Friday, April 3, 2009

Will "Pinch" Sulzberger save or destroy The New York Times?


Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Don't call him "Pinch"

Mark Bowden has a lengthy, fascinating article in Vanity Fair about the man who may be America's most influential and most publicity-shy media baron, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of The New York Times.

Known behind his back for decades as "Pinch" -- a derisive nickname meant to distinguish him from his father and namesake, long-time publisher "Punch" Sulzberger -- Arthur Sulzberger is the fifth in a male line of Ochs and Sulzbergers stretching back to 1896 to own and run the Times. Regarded by many, including quite a few present and former Times editors and reporters, as a lightweight, "Pinch" has the misfortune to be be the Times' boss in an era when the very survival of newspapers has been cast into doubt. But that does present him with a unique opportunity to become the publisher who figures out how to save what is widely regarded to be the nation's premier news organization.

It's worth reading all of Bowden's piece, but here are a few excerpts:

After presiding or helping to preside over a decade of unprecedented prosperity, the publisher and chairman of the Times had recently begun to appear overmatched. Two of his star staffers were discovered to have violated basic rules of reporting practice; he had been bullied by the newsroom into firing his handpicked executive editor, Howell Raines; and he had spent much of the previous year in a confusing knot of difficulty surrounding one of his reporters and longtime friends, Judith Miller. For an earnest and well-meaning man, the hereditary publisher had begun to look dismayingly small.

He has been shrinking ever since. In 2001, The New York Times celebrated its 150th anniversary. In the years that have followed, Arthur Sulzberger has steered his inheritance into a ditch. As of this writing, Times Company stock is officially classified as junk...Shares...are slipping below $4—less than the price of the Sunday Times. Arthur’s revenues are in free fall: the bottom has dropped out of both newspaper and Internet advertising. He has done more than anyone in the business to showcase newspaper journalism online...The content and page views of the newspaper’s Web site...may be the envy of the profession, but as a recent report from Citigroup explained, “The Internet has taken away far more advertising than it has given.”

Having squandered billions during the newspaper’s fat years—buying up all that stock, buying up failing newspapers, building a gleaming new headquarters—Arthur is scrambling to keep up with interest payments on hundreds of millions in debt, much of it falling due within the next year. To do so, he is peddling assets on ruinous terms. Arthur recently borrowed $250 million from Carlos Slim HelĂș, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, who owns the fourth-largest stake in the Times Company. Controlling interest is held closely by the Sulzberger family, which owns 89 percent of the company’s Class B shares...The family owns about 20 percent of the Class A shares, which is about the same percentage owned by the hedge funds Harbinger and Firebrand. The third-largest Class A shareholder is T. Rowe Price, with 10 percent. Slim comes next, with 7 percent. Given the current state of the investment and credit markets, Slim would appear to have the inside rail should the paper ever be sold, a prospect once unthinkable...Among the other prospective buyers whose names have surfaced...are Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York; Google; and even, perish the thought, the press baron Rupert Murdoch...

While the crushing forces at work in the newspaper industry are certainly not Arthur’s fault...the fate of The New York Times is of special importance: it is the flagship of serious newspaper journalism in America. The Times sailed into the economic storm that began in 2001 in good financial shape, bearing the most respected brand name in the profession. It was far better equipped than most newspapers to adapt and survive. What is increasingly clear is that the wrong person may be at the helm. Arthur Sulzberger’s heart has always been in the right place, but he assumed leadership from his father uniquely ill-equipped for this crisis—not despite but because of his long apprenticeship...Ever the dutiful son, he has made it his life’s mission to maintain the excellence he inherited—to duplicate his father’s achievement. He is a careful steward, when what the Times needs today is some wild-eyed genius of an entrepreneur.

The Sulzbergers embody one of the newsroom’s most cherished myths: Journalism sells. Arthur says as much at every opportunity, and clearly believes this to his core...But as a general principle, it simply isn’t true. Rather: Advertising sells, journalism costs. Good journalism costs more today than ever, while ads have plummeted, particularly in print media. This is killing the Times...
Again, read the whole thing. And post a comment.

2 comments:

  1. Sulzberger looks like kind of a weenie

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