Meet The Media Mensches, 2009

mediamensches Meet The Media Mensches, 2009Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
Chairman of the New York Times Co., publisher of
The New York Times

In the middle of November 2008, at a time when the New York Times Company stock number was falling off the face of the earth, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was in the ballroom at the Plaza Hotel, getting a beating.

He was there watching Tribune chief Sam Zell address a crowd of media moguls and advertisers at his close friend Steve Rattner’s FourSquare conference. Mr. Sulzberger didn’t have time to find a seat, so he stood in the back of the room, and that’s when Mr. Zell, from the dais, ripped into him.

“As of last night, the entire market cap of the New York Times was $1.2 billion,” said Mr. Zell. “And my question to Arthur, who I think is out here someplace, is, if you want to be a charitable trust, be a charitable trust. If you don’t want to be a charitable trust, then you’ve got to focus on producing a return for investors’ capital, and it’s just that simple.”

For journalists, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is the media mensch of the year; for the hard-nosed business class, for Mr. Zell, he was media’s biggest chump.

It’s true, 2008 was a rough year for Mr. Sulzberger. At the conference, he was standing next to Tribeca Film topper Jane Rosenthal listening to Mr. Zell, and he smiled. It’s that smile, that uncomfortably spoiled and cocky smile, that makes you want to scream: It’s smug and yet defensive, superior and yet somehow a little bit scared. There’s no getting through it.

It was that same dreadful bearing that led to his embarrassing moment in the heart of the Jayson Blair scandal. In 2003, when the Times was at its knees in the darkest newsroom crisis the paper ever faced, Mr. Sulzberger convened a Times-wide meeting at a 44th street theater and opened the meeting by pulling a toy moose out of a bag to discuss any “moose issues”—his adaptation of “the elephant in the room” metaphor, which struck staffers as shockingly tone deaf to the gravity of the situation.

And it was the same misjudgment about appearances that made the Judith Miller morality play so hard to watch. The image of Mr. Sulzberger storming her SUV as she came out of prison—“Judy! Judy! It’s me!” he gleefully said as he tapped on the dark glass of her car, reported The New Yorker—is representative of the picture of a well-intentioned yet woefully clueless publisher.

It’s been a bad year for Mr. Sulzberger. The paper’s stock lost more than half its value. He’s put out a call for someone to buy a sale-leaseback on his headquarters (you know, the one he had to build after he sold his old one on 43rd street for $175 million in 2004, three years before it sold again for three times that amount). The dividend that brought the Sulzberger clan a pool of money was slashed by 75 percent.

Besides Mr. Zell, Henry Blodget seemed to speak for the entire world of media finance when he urged Mr. Sulzberger to cut 30 percent of the newsroom. Several of them are even board members at the Times Company, and they wasted no time in 2008 making sure the public knew what they thought of the financial decisions Mr. Sulzberger has made as the media industry tumbles around him.

Through it all, again, there is that smugness again. But if that has made him a villain in the business world, it’s made him a hero to lots of journalists, and not just on Eighth Avenue.

The future of The Times—who will own it after he’s forced to sell it, how will it survive—is a favorite parlor game of media observers now, and it’s all happened on Young Arthur’s watch. All over newspaper land last year, newspaper owners were stampeding over the cliff in a mass panic. And Mr. Sulzberger, unlike every single other newspaper boss in the world, didn’t pillage or dismember his paper. He cut 100 jobs from the newsroom in February—well before we even began to understand how bad this year would be—and he hasn’t touched it since. The New York Times’ newsroom has a head count of 1,200, putting it far ahead of even its remote competitors.

To save journalists jobs he’s had to close the newspaper’s storied newspaper distributing plant, City & Suburban, to save money. He had to eliminate a stand-alone city section and sports section. The front-page of The New York Times now has a strip ad at the bottom, which is probably only the beginning on its inexorable roll toward looking more like a Minor League Baseball team’s outfield fence. But the news remains essentially the same.

For years we thought his legacy would be defined by how he screwed things up: How badly he seemed to weather the inevitable if ultimately disposable newsroom crises; how he lost the family’s direct and complete control of The Times for the first time since 1896.

But in 2009, it’s time to evaluate Mr. Sulzberger differently. The boy with the obnoxious and unsubtle demeanor may have found the crisis that will finally make him a hero, and an equal to his predecessors in the publisher’s chair. His black-and-white devotion to the ethics of journalism that his dad taught him is precisely what’s defining his legacy now, and for the best. His devotion to The Times and recognition of what it means to New Yorkers, and the world, is now defining him. His chapter in the next edition of The Trust or The Kingdom and the Power is shaping up to be far more complex than a portrait of a Prince Hal.

And whenever that day comes, that one day that everyone in the newspaper world is praying and clinging to, the day when those Internet pennies turn into dollars, it’s Mr. Sulzberger who has a Secretariat-lead on every other big paper. NYTimes.com is a machine—a powerful Web site that is nimble, handsome and, most importantly, delivers the news.

Now when one imagines that trademark, schoolboy sneer directed at the Sam Zells of the world, print media sees not an embarrassment but one of its great champions. Civilized readers everywhere hope The Trust is safe with him.

John Koblin