In fact, no electronic "platform" will save a print publication of any type. Just because a news publication first existed on a large sheet of paper does not mean that some kind of flat, rollup or foldable screen of some sort of the same size will ensure its future.
The publication has to adapt to the medium. Not the other way around.
That said, The New York Times has worked feverishly and at its usual high standards to deliver its content on the platforms that are out there, from the laptop computer to the iPhone. If you spend any time at all with the Times, you'll find it a much richer experience on the Web, than in print, already. You see current news, stock quotes, etc. You can send clips and links instantly to friends and associates. There's fine video, slide show and audio content. There's all the Times, for that matter, for as far back as you can remember. Not just today's stuff. The Web version wins hands down.
And yet, publishing a richer version of itself online does not seem like it's going to save The Times. Not at the moment any way.
In its first quarter, online ad revenues fell 6.1 percent, to $67.6 million. That is an acceleration from a decline of 3.5 percent the previous quarter. And is down from $79 million last fall. Even About.com, born and bred on the Web, was off 4.7%, to $26.8 million.
Overall ad revenue? Down 27 percent.
And what is happening? The Times is trying to invest in what it does best. It actually generated nearly $250 million in cash from its operations in the fourth quarter. But capital spending took up about $175 million. Dividends and financing "activities" took another $67 million.
What's happened? "All the News that's Fit to Print" has given way to news from anyone at any time from any where. And the complete dismemberment of a business model that basically has boiled down to: We'll watch the world for you, figure out what you really need to know, and present an aggregated but edited view of it, every day. Or, around the clock.
But if you're a sports fan, there's ESPN.com or Deadspin. You don't really need a sports "section." For business, there's Yahoo! Finance, MarketWatch or Bloomberg. You want a Dining section, there's Chowhound or Urbanspoon. You want Real Estate, there's all kinds of finely sliced sites, like this one or this one.
What really sets the Times apart is its ability to dig in deeply to events and issues that really matter -- and not necessarily in New York. International reporting, national reporting, business and politics. Where big decisions are made, good and bad, and the stuff that really matters only gets unearthed by an intelligent and persistent watchdog, with adequate financial resources to devote whatever time it takes to really get the story.
So maybe The Times has to throw off all the "frills" that others can provide as well or nearly as well, from Kentucky Derby coverage to fashion coverage to arts to entertainment. Or let them stand on their own, on the Web, with some kind of subscription fees for folks who want really deep and informative coverage on that particular slice of life. Maybe the Times only should cover the world, the nation, its namesake city, business and politics.
And then, it has to find a way to charge a uniform price across all electronic devices, aka platforms. If $9.99 is the right price for what remains its core product that it delivers to the e-Kindle, then that's what it should charge for basic Web delivery as well. Or iPad.Or iPhone. Or whatever is iNext.
That's a game an original content creator like The Times can't win.
Let's do an Internet-variety litmus test. Cast your vote here: