On the brink: The New York Times tries to turn the page

Reasonable minds may disagree on whether The New York Times is the finest newspaper in the country. Most of us, however, would at least allow that it has entrenched itself, over more than a century and a half of publishing, as our national newspaper of record. Anything that reflects a city as complex as New York -- or a country as complex as the United States -- is necessarily awash in contradiction. Whether you revere its high-minded conscience or despise its patrician snobbery, it's nearly impossible to imagine America -- let alone Manhattan -- without the Times.

Yet we may have to. If we've learned one thing over the past two years, it's that there's no big institution too big or too institutional to fail -- even the New York Times Co. (NYT) is vulnerable. Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Chrysler, GM -- each time another one collapses, we hold our breath, transfixed like horrified citizens standing under a tottering skyscraper. The glowering face of Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, said it all last October, as he testified with uncomprehending rage before Congress about his capsized bank. Lehman Brothers? Who's next? The New York Times? No. Never. Well ... perhaps?

Perhaps. When Michael Hirschorn predicted audaciously in The Atlantic this year that a worst-case scenario could see the Times folding in May -- we're now past that particular doomsday scenario, thankfully -- he was met with howls of disbelief. The Times's media columnist, David Carr -- hardly a disinterested party, to be sure -- dismissed the "fatuous math" of Hirschorn's prophecy.

But the New York Times Co., like nearly all of its rivals in newspaper-publishing, is sputtering for breath in an industry that's going digital so fast that it hasn't figured out how to get paid. In June 2002, NYT stock was trading above $51; last Friday, it closed at $6.60. Its earnings for the first quarter of 2009 are down nearly $75 million from the previous year, on revenue close to $3 billion. The New York Times Co.'s misfortune is hardly unique in business generally, or in the newspaper business specifically. In one especially wild flameout, irascible Chicago billionaire Sam Zell paid $8.2 billion in December 2007 for the Tribune Co., which publishes The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times -- and which declared bankruptcy a little less than a year later.

This year, newspaper readers have lost the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News; other closures seem imminent. The Boston Globe, the second-brightest jewel in the New York Times Co. crown, suffered a near-death experience this spring that made an ailing industry shudder.

Every month, The New York Times seems to devise new ways to keep the wolves away. To relieve some of its $1.1 billion debt, it's leasing enormous swaths of its glittering Manhattan headquarters, and it leveled a 5 percent paycut at its suffering staff. It has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from one minority stakeholder, Carlos Slim Helú, currently the world's third-wealthiest person. At least the New York Times knows where to turn in its darkest hour.

These are tactics for surviving a storm, not strategies for surviving a business revolution. But for the time being, tactics might be just enough to keep the New York Times Co. surviving to chronicle another day in a rapidly changing world. Perhaps.

Todd Pruzan is an editor for DailyFinance. You may follow him on Twitter at toddpruzan.

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