known for dressing stylishly. Her friends constantly told her that boys had crushes on her, though she rarely picked up on those things. She was currently dating her first real boyfriend, a family friend headed to college in the fall. There were students at Whitman who revered her.

Julie had earned her summer vacation. Junior year had been stressful, both academically and socially. She took eight academic classes the first semester, skipping lunch to squeeze in an extra course. Socially, she began to question whether she belonged in her tight-knit clique of fourteen girls, a group other students knew as the River Falls crew, even though only a handful of the girls lived in that suburban Maryland neighborhood. Though Julie had known many of them since elementary
school, she didn't feel comfortable opening up to them. Even in that large group of girls, she still felt alone.

Throughout her junior year, Julie's hair gradually had begun to thin. In June her concerned mother took her to the doctor. After the blood tests returned normal results, the doctor informed her that thinning hair was "not unheard of among junior girls, as stress can cause hair loss." Julie told no one at school about her ordeal. She was able to bulldoze through junior year with the hope that, if she pushed herself for just a little while longer, she would have a good shot at getting into her dream school. She had wanted to go to Stanford ever since she fell in love with the campus during a middle school visit. It seemed natural to her to aim high.

One summer evening, Julie was buying a striped T-shirt at J. Crew when she heard a squeal. A Whitman student who had graduated in May was bounding toward her. The graduate didn't even bother with small talk before firing off college questions: "So where are you applying early?" Julie demurely dodged the question with a polite smile and a wave of her hand.

The graduate wasn't deterred. "Well, where are you applying to college?"

"I don't know," Julie said, keeping her mouth upturned.

"Where have you visited?"

"Some New England schools," Julie said, and changed the subject.
So this is what the year will be like, Julie thought. Endless questions and judgments based entirely on the name of a school. Julie hadn't decided where she would apply. She wondered if the pressure simply to know was going to be as intense as the pressure to get in.

Julie's parents had hired a private college counselor to help her work through these decisions. Julie was excited for her first serious meeting with the counselor, who worked mostly with students in a competitive Virginia school district. Julie had been waiting for years to reap the benefits of her years of diligence. At last she felt like she could speak openly about her college aspirations without fear of sounding cocky.

Normally not one to saunter, Julie glided into Vera von Helsinger's office, relaxed and self-assured. She crossed her long, tanned legs and politely folded her hands in her lap. After mundane small talk with Julie and her mother, Vera asked for Julie's statistics and activities. Julie listed them proudly: a 4.0 unweighted GPA, a combined score of 1410 out of 1600 on the SAT, good SAT II scores, a 5 on the Advanced Placement Chemistry and English Language exams, and a 4 on the Government exam. When Julie told her college counselor about her extracurricular load, triathleticism, and interest in science, Vera proclaimed her "mildly interesting."

Julie handed Vera a list she had taken the initiative to compile from Outside magazine's annual ranking of top forty schools based on their outdoor opportunities. Julie's list began with Stanford, Dartmouth, Williams, Middlebury, the University of Virginia, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Miami. Vera asked, "Is there anyone else at Whitman who has the same personality as you?"

"No," Julie said in her typically breathy voice. "I consider myself an individual."

"Well, Taylor is kind of a do-er," Julie's mother pointed out.

Julie nodded. "Taylor is an athlete who wants to apply early to Stanford," she said. Julie's friend Taylor also was active in school and a good student, especially in math and science. "I guess you can also say Derek." Rumor was that Julie's friend Derek, widely considered Whitman's resident genius, scored his perfect 1600 on the SAT without studying until the night before the test. He had mentioned that Stanford might be his first choice.

Vera said she considered herself a "brutally honest" person, but Julie was nonetheless taken aback when the counselor told her not to bother applying early to Stanford because she was unlikely to get in. Applying early to that kind of a reach school, Vera said, was not a strategic move to make in the game of college applications.

Julie was crushed. She hadn't been dreaming of the California campus for so many years only to be told that even sending in an application was a waste of time. Applying early to a school she wasn't in love with didn't make sense to her. "What ... what would it take for me to get into Stanford?" she stammered.

"You would have to have lived in Mongolia for two years or have been in a civil war," Vera replied.

Julie looked at her mother and rolled her eyes. I've done everything within my power that I can do, Julie thought. It's not my fault I live a normal life! Vera caught the glance. It was so difficult to get into college these days, she told Julie, that if she didn't have her lineup of interesting extracurriculars, the best school she could consider was George Washington University. I don't have a chance at my dream school when I've done everything right, Julie thought, feeling helpless. If Taylor and Derek got into Stanford and she didn't apply because of a counselor's strategy, she would be angry, because she was just as qualified.

After the meeting, Julie channeled her frustration into a journal entry:

The mix of schools on my list must have been bewildering to Vera because she asked how much prestige mattered to me. Evaluating the importance of prestige reminded me of shopping. Some people only like clothes once they find out they are designer-Seven jeans, Juicy Couture shirts, North Face fleeces-but I get much more satisfaction out of getting the same look (or, in my humble opinion, a better look) from no-name brands. The label matters to a lot of people, but not to me. Unfortunately, I don't feel the same way about college. I wish I could have said that it doesn't matter and that I know I can be successful anywhere, but I grew up in Potomac and go to Whitman, so obviously prestige is important to me. As an example, Vera asked me to choose between UC Santa Cruz and Cornell. I deliberated for quite a while, trying to will myself to say Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is beautiful on the outside, but I hear Cornell is, too. Also, I always hear about the people who commit suicide at Cornell, while everyone is supposedly happy and totally chill at Santa Cruz. However, Cornell is in the Ivy League, which would make it attractive to many people. "They both have their pros and cons," I said diplomatically. Vera is also really into the whole early-decision craze. I can't see myself applying to any school early except Stanford, because how do I know that school is perfect for me? I love all those New England schools except for one thing: the cold. I don't even know that Stanford is perfect, but there is something about that location that screams perfection. But it's all a game of odds. I could settle to apply early somewhere else and then be rejected. Or, I could "waste" my early decision on Stanford when I could have gotten into Williams early (especially since I have been in contact with the coach). It is a lot to think about. After shaking Vera's hand, I walked out of the office. I felt like I was leaving something behind, but then realized it was only my confidence that she had stolen from me.

Julie had no idea what her college counselor really thought of her. But I did.

I was not supposed to be a part of this story. As a journalist, I view my role as that of an observer, not a participant. As a storyteller, I like the novelesque quality of scenes in which readers forget that a reporter buffers them from the "characters." For the rest of this book, my perspective will be absent from the students' stories. In this case, however, it's important to share how I got in the way.

When Julie and her mother invited me to accompany them on their second official visit to the college counselor, I readily agreed. I was interested to see whether Julie would stand by her personal preferences or decide the "expert" knew best. We agreed that Julie's mother would tell the college counselor I would join them. The day before the meeting, I learned that Vera wanted to speak with me.

The college counselor informed me that she had a "near-perfect record" of getting her students into elite universities. Julie, she said, was far behind the rest of her clients in the application process. "All my other students are almost done. Julie hasn't even started her essays," she said. (Julie, who was itching to write her essays, had told me that Vera instructed her not to start them.) Then Vera hit me with something unexpected. She said, "She's not a great student. She's not going to get into a top college." And if I, as a reporter, happened to follow one of her clients who didn't end up getting into such a school, Vera told me, her reputation would be "slammed."

Brutally honest, indeed. It was hard to believe we were discussing the same girl: straight-A, Advanced Placement student, three-sport varsity captain, triathlete, excellent writer, a girl with a passion for science ... At first I assured Vera that she could be anonymous in this book, with no identifying details disclosed. "Oh, anonymity isn't the issue. I wouldn't mind my name in there. It's publicity," she said. She told me she would love to be interviewed, she could introduce me to people, she had so much to say. "I can be helpful in other ways!" she said eagerly. I was perplexed. The conversation ended unresolved.

The next morning Vera left a message on my voice mail: "Julie and I have decided to postpone our meeting."

Now that the afternoon was free, I called Julie to see if she wanted to get lunch instead. While on the phone, I asked her why she and Vera had postponed the meeting. "Oh, wow," she breathed in an even more halting voice than usual. "Um ... Well, Vera told my father that she wouldn't work with me if I worked with you."

I was mortified. Julie's family had barely gotten to know me, and already my presence in their lives, which was supposed to be as a sideline spectator, was an obstacle in the very process through which I hoped to follow Julie. I called Vera to tell her that I wouldn't attend her meetings, I wouldn't mention anything about her if she kept Julie on as a client, and it wasn't worth dropping Julie because of me. But I was too late. Vera had delivered her ultimatum. She maintained that if a reporter shadowed one of the few clients she had who she believed wouldn't be accepted into an elite school, then Vera's record would be ruined. It was either Vera or me.

I backed off. For days I waited on pins and needles for the situation to be settled one way or the other. Then one afternoon I got a call from Julie. "This is going to make a great college essay!" she said. "My college counselor fired me!"

Audrey, junior | perceived as: The Perfectionist

Audrey's alarm rang at 6:10 A.M., but she didn't awaken until 6:40. For the first time since she could remember, she didn't get up early on the first day of school. In prior years, she had beaten her alarm, excited to get the year started, her outfit chosen well in advance. But this year, junior year, would be different. She could feel it already. She had spent much of the previous night rereading her assigned summer books. She had finished the reading days ago, even annotating every page of the optional book, but didn't realize until the night before school started that she was also supposed to define vocabulary words from the literature. Until 2:30 A.M. Audrey pored through the hundreds of pages of all four books again in order to get the assignment done perfectly.

Audrey could pinpoint the beginning of her perfectionism to the moment. At age six, she was in a two-year combination class for first- and second-graders. Midway through the year, Audrey's teacher persuaded her parents to make her officially a second-grader instead of a first-grader. That year Audrey had a homework assignment to decorate a rock as an animal. Other kids spent forty-five minutes on the project and were satisfied. Audrey spent all day gluing pipe cleaners and googly eyes to the rock, hysterically crying when she couldn't get the pink construction-paper nose exactly as she wanted, desperately trying to prove herself worthy of second grade by producing the perfect rock puppy.

Now, in high school, when Audrey's teachers assigned reading, she wouldn't just read; she would type several pages of single-spaced notes about the material. When studying for exams, she would then rewrite, in neat longhand, every word of her typed notes. She couldn't help it. Audrey couldn't do work that was merely good enough. It had to be the best.

Worried she would be late for carpool, Audrey grabbed a denim skirt out of her closet, fretting briefly about its length-Whitman's dress code mandated that it fall below her fingertips. She yanked on a polo and a cotton long-sleeved sweater over her wavy golden hair, because the school's air-conditioning made her small frame shiver. She wolfed down some of the eggs her Puerto Rican father had cooked for her, hefted her bulging backpack, and bolted out the door.

The carpool driver must have noticed that the juniors in his car were particularly unhappy to be returning to school. "How do you feel about waking up early?" he asked. Audrey laughed from the backseat, her braces gleaming. Audrey and C.J., her best friend until recently, had spent the summer lifeguarding the first shift at the neighborhood pool, so they were used to waking up early. But Audrey privately wondered why she had so much trouble getting out of bed that morning. For the first time on a school day, she didn't even have time to finish her breakfast. She wondered if her already shifting schedule was an ominous sign. She had heard rumors about how junior year, the most important year for a college rÈsumÈ could wallop even the most accomplished student.

The car pulled into the school driveway with minutes to spare before first period began at 7:25. Before Walt Whitman High School was renovated in 1992, it had been a nondescript building except for its gym, a magnificent enclosed dome. When the new building was erected, the beloved dome was torn down. Now the school's green-trimmed brick facade resembled a Nordstrom department store. . . .

Link to "the first chapter" in the New York Times

from the publisher

The book info on

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Backlist to the Future (by By Rachel Donadio, the New York Times)

July 30, 2006

“The mass market is turning into a mass of niches,” Chris Anderson writes in “The Long Tail,” his best-selling new book on the economics of entertainment. A handful of blockbusters may dominate at the multiplex and the megastore, he argues, but there’s untapped potential in the vast number of books, movies and recordings that sell relatively few copies — the so-called “long tail” of the sales curve — potential that can now be tapped through online retailers.

Since Anderson first introduced the concept in a 2004 article in Wired magazine, where he is editor in chief, the “long tail” has become an oft-cited buzzword for anyone trying to connect products and consumers. At first glance, the theory would seem perfectly suited to the publishing business, which is built on a foundation of the “backlist,” those books kept in print because they continue to sell steadily over the years, usually in paperback. Not to mention that publishers are always looking for niche markets for specific titles, be they backlist or “frontlist” books, the term for titles less than one year old.

Yet so far publishers remain wary of the long tail theory, largely because they haven’t figured out how to make money off it. Books require storage, and it quickly becomes impractical for publishers to keep low numbers of thousands of titles in their warehouses. “The costs associated with printing small quantities of many different titles and of warehousing those many different titles and of fulfilling single-copy orders . . . are so onerous that it’s not a model that I feel works for publishing today,” said Terry Adams, the director of trade paperbacks at Little, Brown. Susan Moldow, the executive vice president and publisher of Scribner, agreed. “It only works if you’re employing some kind of print-on-demand,” she said, referring to a technology that allows publishers to print a few books at a time, as they are ordered. Although Anderson and some others believe print-on-demand will change publishing history, the technology is still imperfect and costly.

Paradoxically, the online sales technologies on which the long tail depends may actually be undercutting backlist sales by squeezing them between the two poles of the market: new frontlist titles and used books, which are easier to find than ever thanks to the rise of online booksellers and search engines like This is a potential problem for most publishers, who rely on backlist sales for a significant part of their business. Titles more than one year old — including best sellers with staying power like “The Da Vinci Code” — account for 62 to 68 percent of annual sales at Barnes & Noble, said Robert Wietrak, the company’s vice president for merchandising. “It’s what the business is built on,” he said.

Unlike new titles, which involve a writer’s advance and promotion costs, backlist sales come without too much new investment. “When you’re selling a backlist book, each dollar is almost twice as valuable,” said Jane von Mehren, the publisher of trade paperbacks at Random House. “Because there are so many fewer costs associated with each sale, that much more of what you bring in is going straight to the bottom line.”

Each house has at least one title that seems to buoy the rest of the list. Warner Books’ edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” sells in the “robust six figures” annually, said Beth de Guzman, the company’s paperback editor in chief. “The Catcher in the Rye,” a major title in Little, Brown’s backlist, sold more than 200,000 last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales in 70 to 80 percent of the domestic market, but doesn’t include books assigned for college courses — a major source of sales for some books. Penguin Classics — an almost all-backlist imprint that has 4,000 titles, some from the public domain and most with a newly commissioned scholarly introduction — sells “hundreds of thousands” of copies of its most popular titles, including “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Crucible” and “The Odyssey,” said Elda Rotor, the imprint’s executive editor. Some frequently taught newer titles also have steady sales. Tim O’Brien’s 1990 Vietnam War novel, “The Things They Carried,” routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year, as does Howard Zinn’s left-leaning “People’s History of the United States,” originally published in 1980.

The backlist can also drive business acquisitions. Simon & Schuster bought Macmillan in 1994 partly for its backlist, which included “The Joy of Cooking.” The cookbook’s heavily updated 1997 edition has sold 1.7 million copies. (Several earlier editions also remain in print.) In 1984, Penguin bought a small English publisher, Frederick Warne, largely for one author on its backlist: Beatrix Potter, whose children’s books sell millions of copies a year. “We bought the company and isolated the key treasure in there,” said Peter Mayer, who was Penguin’s chief executive at the time and is now the president and publisher of Overlook Press.

Some publishers say retailers are more interested in the backlist when publishers can pay to promote an old book like a new one. In the past decade “there’s been an ever greater emphasis on frontlist on the part of retailers,” Mayer said. “The phenomenon of big new best-selling titles selling bigger and using up more space in a store has led to backlist not being seen as income-productive as that area of the market was in the past.” Mayer said he didn’t think online booksellers — which stock virtually every title in print — made up the difference in terms of revenue.

Publishers are forever searching for new ways to “revitalize” the backlist. Sometimes that means issuing a special edition, as Vintage did to fete the 50th anniversary of “Lolita” last year. (Sales rose to 100,000 copies, up 30 percent from 2004.) And then there are the movie tie-ins. In 2004, Vintage shipped about 50,000 copies of “In Cold Blood”; this year, after the movie “Capote” appeared, it shipped 400,000. Houghton Mifflin saw sales of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy rise 1,000 percent — to 25 million copies — when the movies were in theaters from 2001 to 2003. Surprise endorsements also help. When “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise,” was mentioned in an episode of “The Sopranos,” Penguin Classics saw a spike in sales of its edition.

Some small presses build their business entirely on the long tail, bringing back into print esoteric titles that are in the public domain or had been abandoned by other publishers as unprofitable. “We’re like scavenger birds on the back of hippopotamuses,” said Edwin Frank, the editorial director of New York Review Books Classics, which was founded in 1999 and is affiliated with The New York Review of Books. Top sellers among the imprint’s 200 titles include Richard Hughes’s dreamlike novel “A High Wind in Jamaica” and historical novels by J. G. Farrell that revolve around Britain’s colonial rule. “We’re happy with any book that sells over 5,000 copies” during its sales life, Frank said.

There are certainly many titles that sell fewer. In “The Long Tail,” Anderson notes that in 2004, only 10 titles sold more than a million copies, while 67,000 sold from 1,000 to 4,999 copies, 203,000 sold from 100 to 999 copies — and a whopping 948,000 titles sold 99 copies or fewer. But given the realities of the publishing industry, many of those low sellers may soon fall out of print. With the exception of art books and other expensive single volumes, says Little, Brown’s Terry Adams, it becomes unprofitable to keep a book in print when it sells only about one or two thousand copies.

Indeed, so far, the winners in the long tail scenario aren’t publishers but the online booksellers and the databases that aggregate their titles, making books stranded on the dusty shelves of local used-book stores readily available to buyers around the world. Online used-book sales rose 33 percent between 2003 and 2004, to $609 million, in a $2.2 billion used-book market, according to the Book Industry Study Group. But publishers don’t profit from used books. Even Anderson acknowledges this. Online retailers may have unlocked the fuller potential of the used-book market, but “that doesn’t benefit the authors or the publishers, because the revenues don’t go to them,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But it does benefit us as consumers.”

Tony Bennett at 80, Keeping the Flame (by Stephen Holden, the New York Times)

Note to the Capture: Tony Bennett, performing at a benefit in 2004, is to release an album of duets in September. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Mr. Bennett in the 1950’s, when he had hits like “Cold, Cold Heart.”(SonyBMG)

Published: August 2, 2006

A quintessential Tony Bennett moment comes at the end of “It’s a Wonderful World,” the tender duet he recorded with K. D. Lang for their 2002 Louis Armstrong tribute album, “A Wonderful World.” After they swap greeting-card doggerel celebrating “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white,” Mr. Bennett remarks with a boyish enthusiasm, “Don’t you think Satchmo was right?”

Ms. Lang responds by crooning a final, dreamy “what a wonderful world,” whereupon her partner, speaking in the quiet, choked-up voice of a man visiting the grave of a beloved father figure, declares, “You were right, Pops.”

This gentle burst of affirmation melts your heart and reminds you that sincerity, a mode of expression that has been twisted, trampled, co-opted and corrupted in countless ways by the false intimacy of television, still exists in American popular culture. It can even salvage “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white” from the junk heap of pop inanity.

Mr. Bennett, who turns 80 tomorrow, has steadfastly remained the embodiment of heart in popular music. He pours it into every note he sings and every phrase he swings with a sophistication that deepens his unguarded emotional directness. In the polluted sea of irony, bad faith and grotesque attitudinizing that pop music has become, he is a rock of integrity.

That integrity has carried him through the ups, downs and ups of a musical career that now spans more than half a century. After the death of Frank Sinatra in 1998, Mr. Bennett immediately became the leading caretaker of the literate American song tradition that runs from Kern to Ellington to Rodgers. You couldn’t ask for a more reverent keeper of the flame.

Careers that last as long and have been as distinguished as Mr. Bennett’s have something to tell us about collective cultural experience over decades. It has been said that Sinatra’s journey from skinny, starry-eyed “Frankie,” strewing hearts and flowers, to the imperious, volatile Chairman of the Board roughly parallels an American loss of innocence. As Sinatra entered his noir period in the mid-1950’s, his romantic faith gave way to a soul-searching existentialism that yielded the most psychologically complex popular music ever recorded. Following a similar arc, the country grew from a nation of hungry dreamers fleeing the Depression and fighting “the good war” into an arrogant empire drunk on power and angry at the failure of the American dream to bring utopia.

Mr. Bennett is something else altogether. A native New Yorker and man of the people, he never strayed far from his working-class roots in Astoria, Queens, where he was born Anthony Benedetto. Although he came out of the same tradition of Mediterranean balladry as Sinatra, he retained the innocence and joie de vivre of his youth. Disappointment is not in his vocabulary. We don’t go to him for psychological complexity, but for refreshment and reassurance that life is good.

Believing in the power of art to ennoble ordinary lives, he sings what he feels with a rare mixture of humility and pride: humility in the face of the daunting popular-song tradition he treasures and pride that he is recognized as its custodian. Gratitude and joy, gruffness and beauty balance each other perfectly in singing that has grown more rhythmically acute with each passing year.

To attend a Tony Bennett concert is to find yourself in the presence of a performer who exudes a rough-hewn natural elegance, devoid of airs. Singing a song like “Mood Indigo,” he transmutes its sadness into the exuberance of a man who acknowledges having the blues but embraces resilience. He can still end a song like “Fly Me to the Moon” or “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” with an old-fashioned, quasi-operatic crescendo, but he makes these corny triumphal endings stick in your heart.

Late next month, Columbia Records will release “Tony Bennett: Duets/An American Classic,” which includes 18 of his old hits and favorite album cuts rerecorded with everybody from Bono (“I Wanna Be Around”) to Tim McGraw (“Cold, Cold Heart”). The album belongs to the dubious Grammy-seeking category of event records that includes “Frank Sinatra Duets” and Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company,” albums that aren’t about interpreting songs but are about pop royalty putting on a show of chumminess while strutting arm in arm down the red carpet.

Everyone involved in these orgies of mutual admiration pretends for the moment that there are no ethnic, generational or stylistic boundaries in music. Mr. Bennett handles his chores on “Duets” with a casual, offhand grace that goes a long way toward undercutting the ceremonial pretensions.

It is an official marker in a career that can be divided into three phases. The first is defined by four early-50’s hits: “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Blue Velvet” and “Stranger in Paradise,” which stand as the gorgeous final flowering of the high-romantic style invented in the 40’s by Sinatra and his arranger, Axel Stordahl. Pure and throbbing, Mr. Bennett’s voice adds a semioperatic heft to Sinatra’s more intimate crooning style. Male pop singing since then has never been this unabashedly sweet.

Phase two began in 1962 with the hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which rejuvenated Mr. Bennett’s flagging career. Singing songs like “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life” and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the 30-something singer infused these more adult, bittersweet ballads with a current of worldly nostalgia.

At the end of the 1960’s, Mr. Bennett, like many of his peers, became an instant relic rudely shoved to the perimeter of the pop marketplace in the vindictive generational coup that thrust rock to the forefront of American pop. Leaving Columbia Records in 1972, he spent the next decade and a half in semi-exile, recording excellent but obscure albums (including two mid-70’s masterpieces with Bill Evans) for smaller labels before returning to Columbia Records in 1986.

Mr. Bennett’s resurgence under the management of his son Danny has been a double-barreled triumph of marketing and artistry: of marketing in the case of his “MTV Unplugged” record, which shrewdly cast him as an avuncular elder statesman of rock and won him the Grammy for album of the year in 1995, and of artistry in the deluge of lovingly conceived and executed tribute albums he has put out over the last decade and a half.

Those records include “Perfectly Frank” (a Sinatra tribute), “Steppin’ Out” (Fred Astaire), “On Holiday” (Billie Holiday), “Hot and Cool: Bennett Sings Ellington,” “Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues” (easy-listening pop-blues duets performed with stars like B. B. King, Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt) and “Here’s to the Ladies” (his versions of the signature songs of 17 women, from Mabel Mercer and Blossom Dearie to Sarah Vaughan and Barbra Streisand).

This legacy equals Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums of the 50’s and 60’s, which were instrumental in codifying the American songbook. These albums honor the performers as well as the music they recorded. Listen to any or all of them, and you may find yourself nodding your head and agreeing with Mr. Bennett: “You were right, Pops.”