“She went nuts because she had been confiding all these poisonous comments about Geddes,” says a former Times executive who was there. “From that point on, she really ostracized Holzman, and Holzman had to leave.” (Geddes and Holzman married in 2005.)
She was especially keen to drive out people she saw as too influential with Sulzberger. To some, she had earned the nickname “Howell on heels,” the business analog to the onetime editor Raines, a legendary autocrat.
Complaints about Robinson’s style made their way to the board level of the company. During an executive meeting several years ago, Sulzberger’s half-sister, Cathy, then a board member, asked Arthur whether internal issues with Robinson had improved. “Arthur didn’t know what she was talking about,” says a person who was in the room. “It’s not because he doesn’t know. He’s in denial.”
When it came to resolving conflicts, Sulzberger abhorred confrontation. “He would get an earful [about Robinson] and would never do anything about it,” says another former Times executive. The feeling among some in the Ochs-Sulzberger family was that Sulzberger only heard what he wanted to hear; it was similar to criticism made of Sulzberger during the period that Raines was first antagonizing the newsroom.
Sulzberger, in effect, served as the firewall between Robinson and her critics. And as the company’s chairman of the board and the publisher of the paper, he didn’t have to listen. This power cut two ways, however. His commitment to the paper’s integrity was beyond reproach, many felt. But his management skills and business ideas were not. When he paid about $30 million for a software company called Abuzz Technologies that quickly imploded, or when he spent $2.7 billion to buy back company shares that then went down precipitously, or built a new headquarters that was worth half the present-day value of the company, he could appear arrogant and out of touch. Consequently, Robinson came to see herself as the paper’s caretaker, the adult in the room. (Some Times people privately referred to her as “the Nanny.”) Robinson sometimes complained that Sulzberger drove her crazy, says a former Times executive, but over time came to see herself as indispensable. Says another former colleague: “Her devotion to the company was so extreme that she believed she was the most important cog in the machine.”
But something changed after the launch of the Times pay wall last year, marking the beginning of what colleagues describe as a breakdown between Sulzberger and Robinson. Robinson had championed a paid model for nytimes.com against the protests of the Times’ digital guru, Martin Nisenholtz, a gentle but forward-thinking man in his fifties who is credited with developing the modern Times website and who believed the paper should remain free. The Robinson-Nisenholtz conflict dated back to the beginning of the Times online. “They fought constantly,” says a former colleague. “It was very, very unpleasant.”
Nisenholtz and his allies debated Robinson for years over whether and how to charge for content, with Nisenholtz in the free-content camp from the beginning. But where Nisenholtz was thoughtful and reserved, Robinson was aggressive and tactical, and in the struggle for power and influence, Robinson won. After the pay wall was launched, Nisenholtz told management he planned to retire at the end of the year. Friends say he was embittered by what he considered Robinson’s efforts to marginalize him, and his exit rippled throughout the company. (Friends of Robinson’s point out that Nisenholtz later thanked her for her support at a retirement party.)
Robinson, for all her virtues as a decisive executive, was a saleswoman from the legacy print paper and not a particularly inspiring presence for the younger set rising in the paper’s digital ranks. But she felt she had been the one to execute the paper’s most important digital strategy so far. And she had been a strong advocate of the paper’s other big digital play, the Wikipedia-like information-and-advice website About.com, for which the company had paid $410 million in 2005. Though it was never a very sexy component of the Times empire, About.com had produced needed advertising cash flow when the paper was struggling under debt obligations and two large shareholders, Phil Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners and Scott Galloway of Firebrand Capital, were pressuring Sulzberger to loosen the family’s grip on corporate governance.
It was Nisenholtz, Robinson would argue, who had allowed About.com to be driven onto the rocks by a CEO he had hired named Cella Irvine. Irvine was evidently caught off guard when Google reengineered its search engine last February to lessen the prominence of “low-quality” websites, drastically cutting About.com’s traffic. Now, according to a company filing in 2011, About.com could be headed toward a write-down, rendering it worthless.