Max Frankel: Cassandra

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Max Frankel in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

Vanity Fair's Mark Bowden spends a lot of time thinking about Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in his one-jillion word profile of the New York Times Company chairman. Perhaps since he didn't get the chance to talk to Sulzberger himself, a lot of the thoughts he has are vaguely negative. But buried under thousands of those words and thoughts is a revelation: Older people do have the ability to think wisely and presciently about the Internet.

In fact, in the mid-nineties, when the New York Times was just beginning to figure out this fabulous new information superhighway, editor Max Frankel submitted a pair of memos to Sulzberger and his fellow company honchos that could have helped the paper (which has admittedly been ahead of the curve in adapting to the web) forge new platforms, as opposed to adopting ones created by others. Frankel was in his mid-sixties when he suggested a Craigslist-type system to transform their classified business into an online database that would cheaply connect buyers and sellers. Also, he theorized, it was time to take advantage of the dot-coms with subjects that dovetailed with Times coverage. If the paper couldn't compete with, say, an ESPN.com, IMDb.com, or a Weather.com, why not just buy it and cover that base?

“I wrote that one big coming threat posed by the computer was disaggregation: the Internet disaggregates the hunt for information. The need for information would survive the advent of the digital era, but the package offered by The New York Times might not. So how do you protect the package? What was so great about The New York Times was not that we offered the best coverage in any particular field but that we were very good in so many. It was the totality of the newspaper that was a marvel, not any of its particulars. The Web threatened to break that up. One way to weather this, which I suggested, was that we needed to pick the fields in which to be pre-eminent. If you want to have the best sports package, then start hiring the staff and make yourself the best go-to place for sports information. If it is business, or politics—whatever—pick one and make yourself the best, or make a strategic alliance.”


Of course, plenty of other people were having similar ideas back then, and many ideas, like Frankel's, were duly ignored. But the point is that he wasn't some 22-year-old dude in a garage somewhere in California. He was old. Let that be a lesson to you, media companies. Sometimes salvation comes from the most unexpected places.

The Inheritance [VF]