Archive for Friday, February 7, 2003

Sulzberger leads ‘gray lady’ into colorful era

February 7, 2003


The New York Times, throughout most of its 151-year history, has been regarded as a model of correctness, fairness, decency and truth.

If a story appeared in The New York Times, it was considered fact.

photophoto Interactive galleryBill Snead/J-W photo

But the paper was also very dull, took itself very seriously and by appearances considered itself America's newspaper of record. Who else, after World War I ended, would publish the entire Treaty of Versailles?

Its slogan, "All The News That's Fit To Print," said it all.

Today's version of the Times is probably the most exciting newspaper in the United States.

The credibility and clout are still there, along with its influential readership, but the "Gray Lady" has become a friendly, colorful bundle of arts, business, sports, entertainment and news that rivals slick paper publications.

The Times has a daily circulation of 1.1 million. Circulation climbs to 1.7 million for the paper's Sunday editions. Half of those newspapers are distributed nationwide as the Times' national edition. And, if you don't buy the paper, you can read all about it online at

They are fed by 1,100 journalists scattered around New York and in the Times' national and international bureaus.

Much of today's version of the newspaper happened on the watch of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. He's also chairman of The New York Times Co.

"We're the only newspaper in the country who has had as many consecutive periods of growth in circulation ... our last six or seven ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) periods of growth," he said, looking pleased. "But to be fair, what we have in our favor is our growing market as we continue to expand our national edition and that presents new opportunities for home delivery."

Sulzberger is a trim, young looking, 51-year-old. He seems very much at home in the rarefied air that filters through the corporate offices of the Times' building on West 43rd Street, just off Times Square. He's the fourth-generation publisher of the legendary newspaper. He succeeded his famous publisher-father, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, in 1992 and became chairman of The Times Co. in 1997.

It's probably safe to bet that he's the first Times publisher with two motorcycles in his garage. A 1968 R60 BMW and a 1999 900cc Triumph are parked in the country near New Paltz, N.Y.

An impressive wooden motorcycle sculpture graces a table in the 14th-floor conference room where Sulzberger is being interviewed.

"Quite frankly," he continued, "as other people cut back on their national and foreign news, that makes the Times a little more unique."

Unique hardly describes the Times. Its multisectioned Sunday paper, by any standard, is huge. Its biggest-ever Sunday edition weighed 12 pounds.

The New York Times Magazine, tucked into its Sunday paper, ranks fifth in the nation in pages of advertising among all magazines. FYI, People Magazine is No. 1.

For a report on the awards ceremony, see the 6News report at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Friday on Sunflower Broadband's cable Channel 6.

The New York Times Co. is a $3 billion-plus operation with more than 12,000 employees. It includes:

  • The Boston Globe.
  • The International Herald Tribune.

  • photophoto Interactive galleryBill Snead/J-W photo

    Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, laughs while working at his desk at the Times building in New York City recently. Sulzberger is the fourth generation publisher of the Times.

  • 16 other daily newspapers.
  • Eight network-affiliated television stations.
  • Two New York radio stations.
  • The Discovery Channel.
  • More than 40 Web sites.
  • Interests in two paper mills.
  • 15 percent interest in the Boston Red Sox.

"The 15 percent is all about the New England Sports Network," Sulzberger said, taking a swig of water from a plastic bottle. "The Boston Globe has a great sports report ... it's famous for it's sports report ... and we're working with them to create a Boston Globe pre-game show ... and it's a wonderful opportunity to get them engaged with television."

The highly regarded, 115-year-old International Herald Tribune is an added starter in The Times Co. stable. Based in a Paris suburb, it circulates about 269,000 newspapers worldwide.

The Times owned 50 percent of the IHT for more than 30 years. The Washington Post owned the other half. It was an unusual agreement between competitors, the Sulzbergers and the Grahams, the top two newspaper families in the country.

The Post was not happy about losing its piece of the prestigious newspaper, but the Times made the first move. Sulzberger said the Times' maneuver was "exactly what Ben Bradlee (former Post executive editor) would have done."

photophoto Interactive galleryBill Snead/J-W photoSulzberger looks at notes on his desk at his office in New York City while talking on a telephone headset.

The buyout completed in January cost the Times about $75 million.

The IHT loses about $5 million a year.

"Money losers become play things and that's when you're on the death spiral," he said, adding, "no great newspaper can be an unprofitable newspaper."

"There's nothing like full ownership to give new sense of focus," Sulzberger said. "Our journalists now know we have to file early to make it into the International Herald Tribune. He said the "big rap" on the Trib was that news was a day late.

"It's not a day late anymore ... on many stories," he said.

Formerly independent, the IHT acting managing editor, Walter Wells, now reports to Times executive editor Howell Raines, who said the Times would be a more 24-hour news gathering organization.

Sulzberger said there were no plans to convert it to an international edition of The New York Times.

"Arthur Sulzberger is very much in the tradition of his exemplary family in steering the Times on the basis of public service and journalistic excellence," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"The only time he'll be in trouble with his family is on the day that credible people start to say The New York Times isn't what it used to be, and I don't see that happening."

Jones co-authored "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times."

In 1995 when the Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City, Sulzberger commandeered the Times' corporate jet, and reporters, editors and photographers were flown to the scene.

A veteran newsman dispatched to Oklahoma by a Times competitor said, upon seeing the flying newsroom arrive, that it was the first time he'd felt intimidated by his New York rival.

Last year The Times Co. bought the Discovery Channel, a digital cable operation.

photophoto Interactive galleryBill Snead/J-W photoSulzberger works at his office on the 14th floor of the Times building in New York City. Behind him is a portrait of his great-grandfather and Times publisher, Arthur S. Ochs.

Sulzberger says the new channel won't offer 24-hour news or compete with CNN or ABC.

"What it's really going to be is a place to do documentaries working off the news ... off of real events, and we're going to build that library and those skill-sets working with Discovery ... Their expertise, our resources, our growing comfort in this world is nice to see and it's all starting to come together," he said, smiling.

The Times recently published a three-part series on an Alabama pipe foundry where occupational health hazard rates were worse than all its competitors.

"An hourlong documentary produced by New York Times Television and 'Front Line' came out the same day as the first part of the series ... you'll be seeing us do more and more of that," he said.

A naive question about the presence of commercials being shown with New York Times documentaries brought good-natured laughter.

photophoto Interactive galleryBill Snead/J-W photoArthur O. Sulzberger Jr. talks on the phone using a hands-free head set in his office at The New York Times. A portrait of Sulzberger's great-grandfather and former Times publisher Alolph S. Ochs hangs on the wall in the background.

"This is not an elio-mercenary operation. We're a profit-making institution and proud of that ... commercials, as many as we can have," he said, smiling.

He spoke of opportunities a multimedia operation offers in the cross-selling of advertising.

"It's about cross-selling with the Times on the Web and cross-selling with the Times on television," he said. "It's different people, but it's the same audience."

Sulzberger described the audience as people who wanted high-quality news and information.

"It's all about the journalism ... Web, television or print ... it's the quality of the news and the editorial content ... I have to constantly remind myself, 'It's the news, stupid,'" he said.

He cited the National Geographic Magazine as a good example of moving from print into television.

"It didn't diminish the print product and it gave them a whole new vehicle to reach a whole new audience."

Is the digital television acquisition an add-on or a replacement?

"The customer will define when it's a replacement," he said, leaning forward in his straight-back chair. "We don't have to worry about that."

Last year Microsoft executive Dick Brass predicted the last newsprint edition of The New York Times would happen in the year 2018.

"We can no longer care how our news is delivered," he said. "For those people who want it on newsprint, we will be there. For those who want it over their computer screen on the Internet, we'll be there, and for those who want it over their television sets, we must be there."

The publisher of The New York Times was excited about the topic and shifted gears.

"It's being agnostic about the method of distribution ... again, it's the news that's important and that's the challenge for us."

He said at some point broadband would happen in a significant way.

"If you're reading the Times through a land line (telephone hookup), it's klunky and slow," Sulzberger said. "With high-speed Internet connections -- a fast pipeline -- you're able to do things in a vibrant and interactive way."

Broadband has transferred the "World Wide Wait" into instant information, video and sound. He's counting on broadband's pipeline to move digital information even faster in the future.

"With broadband you have three separate skills at work," he said. "We've got two of those nailed, print and digital ... The New York Times and The New York Times on the Web. Television is the weak spot for us and that's why we're spending so much time and effort building up those television strengths, and that's why we got into digital television."

He admitted that The Discovery Channel was a "huge risk" for the Times.

"One thing we know about business is that it doesn't stand still," Sulzberger said in a serious tone. "So I think all of us have to be constantly alerted to where we are strong and where we are weak and where change is taking place.

He cited the decline of classified advertising in newspapers as an example. Online competitor boasts 800,000 job listings on its Web site, and eBay, listing millions of items for auction, has developed a loyal clientele.

"How much of the current decline is due to the economy and how much is due to the shift in classifieds to the Web is a question no one knows the answer to," he said. "As in journalism you have to have a presence on the Web in classified ... you've got to be able to offer that."

A lot of money changes hands, but if any news operation's Web site is turning a profit, it's keeping it a secret. is the largest newspaper Web site in the world. It has more than a million nonpaying, registered users.

"We're close to break even," Sulzberger said.

But in 2001 brought in 85,000 new Times newspaper subscribers while spreading the West 43rd Street gospel worldwide.

"Arthur believes, as his grandfather believed, that sometimes you have to put more meat in the stew even when meat is expensive," said Ken Auletta, media critic for The New Yorker.

"I don't think it's a debatable subject. With all its flaws, pound for pound it's the best newspaper in the world."

Competitive tradition is hard to alter and many newspaper editors are hesitant to break an exclusive story on their Web site or through their company's cable news outlet. They'd rather the paper's loyal, paying readers be the first to know. For publishers, it's a frustrating element of conversion, where in theory all arms of the company share.

"I was just talking to Hal Raines (Times executive editor) about this yesterday. There was a story that we had exclusive but we didn't know how long it was going to hold," Sulzberger said.

They broke the story on the Web.

"If the story breaks in The New York Times on the Web, it's broken in The New York Times," he said.

The Times Web site performed gallantly, as did the newspaper, during the 9-11 terrorist attack. At one point it was the only major New York Web site in operation.

"We were inundated on the Web," Sulzberger recalled, "so much so we had to pull off ads, graphics ... we simply couldn't keep up ... we had to pare down to the core essence of the news report or else the service was going to go down ... we threw ads out of the newspaper ... did whatever we had to do to keep our operations going."

Last year the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes, something no other newspaper has ever done.

"It was quite an honor," Sulzberger said softly.

So how did the new version of the Times happen?

"In 1987 our board of directors made a billion-dollar bet on The New York Times ... which is a lot of money for us," he said. "Our plan was to recreate The New York Times newspaper for the next generation of readers and advertisers ... to take the four-section black and white paper and blow it out into a six- and now seven- and sometimes eight-section daily newspaper ... in color."

The 10-year project also included two new production plants, including new presses, in New Jersey and Queens, N.Y.

During the next decade Sulzberger was the assistant and then deputy publisher. He had a good seat to watch the stock market crash months into the project, taking five years to recover.

"In 1997, and under budget I might add, we introduced the color, six-section New York Times," he said, "and ... it's a lot more fun to tell than to live."

He's likes President Eisenhower's mantra, "Planning is everything, the plan is nothing."

"In the beginning we were not here," he said. "When we recreated the Times, we had to recreate how we dealt with each other, he said. "We had not defined our purpose ... our values ... and we had not defined our rules of the road."

The rules of the road are included on a laminated document that explains The Times Co.'s business framework overview. Some of the rules:

  • Treat each other with honesty, respect and civility.
  • Strive for excellence -- don't settle for less.
  • Embrace diversity.
  • Take risks and innovate, recognizing that failure occasionally occurs.
  • Maintain perspective and sense of humor.
  • Contribute your excellence to team efforts.

Sulzberger talked about the team effort on the Times' impressive, yearlong series "Portraits of Grief," published after 9-11.

"All of a sudden we realized all of these people are missing and most may be dead but we don't know that for a fact," he said. "But there are posters all over the city saying, 'Have you seen this person?'"

Two metro staffers suggested writing about moments in people's lives instead of writing the profiles as obituaries.

The project took more than a year and involved 100 reporters.

"It's the most compelling journalism we've done, certainly in my tenure here," Sulzberger said.

He talked about the difficulties in embracing new ideas and risks.

"Occasionally you fail, but if you don't fail on occasion, you aren't trying hard enough," he said.

Then he grinned and said, "God bless dailies ... we can always correct our mistakes and try again tomorrow."

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