Sulzberger: The family won’t sell the Times

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Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. at the Media Minds breakfast. (Gabe Palacio Photography)
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Last fall, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post from the legendary Graham family, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times and patriarch of one of America's last surviving newspaper dynasties, set up a family-wide phone call and posed a simple but forceful question: "Are you game?"

Sulzberger and his cousin, Times Company vice chairman Michael Golden, planned to draft a letter stating that the Times is not for sale, and they wanted to know if the rest of the clan would put their names to it.

"They all said yes," Sulzberger recalled during a Thursday morning interview at the Bryant Park Grill.

He was reinforcing a much-reiterated position amid mounting speculation that the Ochs-Sulzberger family might at some point in the not-so-distant future unburden themselves of the paper they've stewarded since 1896.

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"The family is united around its ownership and its responsibility to maintaining The New York Times and its journalism and its journalistic integrity," said Sulzberger, 62, who also said that a succession plan is being hashed out "that involves some family, it involves Mark [Thompson, the C.E.O.] and we have a board member on this committee as well."

Sulzberger and Thompson were being interviewed by Times media reporter turned Times chronicler Alex Jones as part of the "Media Minds" series, which is hosted by Catherine Gay Communications and sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Gannett. The room was filled with V.I.P.s munching on fruit, muffins and yogurt parfaits.

Among the attendees was an impressive cabal of journalism big-shots such as Times executive editor Jill Abramson; Twitter head of news Vivian Schiller; ProPublica executive chairman Paul Steiger; Daily News editor-in-chief Colin Myler; The New Yorker's Ken Auletta; and Daily Beast editor-in-chief John Avlon. Sulzberger's girlfriend, the private equity director Gabrielle Greene, was seated front and center at a table with Abramson and Steiger.

The conversation with Sulzberger and Thompson, a former BBC executive who joined the Times in late 2012, took place as the the Times is in the midst of hashing out new strategies for growth. These include niche mobile products aimed at driving digital subscriptions and new advertising platforms such as native units.

The company's advertising revenues have declined for 13 consecutive quarters, and Jones asked Thompson if it is plausible that they will at some point increase.

Thompson said that subscription revenue has been growing even though advertising revenues remain under pressure. While acknowledging that digital ad revenue "needs to increase," he also said the key is "to have a strategy where you have enough sources of revenue that you can have net revenue growth," particularly at a company that had long derived the lion's share of its fortunes from print.

"We're becoming closer to a model like U.S. cable TV where you have the benefit of multiple revenue streams," he said.

On the Times' recent plunge into the controversial waters of native advertising, where marketing mimics storytelling, Sulzberger said: "Our goal is simple: Don't confuse the reader."

On video, which is seen as one of the most promising digital growth areas despite inventory troubles the Times has experienced, Thompson said they're "trying to figure out how video can work as part of the experience of reading the best journalism in the world ... We want to get relevant, high-quality video involved in as many of the big stories of the day as we can."

Thompson also spoke to the value of the various niche mobile subscription products that will debut this year, staring with NYT Now, a top-stories app curated throughout the day by Times journalists.

"Each of the new things we do has got to have newsroom leadership and has got to be infused with the spirit and energy of New York Times journalism," he said.

"Mobile is a big part of where we are heading," Sulzberger added, though he also said: "Personally, I think print's gonna be around longer than the desktop."

Toward the end of the discussion, Thompson addressed the Times' troubles in China, where the paper of record's website has been blocked as a result of investigations its reporters have conducted in the country.

"We're not going to stop doing that because people don't like it," he said. "We think what we're doing in China will continue to command interest and respect in China" and lead to long-term financial success there.

For the kicker, Jones asked the duo about the role of Carlos HelĂș Slim, a Mexican billionaire who bailed out the Times with a $250 million loan in 2009 and is reported to be more than doubling his stake in the Times Company to as much as 19 percent.

They characterized Slim as a passive but helpful investor.

"He is a majority shareholder and a great one," said Sulzberger. "He's a mensch."