Pinch, Power, and the Paper

Power Players: Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and ex-editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.Photo: Associated Press

In New York Times tradition—or mythology—the Times editor functions more or less as prime minister, and the Sulzberger family, the Times’ controlling shareholders, as constitutional monarchs. Hence, with the government in crisis, Howell Raines, the executive editor and presumptive prime minister, tendered his resignation to his liege, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Under this (unwritten) constitutional system, a new government will now be formed, and, therefore, the crisis will have passed.

And yet it is hard to have observed this crisis and not have seen Sulzberger as something more than titular. Even though it probably would have benefited him to have been more distantly preoccupied on the fabled fourteenth floor, he has inserted himself at almost every opportunity into the mess.

He’s been signing memos along with Raines to the newsroom staff, in a departure from long tradition; it’s his mug that the paparazzi have been shooting; he’s officiated at newsroom meetings; he’s been issuing voluble statements to the media; he’s empowered the multiple committees and investigations.

Sulzberger’s made it clear that he is in charge—and not reluctantly.

In some sense, this may be reassuring—or at least it’s supposed to be. It’s one reason why monarchs exist—to be there when mortals fail.

But in another sense, it gets harder and harder for everybody to avoid the conclusion that this is Arthur’s show, and has been for a long time, and that, with Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd now sacrificed, he’s the remaining player in this drama.

“It sucks”—which is how he’s memorably described the Jayson Blair mess—is Arthur-speak.

Almost every story that people tell about conversations with the Times publisher is somehow about his bluntness or flippancy—his tone issues. About him saying this or that person is an asshole, or about how something is all fucked up, or about some other swift, colloquial, often disparaging, unmediated remark he has made.

Some time ago, when I called Arthur about doing a formal sit-down interview, he said he would think about it. When we spoke a few days later, he said, “I’ve really thought about it, and you know why I don’t want to do it? Because I hate New York Magazine.”

Many people have conflicted responses to his brusqueness or unceremoniousness—or superciliousness.

First, it’s a little scary. You have a person with such great, even august, power, apparently not at all mindful of what he says. You’re afraid for him—that he might lack a certain order of self-control. Candor becomes aggression.

And then you’re afraid for yourself.

What does it mean when the chairman and publisher of the New York Times thinks someone is an asshole? What does it mean when the chairman and publisher of the Times says he hates my magazine?

But then you find yourself wondering if it isn’t refreshing. The point is not that he talks differently from anyone else but that he talks just like anyone else. You could be friends. Why not? He’s quick and funny. He’s got an open smile. Bright eyes. Great hair. Let’s go have a drink.

Then it gets confusing. Because you’ve separated him in your mind from the Times—in a way that you would never have separated his circumspect and courtly father. It’s not just that you’ve differentiated Arthur Jr. from the Times but that you have great trouble reconciling the two. Arthur in bearing and tone doesn’t seem Timesian at all. He isn’t earnest. He may be smart, but he isn’t thoughtful. He isn’t highbrow, or obviously culturally minded, or even recognizably a Jewish liberal—indeed, he gets annoyed when people assume that just because he’s from one of the great New York Jewish families, he is Jewish (he was raised as an Episcopalian).

He seems, in a sense, more cut out to be a tabloid editor. He could be one of Murdoch’s sons, or any ambitious upstart in the media business.

What he does not seem to be is the self-effacing steward, in a long line of self-effacing stewards, of the world’s greatest newspaper.

The relationship of the Times, or more precisely the Times newsroom, to the Sulzberger family is an intricate, complex, and—despite the various books devoted to the subject—mysterious one. It is, arguably, the most successful relationship between staff and proprietor in journalism history. It’s not just the relative noninterference of the family in newsroom matters, or the remoteness factor, but also the historical willingness of the controlling shareholders to see themselves as subordinated to the larger idea of the Times.

It is, too, a tone thing. The relationship is in the inflection. The family has always exerted its influence through intricate tact and discretion.

This special relationship has been so ingrained in the thinking of the Times that even as consternation has been building in the newsroom—not just over the Jayson Blair affair but over several years of changes—almost no one has said (certainly not with any ferocity) it’s an Arthur issue.

Nobody seems to have assumed—as you might with any corporation that gets a new top executive—that as part of Arthur’s taking control, the company, and hence the paper, would naturally go in a dramatic, unsettling new direction.

Jayson Blair was just a little piece of shell that drops into the pan when you break the eggs.

The elevation of Arthur to controlling executive has been, in fact, a glacial process. As recently as three years ago, when I asked Joe Lelyveld, then the executive editor of the paper—and now the interim editor replacing Raines—to speak on a conference panel, he could say that seeing as how he really didn’t have time for conferences, why didn’t I ask Arthur? (While this was probably as dismissive as it seemed, it was, I think, an acknowledgment that Arthur likes to speak to groups, that he is outward-looking in a way that the Times has not traditionally been outward-looking.)

And yet it has happened. Young Arthur, as he is still persistently called (along with the belittling “Pinch”), has certainly taken charge. He has won various executive-suite battles (over his father’s retainers). He has won various family turf feuds (over ambitious cousins). And, in the figure of Howell Raines, he installed his guy—a guy who spoke with Sulzberger’s kind of I-don’t-care-ness—in the newsroom. Howell was his instrument.

More on the Times

Troubled Times
By Michael Wolff
“A low-point in the paper’s 152-year history?” Or the opportunity for a bit of self-congratulation? (May 26, 2003)

Inside the Times’ Newsroom
By Carl Swanson
How are staffers dealing with the crisis? One thing’s for sure: They’re angry at Raines. (May 26, 2003)

And reflected his tone.

Arthur has the thing his family has traditionally and conspicuously not had: executive-itis.

He likes to run things. He likes to put his mark on things. He is not transparent. He does not have, nor does he have much use for, a light touch.

Change is his mantra.

This is the attribute that has made longtime Times people who have had contact with him think of him as arrogant and abrasive (if charming, too), traits he shares with Raines and Boyd.

He sees the organization as an extension of his views and sensibility and ambitions. He’s a would-be Jack Welch.

Hence the road rules: Concurrent with Arthur’s rise through the upper ranks of the Times has been his determination to promote certain values to the organization—to promulgate, even, certain dictums (these rules are circulated to all employees). Now, in fact, these are all paplike, mostly meaningless sentiments, like “Treat each other with honesty, respect and civility,” and “Embrace diversity,” and “Contribute your excellence to team efforts,” but their promulgation has occupied enormous time and attention at Arthur’s valued corporate retreats.

What’s more, as in so many corporations, because these are top-down, infantilizing behavioral rules, they actually mean the opposite of what they say they mean. Indeed, while some people saw Raines and Boyd’s approach as the antithesis of these work-together bromides, it was as easy to see the two editors as the prime exponents of Sulzberger’s heavy-handed, do-it-our-way, get-with-the-program management style.

While Raines and Boyd were catching most of the rage at the company’s soul-searching session just after the Blair revelations, there, on the stage, was Arthur with his strange bit of inexplicable, tone-deaf, corporate dum-dum-ness—the communications-facilitating stuffed moose—which was not exactly reassuring.

And yet by most modern executive standards of deal-making and decisiveness and quarterly results, the motorcycle-driving publisher is good at his job. He may well be quite a talented modern media executive.

In the media world, the business side of the Times has, for a generation at least, been something of a joke. But under Arthur, it has steadily—and stealthily—awakened.

Four daily sections have grown to sometimes eight (much more for advertising purposes than news concerns), big investment has been made in new production facilities, and a largely local audience has been transformed into a growing “national footprint.” An urban paper has gone suburban.

At the conference that Joe Lelyveld had handed off to Arthur, I asked Arthur about his then-rapt interest in the Internet. My question was about why the Times was now getting swept up in this faddishness when it had so successfully—or diffidently—resisted other media enthusiasms. “If you could rewrite your family’s history,” I asked, “would you have wanted the Sulzbergers in, say, 1953 to have made a big play for television?”

“You bet I would!”

Indeed, a year ago, the Times acquired, in addition to the eight network affiliates it already owns, a half-interest in the Discovery Channel.

Also last year, in a mogul-worthy bit of business cruelty, Arthur pulled a fast one on the Times’ longtime partner in the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post Co., and gained full control over the (long-ailing) IHT. This was “exactly what Ben Bradlee would have done,” said Arthur, grabbing at the mantle of the Post’s fabled and aggressive editor, who promptly responded by saying Young Arthur had “hijacked” the IHT, which would never have happened, Bradlee added, “if Arthur Sulzberger Sr. were still in charge or if Katharine Graham were alive.”

This new business audacity is informed by a new business language. Sulzberger is, he recently told an interviewer, “agnostic about the method of distribution”—which is to say he has no overriding commitment to a newspaper as the medium. “It’s about cross-selling,” he has said, embracing the synergistic vision of other media conglomerates. It is the strategic view—market share, competitive positioning, franchise extension, category dominance—rather than the newsroom view, that more and more informs the direction of this international information franchise.

Notably, the Times was part of the consortium of media companies—which, as notably, did not include the Washington Post—to successfully petition the FCC last week for regulatory changes that would allow them to own newspapers and television stations in the same market.

There’s a denial mechanism among people in the Times newsroom that allows them to believe that while Arthur may be out to change the direction of the Times Company, that entity is somehow different and remote from the paper itself.

Indeed, the Times Company has always been involved in disparate, marginal ventures almost entirely irrelevant to the business of the newspaper.

Arthur, no doubt, would be among the first to deny that corporate concerns would in any way redirect the mission of the newsroom.

And yet such change, such redirection, such a kind of corporate shift in tone and emphasis and priorities and sense of the product itself, is, finally, what Raines and Boyd are being held to account for.

Now, they might be incompetent, or tone-deaf, or empire builders, or rogue managers—or, on the other hand, they might be Arthur’s soldiers. And hence the first casualties in this war for the soul of the Times that Arthur has started.

The sense in the newsroom now is that the good Times has prevailed over this other, bad Times. That this has been a heroic victory by the true owners of the newsroom to preserve what must be preserved. This is part of the frequent journalist delusion—that journalists themselves have power.

But there is also, beyond the righteousness, this sense of court intrigue—of trying to figure out where the real power lies.

Raines and Boyd are out not because they violated the true spirit of the paper but because they lost their usefulness to the powerful. Indeed, their existence threatened the power of the powerful. The inevitable question is whether Arthur is stronger or weaker without them.

Does he placate the newsroom with his next choice of editor, or does he look for other editors who will be his lieutenants?

The Times trust is unbreakable. Arthur can be removed only by the members of his own family (although an outbreak of shareholder suits and a calamitous decline in the share price—neither of which has happened—could surely force their hand). And while he has crossed certain factions of his family (he forced out his cousins Dan Cohen and Stephen Golden), and while there is undoubtedly worry at home (his father attended the newsroom meeting where Raines’s and Boyd’s resignations were announced), there is no reason to believe that anyone in his family sees it differently from the way he sees it: the diminishing returns of a regional newspaper company versus the much greater potential of an ever-expanding information brand.

Not long ago, a former Timesman I know had occasion to talk with Arthur Sulzberger Sr. and to ask conversationally what he thought of his son’s paper. The senior Sulzberger replied, without directly answering the question, that the heyday of the Times was in the seventies.

This may not have been as much a reflection on his son’s stewardship, or on the quality of the paper itself, as just an acknowledgment of a world where flagship-driven, proprietor-run media companies once happily thrived. The seventies, after all, were the heyday for Time Inc. and the three networks and the Washington Post, too.

Arthur Jr. is in a different world—which he may or may not successfully navigate. But it’s his ship.

It’s his company. He’s the mogul.

The strategic question that the profane, smart-alecky, impatient publisher is always asking at his favored form of discourse, the corporate retreat, is how profoundly does the Times change? At the same time, the pressing tactical issue—which, obviously, he fumbled with the selection of Raines and Boyd to run the paper—is how to keep the extent of the metamorphosis from people in the newsroom. Or, more complicated: how to get the people in the newsroom to facilitate the change without their being aware that that is what they’re doing.

You wouldn’t want to appear in the third-floor newsroom holding the moose and try to explain that the Times has many good qualities that are worth preserving but that the Times and its publisher also have ambitions in a larger, polymorphous media world. Where the audience is different. Where the values may be different. Where the priorities are different. Where being the newspaper of record is an equivocal value proposition. Where cross-platforms demand a certain … plasticity. Where it may, in fact, be more efficient if Rick Bragg, the star reporter, can have (like television news stars) assistants to do his work. Where a reporter who can do a quick TV hit is worth more than one who can’t. Where you allow stylish writers stylish excesses. Where Jayson Blair, and his clever scene-making—if not necessarily his deceit—are to be encouraged.

Even Arthur wouldn’t want to just blurt this out. This requires some finesse.

Pinch, Power, and the Paper