The Underlying Reality Of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. And The New York Times

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 2, 2009

The New York Times Co’s market cap is down to $720 million, as I write this, and the day’s tides of media and commentary bring in, virtually every day, pre-obituaries for the company and the career of its Chairman/family scion Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. Mark Bowden in Vanity Fair. Michael Hirschorn at the Atlantic. Michael Wolff every other day on his blog at Newser.com.

I could go on. Of these the one that might actually hurt the most is Eric Alterman’s relatively kind post on The Daily Beast, because it keys off an exasperation with the meaner pieces to ultimately arrive at an elegy. Pity, even:

At least he’s taking the ship down with dignity.

Historically, I’ve had something of a soft spot for CEOs I’ve encountered who do not conform to popularly held notions of how a CEO should act. Exhibit A, always, was Sulzberger.

(Exhibit B, if you're interested: Time Inc.’s Ann Moore, who made her way to the top of what was formerly print media’s most old-boyish old-boy’s club.) Sulzberger is in an industry where someone like him will be called “boyish” into his late fifties and, probably, beyond. He is chatty, caffeinated in his affect, and his hands fly around when he talks. (This trait is shared by many a New Yorker, myself included.) He gets excited. Back when newspapers companies were doing well—this wasn’t that long ago, although it was certainly long enough ago—the New York Times Co.’s presentations at investor gatherings were reliably the most energetic. So long as Sulzberger was there, at least.

There is, of course, not a whole lot to point to in the Times' recent moves that currently much inspires confidence, a reality double-underscored by the fact the company took money from Carlos Slim at exorbitant interest rates. But buried way down in Mark Bowden's piece, though, is the essential reality of things:

The mistakes [Sulzberger] has made with investments and in adapting to new technology are the same mistakes made by every newspaper in America. Most journalists consider Sam Zell, the billionaire who bought the Tribune Company, to be a Neanderthal for his wholesale trashing of the once proud Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and regard Gary Pruitt, chairman of the McClatchy chain, as a well-mannered and passionate defender of journalistic excellence. Yet both are staring at bankruptcy. “Who has gotten it right?” asks one industry analyst. “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.”

Among the newspaper business’ top execs, you have one who emanates a certain plainspoken Midwestern gravitas: Lee Enterprises Mary Junck. You have the tough Texan who’s made a career out of playing with distressed properties: that’d be MediaNews’ Dean Singleton. You have the one who took his job while relatively young, who comfortably straddles the ways of the newsroom and the corporate suit: McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt. You have Sulzberger, who most fervently insists on the business primacy of top-tier journalism. (At his company flagship, if not quite so much at the company’s smaller papers in the southeast.) And you have the outsiders who came in bearing various individual bona fides: Sam Zell, real estate mogul. Brian Tierney, Philadelphia's local businessman/booster. Avista Capital, the private-equity guys who took over the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There are no outliers among them. Not a one. Each of them face bankruptcy--if they haven't already entered into it--in direct proportion to how much debt they took on in fatter years.

Say what you will about Sulzberger’s tenure at the Times. (It’s certainly provided detractors with ammo.) He is still a captain in an industry in which the heavy seas are sinking all the boats, no matter who is at the helm nor what they're doing while they're there.

Relatedly, on the debt aspect and the secret linkage between newspaper companies and mattress companies: Daniel Gross in Slate.

Reader Comments

Joe_Berman

April 2, 2009 1:52 PM

He's a captain, in the same sense that Rick Wagoner was a captain - and Ken Lewis and Jeff Immelt. Perhaps decent administrators - but not captains.

Nicholas

April 2, 2009 2:50 PM

They are all going away. All the daily newspapers. All of them. And the world will be just fine without them. That's what I've started to think...

EVR

May 13, 2009 5:03 PM

The N.Y. Times is not dead yet, all it needs to do is re-think the control over its creative content by licensing the same to Google, the Huff. Post, et al. In this respect, Mr. Geffen may be altruistic but he surely understands the long term money making possibilities of the Old Grey Lady.

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