The cult worship of the New York Times commenced not long after that day in 1896 when Adolph S. Ochs of Chattanooga, Tenn., spent a mess of borrowed money to purchase controlling ownership in the respected but failing Republican-tilting paper and appoint himself publisher. To distinguish the Times from the yellow, popular press of the day (the Journal and the World), Ochs plotted a high-brow and high-minded course for his new prize, steering clear of any partisanship. His formula elicited positive press from inside the industry, as the trade journal Fourth Estate immediately caressed the remade paper with this notice: “A glance at the New York Times since it has been in the hands of Adolph S. Ochs is like a gleam of sunlight on a cloudy day. The professional sees at once the handiwork of a fellow artist.”
Such oversized expressions for the Times have continued through the decades, reaching fullest flower perhaps once a generation or so when the old man’s heirs have drawn from their ranks a male member and installed him as publisher. With all the pomp one associates with the crowning of a king, the Times and its competitors sound the drums and blast the trumpets to mark the passing of the publisher’s scepter. When King Ochs died in 1935, the publisher’s job was bestowed on son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who then bestowed it on his son-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, who in 1963 surrendered it on his deathbed to Sulzberger’s son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (“Punch”). When Punch retired, the job followed the royal line to his son, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., in 1992. Naturally, the transfer of power made Page One news in the Times.
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This month, the Times’ hereditary monarchy put Ochs’ 37-year-old great-great-grandson, A.G. Sulzberger, on the throne, replacing his dad. As usual, the press took notice—see the coverage in NPR, New York, USA Today, Politico, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. Even President Donald Trump acknowledged the royal transition, sending a “Congratulations!” tweet to the Times’ new ruler before slapping his “failing” paper around a little.
Why do we invest so much the Times and its publisher? The appointment of other newspaper publishers don’t rate this sort of treatment—could you name the publisher of the Washington Post on a dare? The easy explanations offer themselves willingly: The news business is over-interested in itself; the media is New York-centric. Also, the Times’ facility for capturing Pulitzer Prizes—and bragging about them as if they mattered—give the paper an oversized profile. These days, the Times reaps the publicity because it’s the last great family newspaper. The Chandlers, Bancrofts, Taylors and Grahams have all sold out, leaving the Och-Sulzbergers as the last dynasty. Think of them as newspaper Kennedys, only without Chappaquiddick.
If anybody in the newspaper trade ever needed advice, it’s young A.G. Sulzberger. His family’s business came close to ruin during the recession and had to call on a loan from Mexican oligarch, telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, to save it. Newspapering hasn’t been a 30 percent margin business for more than a decade, and the New York Times Company is no longer the diversified entity it once was. If the paper is to survive as a business, it must grow. How?
The hard thing about giving A.G. advice in 2018 is that most of problems facing him faced Arthur Jr. when he became king. In a 1993 piece, the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta asked, “Will [the Times] continue to print on paper, or will it distribute news only electronically? Will it be a national or an international paper? What will its advertising base be? Will technology be an ally or an enemy?”
Here we are 25 years later, and the only question Auletta posed that has been resolved is the fate of its advertising base, which is on its way to extinction. The Times is still no closer to making the print-electronic decision, nor should it. “Print is profitable every day of the week without a single ad dollar,” A.G. recently boasted to the New Yorker’s David Remnick. Just before the paper built its paywall, it commissioned a study to determine how many digital subscribers it could attract. Fewer than 1 million, the experts predicted. They were wrong. The paper now has about 2.5 million digital-only subscribers while maintaining a print subscriber base of about 1 million, a surge some attribute to the Trump. Advertising, A.G. tells Remnick, once accounted for 80 percent of the paper’s revenues. Today, subscribers contribute two-thirds of revenues.
That’s the good news. The bad news is Times Company revenues, $1.56 billion in 2016, are nowhere near their pre-recession peak, and all of the unsolicited advice in the world won’t bring them back. A.G. needs to worry about those digital subscribers evaporating when Trump moves out of the White House. Either that or find a way to engineer his 2020 reelection!
A year ago, journalist Jim Warren assembled a panel of industry know-it-alls to help plot A.G.’s future. The interviews he collected read like notes from an autopsy. Journalist/entrepreneur Steve Brill called the paper’s plans to invest in video a “short-term illusion, continuing, “There’s so much more video online and everybody will realize that nobody watches them. It’s sort of like magazines thought tablets would be their salvation.” Industry analyst Alan Mutter threw doubt on the idea that the elite audience the Times attracts would continue to produce the sort of revenues needed to maintain its 1,300-person newsroom. Former Times Executive Editor Bill Keller fretted that “the search for a magic charm—virtual reality or podcasts or cruises or conferences or native advertising or whatever—could distract from what really matters. But I think the people who run the Times are well aware the brand was not built on cruises.”
Short of encouraging A.G. to invent the next Facebook or load up on the digital currency of the week, what sort of advice can we honestly advance? Formerly, the paper had to satisfy two constituencies, readers and advertisers. But now that subscribers and not advertisers provide the most revenue for the Times, the paper’s primary customers are readers. It can better insulate itself from periodic economic downturns, which caused advertisers to flee newspapers. A.G. has obviously thought deeply about this, seeing as he steered the paper’s big “innovation“ report in 2014 that charted both industry trends and the paper’s organization deficiencies. But diagnosis doesn’t always provide the cure.
The best thing A.G. has going for him is that he isn’t Arthur Jr., who inspired more sniggers than respect during his 16 years as Times publisher. According to the various profiles written about him, Arthur Jr. was a well-meaning but goofy Star Trek fan, completely over his head in the job. An unsteady manager, he indelicately sacked two executive editors (Howell Rains and Jill Abramson), though admittedly in crises not completely of his making. One unnamed critic told Times chroniclers Alex S. Jones and Susan E. Tifft that Arthur Jr. needed to “go back in the oven and bake a little longer.” An anonymous Times Company executive dismissed him as no more than a business “figurehead” in a 2005 New Yorker Auletta feature. Mark Bowden shared more abuse in Vanity Fair in 2009, writing, “[E]ven the mid-level talent around Arthur does not regard him as a peer, much less a suitable leader.” Behind his back, staffers ridiculed Arthur Jr. for instituting corporate sensitivity seminars at the paper. “I’ve been hugged by people I don’t even want to shake hands with,” one repulsed Times editor told the late Marjorie Williams for a 1994 Vanity Fair story. (Arthur Jr. does have his champions, though. See this recent Daniel Okrent piece for the counterpoint.)
So if A.G. shouldn’t be his dad, who should he be? A.G.’s note to his readers and the Remnick interview make him out to be as hyper-self-aware, a kind of anti-Arthur Jr. “He seemed earnest, serious, disciplined, even a bit nervous,” Remnick writes, making him sounds a lot like grandpa Punch, who began the job, Jones and Tifft wrote, “with the tentativeness of a student.” A reserved man, Punch hated making speeches as much as his showman son loved making them.
Punch’s greatest accomplishments, his biggest fans will tell you, was keeping the paper under the family’s control—thanks to its Class B stock ownership—after listing it on the American Stock Exchange in 1969. But what if the Och-Sulzberger monarchy is no longer the guarantor of the Times’ continued independence but has turned into the greatest threat? Donald Graham, the paterfamilias who for decades controlled the Washington Post under a similar stock arrangement, unloaded his paper on billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2013 when declining revenues threatened its future. Said Graham, “Roughly 85 percent of stock in the Post Company is owned by shareholders not in the Graham family. So the money we’re losing isn’t our own.”
The Bezos takeover and deep investment, everybody agrees, has improved the paper and stanched the losses. The Post even claims to be profitable (although I’d like to inspect the numbers). Thanks to Bezos’ billions and commitment, the paper can experiment and withstand economic upheaval without worries of going out of business. The Bezos fortune of $105 billion is so large that it can fluctuate more in an afternoon, depending on the performance of Amazon stock, than the New York Times Company is worth. Under the current arrangement, I fear that the Times won’t have automatic access to the sort of resources it needs to sustain the paper.
It’s not the Ochs-Sulzbergers’ fault that they might not be the best owners for the paper’s future. These days a lot of businesses need more of a financial cushion than a family fortune can provide. Even multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch saw the sense in selling his film studio this year when he realized he didn’t have the resources to compete with the likes of Disney, Netflix and Amazon.
If A.G. is to renounce the monarchy, who then should be Times king? How then to preserve spirit of the Times? Billionaire Michael Bloomberg has long lusted for the paper. His net worth of $50 billion means makes he could buy complete control of the Times Company ($3 billion) on impulse and never really miss the money. I leave it to Bloomberg and the Och-Sulzbergers to work out the details, but would encourage the financial wizards out there to investigate Felix Salmon’s wacky scheme in which the Times Company would buy Bloomberg (that’s right) to secure the paper’s long-term viability.
If Bloomberg has lost interest, the Times could surely find its own Bezos. Doing so would fulfill the mission Adolph Ochs set out for the paper in his will. Published in the Times over a headline that stated Ochs’ wish that the “Times Be Perpetuated as Public Servant,” Ochs’ final testament called for the Times to be maintained “as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence, and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.” As I read the will, Ochs was more interested in preserving his journalistic vision than he was in cementing eternal family control.
Obviously, one family member can’t sell the paper on his own. A.G. owns only a sliver of it, and as publisher he’s a mere employee of the family trust. But who better to counsel regicide to satisfy the terms of his ancestor’s will?
Kill the king, A.G., and crown a new one! Just make sure he has the right values and enough gold.
Ben Bradlee’s eternal inspirational advice, which I quote on the slightest pretext, was, “Nose down, ass up, and moving steadily forward into the future.” Send me your advice: Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts control this column thanks to a Class B stock arrangement. My Twitter feed fancies itself a prince. My RSS feed gives advice only if you promise not to take it.