Last year, the Times made a big gamble to save its business, giving the newspaper and its leader, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., what seemed like a new lease on life. In March, it rolled out one of its riskiest business plans in years, the online pay wall that charges customers for access to the digital newspaper, which the Times hoped would be the foundation of a 21st-century media company.
This move came after tough austerity measures, including layoffs and buyouts, the sale of some of non-Times holdings, and the suspension of the stock dividend. With these measures, the paper had managed to pay off a massive debt to the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, whose high-interest loan of $250 million had hovered ominously over the paper and for a few tense years led to speculation that the family might be forced to consider the unthinkable and sell the paper, possibly to Slim.
Last year, Robinson went on a media tour to cultivate advertisers and talk about the state of the paper’s pay wall, a business strategy she had personally championed against the protests of some powerful voices at the company. She began giving speeches and interviews, meeting with editorial boards at Bloomberg, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and CNBC, and with advertisers in Hollywood and Detroit. Occasionally she appeared with Sulzberger, but more often she appeared alone. At times, she seemed to be having fun: In a September interview, she teased Forbes by saying that she had a secret Twitter handle, but wouldn’t reveal the name.
On the same day the interview was published online, incidentally, the first major story emerged in the U.S. connecting Sulzberger romantically to Claudia Gonzalez. The site Capital NY linked to an article in the Mexican magazine Quién describing Gonzalez as the woman who “moves the New York Times.”
Robinson’s tour was prearranged by the Times’ public-relations office. Her interviews came during a difficult period when print advertising at the Times was vanishing, with movie ads the latest to take a hit. According to at least two people familiar with the matter, Gonzalez was critical of Robinson’s profile in the press. “It was her view that Arthur should be the face of the Times, not Janet,” says a former Times executive who maintains ties to the company. (Gonzalez declined to comment.)
For years, Robinson was happy to be an almost invisible force at the Times. She had begun in the eighties as a formidable salesperson for Tennis magazine, working her way up, tirelessly and deliberately, to head of print-advertising sales for the Times. Advertising, of course, was the battleground for the future of the newspaper business, and Sulzberger, who became chairman in 1997, adamantly wanted women in higher positions at the company. He gave Robinson the job as CEO in December 2004.
Over time, Robinson and Sulzberger became a close team. In a 2008 documentary about the restaurant Le Cirque, by the same filmmaker who made the Times documentary Page One, the two can be seen walking arm in arm to their table, a kind of glamorous platonic power couple clinking glasses of white wine.
Robinson appeared to her co-workers to have little private life: She was unmarried, called her mother nearly every day from her office, and on weekends took home boxes of work. Though she made enough money to build a house in Newport, Rhode Island, she rarely went there. “She gave him the impression, ‘Don’t ever worry, Arthur, I’ve got this, this is my life,’ ” says a former Times executive who worked with her. “He needs a larger-than-life person around him who is going to tell him everything is okay.”
Robinson’s calming presence allowed Sulzberger to concentrate on being the publisher of the flagship paper, meeting with President George W. Bush over the Times’ controversial decision to report on the government’s secret wiretapping program, or appearing on the Today show to defend the reporter Judith Miller during the CIA–Valerie Plame leak investigation. When the paper was in turmoil under executive editor Howell Raines, it was Sulzberger who famously appeared before a staff town hall to hand a stuffed moose to Raines, a device that was meant to get people talking truthfully about difficult issues.
Robinson consequently gained and consolidated her own power on the business side of the paper. A glance at today’s masthead of business management, opposite the opinion page, is a gallery of Robinson hires. She relished her authority, say former colleagues, earning a reputation for ruthlessness. She surrounded herself with allies who did not threaten her power, pushing out anyone who showed a hint of disloyalty. By 1999, one of Robinson’s most trusted protégés was a woman named Jyll Holzman, whom she had plucked from the magazine world and elevated to senior vice-president for advertising after effectively pushing out Sulzberger’s own cousin, Dan Cohen, from the position. During a period of tension between the newsroom and the advertising division, the Times’ then–deputy managing editor, John Geddes, represented the news and Holzman the advertising side. Robinson believed Holzman was championing their cause—until she discovered that Holzman had begun dating Geddes.