The prince and the paper

By IAN DONNIS  |  February 2, 2006

Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the first Sulzberger to serve as publisher of the Times — after Adolph S. Ochs didn’t want his daughter to work at the paper and instead promoted his son-in-law — wasn’t alone in feeling an early lack of confidence in his son, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger. Yet after briefly reporting for the Milwaukee Journal, Punch took the reins at 37 and became one of the Times’ best publishers. As Alex S. Jones and Susan E. Tifft write in The Trust, the doubters failed to take into account “droit de seigneur — the divine right of kings. Because Punch was the first publisher since Adolph Ochs to come to his post as a blood relative rather than as a son-in-law, he would never suffer his father’s doubts about being ‘the man who married the boss’s daughter.’”

By comparison, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. went through more extensive and far-flung training before becoming publisher in 1992, although his recent tenure has been beset by a series of extended controversies — particularly the fabrication scandal involving Jayson Blair and the criticism that Judith Miller operated with inadequate oversight — that have marred the paper’s reputation and sparked questions about his leadership. Even when the Times broke the story of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, it faced scorn for holding the story for close to a year.

As Ken Auletta wrote in the New Yorker in December, “These newsroom crises have come when the Times can least afford them — during a period of technological and economic uncertainty that has affected the entire industry. The Times’ stock price fell 33.2 percent between December 31, 2004, and October 31, 2005 — sixty percent more than the industry average, according to Merrill Lynch newspaper analysts. The operating profit of the Times Company has also slipped in each of the past three years. Owing to the cost of fuel, newsprint, and employee benefits, expenditures are increasing by between four and five percent a year and revenues by only about three percent, a senior Times corporate executive says.”

But Auletta also reported that the Times — whose educated readership is highly appealing to advertisers — is one of the few American newspapers with consistent circulation gains. Also, the paper’s online edition “is the world’s most heavily trafficked newspaper Web site.” Despite such assets, though, he questions whether the Times will be able to generate the necessary Web revenue to support the paper’s $200 million news budget and to withstand related questions from Wall Street.

Alex S. Jones, a former Times reporter who directs the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is more sanguine about the paper’s long-term outlook. “I think the New York Times has been taking some pretty heavy blows, but I believe the institution is so extraordinarily important and that the family culture is so extraordinarily strong that in the long term the Times will prevail,” Jones says. “I think they’re having a rough patch at the moment.”

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