New York Times Paycheck Not What It Used to Be

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Freeman headlined “N.Y. Times Paycheck Not What It Used to Be”:

The inflation of the Biden era has been rough on workers across the U.S. economy and that includes the employees of the New York Times. What’s inflicting additional pain on the Times staff is that this inflation is occurring at a moment when news consumers appear to be increasingly skeptical of the value of Times products.

The diminishing purchasing power of a Times paycheck is bringing the newsroom’s usual cauldron of leftist grievances to an especially unpleasant boil. The Journal’s Alexandra Bruell reports:

Labor tensions at the New York Times are intensifying, with the publisher expressing concerns about the union’s tactics in the negotiations and Times staffers taking to Slack to vent frustrations with management.

Who wouldn’t be frustrated with negotiations that have dragged on for two long years? Ms. Bruell notes:

Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger last week sent a note to members of the union’s bargaining group for the first time, expressing his concern about the lengthy negotiations. Mr. Sulzberger claimed the committee is refusing to negotiate in person in small groups, a chance “to lock eyes, shake hands and hash out a deal,” according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

He argued for bringing in a neutral third party to help reach a deal… The union responded to Mr. Sulzberger in its member newsletter the same day, disputing that the Guild hasn’t met with management in small groups. “The only way we can get a deal that responds to our concerns—including our push for raises that keep up with inflation—is by working together in good faith,” the Guild said.

Just like everywhere else, the inflation of the Biden era is at the heart of this economic challenge. The Times itself reported in December:

Reporters and editors at The New York Times began a one-day strike on Thursday, saying talks between their union and the company had dragged on and showed limited progress…

In a statement on Wednesday evening, the union accused The Times of bargaining in bad faith.

“Their wage proposal still fails to meet the economic moment, lagging far behind both inflation and the average rate of wage gains in the U.S.,” the union said in its announcement that it would strike.

No doubt it will be hard for the New York Times to allow employees’ wages to rise as fast as inflation when customers seem to be demanding that prices move in the opposite direction. Many companies have lately been trying to raise their prices faster than their costs. But the New York Times Co. has been offering discounts to grow its overall subscriber numbers for the Times and other publications it owns. The Journal’s Ms. Bruell noted in February:

New York Times Co. said its digital-subscriber base grew to 8.8 million but also said it generated less revenue from each of them than it did a year ago, as the company continues to aggressively market a multiproduct offering…

Average revenue per digital subscriber—a common metric showing how much revenue each user generates—decreased 7% to $8.90 in the quarter, continuing a recent trend, the Times said.

CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said the company planned to end some promotional discounts, and good luck with that. Last year this column may have been a little too quick to hail the New York Times Co.’s transition from news organization to manager of lifestyle brands as a model for CNN and MSNBC.

Beyond the ravages of inflation and the changing consumer view of Times value, there’s also the question of whether both sides in the Times labor dispute have people at the bargaining table who can get to “Yes.”

A little humility could go a long way here. In talking through the inflation problem that is stressing both management and labor, perhaps Times columnist Paul Krugman could join the discussions. Just because he’s not a neutral third party doesn’t mean Mr. Krugman couldn’t help set a new tone for the negotiations. First he might acknowledge that in hindsight it was reckless to endorse “budget chicanery” in 2021 to drive federal spending higher. Mr. Krugman might also concede that his recent column claiming that the numbers in the president’s new budget “make sense” even while acknowledging that the Biden budget “proposes increasing social benefits on a number of fronts even in the face of rising debt” was also ill-advised.

To be sure, Krugman contrition wouldn’t solve the challenge of rising costs for the Times, but it might encourage everyone involved to be more flexible and forthright in discussing how to manage through it.

As for the challenges on the revenue side, perhaps “1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones could join the negotiations and acknowledge that inaccurate and ideological products may not always have the same pricing power as reliable news services.

As with the proposed Krugman contrition, such an acknowledgment from Ms. Hannah-Jones wouldn’t automatically lead to a deal acceptable to both workers and management at the Times. But it just might nudge everyone in the room to stop clinging so tightly to entrenched positions and to consider new ideas in a renewed spirit of reasonable compromise.

Isn’t two years long enough to be fighting with colleagues? Let’s hope the leadership and staff of the New York Times will give labor peace a chance.

James Freeman is the co-author of “Borrowed Time: Two Centuries of Booms, Busts and Bailouts at Citi” and also the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”

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