Now Wait Just a New York Minute
I am not fond of sports metaphors, so I apologize for the one that follows: There is always a home team, and when that team starts showing signs of distress, there is always a rescue fantasy. I In certain monied circles of the national elite, The New York Times and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are leading icons—the hometown favorites of rarefied realms that extend far beyond the boundaries of New York City. The Times' well-documented business pressures are now multiplied by hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners, which controls a significant minority stake and two board seats. The current rescue fantasy is for it to get all Reese's Peanut Butter Cups—two great tastes that etc., etc.—with a post-mayoral Bloomberg. (Mayor Mike, whose second term concludes at the end of 2009, made money from a kind of similar operation, right? Well...more on that later.) It's a fantasy that, unbelievably, still persists in certain precincts, despite the mayor's fairly definitive statement in late April that "I am not going to go into the newspaper business." (He also chose not to run for President, despite many entreaties.)
But if you're in the mayor's orbit and still think the Times is a worthwhile next act—and some there still do—you can take comfort that his manner when asked about new ventures tends toward the Socratic. If he delivers a phrase along the lines of "Why would I do that?" intimates say, he's actually asking to be persuaded, not slamming a door shut. So, then, if you're straining to sell Bloomberg on this, The New York Times could be portrayed to the mayor as an information business, one that needs to embrace new technologies and modes of delivery in ways perhaps not yet imagined. This is a business that Bloomberg, as entrepreneur and impresario of Bloomberg LLC, understands—as opposed to the newspaper business, which Bloomberg, like everyone else these days, does not.
A very pretty notion, given Bloomberg's billions and the Times Co.'s market cap ($2.8 billion at deadline). But even ignoring the bizarreness of a spectacle in which a newspaper that is not for sale is being thrust upon a buyer who apparently doesn't want it, there are notable logic flaws to this idea. Among them:
• The Media Thing. Forget that Bloomberg is not a newspaper guy. The more relevant point is that he's not a media guy. Bloomberg's company made gazillions selling financial data to corporations and financial houses. This is much different from running a journalism business. You can charge lots of money for data and get people to invest in weird proprietary technologies to access it if they need it badly enough. (On paper, this idea makes no sense. In reality, proprietary terminals made Bloomberg billions.) All of which insulates it from the ups and downs of ad-driven businesses. It's true that Bloomberg, as Slate's Jack Shafer has pointed out, is one of the only places on the planet with a large and growing journalistic staff who write all manner of news stories. But that staff remains an adjunct to Bloomberg's core business, not its driver.
• The Objectivity Thing. The Times still hews to notions of objectivity, and as an institution it goes to great lengths to be seen as above the political fray. (As for its presumed liberal and Democratic bias, even this is inexact. Go back and see how well Al Gore fared in its pages vs. George W. Bush in the runup to the 2000 election.) The prospect of ending up in the pocket of a former pol, even one purported to be a post-partisan, could trigger all sorts of allergies within the Times' (read: the controlling Sulzberger family's) immune system, even if the company were bought by, say, a foundation run by Bloomberg.
• The Success Thing. Assuming that the mayor would not do this strictly for the public good—and there are likely more compelling charities than a billion-dollar business facing a tough stretch of road—a fly in the ointment is that Bloomberg is attracted to success, not distress. The path to selling high-value information back when he launched his company was a clear one to him (even if it was obscure to everyone else). So was the path to running New York City more like a business.
What, exactly, is the path to running The New York Times successfully in this day and age? The problem, for Bloomberg and everyone else, is that there's no easily extrapolated answer.