the future of the new york times: must the slideshows go on?

(UPDATE: I’ve corrected the comment on “it appears…” The issue is Jackson’s unclear referent, rather than passive voice.)

My friend Freda Moon just shared this PowerPoint presentation by Eric Jackson via Twitter. She’s a terrific journalist; if you’ve read a dense and exhilarating travel piece in the New York Times on spending 36 hours somewhere, it was probably written by her. (No, I don’t know how she does so much in three days either, but I love that we reap the benefits.)

Can we get rid of PowerPoint? Would that be OK? Imagine waking up in a world where meetings didn’t have sentence fragments — so short as to be basically meaningless — substituting for executive summaries. Where TED talks didn’t black out the speaker’s face to show What They’re Basically Saying. Where college lectures didn’t include five unfunny political cartoons.

PowerPoint really presents us with a case where the medium is the message, and the message is that the rest is filling. As in any situation where a lot of content is referenced, but not reproduced, this creates a perfect opportunity for disingenuousness and half-truth. I’m focusing on the example of “The End Game For The New York Times,” but it’s an example with many siblings in every intellectual and commercial field.

As I explain in detail below, Jackson uses a number of very common slideshow ninja moves. He uses vague, impersonal constructions to evade taking responsibility for large claims. He splashes the screen with charts, for the sake of credibility, and then summarizes them inaccurately. He cherry-picks the historical trends that support his argument, and dismisses the rest. He separates two things (paywalls and ad revenue) that are part of the same conversation. He introduces new conversations, about financing and investigative journalism, merely for effect. When he brings up The Huffington Post, he describes it in conveniently over-simplified terms as a re-blog, then hides a piece of troublesome information using a smaller font. Finally, he takes a single data set, for The New York Times, and applies it to the entire newspaper industry in one sweeping gesture.

The slideshow is alarmist and sloppy, and here’s the worst part: there was, I’m sure, “time for questions at the end.” In other words, time for two questions, at most, from any one member of the audience.

PowerPoint has got to go. It’s not merely unhelpful; it’s obfuscatory.

Slide 2

“Cost reductions have hit a plateau recently.”
Maybe, but so what? Was Jackson expecting costs to gradually approach zero for the world’s most recognizable newspaper? This doesn’t tell us what we need to know, which is what business model the NYT is using to project its own viability, and whether that model is sound or not.

“Ad revenues appear set to continue declining without help from paywalls.”
Well, paywalls and ad revenues are two entirely separate sources of income, so there’s really no reason why they would help each other.

“it appears the NYT will be unable to continue”
No doubt, but to whom does it appear it this way? Jackson constructs a nebulous perceiver that functions, rhetorically, like a chorus of voices in agreement. That’s always safer than going out on a limb yourself.

“The rest of the newspaper industry will face a similar crisis”
The rest of the newspaper industry has been in crisis for years at this point. Where is online print taking the industry? How might the Times benefit from these other closures?

Slides 3-5

At the best, one would have to say this slideshow is arriving a little late. Three graphs, but only Slide 3 is honest about what the graphs show us, which is that the newspaper’s costs and revenues have been stable for three years running.

Slide 6: “The historical trends are seemingly irreversible”

No, they’re clearly not, which is why there’s a big turnaround after 2006, as is clearly indicated by the featured graph.

Slide 7

“Cash from operations likely to be negative in 2012 if historical trends hold.”
He’s taking aim at a moving target; the Times is increasing subscription prices and decreasing free access.

“Pension and benefits costs are rising 2.7% a year in the coming years.”
This is not drastically out of sync with inflation estimates, so there’s no reason to assume that the Times isn’t prepared for an incremental increase.

Slide 8 (options for the company)

A perfect example of a slide filled with completely obvious information that never needed to be created in the first place. Do we really need to be told that a failing company can be sold off?

Slide 9 

Look at how this slide works. When the historical trends are bad, Jackson predicts things will continue going that way. When they’re not so bad, we get this: “Circulation might start to trend down in the coming years instead of modest increases, as price increases can’t compensate for cancelled subscriptions.” Anything might happen! The offices might be flooded as the polar ice caps melt!

The paywall was created to compensate for declining ad revenues, a point he’s missed entirely. Hence the bewildering comment about “iPad proliferation,” which makes no sense because users pay a hefty fee to read their articles without ads, and the fact that they have an iPad means the paper knows they can afford it.

Slide 10: Conclusions

Apparently, you can’t make money from “ads,” but the Huffington Post can make money from “banner ads,” which are not ads because…wait, why aren’t those ads?

“Investigative reporting will become even more invisible than it is today in the coming years.”
Finally, we get to something important. Yes, the declining number of outlets for in-depth, compensated investigative journalism is a problem. However, it’s not a problem this slideshow has discussed, nor is it even close to being the sole focus of The New York Times, nor is the Times the only publication that will hire investigative journalists. Nothing justifies Jackson’s sudden change of topic, and hand-wringing is not going to help anyone.