Who would have thought that the lies and plagiarism of one reporter would have brought the mighty New York Times to its knees? People flatter and lie. Reporters plagiarize. These things happen.
And yet, last Wednesday hundreds of angry staffers packed the Leow's Theater to express their anger at editor Howell Raines and his management team. Their mishandling of the Jayson Blair affair was said, in New York Times lingo, to be symptomatic of something larger and more sinister. This wasn't a simple matter of a night editor being asleep at the monitor; this was a virus that had burrowed its way into the system. If so, it's a virus that will stay firmly embedded; Raines won't quit and publisher Pinch Sulzberger told the staffers he'd refuse to accept the resignation if he did.
Conservative critics of the Times used the scandal to call for a brand new paper of record to replace the old one which, for whatever reason (suspects include liberalism, diversity fetishism, and general arrogance) doesn't seem up to it anymore. At the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol laid out his Platonic ideal for this new paper. It should be thoughtful, rigorous, un-PC, and not "ignorantly disdainful of Red America" (amen to the last bit). For National Review Online Stanley Kurtz inveighed against reinventing the wheel. The antidote to the Times would be for the liberal but usually reasonable Washington Post to go national. For news junkies with a modem, he argued, the Post already functions as the paper of record. Why not use this opportunity to prove it?
But newspaper of record for whom? The Times is not the best selling paper in the U.S, nor is it even close. After this last year's massive drop in daily circulation (to 1.1 million), it comes in a distant third to the Wall Street Journal (1.8 million) and USA Today (2.2 million). If circulation or readership determined pride of place, Al Neuharth's paper would have it in a walk.
In fact, many of the things that critics hate about the Times are almost wholly absent from USA Today. "McPaper," as it is sometimes derisively called, is the opposite of an arrogant newspaper. While the Times was busy spinning against Bush's most recent round of tax cuts, USA Today played it straight, noting a surge in public support for them. It continues to provide excellent foreign coverage (witness the recent piece on Col. Matthew Bogdanos, charged with finding looted Iraqi antiquities) and decent financial coverage (tech columnist Kevin Maney is one of the best in the business) and its sports coverage easily laps the Times'.
The thing holding USA Today ("the nation's newspaper") back is the impression that it's too much of a lightweight to be a contender. The paper's anemic op-ed page, its celebration of television, its banker's hours (with issues only five days a week) and its distribution via McDonald's are all used to argue that, well, sure, it might sell the pants off of the competition, but it's… USA Today. A bellwether newspaper must be more robust.
It would be easy enough for USA Today to mute this criticism. It could restructure the op-ed page to include (a) more space and (b) a few hard-hitting columnists, add more arts coverage and launch a Saturday edition. A few of the renovations (especially the Saturday edition) would be pricey, but my guess is that it would goose circulation, and the paper's increased cachet could lead to higher add rates.
Granted, that's a mighty what if, but such is the nature of contemplating successors to the New York Times. So many of us have spent so many years railing against the Gray Lady that it's hard to know what to do now that she's gone and made herself irrelevant.
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