Ahead of his Times

Ahead of his Times – Company Business and Marketing

Ted Rose

The New York Times wants to be a multimedia player. Now Michael Oreskes has to make it work.

ONE AFTERNOON LAST WINTER, ABC News producer and his crew showed up at one of the holy sites of American journalism: the New York Times’ Washington bureau. The producer, Howard Rosenberg, was a former print reporter himself. He knew his friends in the Times bureau tended to regard television as crass and shalow. So as he pushed through the bureau’s frosted double doors and looked around at the messy cubicles, he couldn’t resist shouting, “The infidels have arrived!”

In fact, the infidels had been invited. ABC’s team was in the Times newsroom to position a camera and lights For Political Points, an election-year Webcast coproduced by the two news organizations. The show is one part of the newspaper’s fledgling effort to translate Times reportage into a different medium.

The camera ended up outside the office of Michael Oreskes, the Washington bureau chief who’d taken on the part-time job of leading the Web-cast experiment. That diversion has turned into a full-time job. Last week, Oreskes, 46, stepped down from the prestigious bureau chief post to pursue further experiments on the Net and in broadband cable and television. His new title: assistant managing editor and director of electronic news.

Oreskes’ gig is about more than just making nice with the TV guys. He is on a mission charted by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the New York Times Co.’s 49-year-old chairman, who personally offered Oreskes the job. The new Net executive is charged with finding ways to funnel the reporting skills and content that fuel the world’s most respected newspaper into a variety of media.

“Arthur’s vision is that the Times is going to be an information company and not just a newspaper, says Alex Jones, head of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for the Press and co-author of a book about the Sulzberger family. The strategy is clear: In the future of information delivery, quality and brand recognition will transcend format and medium.

Oreskes’ move comes at a time of crisis for digital content, with many organizations cutting staff and scaling back operations. [See sidebar, page 60.] The Times Co.’s Internet division, which lost $46.2 million in the first nine months of 2000 and shelved its planned IPO, laid off 69 employees earlier this month, a 17 percent reduction. Two months earlier the Web site gave up its joint newsroom with TheStreet.com before selling nearly its entire stake in the faltering financial news provider at a $12 million loss.

But management argues that this is merely a strategic retrenchment on the digital frontier. “I think what few people have picked up on is our increasing investment in some areas,” says Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of New York Times Digital, the company’s Internet division. He pointed to classified business and the Continuing Newsdesk — an eight-person newsroom operation launched last year that lets Times staff post original stories on the Internet throughout the day, supplementing the printed content as well as the wire service offerings. The Continuous Newsdesk will fall under Oreskes’ aegis, along with New York Times Television. Oreskes’ appointment, according to the newspaper’s executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, “is a way of showing to our own staff that our interest in this is, if anything, intensifying.”

To a great extent, Oreskes is going to have to invent his job. As he assumes control of the Times’ nascent nonprint editorial efforts, his challenge will be to convince the print staff — reporters, editors, designers — to contribute their formidable resources to his multimedia projects. “A lot of this depends on people’s good will,” says Nisenholtz, whose division is funding the Continuous Newsdesk. “There is no magic formula, and you can’t put this on an organizational flowchart.”

Nisenholtz will continue to lead the 5-year-old digital division, and Oreskes will work with him to develop new editorial offerings. Both are clearly thinking ahead. “With the advent of broadband transmissions on the Internet, there’s an obvious value in having one person targeting our efforts in the converging spheres of television and Web journalism,” said Lelyveld when he tapped Oreskes for the job.

To succeed, Oreskes will have to maneuver in an organization known for its Kremlin-like intrigue. “The power of the new job is in the ideas,” Oreskes says optimistically. “It is all about being creative.”

Oreskes is well-liked around the newsroom, but the knock on him is that he’s an operator, someone who thrives on office politics. “Mike is notorious for working the system,” says one colleague. “It plays to his aggressiveness.” But remove the pejorative association and others spin the same trait to argue that Oreskes is well-suited for the task at hand. “He’s got a taste, frankly, for dealmaking,” says Lelyveld. “And he’s damn good at it.”

Oreskes, who was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, displayed his powers of persuasion early in his career. “He always had an engaging manner which would lure me into sharing confidences that I would ultimately regret,” remembers former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whom Oreskes covered as the City Hall bureau chief for the Daily News. After joining the Times in 1981, Oreskes rose through the newspaper hierarchy before Lelyveld sent him to Washington in 1997 as the bureau chief, an exalted position once held by such journalistic legends as JFK confidante James “Scotty” Reston and Max Frankel, who went on to become the Gray Lady’s top editor.

Oreskes has been thinking about how best to bring high editorial standards to the Web since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in early 1998. He watched as the combination of a salacious story and rampant rumor-mongering led many established news outlets to publish half-baked stories. In an article in the American Journalism Review later that year, Oreskes argued that good journalists needed to engage new technology or face the prospect of journalistic standards being set by the Matt Drudges of the world.

Those editorial concerns conveniently dovetailed with Sulzberger’s aspirations to create more outlets for the Times reportage. In addition to the Continuous Newsdesk in the Times newsroom, the paper’s Web outpost offers breaking news, online-only content, a community network called Abuzz, classifieds and free e-mail newsletters. And for the past five years the company has funded a modest documentary unit, New York Times Television, which has produced shows for the Learning Channel and Discovery.

To maximize the benefits of these building blocks, The Times Co. needed an executive who could explore content partnerships inside and outside the company. “Once you’re in this world, you’re perpetually in a round of conversations,” Lelyveld explains. “We felt a need to focus that responsibility.”

At the Democratic convention last year, Sulzberger asked Oreskes if he would take on the assignment. “[Sulzberger] never said it this way, but it was almost as if he was saying, ‘You got these ideas? Put up! Let’s see you perform,'” says Oreskes. “I saw the challenge in it.”

Oreskes inherits a couple of well-developed projects. The company is close to an agreement with PBS to air a 30-minute news show on public television featuring Times reporters. In addition, Times Television is producing a show called Science Times based on the weekly section in the paper. It’s scheduled to debut on the newly launched National Geographic channel this summer.

But to create new projects, Oreskes will rely on his vaunted powers of persuasion. He is already trying to persuade his successor in the Washington bureau, Jill Abramson, to contribute reporters for a documentary on the first 100 days of the Bush presidency.

Because of Oreskes, Abramson is not turning her nose up at the TV project. “He’s the kind of person you want to work with,” she says. “My inclination will be to be interested.” After all, Oreskes is no infidel.

Ted Rose is a freelance writer in New York.

All the News That Clicks

For more than a decade, the New York Times has been experimenting with electronic delivery. A time line:

MARCH 1, 1990: The Times launches a fax service called TimesFax. The six-page digest was originally distributed only in Japan but soon expanded to cruise ships and U.S. hotels.

SEPTEMBER 1992: The Times joins Data-Times, an online subscription service featuring stories from newspapers across the country.

JAN. 23, 1996: NYTimes.com launches.

OCT. 24, 1996: More than 8,000 readers submit nominations for a Web site slogan. Times executives decide to stick with “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” awarding $100 to the 24 readers who suggested keeping the 100-year-old motto.

MAY 24, 1999: The Times consolidates 50 Internet properties — from The New York Times on the Web and GolfDigest.com to WineToday.com — into Times Company Digital.

NOV. 16, 1999: The New York Times on the Web partners with TheStreet.com to create a joint newsroom to cover financial news.

DEC. 8, 1999: The number of registered users of The New York Times on the Web reaches 10 million.

JAN. 24, 2000: The Times and ABC News partner to Webcast daily political coverage called Political Points on NYTimes.com and ABCNews.com.

JAN. 28, 2000: Times Company Digital registers for an IPO.

MARCH 24, 2000: The name of the online arm changes from Times Company Digital to New York Times Digital.

OCT. 12, 2000: IPO withdrawn.

JAN. 7, 2001: Sixty-nine employees — 17 percent of online staff — are laid off. The company loses $12 million when it sells 1.4 million shares of TheStreet.com. — Kathi Black

A Big Pullback for Big Media

It was a simple formula. If you were a big media company in the mid-1990s and wanted to jump on the Internet bandwagon, you launched an online division, hired a big staff and got ready to launch the thing with a rocketing IPO. But the new-media age turned out to be more complicated than that. The ad revenue that was supposed to fuel the new investments couldn’t keep pace with spending. Losses piled up. And IPO dreams melted last spring like ice cream on a sunny day.

The predictable results — budget cuts, layoffs and consolidations — arrived with a vengeance over the last few weeks as major media players including AOL.Time Warner, NBC, News Corp. and Viacom pulled back on once-ambitious online operations. But a funny thing happened on the way to retrenchment: The companies figured out that their Web operations are integral to the business of distributing content – news, information, entertainment. In other words, content is king and the Internet is just another channel. Consider:

AOL TIME WARNER: The first big cuts hit CNN, where 400 jobs were eliminated Jan. 17-a third of them from CNN.com and CNNfn.com, which will be rolled into their parent networks. Last week hundreds more jobs were axed from around the newly combined company, which is consolidating Web and old-media divisions.

NBC: The network’s Internet division, NBCi, remains a separate company–for now — but it has been trimmed to 350 staffers, down from a peak of 950. The latest round of cuts came Jan. 18. Recently, the television network has begun to heavily promote its online cousin.

NEWS CORP.: Rupert Murdoch’s company folded its online arm earlier this month, laying off half of the 450 employees at Fox.com, Foxsports.com and Foxnews.com. The Web sites still exist, but they have become part of their respective TV networks.

VIACOM: The world’s third-largest media company chopped 105 employees from the staff of MTVi in September and moved to merge the staffs of the Web and broadcast arms, focusing on “convergence” programming, such as the MTV Awards Webcast.

Without a doubt, more companies will follow this pattern in the weeks and months ahead. One to watch: the Disney Internet Group, which employs 3,000 people. The Walt Disney Co. spinoff has avoided layoffs, but the unit lost $217 million in the fiscal year ending in October. — Mark Robinson

COPYRIGHT 2001 Standard Media International

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group