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A New York Times Whodunit

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About $11 million of Robinson’s exit package was from her pension and retirement plan. Another roughly $7 million consisted of her yearly compensation and awards, and stock options she was entitled to after her years at the Times. But she also received a $4.5 million consulting contract, a kind of gratuitous bonus that didn’t look or smell right to anyone who was toiling on Eighth Avenue and worrying over pensions in danger of being frozen in ongoing labor negotiations. That payout has since become the centerpiece of rancorous disputes between the Newspaper Guild of New York, the newsroom’s union, and management. The intense discussions are still in progress as of this writing, hung up on a suggestion made by the Guild to redesign the Times’ pension system.

In the era of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., when newspapers have flailed under new digital realities, the New York Times Company has shrunk dramatically. Once it was a wide-ranging media empire of newspapers and TV stations and websites, and even a baseball team, that was worth almost $7 billion; today it’s essentially two struggling newspapers and a much-­reduced web company, all worth less than $1 billion (for comparison, consider that the Internet music company Pandora is valued at almost $2 billion). Despite the shrinkage, the company has retained essentially the same top-heavy management, which it has kept well compensated. Even though the paper froze executives’ pensions in 2009, as it is threatening to do with union employees, the company created two loopholes, called the Restoration Plan and the Supplemental Executive Savings Plan, which allowed certain high-earning executives to take money out anyway. As a result, Janet Robinson received an additional lump-sum payment of over half a million dollars upon exiting the Times.

Over time, there was less and less for Robinson, and Michael Golden, to manage. It was inevitable, say veteran Times executives, current and former, that the two would come into conflict as their respective portfolios disappeared and the struggle for influence over the tinier island of the New York Times came to a head. And with Robinson gone, Golden has indeed found a new property to run: the Boston Globe, which began reporting to him earlier this year. There are already rumblings that potential buyers are being sounded out.

It raises the question of what the next CEO of the Times will be running when he or she shows up, and how much authority and power he or she will have under the thumb of the family, led by Sulzberger, who, in the pretzel logic of the Times’ management structure, will be both his or her boss, as chairman, and his or her underling, as publisher—a situation that denies a leader any real authority. As one former Times executive asked, “How are they going to recruit somebody in that environment who is going to have to deal with Arthur?”

As of this writing, the Times is nowhere near finding a new leader. The board of directors only finished approving the job description for the new CEO in April, the month after it hired a search firm to find an outside candidate. In January, a Bloomberg report by Edmund Lee and John Helyar said that it was “unlikely the 62-year-old Golden will take on that role,” implying he was in contention for CEO. And if he were indeed campaigning to lead the New York Times Company, it might explain why it took nearly three months to hire a search firm to look for a new chief executive.

Meanwhile, the company is in the hands of both Golden and Sulzberger, who must handle the furor over company pensions. There is so much antagonism among the rank and file in the newsroom that Sulzberger’s leadership, long a subject of private grousing, is being openly questioned in ways nobody could have imagined a few years ago. In a leaked memo, reporter and Times Guild representative Donald McNeil described how Sulzberger had rotated through a series of questionable management gurus over the last twenty years.

And now, he wrote, “Enter guru No. 4,” a man he identified as Michael Useem, whom Sulzberger would soon be joining in the Himalayas in May. “Shouldn’t a 60-year-old corporate chairman already know whether he’s a leader or not?” asked McNeil. “Shouldn’t that have been decided by age 35 or so? And a trek now? In mid-crisis?”

But that may explain Sulzberger’s attraction to Useem, a management professor from Wharton business school who specializes in crisis management. A recent article he co-wrote is titled “How to Lead During a Crisis: Lessons From the Rescue of the Chilean Miners.”

With the company coffers shrinking, there is fear that the pressure on the family and the lack of adequate leadership are coming to an inflection point, not unlike what happened to The Wall Street Journal in 2007, when divisions inside the Bancroft family that owned that paper allowed Rupert Murdoch to divide and conquer with a massive offer that simply could not be refused. As with the Journal, the low stock price of the Times makes the company vulnerable to protests by stockholders, who could, if such an offer were forthcoming, at the very least bring expensive legal action against the paper if it resisted and further tempt an already anxious family to sell the paper.

That has led to speculation, and not for the first time, that Mayor Bloomberg, a long-fabled white knight for beleaguered Times staffers, could swoop in and save the paper from itself, a kind of best worst-case scenario for the Ochs-Sulzberger family. Here, after all, would be the decisive leader the paper yearned for, a ­powerful and wealthy businessman who has shown ample commitment to the city that gives its name to the greatest newspaper in the world. In theory, this benevolent dictator could afford to lose money for the greater good of journalism in America.

Bloomberg LLC wouldn’t comment on whether the mayor would make a bid for the New York Times. As it stands, there are no talks happening.

At least not yet.


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