Arthur Sulzberger tells shareholders that the Times‘ search for a new C.E.O. is still in ’early stages'

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. ()
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The New York Times Company's search for a new chief executive "is in its early stages," according to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the company's chairman and interim chief executive.

"Our board seeks to find an appropriate executive with digital and brand-building experience to help guide this company and its long term growth strategy," said Sulzberger Thursday morning on a conference call with analysts, which came on the heels of a major shakeup in company leaderhip and the $143 million sale of 16 smaller newspapers that made up its Regional Media Group.

In an otherwise not particularly newsworthy call, the presence of Sulzberger himself was almost the main point of interest. He kicked the session off with a six-minute State of the Times address that dovetailed with the release of the company's fourth quarter 2011 earnings results, which showed a 12.2-percent slide in net income to $58.9 million from the same period a year earlier.

The opening salvo normally would have been delivered by Janet Robinson, the former C.E.O., who abruptly retired (or was pushed out by Sulzberger, depending on whom you believe), back in December. (Her exit package, including a $4.5 million consulting fee for 2012, reportedly totals $21 million.)

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Sulzberger thanked Robinson and another recently departed executive, former longtime digital chief Martin Nisenholtz (also previously a fixture on these calls), for their service. But said the company was in good hands without them.

"We are fortunate to be able to rely on a very strong and extremely talented management team that remains focused on maximizing shareholder value," he said.

Whereas Robinson might have rambled on at length about the Times' deep bench of digital initiatives, Sulzberger, himself a former reporter, seemed to have more to say about actual journalism.

"Something I do want to address is a key investment area for us: Our continuing focus on maintaining what I believe to be the very best journalistic organization in the nation, and perhaps internationally," he said. "2011 was a year of dramatic events, particularly on the international scene, and I'm proud to say that faithful to our tradition, the Times Company's publications provided some of the best and most in-depth coverage and analysis this period.

"In the face of ongoing change in our industry," he continued, "the New York Times Company continued to maintain a large and robust news organization, one without parallel in the field. We do it for a simple business reason: Quality journalism and content are at the core of our brand and our strategy."

Then Sulzberger plugged a number that has become the highlight of the company's earnings rollouts in recent quarters: The number of people who are now paying to read its flagship publication in digital form.

This time around, digital subs to the Times' sister publication, The International Herald Tribune, were included in the grand total, bringing it to 390,000, a 20 percent increase from the previous quarter.

Later in the call, president and general manager Scott Heekin-Canedy said the IHT accounted for roughly 10,000 of those. The Times alone had logged 324,000 paid digital subscribers at the end of the third quarter back in October. The paid digital model was implemented last March.

"We are excited and optimistic about our digital strategy," said Sulzberger, citing nytimes.com's 48 million unique global visitors in 2011.

During the question and answer session that followed the remarks from Sulzberger and other executives, one analyst asked about the health of the Times' magazines.

"Looking at the magazines in total for the year last year, we had a very low single digit decline, and we performed better than the magazine industry as a whole," said Heekin-Canedy.

"Are you going to continue maintaining those magazines?," the analyst followed up.

"Those are lucrative products, yes," Heekin-Canedy replied.

As for the fourth quarter results, total revenues declined 2.8 percent to $643 million and advertising revenues 7.1 percent. But circulation revenues, bouyed by the company's digital subscription initiative, increased 4.7 percent.