Succession, Sulzberger Style … MSNBC Complains About Howard Kurtz’s ‘Double Standard’ … The New Yorker ‘s Next Conference: What’

In passing the leadership of the New York Times Company to his son on Oct. 16, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger kept alive a 101-year tradition of ultimate family control of the media company. But the executive-suite shuffling broke another longtime custom: The Sulzberger clan no longer holds both the chairman and chief executive jobs, a testament to a politely unruly faction of the family and the institutional biases of Wall Street.

As chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is supposed to fill the role of the vision guy, in addition to continuing as the publisher of The New York Times . Meanwhile, president Russell Lewis adds the chief executive’s title and day-to-day responsibility for running the company to his résumé. But according to some sources at The Times , Mr. Sulzberger’s role as chairman is largely ceremonial. Indeed, the new arrangement takes on an odd, Moebius-strip type of management structure: Publisher Sulzberger reports to chief executive Lewis, but chief executive Lewis then turns around to report to chairman Sulzberger. At least, that’s what the Times Company insists, even though at most companies the chief executive does not report to the chairman, but rather answers to the entire board of directors.

“There’s not 100 percent unanimity among the family on whether young Arthur is the man for all times,” said Porter Bibb, managing director of Ladenburg, Thalmann & Company and a former corporate development director for the Times Company.

Mr. Sulzberger, 46, has put in his time at the company since 1978 in a variety of business-side and editorial jobs, and is viewed as having more experience than his father did when he was thrust into the job in 1963 after the death of Orvil Dryfoos. But certain family members, such as Ruth Holmberg, the sister of the elder Mr. Sulzberger, balked at him being the sole member of the new generation to have power. One possible alternative-handing the chairmanship over to Ms. Holmberg’s son, Michael Golden-was a nonstarter, though. Mr. Golden’s tenure at the Times Company has been unremarkable. His main duties have involved running the company’s magazine divisions, which underperformed the industry and were eventually sold. (Of all the women’s, sports and leisure magazines the company published little more than three years ago, only Golf Digest remains.)

So Mr. Golden was tossed a bone: He gets the murky responsibilities of vice chairman and a seat on the board. “Whatever you think of Arthur, he is by far the smartest member of his generation,” said one longtime friend.

But apparently not smart or dexterous enough in the mind of the board to handle the executive trifecta of chairman, chief executive and publisher at The New York Times , a job Mr. Sulzberger wanted to keep so he could go on choosing Op-Ed columnists and executive editors. The Times Company is much larger than the $101 million company Mr. Sulzberger’s father took over in 1963. It posted revenues of $2.6 billion this year, and its holdings include The Boston Globe , 21 regional newspapers and eight television stations. The elder Mr. Sulzberger and the company also did not have to contend with the perceptions of Wall Street back in 1963-four years before the Times Company went public.

“The company is seen as a family-run company that historically does things that have not been in the best interests of the shareholders,” said Lanny Baker, a research analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc. “They need the support of institutional investors to grow the company big-time.”

The Times Company has told analysts that by the year 2001 it expects to add $1 billion in revenues to the estimated $2.8 billion to $2.9 billion it will bring in this year. Part of that growth will come from a strategic acquisition, likely to be paid with stock. That, in turn, makes it a company imperative to keep the value of the stock high.

In Wall Street’s mind, Mr. Sulzberger is the guardian angel of his family’s idea of editorial integrity. And having the non-family member Mr. Lewis filling the post of chief executive-so he can keep an eye on the numbers that young Arthur is not as well schooled in-has boosted the stock from $54.50 before the announcement to $55.81 as of Oct. 21.

Howard Kurtz, the well-respected media critic for The Washington Post , recused himself more than a year ago from writing about U.S. News & World Report after he had preliminary job discussions with editor James Fallows. But that precedent didn’t stop Mr. Kurtz from hammering MSNBC for its free fall into the world of tabloid journalism, even though he had approached the cable network for a job last year.

On Oct. 10, in an article entitled “On MSNBC, Sleaze to Please?” Mr. Kurtz contrasted what he termed MSNBC’s journalistic U-turn with the promise that accompanied the cable network’s launch. “When MSNBC handed Brian Williams a prime-time hour of nightly news last year, the program was designed as a classy and sophisticated vehicle for attracting upscale viewers and burnishing the young star’s image,” Mr. Kurtz wrote. “That was then. Now The News With Brian Williams has an unmistakably tabloid feel, trumpeting titillating tales of Princess Diana or Marv Albert night after night, along with all manner of violent crime.”

The article, unsurprisingly, was not a big hit at MSNBC or at co-owner NBC. But Mr. Kurtz’s professional pitch, however fleeting, makes the network’s reaction a bit more interesting than just another story about a media company getting mad at a reporter who didn’t buy its spin. Soon after MSNBC launched in July 1996, Mr. Kurtz sent NBC News president Andrew Lack a note, sources at NBC told Off the Record, in which he offered his services to do a media show if MSNBC decided to launch one. Early that fall, Mr. Lack met briefly with Mr. Kurtz, telling him thank you, but that he and MSNBC would take a pass on him and the show. NBC sources added that Mr. Lack remarked to colleagues at the time that he thought Mr. Kurtz had overstepped the journalistic line by dropping him the note.

Mr. Kurtz doesn’t see it that way. He said that his no-reporting stance on U.S. News is a different animal than his overture to MSNBC, and that his ethical standards are above reproach.

“I’m just trying to draw a distinction between something that is totally casual and an actual serious job discussion,” Mr. Kurtz added. “When I had a preliminary job discussion with U.S. News , I voluntarily decided it would be best not to write about it for a while. [That self-imposed blackout is now over.] I don’t think the same standard applies to the dozens of casual conversations one has while doing the job.”

“I really think this is a stretch,” he added. “The mere fact that you’re asking about this shows how defensive MSNBC is about its excursion into tabloidism.”

An NBC spokeswoman tried not to sound defensive. “Unfortunately, this is not about the standards of MSNBC,” she said. “It’s about the double standard of Howard Kurtz.”

Oh, the fun they had at The New Yorker ‘s Next Conference! No, the assembled horde of media swells, new-media kingpins, movie moguls and other “futuristic” types didn’t take a complimentary spin through the Magic Kingdom. But they did get to tackle such scintillating topics as “Does News Have a Future?” and “Who Will Own the Future? The Next Global Frontiers.” Still, when all was said and done, many of the magazine’s writers and editors were left with one big, nagging question hanging in the rarefied air of the sterile Disney Institute in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.: What the hell was the point?

“Everybody who was there kept saying, ‘That was fun, but why are we here?’” said one of the 150 or so guests. Chock-full of media and entertainment moguls pontificating about the future, the 24-hour summit, on Oct. 14 and 15, felt very familiar to those in attendance. The guests got to see Hollywood types like Mike Nichols, Barry Diller, Harvey Weinstein and Steve Martin take turns dissing Mark Canton, the deposed head of Sony Pictures, and watched New Yorker editor Tina Brown suck up to Disney chief executive Michael Eisner.

“The press forums were like every press forum one’s seen for the last 20 years,” said another guest. “It’s the same old kind of tired debate that had nothing to do with the future.”

If The New Yorker wanted to use the event to impress the magazine’s relevance upon a group of opinion makers-or to ingratiate itself with past and future story subjects-Ms. Brown picked a New Establishment crowd she had already won over. “I think it played to what’s already a strong hand, rather than moving in another direction,” said one writer for the magazine.

However, the Disney connection perturbed a number of the New Yorker staff in attendance. Not only was the event at the Disney Institute, but Mr. Eisner, whom Ms. Brown threw a dinner party for the week before, was in attendance and sat on a panel. What’s more, head Disney futurist Bran Ferren, who also sat on a panel, was profiled by David Remnick in the very New Yorker issue that gave the conference its reason for being. “Why invite the problem by having it at the Disney Institute?” asked one New Yorker writer.

The New Yorker insisted it got no special deals from Disney to stage Ms. Brown’s tony but ultimately meaningless version of a Renaissance Weekend at the Disney Institute. But for all its attempts to prove independence, the Disney tag upstaged some of its publicity. Quoting Steven Brill in its weekly roundup of quotes, Newsweek didn’t mention the magazine at all, referring to the entire event as “a Disney Institute conference.”

Jack Shafer, the deputy editor of Microsoft Corporation’s Slate Web ‘zine, is the leading candidate to become editor of Wired , said sources close to the digerati-loving magazine. Mr. Shafer, the former editor of the Washington, D.C., City Paper and San Francisco’s SF Weekly before joining Michael Kinsley at the Bill Gates compound in Redmond, Wash., spent two and a half days last month at Wired ‘s San Francisco offices for interviews and get-acquainted sessions with the staff. A decision is expected imminently.

“I don’t think there’s any secret that I’m talking to them,” Mr. Shafer said, but he declined to comment on the status of the talks.