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The Times cuts 100 staffers, shutters Opinion app in an attempt to "pivot"

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 1, 2014

From The News Desk

Reading the New York Times' opinion pages is like listening to a stoner -- and no, I don't mean Maureen Dowd -- ramble about whatever happened to be on the news while they were smoking. With the exception of the paper's stilted headlines, nothing attracts mockery from readers and the media like the publication of yet another ridiculous column from some far-overpaid writer.

That didn't stop the Times from releasing a mobile application devoted to that vapid rambling, but now it seems that the publication is correcting its mistake by pulling the app from the App Store after it failed to attract "the kind of new audience it would need to be truly scalable." Its up-to-the-minute news app, NYT Now, apparently hasn't suffered that problem and will remain online.

Unfortunately, the app's demise accompanies the elimination of 100 jobs in the Times' newsroom and a tightening of the paper's freelance budget. The Times reported these issues itself, and it said that the cuts are meant to "allow [the paper] to continue to invest in the digital future of The New York Times."

The cuts don't come as a surprise, given the volatility of the media business and the fact that the Times' newsroom swelled to "its largest size ever" after the company hired a number of writers and video producers to improve its digital efforts. As the Times notes in its report, job cuts have been common the last few years, and the paper's slipping profits almost make them seem inevitable.

Removing the opinion-focused application from the App Store is probably the best thing the Times could do. It's little more than a blight on the paper's otherwise praiseworthy offerings, including the NYT Now app that is going to survive despite the planned cuts, and it highlighted an absurd view that opinion writers are indispensable while journalists are disposable.

The Times sells information. It's not about the physical paper, or even about the website. All of those things are just containers for the real product that the Times' 1,300 journalists produce every single day. Yet the company wants to experiment with things like NYT Opinion, as the paper's chief executive and publisher explained in their note announcing the latest layoffs:

'We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve enjoyed different levels of success with different products. They are all experiments, which we are determined to treat as such: to learn, pivot and, where necessary, make prompt decisions about them,' Sulzberger and Thompson said. 'We believe that this process of exploration and experimentation is essential to future growth at the New York Times and we will continue to support and fund it.'
Here's a tip: reducing the newsroom and keeping the opinion section staffed as it is won't help the "future growth at the New York Times." Producing excellent journalism -- an endeavor that requires a large number of journalists, as the Times' previous hiring showed -- might. The sooner we can read more Times journalism and less about Dowd's experience with marijuana, the sooner the newspaper can focus on producing and presenting the news to its primary audience.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]