Incredibly, almost every bit of that power has been squandered over the last two decades. It's been a long time since anyone considered the Times to be anything but the newspaper of opinion for anyone but the residents of a few square miles of midtown Manhattan. Indeed, about all the newspaper has left of the old days under "Pinch's" dad, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, is that old Time's imperiousness -- earned back then, and more than a little absurd today.
Would this decline in reputation have occurred without the rise of the Internet? To some degree, yes. You can mark the turn in the Times' reputation from the early 1990s, when it began to put, on the front page, an increasing number of opinion pieces and feature reporting (most infamously, a glimpse into the apartment of William Kennedy Smith's purported rape victim).
At first, this was dismissed as a mere pandering to the changing tastes of a readership raised on television and gonzo reporting. But it was a first glimpse of the pandering to a supposedly hipper, more sophisticated audience that would become pandemic across the Times' pages under the threat of the Internet age.
At about the same time, I got an early glimpse of how the Times would mishandle the technology side of its business as well. One day, several years after I'd stopped writing my column for the paper, I received a letter from the Times demanding that I retroactively sign over all electronic rights to my stories and columns on file at the newspaper.
As a businessperson, I could understand the thinking behind the Times' actions, but as a writer, it planted a little seed of distrust in the Gray Lady: I knew I would think twice before I would ever write for that publication again -- and I'm sure I wasn't the only journalist thinking the same thing.
This controlling attitude towards its content -- the antithesis of the desires of the providers of that content, who wanted to maximize readership and impact -- only grew more virulent in the face of the growing Web revolution and its successful movement towards open content.
At the Times, this philosophy peaked with the amazingly stupid decision to put the paper's columnists, still among the most influential on the planet, behind a subscription firewall. The Times eventually backed down, but after years of reducing those writers to secondary players in the national conversation, their influence had been seriously diminished.
Increased editorial influence on its reporting, an on-going effort to enforce a business model on a market that didn't want it -- the Times wasn't alone in making these mistakes; indeed, they characterized almost every newspaper in America. Which is why they are all in trouble.
But the Times made one more mistake -- one which it alone could make, and which I think ultimately led to yesterday's meltdown. Most newspapers adopted the always dangerous strategy of trying to become more like one's competitors rather than establishing the defensible position of being even more true to oneself. Like most newspapers, the Times decided to become more timely, more hip, and more judgmental than the electronic media -- when it should have become better reported, more objective, and better written; professionalism being the one arena where the new competitors would have a hard time competing.