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A Brief History of Pinch

Whatever your reading plans are for the next few days, make sure they include this outstanding Vanity Fair profile of NY Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The piece, by Mark Bowden, is a terrific read. And it makes a compelling case that, given the challenges the Times and other papers are currently facing--and thanks to his conservative, Times-ian faith that good journalism is bound to succeed--Sulzberger is very much the wrong man for the job. Here's a snippet:

Arthur has one big thing going for him, particularly with the reporters and editors who are the real stars in the Times building. Arthur is motivated, as he himself says, not by wealth but by value. He believes, to be sure, that wealth follows from value, but you can see, even as he says it, that the wealth part is not what drives him. Journalism drives him. The Times’s reputation and influence drive him. He is not just a newspaper publisher and a chairman of the board. He is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and the pride he feels in that name doesn’t have anything to do with how much is in his bank account. No matter what moves he makes, no matter what errors he commits, Arthur will remain every journalist’s dream publisher. He has long protected the newsroom from predatory managers with their bean-counting priorities, and today he represents its best hope, reporters and editors would like to believe, of weathering the crisis without the soul-killing budget cuts that turn great newspapers into little more than supermarket circulars. The same people who roll their eyes when they hear him wax nostalgic about his years in the newsroom pray for him daily, because, like them, he completely buys the myth: Journalism sells.

“This is ridiculous,” says a former business-side executive at the Times. “It flies in the face of logic and reason, this belief that if your news product is so good and so comprehensive the normal rules of business are suspended. Think about it. Think about the inanity of saying that you survived by putting in more news and cutting ads.”

Bowden also executes a devestating deconstruction of Sulzberger's approach to the Web, one that every newspaper employee in America would do well to ponder:

For 10 years or more, Arthur’s signature phrase about this seismic change in the news business, the one he repeats to show that he gets it, has been platform agnostic. “I am platform agnostic,” he proclaims proudly, meaning that it matters nothing to him where his customers go for New York Times content: the newspaper’s print version, television, radio, computer, cell phone, Kindle—whatever. The phrase itself reveals limited understanding. When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling. To be platform agnostic is the equivalent of recording stage plays.

Excellent stuff. Don't miss it.

[ Via Romenesko.]

  • Dan Kennedy said:

    I have not read Bowden's profile yet, and I'm looking forward to it. That said, would it have mattered if Sulzberger were a genius? The only smart business move a newspaper company has made in 15 years was the Washington Post Co.'s acquisition of Kaplan Testing.

    March 30, 2009 1:30 PM
  • Adam Reilly said:

    Yo, Dan--By way of an answer, here are a couple long grafs from Bowden that suggest the answer is yes:

    In 2001, The New York Times celebrated its 150th anniversary. In the years that have followed, Arthur Sulzberger has steered his inheritance into a ditch. As of this writing, Times Company stock is officially classified as junk. Arthur made a catastrophic decision in the 1990s to start aggressively buying back shares ($1.8 billion worth from 2000 to 2004 alone). This was considered a good investment at the time, and had the effect of increasing the stock’s value. Shares were going for more than $50. Now they are slipping below $4—less than the price of the Sunday Times. Arthur’s revenues are in free fall: the bottom has dropped out of both newspaper and Internet advertising. He has done more than anyone in the business to showcase newspaper journalism online. It hasn’t helped much. The content and page views of the newspaper’s Web site,, may be the envy of the profession, but as a recent report from Citigroup explained, “The Internet has taken away far more advertising than it has given.” Layoffs have occurred in the once sacrosanct newsroom.

    Having squandered billions during the newspaper’s fat years—buying up all that stock, buying up failing newspapers, building a gleaming new headquarters—Arthur is scrambling to keep up with interest payments on hundreds of millions in debt, much of it falling due within the next year. To do so, he is peddling assets on ruinous terms. Arthur recently borrowed $250 million from Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, who owns the fourth-largest stake in the Times Company. Controlling interest is held closely by the Sulzberger family, which owns 89 percent of the company’s Class B shares. These shares, not traded publicly, are held by a family trust designed to prevent individual heirs from selling out, and ultimately to shelter editorial matters from strict concern for the bottom line. The family owns about 20 percent of the Class A shares, which is about the same percentage owned by the hedge funds Harbinger and Firebrand. The third-largest Class A shareholder is T. Rowe Price, with 10 percent. Slim comes next, with 7 percent. Given the current state of the investment and credit markets, Slim would appear to have the inside rail should the paper ever be sold, a prospect once unthinkable. It is now very thinkable. Among the other prospective buyers whose names have surfaced in the press are Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York; Google; and even, perish the thought, the press baron Rupert Murdoch, whose Wall Street Journal has emerged as journalistic competition for the Times in a way it never was before. (Murdoch has publicly dismissed reports of his interest in the Times as “crap,” which has served only to heighten speculation.) This quarter, for the first time since Times Company stock went public, in 1969, the fourth- and fifth-generation Sulzbergers who hold shares (there are 40 of them in all) received no dividends. As recently as last year they divvied up $25 million.

    March 30, 2009 2:34 PM
  • Dan Kennedy said:

    It strikes me that Sulzberger's mistakes exacerbated an impossible situation but didn't create it. As I said, I look forward to reading it. But show me a healthy newspaper company and I'll show you one that doesn't exist.

    March 30, 2009 3:27 PM
  • Ron Newman said:

    Hmm, I wonder how healthy Phoenix Media is?

    March 31, 2009 3:41 PM
  • Dan Kennedy: Is Arthur Sulzberger really to blame for the New York Times’ decline? | said:

    Pingback from  Dan Kennedy: Is Arthur Sulzberger really to blame for the New York Times’ decline? |

    March 31, 2009 5:31 PM
  • Photomaniacal » Blog Archive » Dan Kennedy: Is Arthur Sulzberger really to blame for the New York Times’ decline? said:

    Pingback from  Photomaniacal  » Blog Archive   » Dan Kennedy: Is Arthur Sulzberger really to blame for the New York Times’ decline?

    March 31, 2009 5:32 PM
  • Reading: April 2 « Ted Delaney’s Features class said:

    Pingback from  Reading: April 2 « Ted Delaney’s Features class

    April 2, 2009 8:51 AM

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