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A New York Times Whodunit

Who slew Times CEO Janet Robinson? Was it Arthur Sulzberger’s new lady friend? The advertising market? The frustrated web guru? Or the ambitious Sulzberger cousin?

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When Arthur ­Sulzberger Jr. turned 60 years old, in September, the chairman and publisher of the New York Times threw a big birthday party at the Copa­cabana on West 47th Street in Manhattan. It wasn’t just a celebration for him but a kind of coming-out party for his new girlfriend, Claudia Gonzalez, an elegant and statuesque Mexican marketing executive who is a fixture at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, her former employer. The invitation was from the two of them. To many guests, it was the first they’d seen of her. Sulzberger introduced Gonzalez to colleagues at the paper and to members of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which controls the New York Times Company. Among the witnesses was Arthur’s father, the then-85-year-old Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, who had handed the mantle of publisher of the news­paper to his son two decades ­earlier. In heels, Gonzalez stands a few inches taller than Sulzberger, and, looking glamorous in a red flamenco dress, she joined him on the dance floor as a rock and R&B band energized the crowd of more than 100 people.

By every account, Sulzberger, who separated from his wife in 2008, is madly, and conspicuously, in love, ­regularly leaving the Times for long absences to be with Gonzalez, a pedigreed jet-setter who works for a humanitarian-relief agency in Geneva called the Global Fund. She accompanied Sulzberger on parts of a world media tour to help advertise the Times as a global brand, a trip that doubled as a romantic getaway to places like Paris and Istanbul.

Few begrudged Sulzberger his happiness, except perhaps the other important woman in Sulzberger’s life: Janet Robinson, the chief executive he chose to run the Times Company in 2004. Robinson, according to former colleagues at the paper, was growing annoyed with what she saw as Gonzalez’s undue influence on her boss, his forays with her cutting into the weekly face time Robinson had grown accustomed to having with him over the years. Sulzberger and Robinson were once an executive version of a married couple, finishing each other’s sentences in meetings and panel discussions and reviewing the paper’s business over dinners. They were frequently in each other’s offices on the sixteenth floor of the Times’ headquarters. “Check with ­Janet” was Sulzberger’s frequent reply to executives asking for guidance.

Robinson, a former elementary-school teacher, had bootstrapped her way to the top of the Times masthead from the world of magazine advertising to become Sulzberger’s indispensable business partner. She helped him develop his most successful business stratagem: taking the Times from a regional paper to a national one in the late nineties. While many questioned her hard-nosed tactics as a corporate infighter, as well as some of her decisions, few questioned her commitment to Sulzberger. She was his loyal lieutenant, steeped in the details of the paper’s balance sheet and serving as an assuring anchor during proxy skirmishes with aggressive shareholders that rattled Sulzberger’s nerves five years ago.

And now Sulzberger was bringing Gonzalez into the mix, where, as his girlfriend, she gave him advice—including, many people at the Times believe, a critique of Robinson’s performance. The tension between Robinson and Gonzalez, with Sulzberger in the middle, seemed to signal a shift at the paper. The relationship between Robinson and Sulzberger began “cooling” through the period that Gonzalez was emerging publicly, say people familiar with the matter. And when Sulzberger fired Robinson in December, out of the blue, giving her an astounding exit package of nearly $24 million, some top executives at the newspaper thought that the influence of Gonzalez was decisive. It was a scenario that appealed to those relish­ing a catfight between “Arthur’s women,” but it is not quite the true story.

Interviews with more than 30 people who are intimately familiar with different aspects of the Times’ business (none but a spokesperson would speak for attribution—this is the paper of record, after all) have made it clear that Gonzalez’s rise and Robinson’s fall, and the ensuing leadership vacuum inside the paper, were symptomatic of larger forces at work. Even as a new pay wall was erected on the Times’ website last spring to charge customers for access, the company’s performance, including an alarming dive in print advertising when other media companies were beginning to recover, was faltering, and Sulzberger was under pressure both financial and familial to throw Robinson overboard.

As the paper’s stock price has declined in recent years, there has been increasing unease among the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, who control the paper through a special class of shares. Three years ago, facing huge debt problems, the company suspended the lucrative stock dividend that once flowed quarterly to the family’s 40-plus members, intensifying the need to solve the intractable advertising problems of the newspaper in the digital age and figure out a way to turn the family’s cash spigot back on. Janet Robinson, the company’s advertising brains, found herself caught between her increasingly remote boss and a frustrated family ­worried over the future of its 116-year-old fortune.


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