A colourful future for New York's grey lady

`The New York Times' has ceased printing in Manhattan and is flirting with colour pages, but its conservative heart still beats strong. By David Usborne

Step from the lift into the sub-basement of the monolithic New York Times building on West 43rd Street and what first greets your eye is a wall display with the message "Changing Times", the "Times" rendered in the Gothic typeface of the paper's masthead. Arranged across it are photographs of burly pressmen posing proudly beside the freshly tied bundles of newsprint awaiting distribution to the city outside.

The exhibit, originally posted by management as a morale-boosting ploy, needs no explaining. The Times is indeed going through a once-in-a-generation metamorphosis. Still widely known by its "grey lady" moniker, the paper is in the midst of a reinvention campaign that includes the gradual introduction of colour from front to back. More important, it is striving also to achieve a genuine national reach.

There is no better place from which to appreciate the revolution than down here in the bowels. The half century-old presses are still in place - steel monsters that look much like the turbines on a steam ship - but the men who smiled for the camera have all gone, most of them to a spanking new plant in the borough of Queens. The wheezing and the thunder that used to shake this entire block have been replaced by a museum-like silence.

Nothing in American newspapering quite matches the emotional upheaval that came with the flight of Britain's papers from Fleet Street during the Eighties, but the closing of the Times' 43rd Street printroom two Saturdays ago comes somewhere close. At the end, these machines were producing only 5 per cent of the paper's daily circulation of 1.1 million. But before the slow transfer of capacity to remote sites began several years ago, the presses here constituted the largest manufacturing operation in all of Manhattan.

"It is the end of an era," says Carolyn Lee, an assistant managing editor, who saw the last copies of the paper come off the conveyors. But it was on arriving for work the next day that the sense of loss finally hit her. "There was no mess on the street where the trucks used to back into the bays and block the traffic, there were no guys milling about and there was no noise when you walked into the building because you couldn't hear the presses any longer. It was so strange and quite eerie."

On the night itself, the basement - so large that my guide and I briefly became lost - was busy not just with visiting groups anxious to catch history as it happened. Wives and children attended, as did copy editors from several floors above who had never before ventured to see the presses. And there were video-camera crews from the company itself and from the New York Historical Society. Captured for posterity was the final blur of production on this site, as well as a few tears shed by the pressmen themselves.

Now ride the lift up to the third floor, where the main news departments are. Here you get a glimpse, by contrast, of where the lady is going. Where there used to be musty carpets and nicotine-stained ceilings, all is now gleaming white and almost disappointingly sanitised.

At the heart of the newsroom, there is a long counter displaying copies of the local tabloid competition - the Daily News and the New York Post - as well as three distinct stacks of the Times itself. The papers on each pile are slightly different from one another. First, there is the New York City edition. Beside it is a north-east regional version for readers in Boston and Washington. They, for instance, carry the TV listings for those cities and not for New York. Finally there is a national edition, where the traditional separate section on New York City news has been forsaken and boiled down to a single page.

The introduction of regional differentiation has been possible precisely because of the devolution of printing capacity beyond Manhattan. Currently, roughly 280,000 copies a day are printed at eight different satellite plants around the country, including on the West Coast. Meanwhile, last February the company announced new contracts to print roughly 120,000 copies at presses both in the Boston area and outside Washington DC. These deals allow the editors not only to better target content at these different markets but also to serve them more competitively with later edition deadlines.

Faced with a recent decline in circulation, inside the five boroughs of New York City especially, expanding into the rest of the country has become the Times' only sensible option. The strategy promises not only to rescue sales but also to draw in additional, and highly lucrative, national advertising. "I don't think the Times is contemplating becoming a national paper," protests foreign editor Bill Keller, who will shortly ascend to the post of managing editor. "It is already becoming one."

With its national edition, the Times has to an extent been pushing on a swinging door left ajar by regional papers that have all but given up providing their readers with much beyond local news and soft features. "The national edition is growing because we are basically conquering territory the regional papers have surrendered to us. Nearly all of them have had to cut back drastically on national and international news," Keller explains. "People who want to know what is going on in the country and worldwide can't find that in their local paper any more."

The perception that there is still a national appetite for the kind of quality, even elitist, fare offered by the Times has helped it resist the demon temptation to seek out circulation by moving downmarket. As foreign editor for the last two years, Keller notes that even in an era of belt-tightening he has been able to maintain the levels of foreign coverage and even open a new Times bureau in Istanbul. During the height of the recent civil war that overthrew Africa's longest-surviving dictator President Mobutu, Keller deployed no fewer than six different people in Zaire to cover the upheaval.

Not that efforts are not being made to add a little spice to the grey lady's sometimes dour demeanour. "The paper is already a lot less dull," says Keller. "The portion of the news covering sub-committees in Washington passing legislation is much smaller and the reporting generally is more entrepreneurial." With increasing space given to reports from the four other New York City boroughs, the paper has also made itself less centred on Manhattan.

More changes for readers in New York are afoot with the opening of the new Queens plant, built at a cost of $350m on a site close to La Guardia airport. Starting in September, two new sections are promised for weekdays in addition to the four that make up the paper today. The new presses will also finally allow management to introduce colour advertisements and editorial photographs throughout the paper seven days a week. At present, Times readers only see colour in some sections of the Sunday issue.

In familiar Times style, however, the monochrome tradition will not be jettisoned overnight. The paper and its readers may be liberal in their politics but in general outlook and taste they are conservative. Everyone is afraid of the USA Today effect - the perception that colour denotes an abandonment of seriousness. Thus, in September it will only be Sports that gets colour; it may be next year before the editors dare put colour in the main news section. On his desk, however, Keller has a first dummy issue of the paper printed in Queens that has colour in every section.

Some changes will not happen, however. It is likely that the presses that now lie silent downstairs will stay exactly where they are for years to come - no one can think of how to move them. And the Times building itself will remain headquarters and home to management, editors and writers. And while Mickey Mouse may have all but annexed the surrounding neighbourhood and shooed away the hookers and pimps, the square at its heart still bears the name of one of the world's most famous newspapers. The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, made the point wandering through the newsroom as the presses printed their last down below: "They're not going to change the name to Disney Square"

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