Sulzberger Death

10.01.12

Trying Times at The New York Times

With the passing of Arthur Sulzberger, one of America’s most powerful dynasties faces an uncomfortable transition.

The passing of Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger is truly a “The king is dead” moment, because he headed a clan that for more than a century has been the most enduringly powerful family in the nation, if not the world. The dynasty began in 1896 with the purchase of The New York Times by Punch’s grandfather, Adolph Ochs. Since that time, this singularly influential news organization has been not simply owned by also but run by the Ochs/Sulzberger family. A family member has always been in the top position of publisher.

Throughout the 20th century and still today, the Times’s news pages—under a top editor chosen by the publisher—have shaped and often set the nation’s news agenda. Even in our digital age, other news organizations often follow the Times’s lead as to what is news and what is not. The paper’s editorial page is the direct voice of the publisher, and it has weighed in on every subject of importance for nearly half of the nation’s history.

While other families have had more power for a time—the Roosevelts and the Kennedys come to mind—their time of great power eventually waned. By contrast, the Ochs/Sulzberger dynasty has had a seat at the table in every administration since Adolph Ochs helped put William McKinley in the White House. The family has effectively occupied an ex officio cabinet post that has been a family birthright, passed intact from generation to generation. There is nothing comparable in American history.

So with the passing of the family patriarch, it is worth pondering what happens now? While there is no sure answer, a best guess comes from the long record of how the family has used—and passed—power over the decades. Adolph Ochs did not want to have an editorial page when he took over Times. He thought it would make people mad, and his preference was to be preeminent in news. Though persuaded that the Times must have its own editorial voice, he was never willing to include an editorial cartoon, as he thought that would be too powerful a distraction from the written word. And to blunt the anger of those with different opinions, he opened voluminous space for letters to the editor. So generous was he with this space that when women got the vote, the advocates credited the Times for being significantly responsible because so many letters supporting female suffrage were published. The paper’s own editorials had been opposed.

It was this nuanced and even delicate use of power that was the rule for the family. The paper’s content was to be reported “without fear or favor,” and the publisher did not send down a daily list of issues to flog or people to attack. But when the publisher did choose to get involved, it made a difference.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger
Arthur Ochs Sulzburger, former New York Times publisher and CEO, seen in the Times boardroom in New York, died on Sept. 29, 2012, in Southhampton, N.Y., after a long illness at the age of 86. (Burk Uzzle, AFP / GettyImages via Newscom)

In the late 1930s, Arthur Hays Sulzberger was a strong backer of the notion that the United States should prepare for war, and the Times led a group of newspapers in advocating intervention. It was a stance that was unpopular at the time, and the fact that the Ochs/Sulzbergers were a Jewish family made the issue even more sensitive. The isolationists often charged that interventionists were just trying to save Europe’s Jews, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger was quite aware that the paper’s enemies used a thinly veiled anti-Semitism to try to discredit it.

He went forward in his advocacy of intervention, but he also continued a rule that the Times’s top editor must not be a Jew, and he was significantly involved with the paper’s shameful unwillingness to use its journalistic power to call attention to the Holocaust as it was happening, out of fear that the Times would be perceived as a special pleader for Jews. On the 100th anniversary of the family’s ownership, the Times published an apology for this terrible lapse—an example of power misused. It was not until Punch made Abe Rosenthal editor in 1969 that the ban on a Jewish top editor was broken.

There have been times when the family’s absolute power over the Times has been used at critical moments that have proven to have epochal importance. The decision of Punch Sulzberger to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and then to defy the Nixon White House’s demand that publication cease, was perhaps the defining moment in American journalistic history. The Pentagon Papers were a record of systematic deceit by the government regarding how the United States became embroiled in the Vietnam War. They were classified documents, and Punch—a former Marine and deeply patriotic—decided that it was the paper’s—which is to say, the family’s—duty to publish, regardless of the cost. He had been told he would likely go to jail and could lose the paper, but he had become convinced that not to go forward would be a betrayal of the paper’s mission and history. The family backed him down the line.

The transfer of power within the family has never been easy. Though Arthur Hays Sulzberger was married to Adolph Ochs’s only child, Iphigene, some in the family lobbied hard that the successor should be Ochs’s nephew, an Ochs by blood. When Arthur Hays Sulzberger stepped down as publisher, he passed the torch not to his only son, Punch, but to Orville Dryfoos, a son-in-law whom he considered more prepared for the mantle. Punch was considered too young and immature for the job.

When Dryfoos died of a heart attack at the end of the stressful 1963 newspaper strike, Amory Bradford—the senior nonfamily executive—assumed that he would become publisher. He disdained Punch, and thought him utterly inappropriate. The family ruled otherwise. Punch was named publisher and as his first act fired Amory Bradford.

It would be all but unthinkable that the top job would not be passed yet again to a family member.

The passage of power from Punch to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., also was rocky. By the time he was ready to step down, Punch had the titles of publisher of The New York Times newspaper and chairman and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company. He made Arthur Jr. publisher of the paper in 1992, but would the son also get the titles of chairman and CEO? There was feeling within the family that there should be room at the top for other family members, and Lance Primis, the company’s top nonfamily executive, was quietly arguing to the board that the time had come for them to break with the tradition of a family member at the top and instead anoint him.

Essentially this cost Primis his job. Punch fired him in 1996 and soon after made Arthur Jr. chairman, named Michael Golden—the son of his sister, Ruth—vice chairman, and picked a nonfamily executive to be CEO. But the bylaws were changed so that the chairman had final operating authority. In other words, Arthur Jr. became the undisputed boss of the company and the newspaper, and remains so today, presiding over one of the most difficult and challenging periods of the company’s history.

Punch did not become head of the family when he took over as publisher in 1963. That didn’t happen until 1990, when his mother, Iphigene—Adolph Ochs’s daughter—died. She was a small woman but a towering figure who had made it her life’s work to inculcate her children and grandchildren with the importance of their stewardship of the TImes, and the notion that they must support whoever was representing the family at the company’s helm. They must stand together as a family and preserve this sacred trust.

To this end, the members of the family did such remarkable things as voluntarily signing covenants that make it all but impossible for the Times company to be acquired by a hostile takeover. The family’s control of the company is secured by their ownership of a special category of stock that elects a majority of the company’s board. Any family member wishing to sell this special stock must first offer it to other family members or convert it to the ordinary stock that is available on the New York Stock Exchange. Giving up the power to sell this powerful voting stock outright cost the family an estimated billion dollars in the premium the stock would have brought on the open market. They signed the covenants after about a 20-minute conversation. As Iphigene famously said, “We are not a family to own yachts.” It has never been about money.

That said, there can be no doubt that the depressed stock price and disappearance of dividends in the past several years has made the family significantly poorer. It is in just such strained financial circumstances that some family members or in-laws emerge to express complaints, demand new leadership, or even put the company in play to be sold. It was just such a situation that led to the Bancroft family selling Dow Jones to Rupert Murdoch.

As a practical matter, that couldn’t happen to the Times, even if such an apostate group of family members wished it to. The covenants are too tight. The passing of Punch, who was without question the head of the family, will not change that. The head of the family now is most likely to be a status conferred jointly on his two surviving sisters, Ruth and Marion. And when they pass, my guess is that it will not pass to an individual, but to the collective family as a whole. Another of the family’s extraordinary moves to preserve itself was to make participation in family governance open to all members of the increasingly dispersed descendants of Adolph Ochs. And to make in-laws full members of that governance, which was a brilliant stroke.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his first cousin Michael Golden are the two members of the fourth generation to lead the Times, but a fifth generation is embedded into the fabric of the company. It would be all but unthinkable that the top job would not be passed yet again to a family member. And though there will be a power struggle for who gets what, it will most likely be kept from public view. 

This lack of public family drama and bloodletting is deeply frustrating to some. About a year ago, I received a call from a British newspaper broker who specialized in finding angry family members and using them to put a property in play. He knew that the Times company’s stock price had plummeted and that dividends to family members had been savaged. Because my late wife, Susan E. Tifft, and I had written a book about the family, he asked if I had heard any whispers of mutiny and rebellion among them.

“I haven’t heard a peep,” I said. His voice almost broke as he lamented with a sigh, “Me neither.”