Arthur 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.
Venture Capitalist, Tech Entrepreneur Mentor
If the New York tech community has a mensch in its midst, it’s Fred Wilson, the 47-year-old demure managing partner and co-founder of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Just don’t call his community by its historical nickname, “Silicon Alley.” “We are not an alley,” he said this summer, pacing on a stage in the basement of the Javits Center. Mr. Wilson was delivering a keynote speech to hundreds of young Internet entrepreneurs from all over the world at the Web 2.0 Expo, just two days after newspaper headlines announced Wall Street’s collapse. “Let’s bury the name ‘Silicon Alley’. I’ve hated it from the minute it first came out. We are one of the largest cities in the world. We’re one of the largest Internet development communities in the world. Let’s drop the name ‘alley’, at least, let’s call ourselves Broadway—or just New York. That’s what we are.”
Mr. Wilson’s popular blog, avc.com, is a live snapshot of the burgeoning start-up scene in New York from a venture capitalist’s point of view. He often offers sage advice for young entrepreneurs and investors in his simple, even prose, peppered with one-liners. He recently wrote about investing during the economic downturn: “Like the lottery, ‘you got to be in it to win it’ and staying on the sidelines is not a wise approach in any market environment.” But he’s not just a daddy figure, either; like the kids he mentors, Mr. Wilson Twitters and Tumblrs (Union Square Ventures invests in both companies), and is known to get personal, writing about his three children and wife (who also blogs as Gotham Gal) and living in the West Village. But even when doing that, he usually works in his experiences as an early adopter of the latest online software, from Last.fm to Boxee, and offline hardware (he’s tried the iPhone and Google’s new G1 phone, but he calls the BlackBerry his “quill pen” because he ends up writing his entries on it so often). He also writes on his company’s blog, telling stories about deal developments and setting an ethical standard for his followers by disclosing connections and friendships. In other words, Mr. Wilson, who tends to shy from the media spotlight, doesn’t just profit from New York’s tech community, he lives it.
Because he has survived Web busts over the last two decades, Mr. Wilson has become one of the tech community’s most trusted figures. In 1987, after studying mechanical engineering at MIT and getting his M.B.A. from Wharton, he became an associate for Euclid Partners, a New York–based early-stage venture capital firm. He co-founded his own investment company, Flatiron Partners, in 1996. He co-founded Union Square Ventures in late 2003, and many of their portfolio companies have made successful deals during difficult economies. In 2005, their Del.icio.us was sold to Yahoo for a reported $30 million. Google bought FeedBurner, an RSS feed service for bloggers, for a reported $100 million in 2007. That same year, AOL bought online ad company Tacoda for a reported $275 million.
On Jan. 4, Mr. Wilson wrote a blog post on a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York, returning from a holiday trip to Europe. “2009 will be a difficult year on many levels,” he wrote. “But I am optimistic because I believe in the work that I do and I believe in the people I work with and the people we’ve backed and the people that we will back this year. Starting companies, particularly technology-based companies, is something we need even more of today in our country and our world and I am proud to be an active participant in the venture capital/startup ecosystem that makes this happen.” Written like a true mensch.
As 2008 limped along to its economically tattered finish line, one industry had at least a little good news: According to The New York Times, ticket sales at North American movie theaters racked up $9.6 billion (down less than 1 percent from 2007). The commonplace thinking is that it was thanks to those big shiny superheroes: that growling, swooping Batman! That oh-so-droll Iron Man! Indiana Jones, James Bond, that impossible-to-escape robot Wall-E, a Kung-Fu Panda and—of course—Will Smith.
And then there’s Errol Morris, a different kind of superhero. In late April, the 60-year-old acclaimed filmmaker released his eighth feature-length documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, a gripping and incredibly disturbing in-depth investigation into the infamous 2003 photographs that depicted American soldiers abusing and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Mr. Morris described his film as a “nonfiction horror movie” and so, indeed, it is. As he did before with his riveting probe into a police officer’s murder in The Thin Blue Line and his Oscar-winning look at Robert McNamara and the what-ifs of Vietnam in The Fog of War, this film went there, delving deep and unflinchingly into a deeply uncomfortable subject—in this case, a chapter of our history that many of us would gladly ignore or, worse, forget. The film demonstrates Mr. Morris’s astonishing capacity for detailed research (it’s not for nothing that The Thin Blue Line helped get a man off of death row) as well as his ability to coax seemingly recalcitrant subjects to open up for his camera (the much despised leash-holding-while-giving-a-cheerful-thumbs-up Lynndie England talks bitterly and unselfconsciously of her love affair with a fellow guard gone wrong).
But, also characteristically, Mr. Morris isn’t concerned with who might be the obvious villains and victims. He’s not a polemicist, but a facilitator for information; in Standard Operating Procedure, he deftly illustrates the context and atmosphere that led to such horrific events, and raises rather unsettling questions, particularly: Were these terrified and stir-crazy kids left to torture without supervision, or were they were merely a link in the chain of command of a corrupt and power-hungry post-9/11 U.S. military?
Movies about our current war have been box office poison, and Standard Operating Procedure was no different—it earned a measly total of $229,117 (a Friday night sneeze for The Dark Knight). However, we’re certain that it wasn’t for commercial gain that Mr. Morris made this movie, but a determination to tell important truths and histories that might otherwise fall through the cracks. In the past, Mr. Morris has made controversial subjects entertaining. This time, he went straight for the truth, and made one of the most important movies of 2008.
Senior Editor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Lorin Stein got rid of half his books during the holiday break. His East Village apartment, he said, had a tendency to overheat, and a lot of what he had on his shelves, especially the really ancient stuff left to him by family members, was in miserable shape. “I was reading Life on the Mississippi, one of my favorite books, but it was so depressing, because my whole bed was full of decayed bits of grandfather Stein’s Mark Twain,” the book publishing mensch of the year said on Sunday night. “It was like dandruff. It was just like the book exploded. You don’t have to watch them die.”
The next morning, Mr. Stein, age 35, would be back at his desk at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he has been working happily for the past decade, beginning as then editor in chief Jonathan Galassi’s assistant and moving quickly up through the ranks. Even as more and more attention has been paid to book editors scrambling for the latest celebrity tell-all or headline-grabbing instabook, Mr. Stein has kept his feet planted at FSG, where he’s edited some of the most respected works of literary fiction to be published in the last few years. In 2007, he edited three National Book Award finalists, including the book that won, Dennis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. And though his 2008 was somewhat quieter in the awards department, he still had his fingerprints all over some of the most buzzed over titles of this year, among them James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Richard Price’s Lush Life and the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s massive 2666.
That last, the second and final long novel from the late Chilean author, was the really big one for Mr. Stein this year. While working on it, he took Spanish lessons from a friend so that he could argue “half-intelligently,” he said, with the book’s translator and have “some idea what the issues were for her.”
Who said editors don’t edit anymore! Mr. Stein does, at least.
In a note to booksellers and critics printed in the advance reader’s copy of 2666, Mr. Stein explained its structure, told the author’s brief life story and offered a concise but sophisticated description of Bolaño’s style that would not be out of place in a dissertation. The ARC hit the streets early—New York’s professional culture workers had it something like five full months ahead of publication—but even so, when Mr. Stein and his assistant, Georgia Cool, started a Facebook group called “Waiting for 2666” in October, more than 300 people joined. And when they threw a release party in the East Village a few weeks later, so many came that a line stretched around the corner. Somehow, Mr. Stein took a massive, challenging work of experimental fiction and not only made it popular, but made it cool.
And although that night got a bit messy and crowded, it made Mr. Stein happy, because one thing that matters to him is knowing there are other people in the world who are moved by the same things that move him. A literary community, according to Mr. Stein, is crucial—not just for the sake of lonely readers but as a business model for publishing houses like FSG, which nowadays find themselves having to create a new market each time they issue a book. A readership that does not form and break apart each time but instead remains intact, Mr. Stein said, is essential to FSG’s survival.
“Nowadays, we live or die, at least a literary publisher, based on our ability to create and hold on to readers’ trust,” he said. “It’s our whole marketing strategy. Without a community of readers who feel like we all belong together, we’d have no reason to exist.”
In March, Mr. Stein wrote a letter to Harper’s in response to an essay in which Ursula Le Guin suggested that instead of seeking mass sales, publishers might think about focusing on their ‘own people,’ and catering to those who don’t need any prompting to pay attention to literature. “Without a critical mass of readers, you don’t have a reading culture,” Mr. Stein wrote, in what was the most scathing of several letters from publishing people that Harper’s printed that month. “That’s bad for journalism and for our political discourse, but for literature it’s fatal.”
Instead of assuring themselves of their invincibility and using it as an excuse to do their work as they always have, Mr. Stein said Monday afternoon from his office, modern editors and publishers must try aggressively to recruit readers if a thriving literary culture is what they seek.
“You have people who say, ‘Great books will always exist,’ and I find this completely specious, because it takes a shitload of readers to create the culture you need for a good book to be written,” Mr. Stein said. “I don’t have much faith that history gets it right, or that good things last and bad things don’t.”
It’s at least in part thanks to Mr. Stein that, for now, one need not worry. Judging from the books he’ll be working on in 2009—new novels by Sam Lipsyte and Denis Johnson, a poetry collection from Frederick Seidel, an English translation of Vladimir Sorokin, a short story collection from Lydia Davis—that culture is rather alive and well.
Executive Producer, 60 Minutes
On the afternoon of June 17, CBS News’ mercurial foreign correspondent Lara Logan appeared on The Daily Show, where over the course of a seven-minute interview, she proceeded to eviscerate the American media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. The armchair academics on TV were phonies, she said. They might have visited the Green Zone once. They knew nothing. If she had to watch the stories about the war on American TV, she’d blow her brains out. “It would drive me nuts,” she said.
TV producers were apathetic about our conflicts overseas, she said. She once did a piece once on Navy SEALs taking down high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Afterward, her bosses suggested that all guys in uniforms looked the same. Ditto, radical mullahs. Unless it was Osama bin Laden, who cared? Sometimes it felt like she had to aim an armor-piercing RPG at the bureau chief just to get her stories on the air.
Ms. Logan mentioned one exception. She praised Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, noting that “he always says to me, ‘Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, Afghanistan. We don’t see enough of it. I want people to know more. I want people to see more.’”
When Mr. Fager took over the reigns of 60 Minutes from legendary producer Don Hewitt in 2004, some of the saber-toothed correspondents on the show worried that the Young Turk (then a mere puppy of 49 years), would soften up the vulcanized newsmagazine in search of younger viewers.
Mr. Fager did no such thing. Rather than tart up the weekly telecasts with stories about, say, teenage sex rituals and celebrity hijinks, Mr. Fager did the improbable—he restored the aging institution to ratings prominence by mixing in a new cast of talented reporters (including Lara Logan, Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper) and bulking up on serious, timely, intelligent stories.
Under Mr. Fager’s steady hand, 60 Minutes had a breakout year in 2008 (some 40 years after initially breaking out), finishing consistently among the top 10 most watched shows on television. During back-to-back weeks in November, 60 Minutes pulled in larger audiences than any other program on the air.
Along the way, Mr. Fager’s team of correspondents filed hard-charging, elbow-swinging stories on the economic crisis, the presidential campaign, and—yes—on America’s pair of largely ignored wars overseas. Lara Logan reported stories from the Pakistan border. Leslie Stahl from Iraq. Scott Pelley from Afghanistan. At a time when long-form journalism is an increasingly hard sell to network programmers, Mr. Fager managed to make a strong case for spending the money on painstakingly reported, carefully polished stories often taking place overseas.
Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Fager keeps a low profile. He manages his high-strung team of star correspondents with a low-key, conflict-free management style. The cerebral son of a doctor is known for his calming bedside manner, which can come in handy given the bouts of hysteria known to afflict many a star TV correspondent.
As a result, many TV insiders consider Mr. Fager the CBS News president in waiting. And he got there not by showing the network how to scrape and bow to a low common denominator, but how to lead in the news, how to bring the audience around to what’s important rather than bringing the network around to what isn’t.
Should CBS chief Les Moonves get around to moving current prez Sean McManus back to the sports division full-time, Mr. Fager, goes the theory, would be first in line to take over the job. That is, if he wants it.
At a time when much of the traditional news media has taken to chewing its nails anxiously and tossing precious money at charlatan news consultants, it would be understandable if he didn’t. But if he’s the mensch we think he is, he will.
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