Dave Golden couldn’t stay at the paper mill forever. It was too tied to the family business, too laden with expectations. So he set off to find himself “in the tango halls of Argentina, on the snow-covered Berkshire border of Vermont and Massachusetts, in the halls of Oxford, in the jungles of Guatemala and even in Asia on a Fulbright,” according to his Website. In the Berkshires, he studied mountain music, and in 2004, the 26-year-old released a well-received folk record, with songs drawing from life experiences, as in “All I Never Wanted”: “I coulda been a CEO, they told me / If I could just stop holdin’ on to this ol’ dream.”
This could be the story of any aspiring artist, but David Adam Ochs Golden isn’t just any folk-rocker carving out his own circuitous path in life. He’s a once and future owner of the New York Times Company, one of the 27 members of the fifth generation of the Ochs-Sulzberger family who will inherit the 157-year-old newspaper as it’s passed down from their forefathers—including Golden’s father, Stephen Arthur Ochs Golden, former president of the paper’s forest-products division and the cousin of Times chairman and publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.
It might seem as if the adventures of a distantly related singer living in New Orleans would have little to do with the fate of the Times, but it was the Dave Goldens of the Bancroft family who agitated to sell their inheritance, The Wall Street Journal, when News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch came calling with $5 billion, more than twice the market value of the company. Like the Sulzbergers, the Bancrofts were an ever-expanding tree of cousins and second cousins watching their fortune shrivel in the Internet age.
So it’s fair to wonder, as the Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt, did last year, “How united are the Sulzbergers, and what holds them together? Who is the next generation, and how committed are they to the family’s long practice of investing heavily in quality journalism, even in rocky financial times?” It’s a question that’s impossible to answer with any certainty, and one that’s difficult even to address, which is perhaps why Times editor Bill Keller has not followed through on his suggestion in that same column that “this is a story [the Times] could do.”
The Sulzberger family is a different clan from the Bancrofts, who were divided by trust funds and populated with restless socialites and horse enthusiasts whose hobbies required access to substantial funds. From an early age, Sulzberger children are taught to value their role as stewards of the paper and servants to the public good. Privately, however, the family has always quarreled and debated among themselves, with cousins and brothers jockeying for power and influence, and occasional whispers of displeasure with Sulzberger’s leadership. Today there is greater possibility for division in the Sulzberger family than there was a decade ago. In the last ten years, at least seventeen new family members have turned 25, the age at which they are allowed to join the trust’s board or vote for trustees, expanding by 38 percent the number of people with input into the family’s dealings. In 2001, the family trust was quietly amended, expanding the number of family trustees and allowing a less than unanimous vote on “extraordinary corporate transactions”—leaving the door open for a faction of family members to push for a sale.
Will prestige and legacy alone be enough to sustain the next generation? As the financial fortunes of the New York Times wither, the sad truth is that they may not have a choice.
From an estate in Southampton, 82-year-old Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the patriarch of the family and father of Arthur Jr., has watched as the company he bequeathed to his son has taken a perilous turn. A significant portion of the paper’s troubles can be attributed to the general difficulties of a business model based on print advertising in the Internet age. But the younger Sulzberger’s management stumbles have helped to speed the company stock price’s decline to around $15 a share from $45 at the start of the century.
First, there was Sulzberger’s decision to use the paper’s excess cash flow when it was making money in the nineties to buy back stock—a practice meant to improve investor confidence—instead of acquiring new properties that could have hedged against print losses. In the last decade, the Times bought back $3 billion of its own stock—more than the company’s present market value. Now that money is gone, and the company has sunk from surplus to deficit. (Sulzberger himself has acknowledged that the buybacks were “the stupidest thing” he’s done.)