New York magazine had a long, in-depth piece recently about the race for the publisher’s seat at the New York Times, a race that consists solely of people whose last name is Sulzberger, or who are otherwise related to the current publisher. It’s a great look at the closest thing that the media world has to a royal family (next to the Murdochs, perhaps), with all of the in-fighting over whose nephew or cousin will advance, and a glimpse of the noblesse oblige the Sulzbergers feel as stewards of the Times.
There’s one glaring error in the story, however: At one point, it says “the selection of the next publisher is perhaps the most critical challenge facing the Times.” This is not even close to being true. Choosing a publisher may be the most critical challenge facing the various branches of the Sulzberger family, but it’s nowhere near the most important challenge for the newspaper company itself.
The challenge facing the New York Times is the same one that virtually every traditional media entity is facing, whether it’s the Washington Post, or Time Inc. (which owns Fortune) or even TV giants like CBS. The time when a handful of news outlets controlled the only platforms for distribution — and hence, the advertising revenue attached to those platforms — is gone. And it’s not clear what the NYT’s role is going to be in the new world. Will it be primarily a supplier of news to other platforms like Facebook (FB)?
The name is the thing
Given that kind of monumental challenge to the very foundations of the Times and its journalism, is this really the moment when the fifth generation of a founding family should be holding the reins? I would argue that it is not. In some ways, in fact, it is the worst possible time to do that (and many of these same arguments also apply to the Murdoch family and News Corp., incidentally).
From most accounts, all three of the men in the running for the NYT publisher job are smart and driven. Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, son of the current publisher, helped put together the internal Innovation Report, which outlined the challenges facing the paper. David Perpich, the current publisher’s nephew, is a Harvard MBA and helped build the paywall for the paper. Sam Dolnick, the son of Sulzberger’s cousin, has worked on mobile apps, among other things.
Despite all that, however, their most compelling qualification for the job, and the one that has set them above every other potential candidate anywhere in the media world, is that they are related to someone named Sulzberger. In effect, their ability to understand the way newspapers work or the way the Internet works is secondary. If that was truly the most important decision criteria, someone else would have the job.
Having a feudal structure in which various branches of a single family control the fate of such a massive media entity might have made sense when the newspaper business was a boring, dependable money-spinner, but those days are gone. And so are the days when a founding family could take $24 million or so out of the newspaper’s coffers every year in the form of dividends without anyone noticing.
The Grahams did it
Could the Sulzbergers achieve what they need to without selling the paper? Perhaps. They could search for a publisher with the right skills and then give them carte blanche to do whatever they needed to in order to succeed. But in some ways that might be even more difficult for the family to stomach than selling. And the publisher would feel the weight of all that combined family pressure, just as the current editor does now.
Donald Graham, whose family had a similarly iron grip on the Washington Post — thanks to the magic of multiple-voting shares — decided in 2013 that he simply couldn’t continue as the owner, and sold to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Did Graham do this because he no longer believed in or cared about the Post? Not at all. Just the opposite, in fact: He decided to sell because he couldn’t bring himself to make the kinds of cuts and changes that he felt would be necessary.
Was this cowardice? I don’t think so. Based on what I know about Don Graham, and conversations with those who know him, I think he believed Bezos was the best possible owner for the Post at a time like this. Not just because he is wealthy, and therefore not as likely to be driven by short-term thinking, but because he understands the Internet and how digital media is changing the way that content functions. In other words, he had the tools and the skills to help the Post adapt for the future.
The Times needs help
Do any of the Sulzbergers have those tools and skills? Perhaps. But if they do, then they should be able to win an open competition for the job, not be awarded it in the same way the king hands out jobs on Game of Thrones. Would Michael Bloomberg be any better a steward for the Times? Maybe not, but at least he would be looking for the best person to run it, not the best person named Sulzberger.
The Times may have a tremendously successful paywall, with over a million paying subscribers, but even that is still barely making up for the loss of print advertising, for the simple reason that print readers are worth at least 20 times more than digital readers. New apps like NYT Now have been well received, but as yet aren’t making much in the way of revenue, and the paper has so far only tip-toed into areas like native advertising. Meanwhile, the newsroom is as large as it has ever been, at 1,300 or so.
Like every other traditional media entity going through these challenges, the Times needs more than just a tweak to its business model here or there — it needs radical surgery. There have been hints that the current publisher might be willing to make the sacrifice required to sell the paper if large cuts necessary. For the sake of the Times, I hope those rumors are true.