NYT Keller Memo: We Will Look To Police Flabby or Redundant Prose In Longer Pieces

In a memo to the New York Times staff addressing today’s announcement of the planned reduction of the paper’s size in 2008, Bill Keller says the paper will look to report “incremental news developments in digests or other abbreviated forms, and to police flabby or redundant prose in longer pieces. I’m convinced that, with good editors and a little time, I could take 5 percent out of any day’s paper and actually make it better.”

The full memo, via the New York Observer‘s Media Mob:


JULY 17, 2006

NOTE FROM BILL KELLER

Colleagues:

If you check the Web site this evening (or the newspaper in the morning) you’ll see a pair of important, related company announcements. One is that the paper will be adding a new high-speed press to the printing plant at College Point and thereafter subleasing the Edison plant. The other is that when this consolidation is complete — in April 2008 — The Times will adopt the narrower format that is now becoming the industry norm. I apologize for this last-minute message, but I wanted to hold off until the news was given to those most immediately affected — our colleagues who actually turn our journalism into ink on paper. They were briefed this evening.

So what does all this mean for the newsroom? Glad you asked.

First, the consolidation of our New York area printing into a single plant means a large annual saving — money that will not have to be cut from important things, such as producing the world’s best news report. The company’s production executives have considered the obvious questions that arise from the newsroom’s vantage point, and answered them convincingly: If we attract new circulation in the region, will we still have the capacity to grow? (Yes.) Will this require earlier deadlines? (No.) Are we providing the backup systems to make sure we can print during a blackout or other crisis? (Yes.) After detailed briefings, John Geddes and Peter Putrimas came away impressed that this is a smart, clean way to cut costs without diminishing our commitment to the region.

The smaller format will affect the newsroom in big ways, but not in dire ways. In production jargon, we will be moving from a 54-inch web — the width of four pages — to a 48-inch web. That means pages will be 1 1/2 inches narrower than the current size, and the same length. The narrower format will mean some reduction in our news hole, and it will require an extensive redesign. Since this will not happen for nearly two years, we’ll have plenty of time to adapt. (The long lead time is necessary because we have to place orders for the new printing equipment.)

News hole: If we just cut the page size and did nothing else, we would
lose 11 percent of the news hole. That would be a serious loss. But the plan is to add more pages to the paper so that the net loss of news space is approximately 5 percent, which I believe we can absorb without significant damage to the report. We will look for ways to report incremental news developments in digests or other abbreviated forms, and to police flabby or redundant prose in longer pieces. I’m convinced that, with good editors and a little time, I could take 5 percent out of any day’s paper and actually make it better.

A layman might ask, does that mean we can get by with a smaller staff? But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. We still intend to cover all the things we cover now. And conveying the news in a bit less space will require more rigorous editing, not less. Moreover, with the advent of the Web our responsibility to cover news for our audience has grown well beyond the columns of newsprint in the paper. In any case, our commitment to hard-hitting, ground-breaking journalism will not be compromised.

Design: A narrower paper is in some ways more reader-friendly. It’s easier to handle. It will also be, by the time we introduce it, what readers expect in a newspaper. The Wall Street Journal will move to a
48-inch web in January 2007. USA Today has already converted about half of its production to this size. Gannett and the former Knight Ridder papers have announced they are switching to 48 inches. The Washington Post and the Tribune Company, which have already reduced to a 50-inch web, are considering joining the consensus. You cannot just take the current front page and squeeze it. We need to think hard about changing the look in ways that preserve the visual power, the urgency and the dignity of The New York Times. Tom Bodkin is already at work, along with several other senior editors, on a thorough examination of the A-book. He will now look for a redesign that we can execute in two stages — some changes we may introduce earlier, and then a new look to suit the narrower format when the page size changes in 2008.

The aim of these changes is to assure the continuing economic health of the newspaper we all love. And I’m convinced we can adapt without diminishing its journalistic health.

Bill