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"I Figured I'd Give It a Year": Arthur Sulzberger Jr on How the NYT Turned Around

Charles Kaiser

Where does the New York Times reside in the subconscious of news hounds across America?

Paul Rudnick wrote this answer for a New York City mother played by Bette Middler in Coastal Elites on HBO this year:

“I love the Times. I feel like it’s my child, or my parent. Do you know what the Times means to a liberal Jewish woman like me? On the census, when it asks for religion, I don’t put Jewish. I put the New York Times. Which I have delivered. The real Times. The newsprint Times. I know I’m old-fashioned, but reading the Times online is like having sex with a robot. I mean, it’s cleaner and it’s faster but you can tell the difference. OK, I’ll just say it. The New York Times online is the New York Times for the gentiles.”

The former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb put it slightly differently to me, long ago: “The Times is in the same position as the Jews: it’s expected to behave better than everybody else.”

For a hundred years, for better or worse, no institution has played a larger role in American culture and politics. And no corporation with comparable clout has been continuously controlled by a single family since 1896.

This month, at 69, Arthur Sulzberger Jr will retire as company chairman, after decades of speculation that he would be the last Sulzberger to run the business.

In 2005, a vicious profile in the New Yorker asked: “Can Arthur Sulzberger Jr save the Times – and himself?” A couple of years later, Vanity Fair declared that he had “steered his inheritance into a ditch”.

As the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, put it to the Guardian this week: “As recently as five years ago, the biggest question was: “Is [Mike] Bloomberg going to own the Times or [Mexican billionaire] Carlos Slim?”

And yet, 11 days from now, Sulzberger will defy almost every expectation except his own and hand over a healthy, thriving enterprise to his son AG Sulzberger, giving the fifth generation of the Ochs-Sulzbergers the rudder of the enterprise.

“It’s a rare thing and a wonderful thing to see someone exit the stage on a note of real triumph,” Remnick observed.

"I realized change needed to happen"

I’ve been a student of the Times ever since I wrote my first story as a 20-year-old student at Columbia, working as the paper’s college correspondent, a part-time post that launched the careers of many Times editors. I only wrote for the paper for eight years, five as a reporter on the metro staff. But the Times tends to enter the bones of everyone who works there, and a preoccupation with its peculiarities has been my hobby ever since.

The first time I met Arthur Sulzberger Jr was at a party of budding journalists in Washington at the end of 1980. I can still see him striding into the room with a swagger, a huge smile and his infant son, AG, on his shoulders. Back then, the father was just a young reporter in the Times Washington bureau. But like almost everyone else, I assumed I was watching the next publisher – and the publisher after that.

In a series of conversations this month, father and son offered plenty of evidence that a love for journalism can indeed be passed down through DNA. But they also insisted that what looks like old-fashioned primogeniture is actually a bit more complicated. Each told me he had never felt the slightest pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps – and neither decided he wanted to become the boss until he was a young adult.

For Sulzberger Jr, the lightbulb came on when he went to work in the advertising department.

“I figured I’d give it a year, I’d hate it, and I’d go back to the newsroom,” he said. But then he made his first big ad sale and “realized that I had just covered Johnny Apple’s liquor bill for a year!” (RW Apple Jr, a fabled political correspondent and London bureau chief, had the traditional journalist’s goal: to always submit the largest possible expense account.)

“Suddenly it came to me that this was supporting the enterprise. This was the critical part. It was a real eye-opener for me.”

“And your father was completely silent about whether he wanted you to succeed him?” I asked.

“Oh yes, very much so. You don’t want to pressure somebody to do something they don’t want. Because in the end, if they get it and they don’t want it, that doesn’t help the institution or the individual. Right?”

So Sulzberger Jr adopted the same strategy with his own son.

“He did not ever push me to be his successor,” AG Sulzberger said. “He was always really consistent about me following my passions. But I made the mistake of having my first job out of college being a reporting gig.” It was at the Providence Journal, and he fell in love with it.

“I would have been very happy to spend my career as a reporter or editor,” he continued. But when he was 33, Jill Abramson, then executive editor of the Times, asked him to write an innovation report about the newspaper’s future.

“I realized how much change needed to happen at the Times and how essential that change was for the institution to continue to thrive,” he said. Suddenly, it felt like his “highest purpose was trying to make that change happen”.

I realized how much change needed to happen at the Times and how essential that change was for the institution to continue to thrive.

AG Sulzberger

His father agreed: “I think that was his sort of eye-opening moment.”

One secret to the Sulzbergers’ success is that each time power has been given to a new generation, predecessors have not become second-guessers. This is what has made it possible for the paper to change with the times.

In the case of Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the first and biggest beneficiaries of that tradition were the Times’ lesbian and gay employees. During the regime of his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Abe Rosenthal, the top editor from the late 60s to the mid-80s, made it clear that the career of any gay employee would end as soon as they came out of the closet.

When Arthur Sulzberger Jr became an assistant metropolitan editor, in the early 80s, he figured out who every gay employee was. Then he took each of them out to lunch, told them he knew they were gay, and promised this would have no effect on their career once Rosenthal had departed.

“Until you said so,” David W Dunlap, then a metropolitan reporter, wrote years later, “I couldn’t have imagined how to reconcile my soul with my professional calling. Now suddenly there was a Sulzberger … cheerfully reassuring me I had nothing to worry about.”

Indeed, as soon as Rosenthal was succeeded by Max Frankel as executive editor, the Times was transformed from the most homophobic to the most gay-friendly major institution in America.

A big reason there was so much skepticism that the latest Sulzberger handoff would ever take place was the fate of almost every other major American publishing family of the last 40 years. The Binghams got rid of the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1986. The Taylors unloaded the Boston Globe in 1993 – to the Sulzbergers. The Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times sold their presses in 2000. The Grahams of the Washington Post hung on longer, but even they took $250m from Jeff Bezos in 2013.

Sulzberger Jr insists he “just refused to to consider that kind of stuff”. Instead, as the internet ate away at the print advertising that had fuelled the business for so long, he unloaded hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

In 2007, nine TV stations went for $575m. In 2011, it was $143m for 16 regional newspapers – there had once been 35. The WQXR radio station went in two stages, AM and FM. In between came the toughest decision of all for the family, which drew much of its income from shares. In 2009, the Times suspended all dividend payments to shareholders.

The Sulzbergers never flinched. But even all of that wasn’t enough. In 2009, Sulzberger Jr had to borrow $250m from Slim – at 14% interest.

Four years before that, the paper had made its first effort to make subscription money off of its online edition, by putting some of its columnists behind a paywall in a program called Times Select. But after two years the company decided the loss of online revenue was more important than the gain in subscriptions, and the paywall was abandoned.

That made the decision to resume a paywall in 2011 all the more difficult – and it only happened after a fierce internal debate. In the end, Sulzberger Jr sided with the then chief executive, Janet Robinson. It turned out to be his most prescient announcement.

“A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the web,” he said. But he predicted the paywall would allow the company “to develop new sources of revenue to support the continuation of our journalistic mission and digital innovation … This system is our latest, and best, demonstration of where we believe the future of valued content – be it news, music, games or more – is going.”

Related: ‘Incalculable loss’: New York Times covers front page with 1,000 Covid-19 death notices

He turned out to be right.

[The paywall would allow the NYT] to develop new sources of revenue to support the continuation of our journalistic mission and digital innovation.

Sulzberger Jr

Last month, the company said it had 6 million paying online readers, and for the first time more revenue from digital than print subscribers.

The Times had $800m on hand, with $250m available through a revolving credit line. It no longer has any debt, and last year it paid off a loan that allowed it to buy back its Manhattan headquarters.

"It got really tough"

Sulzberger Jr’s close friend Steven Rattner, a former Times reporter turned investment banker, explained his success this way: “If you want just one quality, it would have to be determination. No matter how tough it got – and it got really tough – Arthur never gave up. He was among the first (if not the first) traditional newspaper guy to grasp the importance of the internet, focus on it and never get distracted from it.”

Paul Goldberger, a longtime Times architecture critic and one of the paper’s wisest observers, said the most relevant description of Sulzberger Jr’s philosophy could be found in an Italian novel, The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

I repeated that to the departing Times chairman.

“Yes,” he said. “Adapt or die.”

This article was written by Charles Kaiser from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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