Out-Takes: The Ups and Downs of Being Untouchable

Tom Friedman was in town this week to speak at Macalester College, which turned out to be his stump speech for his best-seller The World Is Flat. It’s a good speech that nicely summarizes his arguments, and it’s clear that he’s given this lecture quite a lot– which sort of supports Chris Lehmann’s view, expressed to me in this story, that Friedman is sort of the punditocracy’s equivalent of a motivational speaker.

These days, anyone who writes a book with business applications–especially one with a pro-globalization business message neatly broken up into memorable little talking points (the “Ten Great Flatteners” the “Three Convergences,” that kind of thing)–will invariably hit the lecture circuit to spread the new gospel. Friedman’s message, though, more than most is a very cogent short history of the 21st century, as his book is aptly subtitled, from the end of the Cold War to the rise of the Web. He believes we’re at a historical “inflection point” not dissimilar from the genesis of the Gutenberg press, and the evidence is compelling, even if it is rather mundane (for example, worldwide standardization of work-flow protocols, thanks to Microsoft’s global monopoly–the latter point mine more than Friedman’s).

What I wanted to say here, though, is that when I recently interviewed Friedman, I wanted to ask him if he felt that his own job could be outsourced or offshored or whatever. For the sake of argument, he notes in his book that lots of journalism–particulary run-of-the-mill financial market reporting and number-crunching, for example–is already being outsourced by, say, Reuters to financial analysts in Bangalore. But ultimately the answer is that Friedman, as a Great Explainer, is–to use his term–untouchable.

The best evidence for that is that the Times put their star columnist behind the TimesSelect firewall. But how did he feel about that? “Well, it was not an idea I originated. It’s not something I’m crazy about, but it’s something I believe was necessary that we try. In the newspaper business we’re caught between two platforms. One built on dead trees and one built on bits and bytes. And we’re in transition. And I felt that my newspaper was justified in taking this and conducting this experiment to see what would happen.”

His boss, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., told me that the jury is still out on TimesSelect, and Friedman is kind of a bellwether. “It is a bet,” Sulzberger said. “But it’s a bet on the value of judgement, the value of insight, the value of experience. I remember calling [Friedman] and talking to him about this. He said, ‘Arthur, I gotta tell you, it’s going to cut my audience way back, but we’ve got to do it.’ In fact all of our columnists came to that place.”

Friedman confirmed that point with me. “I suffer a lot,” he said, “because I’ve got a lot of readers online around the world. So, it’s not my preferred call, but I understand it, and I respect my paper’s need and desire to do it. I just went to Mumbai, my ticket was $8,000. Someone’s got to pay for that. And if newspapers are free, I won’t be going to Mumbai for too much longer.”

Indeed, one of the challenges of writing a good, current piece on Friedman that includes the views of his readers–particularly others in media who might follow the columnist’s work, and have something to say about it–is the impact of TimesSelect. Almost everyone I interviewed about Friedman confessed that they hadn’t really kept current with his column in the last six months, because they only read the Times online, and they have not coughed up for TimesSelect.

But someone’s coughing up. Sulzberger told me that, “If you were to take the number of people who have signed up for TimesSelect, it is the third largest paper we own, after the Times and the Boston Globe. Now many of those are people who are home subscribers to the paper. But many of these people pay for it uniquely, and if you were to take just them, they are our fourth largest paper, behind the International Herald Tribune.”

Despite recent stories about Sulzberger being a man who is swimming in his suit–well, you know, not quite filling his position as regally as his father Punch did–I found him very smart and very eloquent on the subject of the Times as a media proposition. When I pressed him to admit that the newspaper was the company’s core competence and flagship, he quickly disagreed. “No, journalism is our core competence, across boundaries. We have to be able to translate our journalism from print into television and into the web, and we’re working on that. And the stuff that Tom has done [on the Times-Discovery channel] has been just wonderful.” That would seem to contradict recent reports about the Times-Discovery Channel partnership, and probably bodes well for same. Though everyone seems to agree that the cable station isn’t high-profile enough, or capturing the viewers it deserves, I personally find Friedman’s television documentaries very compelling, and in a league with Frontline, though perhaps with a higher “Aw, shucks” factor, thanks to Friedman’s Minnesota roots.