So far, no one has been so bold as to openly question Sulzberger’s management, but it’s worth noting that it was a 42-year-old member of the Bancroft family, Elisabeth Goth Chelberg, who became a key agitator for selling The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch. After her mother died, she came to see with cold clarity the withering value of her inheritance. “On the one hand it is quite sad,” she told a newspaper, “but on the other it was the only reasonable thing to do.” Says a Times staffer who knows Sulzberger, “It seems completely reasonable that somewhere embedded in this [Sulzberger] family is someone saying the same thing Elisabeth is saying: ‘What the fuck is going on with my investment, Uncle Arthur?’ ”
The idea of the New York Times slipping from family control is one that few inside or outside the family relish talking about. People who know the Sulzbergers are inclined to protect them, seeing the paper as an endangered species on which freedom of the press depends. As former Times editor Abe Rosenthal used to say, one can’t imagine a world without the Times.
It is significant that none of the members of the fifth generation of the Sulzberger family, given the chance, chose to express even a sliver of unhappiness with the company’s management. The reaction is very different from that of the fifth generation of Bancrofts, many of whom were happy to stoke conversations about a sale of the Journal in the press.
The main difference between the two families is that the Bancrofts became disengaged from running the Journal much earlier in the paper’s history; the last family member to hold a senior management role at the company was Hugh Bancroft, who committed suicide in 1933. The Ochs-Sulzbergers’ continued involvement has helped to create a mythology around the paper and the family, a sense of noblesse oblige that may be more powerful than the financial pressures. The family’s dedication to journalism is “a noble, familial thing that courses through their veins,” says a family friend. “And anyone who strays from that gets slapped down pretty quickly.” A sale could make the Sulzberger descendents wealthier, but what they would lose is invaluable to them.
It’s a relatively modern phenomenon for the Times to think of itself as a business more than a civic gesture—an expensive project for the public good. It wasn’t until the nineties, when Sulzberger successfully took the paper national and invested in early Internet ventures, that the stock price spiked and it seemed that the Times might be able to be both virtuous and rich. Today, of course, nothing escapes the pressures of Wall Street, and the tension between the Times’ public trust and the Times’ business is sharper than it’s ever been.
Fantasies about a white-knight businessman who might “save” the Times with a cash infusion abound in the newsroom and in media circles across the city. Most of them feature Michael Bloomberg, who has denied interest in buying the paper, or Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire who bought $127 million in Times stock. Another notion floated in the newsroom is the hiring of a future-forward CEO, like Google’s Eric Schmidt, an executive who clearly “gets” the Internet and might just be able to reengineer the Times to profit from it.
But for all of Sulzberger’s faults, there’s a simple reason the family hasn’t pushed for new management: No one seems to really have a better idea. “I’m sure they would all be interested, from Arthur down, in anybody giving them a better idea on how to run the business more profitably,” says Max Frankel, the former executive editor of the Times. But there is no magic bullet to save the paper. All Sulzberger can do is try to safeguard the paper’s editorial quality—not just because he believes in it, which he clearly does, but because it protects him from the family constituency. “The quality of the paper,” notes an Ochs-Sulzberger friend, “is the one reason for the family to put up with the financial part.”
And so the Times’ royal family presides over an embattled kingdom—its coffers dwindling, but its titles still a source of pride. Sulzberger seems willing to sacrifice anything to hold on to the family business. “If the New York Times of the future is a Web business, but worth 20 percent of what it’s worth now, he’ll be happy because he’ll have saved the institution,” says a friend of Sulzberger’s who admires him. “That’s what he cares about.” He’s betting the rest of the family agrees.