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The Kingdom and the Paywall

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Arthur Sulzberger Jr., 1992.  

Speaking of the digital-subscription plans specifically and the company’s financial future more generally, Sulzberger says, “Let’s be clear—we’re three months into this. It proves that we’re on a good track, better than we had imagined, but we’ve got to continue to invest. We’ve got to continue to change and adapt and grow from this experience. And we will.”

That’s a truism Sulzberger’s staff seems to have increasing amounts of faith in. Departing executive editor Bill Keller, who got his job only after Raines was fired, says, “My relationship with Arthur is always going to be a little complicated by the fact that I was his second choice … But boy, I look around the country and I can’t see anybody I would want to trade for Arthur Sulzberger.” The commitment to spending money and resources on expensive and oftentimes dangerous reporting is, Keller says, something Sulzberger views as “sacred—and he gets a lot of credit in my book for that.”

Sulzberger made what appeared to many to be a quixotic bet when the world looked like it was moving in the other direction.

Ever since 1992, when the then-40-year-old Sulzberger was tapped as the fifth member of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan to serve as publisher of the Times, there has existed a fundamental paradox at the heart of any assessment of the paper and its future. For more than a century, the family’s stewardship has been recognized as the primary reason for the Times’ enduring excellence. (As former executive editor Max Frankel once said, “I thank God for that monarchy, because every other newspaper that has lost its family control has gone to seed.”) But even before Sulzberger, or “Young Arthur,” as he is still sometimes referred to, took over after the 29-year reign of his father, there were grumblings that he wasn’t cut out for the job: The bright-eyed, occasionally New Age–y, motorcycle-riding, baby-faced heir could come across as callow, insecure, and undisciplined. The sharp bark of a laugh that punctuated his jokes when he was nervous made people uncomfortable. And, of course, he was the scion, which can be a hard row to hoe: Crowns have their advantages, but they also invite ridicule. All in all, Sulz­berger, as one Times executive recently put it to me, is “an easy guy to caricature … He becomes a figure of fun and does not seem like a commanding … forceful leader.”
In fact, Sulzberger’s apprenticeship in journalism and at the Times far outstripped that of his revered father, known by his childhood nickname, Punch (or, for that matter, of his grandfather, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher from 1935 to 1961). After graduating from Tufts in 1974, Sulzberger moved to North Carolina to work as a rookie reporter for the Raleigh Times. In the mid-seventies, he worked for the Associated Press in London, and after arriving at the Times, he worked as a reporter and an editor, did a stint in the paper’s advertising department, and even worked the night shift in the production department.

But skepticism seemed to stick to Sulzberger regardless of how much effort he put in. Some of this undoubtedly stemmed from his relationship with his father. (When Sulzberger was in his mid-twenties, his father included the following sentence in a job recommendation for Sulzberger’s then-wife: “We think she is smarter than he is.” It was only on his secretary’s insistence that the letter was rewritten.)

Of course, Punch had been beset by many of these same criticisms when he was named publisher in 1963—but he was able to grow into his role as the clan’s and the company’s elder statesman during a time when newsroom sniping and industry gossip were traded over cocktails at the Century Club and not leaked to “Page Six.” What’s more, Punch’s ascension occurred when the paper could hum along without worrying about anything as prosaic as business plans or fiscal projections.

Contrast that with the seismic upheavals that have rocked the media industry over the past two decades. When Sulzberger looks around, he sees a landscape littered with the corpses of his onetime competitors. Once-proud newspaper dynasties like the Taylors of the Boston Globe, the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, the Bancrofts of The Wall Street Journal have collapsed, owing to economic pressures, familial infighting, ongoing incompetence, or all of the above. Three years ago, the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, and many other papers, declared bankruptcy; the companies that control the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the New Haven Register, and both Philadelphia dailies did as well. (With the exception of the Tribune Company, all of those companies have emerged from bankruptcy protection.) In the first half of 2009, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News (founded 1859), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (founded 1863), and the Tucson Citizen (founded 1870) all ceased publication.


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