UPDATE, 1:20 P.M.: The New York Times reports that its most recent subscription figures are 1.1 million print subscribers and 1.9 million digital-only subscribers, for a total paid subscriber universe of 3 million.
EARLIER: Three major contributors to The New York Times culture section have left the paper. The most recent is Charles Isherwood, the No. 2 theater critic since 2004, when he jumped from the top critic’s slot at Variety. The Times confirmed the departure, but a spokeswoman said the paper “does not comment on personnel matters.” The spokeswoman also said that the paper has posted the opening for a full-time second-string theater critic, which reads in part:
Theater Critic Opening
We are seeking a critic with a deep appreciation for plays, musicals and theater history, but it is equally important that this person is able to connect the themes and issues on stage to those of the wider world. The writer must be gifted at assessing performances and stagecraft, but also eager to help readers understand the ideas that drive the work. While a background writing about theater is a plus, it is not a prerequisite…Most important, this critic must be able to convey with wit and emotion what makes plays and musicals important, irreplaceable and often unmissable.
The posting leaves open the question of the circumstances under which Isherwood left the paper so suddenly – especially given his long and highly regarded tenure fulfilling all of the requirements listed in the posting. Isherwood declined to comment on his departure.
(Disclosure: I was the Broadway reporter for The New York Times in the late 1980s and, later as chief critic at Variety, I hired Isherwood as Variety‘s Los Angeles chief theater critic. He is a longtime colleague and friend.)
Less dramatic changes include the departure last month of Nate Chinen, a highly regarded jazz critic who left the paper to become director of editorial content at the Newark, NJ-based WBGO, one of the country’s pre-eminent jazz and public affairs radio stations. And Ben Ratliff, a pop and jazz critic since 1996 and mentor to many younger Times critics, took a buyout last summer.
Asked about the departures, the spokeswoman for The Times said the paper is “currently adding new voices into the mix.” But the moves come at a time when the newsroom is bracing for further cuts in the wake of buyout offerings meant to trim staff on the print side while refocusing its mission to serve subscribers to the growing digital edition, which now numbers 1.5 million, according to the Times.
In a memo to the staff last month, executive editor Dean Baquet and his No. 2, managing editor Joseph Kahn, wrote “[t]here will be budget cuts this year…We cannot pretend to be immune from financial pressures but we view this moment as a necessary repositioning of The Times’s newsroom, not as a diminishment.”
“It’s a shitty time,” a Times reporter told Deadline, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Everyone is on eggshells, worried about getting a pink slip, the next round of beheadings.”
The Times already has begun the process of streamlining its print edition while diverting and building resources on the digital side, a plan laid out in “The Report Of The 2020 Group” released in January that said the current paper publishes “too many stories that lack significant impact or audience — that do not help make The Times a valuable destination…We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read.”
The report and the executive response set a path for the paper to increase the use of photographs, conceive and execute stories with digital presentation uppermost, not secondary to the print edition, and to offer “a new approach to features and service journalism” and “our readers must become a bigger part of our report.”
“Today, fewer than 70 percent of Times stories appear in print,” according to the Baquet/Kahn memo.
The impact of these changes is already apparent across the paper, as outsize photographs embellish shorter stories and how-to stories and soft features supplant hard news in various sections, notably the Times‘ vaunted culture report. There have been more service features telling people how to spend their leisure time, and more profiles in place of reviews.
“Our data indicates that the packaging of our best news reporting together with softer, buzzier and funnier writing appeals to a broader array of readers,” according to the memo from Baquet and Kahn.
Sources expect layoffs this spring to number in the hundreds, with editors hit hardest. In one of the most widely distributed sentences from the report, Baquet and Kahn wrote that “we must move away from duplicative and often low-value line editing. It slows us down, costs too much and discourages experiments in storytelling.” The impact on traditional journalism of the digital world could not have been better summed up in this acknowledgement that the very notion of “news cycle” no longer obtains.