The torch has been passed to a new generation of Sulzbergers at one of the nation’s last—and certainly most influential—family-run newspapers, The New York Times.
“People here do believe in the leadership of the family,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told The Daily Beast about Thursday’s announcement that 66-year-old Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. is stepping down from the publisher’s job in favor of his 37-year-old son, Arthur Gregg “A.G.” Sulzberger. “The family has led the company well and protected the quality of the news report.”
Baquet, the Times’ first African-American executive editor, took over the newsroom in August 2014 amid a media soap opera, including unseemly exchanges of charges and counter-charges, that attended the elder Sulzberger’s abrupt firing of the Times’ first female executive editor, Jill Abramson.
“A.G. is well-known in the newsroom,” Baquet added concerning his new boss. “He was a reporter here—and a star reporter.”
The younger Sulzberger, who paid his reportorial dues at the Providence Journal and the Portland Oregonian before joining the Times newsroom in 2009, has been on deck as deputy publisher since October 2016.
A.G.’s father also began his career as an ink-stained wretch, working for outside news organizations—the Raleigh Times in North Carolina and the Associated Press in London—before his inevitable landing at the Times Washington bureau in 1978.
“I’m glad to see that it’s going to continue,” Raines said regarding the unsurprising news that paper of record is going to remain under the control of the family that has operated it since Adolph Ochs gained a controlling interest in 1896. “I think this is good outcome for the Times,” Raines added. “It’s interesting that this announcement of corporate continuity is happening on the same day that 21st Century Fox is being taken over by Disney, which is corporate discontinuity.”
The long-expected changing of the guard—in which the elder Sulzberger will continue as chairman of the publicly traded New York Times Co., a title he has held for the past 20 years—comes at a moment when many news organizations, including the Times, are gaining audiences and paid subscribers due largely to the journalism-scorning, anger-inciting presidency of Donald Trump.
But it is also occurring amid a painful epoch in which media enterprises, trying to thrive online, are being forced to reinvent their business models.
The Times—which once minted money from print display and classified advertising, a billion-dollar income stream that has severely diminished with the advent of the internet—has only recently begun to turn healthy profits after a series of financially challenging business cycles and layoffs, notably the need to secure an emergency $250 million loan in 2009 from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, currently the Times Co.’s largest individual shareholder (although the extended Sulzberger family maintains its control with a class of super voting stock).
Having helmed a blunt-spoken internal May 2014 Innovation Report on the Times’ slow-off-the-mark shortcomings in taking advantage of new technologies, A.G. Sulzberger is probably better positioned than most to meet the shifting challenges of the digital age.
“It was a really smart call to arms for The New York Times and its need to make changes,” Baquet said about the Innovation Report, noting that while A.G. Sulzberger had an advantageous surname, he competed with cousins at the paper, notably assistant editor Sam Dolnick and Times Co. executive David Perpich, for the publisher’s perch. “It was a very honest report,” Baquet added, “and it was very helpful in getting us ready for the future.”
Raines agreed. “A.G. is clearly the guy to take the Times into the future—and I think he will,” he said.
Raines joined the Times in 1978, the same year as the elder Sulzberger, but didn’t meet him until 1981, when both were reporters in Washington.
“Arthur had to wrestle with the nepotism issue all of his life, but he was a good enough reporter to have hired on his own merits, and he doesn’t get enough credit for that,” Raines said. “One of the things I first noticed about him was that he carried the family mantle in a very graceful way, without making people feel overly solicitous or, on the other hand, that they had to back off. He handled being a Sulzberger extremely well, and in that manner, he was very much Punch’s son. I assume Arthur Gregg would be the same way.”
In a valedictory staff memo Thursday, A.G.’s father—who was named publisher in 1992, succeeding his own father Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger Sr.—wrote that “this transition has offered me the opportunity to reflect on my time here and thank you all—colleagues past and present—for making me a better publisher. I said recently that I believe one of my greatest accomplishments is the fact that today, against all odds, we employ 1,450 journalists, more than when I took on my role a quarter-century ago.”
The elder Sulzberger added: “That is my greatest accomplishment, but my greatest joy has been serving alongside you, my colleagues. It would be impossible to overstate what an honor it has been to lead this organization. For the entirety of my time here, The Times has been filled with not just the most brilliant journalists, but the most exceptional people throughout our operation. You have made my job so fulfilling and I am deeply in your debt.”
Both Baquet and Raines credited the elder Sulzberger for steering the Times through potentially perilous waters, and taking the right risks—for instance, establishing an online paywall when others warned it would cause the paper to alienate readers but, over time, has proved a boon to revenue.
“If you look at the biggest decisions this guy had to make, he always made the right decisions,” Baquet said. “Protecting the newsroom—that’s not a small matter. Almost every other newsroom is significantly smaller than it was 20 years ago, but the Times’ is bigger. When he created the paywall, people inside and the outside the company thought it was a bad idea. Now it looks like genius.”
Baquet added: “The decision to become a national news organization—that was not easy… And in the journalistic cases—like whether to publish a story about corruption in China at a time when the Times was expanding into China with an online edition that would like have been banned—Arthur made the right choice when other institutions made the wrong choice. That’s why this place is in a stronger position today.”
The retiring publisher’s memo didn’t cite the tumultuous and distressing episodes over which he presided, including the embarrassing Jayson Blair drama, in which Raines and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, were forced to resign after they failed to prevent a young reporter, Blair, from fabricating and plagiarizing numerous Times stories in the early 2000s.
“Obviously, the Jayson Blair scandal broke my heart and I think it broke Arthur’s heart,” Raines said.
Nor did Sulzberger’s memo mention the Jill Abramson debacle, in which he fired Abramson after less than three years, and appointed Baquet, amid numerous staff complaints about her brusque and occasionally brutal management style, and Abramson’s hiring of an attorney to question why her $500,000-a-year salary was substantially less than that of her male predecessor, Bill Keller.
“The bond between a publisher and an executive editor had to be seamless, and when Jill hired a lawyer to contact Arthur about her salary, that is a seam that can’t be breached,” said Raines, who himself was not known to suffer challenges to his judgments or to lead by consensus. “Arthur’s an easygoing, sociable person who values agreement. Arthur could not have appointed Jill without knowing that she had an explosive temperament and a rough way of handling people… The only way in which Jill was treated unfairly is that he knew her to have a prickly personality when he appointed her, and he then blamed her for being what she was.”
Abramson didn’t respond to a request for comment.