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How A.G. Sulzberger Is Leading the New York Times Into the Future

22 minute read

On a Sunday morning in the summer of 2018, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, a member of the fifth generation of the family that controls the New York Times, was changing the diaper of a member of the sixth, when the phone rang. Another mess: A few days earlier President Trump had invited Sulzberger, in his capacity as Times publisher, to a private meeting at the White House. Now a Trump tweet had not only made the meeting public but also asserted it had produced an unlikely meeting of minds: “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”

What happened next amounts to the news as we’ve known it for decades. The Times put out a version of events contradicting the President’s. The White House doubled down. And the public took sides. But six months later, after accepting another White House invitation (this time on the record), Sulzberger sat down at a microphone and talked to someone else: the people who download The Daily, which is among the most popular podcasts in America and is produced by the New York Times. Listening is as different from reading as the Times of 10 years ago is from the news organization today, and it’s all there in “The President and the Publisher,” the Feb. 1 episode devoted to the meeting. From Sulzberger, you hear not only about the diaper, but also about waiting in the cold on Pennsylvania Avenue because the Secret Service didn’t know the publisher was coming. From Trump, there’s an evident boredom with questions of policy, then a plea delivered in honeyed tones: “But I came from Jamaica, Queens, Jamaica Estates, and I became President of the United States. I’m sort of entitled to a great story from my–just one–from my newspaper. I mean, you know.”

‘Trump Triumphs’ is a pretty great story. It covered two-thirds of the Times front page the morning after an election result that three years later still draws attention from other vital matters, including the signal accomplishment of the slender, bald young man seated on the other side of the Resolute desk. The American landscape is littered with the husks of news outlets desiccated by the migration of life-giving attention from a page that folds to a page that glows. Worse, people tell pollsters they don’t even believe most of what they read on their news feeds. Yet in this forbidding new world the country’s stuffiest, most remote and self-important newspaper somehow became a relatable, nimble and savvy digital vehicle for what on many days is the best journalism in the world.

Trump calls it “the failing New York Times,” but its stock sells for three times what it did a decade ago. Its 4.7 million paying subscribers is more than three times its print peak and growing so steadily that the company’s stated goal of 10 million by 2025 does not seem out of reach. The Times today produces not only a profit but also a certain hope. Some “legacy” news outlets–the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, indeed, the very magazine you’re reading–were buoyed by public-spirited billionaires. The Times not only found its own way, it slashed a shaft of light through the murk of social media–those immersive platforms that have gummed up the machinery of democracy by reducing citizens to followers and news to content.

“I actually hate the word content,” Sulzberger says. “It’s a word for junk … the junk you shovel into Facebook.

“What we do is journalism.”

Sulzberger, right, in the second White House meeting, on Jan. 31
Sulzberger, right, in the second White House meeting, on Jan. 31Tom Brenner—The New York Times/Redux

Informal and intense, Sulzberger embodies every sort of generational change at the Times. He turned 39 on Aug. 5, and was not yet 35 when in 2013 he found himself tasked with addressing the organization’s digital future, as leader of the call to arms formally known as the Innovation Report. The situation was dire. Revenues were skidding, as was print circulation. The home page was hemorrhaging viewers. Digital ads were down, and no one was sure what to do next.

“The newsroom was not always brimming with optimism,” says Bill Keller, who presided over three rounds of staff cuts as top editor before retiring in 2011. “It was a gloomy time.”

Yet in other ways the Times was going great guns. Even as it trimmed its staff, it was snapping up top talent that competing newspapers were shedding. Rival reporters long put off by the Times‘ smugness and internecine culture found there was no other place as prominent that supported their work. During the Great Recession, which hastened the collapse of the newspaper industry, the Times did something extraordinary: it spent, investing in its core mission of newsgathering–its newsroom never fell below 1,100 people–with money no longer ready at hand.

To come up with cash, the company sold off great chunks of itself. It sold TV stations and radio stations. It sold the Boston Globe, its slice of the Boston Red Sox and a chain of smaller newspapers. It sold part of its new headquarters, a 52-story showpiece designed by Renzo Piano, a famous Italian architect. In 2009, the darkest hour, the company went hat in hand to a Mexican billionaire. Carlos Slim lent the Times $250 million in exchange for deeply discounted stock options that eventually gave him a 17% stake in the company. But it would never be his.

All voting shares are held by the Ochs-Sulzberger Family Trust, established in 1997, controlled by a handful of descendants of Adolph Ochs’ only daughter and devoted to the proposition that some things are more important than money. SEC filings state the trust’s “primary objective” is that the Times continues “as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.” It must have been in that spirit that the company in 2009 suspended its dividend, the quarterly payout to stockholders that could bring $1 million a year to a member of the trust.

“I grew up in a family that had a lot of pride in this place and a lot of love for this place,” says Sulzberger, in his sixth-floor office in the Times building, which it is buying back this year. “And some of the bravest and most important moves made to protect this place were actually made by folks who never worked a day here, for whom the strength of this institution, particularly the strength of the newsroom, was the priority that we should always put first.”

And yet, the scion of the Times grew up determined to avoid the family business. His father Arthur Ochs Sulzberger had been publisher of the Times since A.G. was in middle school. His mother Gail Gregg had also worked as a journalist. But the son had an independent streak. He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and was in a bowling league. He worked on the paper at the private Fieldston School, but prepared for a career in something else, maybe the environment. Matt Baldwin, who has known Sulzberger since West End Collegiate preschool, associates him with a love of outdoors, including the city: ” Let’s go check out Staten Island today.” He was a picky eater.

“My form of contrarianism is I’m going to do something different, you know?” Sulzberger says. Becoming a journalist “just felt so predictable.” Unfortunately he showed talent in a feature-writing class at Brown and admired the penetrating critiques of the teacher, Tracy Breton, a Pulitzer Prize winner who coaxed him into an internship at a Providence, R.I., paper. “And so I gave it a shot. And ended up loving it.” He moved on to the Oregonian in Portland, and in 2009 agreed to come home to the Times.

Even–maybe especially–for a Sulzberger, the newsroom was hugely intimidating. The Times has won 127 Pulitzer Prizes, nearly twice as many as any other outlet, and projected the staid confidence of the Establishment it embodies. While his last name certainly got him a job at the Times and may have helped him onto the front page, it was the quality of his reporting and writing that landed him there some 40 times (though he may be best remembered for a Food section cover about being a vegetarian: meatless in the midwest: a tale of survival).

“Probably one of the quickest studies I’ve ever worked with,” says Adam Bryant, who was his editor when Sulzberger was the Kansas City bureau chief, where he landed after a year and a half in the newsroom. “He’s always learning and synthesizing and asking ‘What makes sense here?’ whether it’s a story, a leadership challenge or the strategy for the future of the New York Times.

In 2013, Sulzberger was back in New York, learning editing on the metro desk and looking forward to the possibility of the ultimate adventure as a foreign correspondent, when Keller’s successor as top editor, Jill Abramson, asked him to steer the committee on what the Times should be doing online. “I wasn’t exactly the most digital person in the newsroom,” he says. He didn’t have a Facebook account, and had posted on Twitter maybe twice. But he was told he had no choice.

“The miscasting ended up being a really good thing,” he says, articulating what would become his management method, “because I went in absolutely certain that I did not know enough and that I had to learn. As a reporter you know this, right? You think you have the story, and the more you talk to people, even when you’re hearing consistent things, not everyone else is connecting the dots. And at some you point you say, ‘Oh, here is the story.’ And to me the story was that the New York Times was holding the future at arm’s length.”

Not anymore. Five years later, the Times still publishes in print (and makes a nice profit on it) but seems to exist first and naturally in the digital realm. Stories appear in combinations of words, images, video, and graphics with a fluidity that feels both immediate and thoughtful. It can reconstruct a fatal avalanche, offer a tour of Guantánamo, get to the bottom of a chemical-weapons attack and take the reader with its architecture critic to a new office park he finds appalling.

And if it fails to grasp the idea of news alerts–the Times is much less likely to ping a phone with actual breaking news than with a tease for a story it wants to show off–there’s a lot to show off. The newsroom produces a major investigation or ambitious enterprise story almost daily–and in formats that serve both the reader and the Times. Consider the case of a rash of taxi-driver suicides in New York: It is one thing to read a long story explaining that the drivers were unable to pay their debts not because Uber was taking their fares, but because a mendacious city taxicab commission pumped the price of a medallion to levels that mathematically could not be paid back. But it’s something else to hear the reporter walk you through it all on The Daily and mention, in passing, “We talked to 450 people for this story.”

The newsroom gathers in April for Pulitzer announcements
The newsroom gathers in April for Pulitzer announcementsHiroko Masuike—The New York Times/Redux

Looming behind all this newness is the baggage that comes with “legacy” media. In the early 21st century the Times accumulated a string of controversies including employment of a fabulist reporter (Jayson Blair), the subsequent resignation of its top two editors and the interrogation of its pliant coverage of the George W. Bush Administration’s rationale for invading Iraq. Then on May 14, 2014, Sulzberger’s father fired Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor. One day later, a leaked copy of the Innovation Report appeared on BuzzFeed, baldly laying out the paper’s shortfalls in the digital realm, and the reasons.

But what could have been another scandal was read, both inside and outside the company, as a welcome dose of candor. The reaction became the first expression of a transformation nudging the Times toward the fail-forward culture of a startup. Lots of things were tried: The first smartphone app, NYT Now, turned out to be a flop, but was cannibalized wholesale to produce the one now on millions of phones–a long, rich scroll, constantly updated, that drives the newsroom metabolism as the front page used to. The cooking app launched in 2014, on the other hand, was an instant hit, and puzzles a no-brainer (“I take the paper for the crossword”). After years of seeing digital innovators leave in frustration, the Times became a magnet for web developers, multimedia producers, and product specialists who might do their work and move on. Most of the journalists who worked on the Innovation Report are no longer there.

“People come through. You’re not going to spend your whole life here,” says Dean Baquet, who succeeded Abramson, and persuaded Sulzberger to leave reporting to become head of newsroom strategy. “It’s constant experiment. Constantly trying things. Print did not allow for experimentation. It could not. It was like a manufacturing plant.”

The newcomers are shaping this newly flexible Times, sometimes into contortions that, once public, can resemble spectacles. In August, after a black female opinion contributor called out a white male editor for racial insensitivity on Twitter, the editor was demoted. It was all written up in the Times, along with the newsroom town hall where Baquet, who is African American, fielded questions from employees alive to issues around gender, race and patriarchy that are challenging workplaces everywhere. At the newspaper of record, the question was why it did not label the President “racist.” “This is hard stuff,” Baquet said.

The Daily was created by an arrival from public radio and took off like a shot with host Michael Barbaro, rising from 5.8 million downloads in February 2017 to 48 million in June 2019. It was, on one hand, an example of restlessness rewarded: the Times was present with a new form when appetite for that form soared. But it also revealed a unique resource the Times had not realized it could exploit: its newsroom of 1,600 brimmed with experts. And on The Daily, they sound careful, relatable, professional–a lot like a news story written to go online. The Internet, which has no time for throat clearing, required the Times to find a voice. “We can be our best version of ourselves, in a new medium, in a new way,” says Sam Dolnick, a Sulzberger cousin who oversees the podcast.

In June, the Times unveiled The Weekly, a half-hour documentary series backed by FX and Hulu, that seeks to join the ranks of Frontline and 60 Minutes. The taxi story was the second episode. Experiments with augmented and virtual reality also continue, says Sulzberger, who as an executive tends to hold to his conclusions fiercely. (“He can sometimes be convinced his point of view is not the right point of view,” says CEO Mark Thompson.) The long-term goal, Sulzberger says, is to cultivate relationships and build trust “with a whole different section of readers, by meeting them where they are, in the form that they want to be met at.”

To pay for all this, however, the company looked not to the future but to the past: it asked people to subscribe. And from that, more than money flowed.

This is where the story of the Times pierces the fog enveloping news and information the world over.

“We have to produce journalism worth paying for,” Sulzberger says, a lot. It’s something the print Times actually never stopped doing. To this day the largest share of the company’s revenue flows from its print edition–a splendid platform, valuable for ease of navigation, serendipity, graphics that can spread across two pages and the tactile pleasure of newsprint. A half-million readers have remained loyal as the annual price of a daily subscription can easily reach $1,000. At newsstands, the Sunday paper now goes for $6.

But on the Internet, people were conditioned to expect information to be free. When, in 2011, the Times began allowing only the first 20 (now 10) stories to land on your screen at no charge, then required payment, “it was a big bet,” says David Perpich, a Sulzberger cousin with an M.B.A. from Harvard who joined the Times as it instituted the paywall. “I don’t think we realized how big the bet would be and how important it would be.”

But there was no choice. For a hundred years, newspapers had relied chiefly on the sale of ads to cover most of the bills. The Internet made that impossible, scattering eyeballs across zillions of sites. You simply cannot support a newsroom on the money brought in by digital ads attached to news stories–no matter how viral your content.

BuzzFeed, founded on virality, laid off 200 journalists in 2019, and its leader is urging consolidation among other online newsrooms, a trend that has accelerated across the industry in recent weeks.

Still, among legacy outlets, only the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times (whose readers might expense their subscriptions) had dared erect a paywall by the time the Times did. Executives had no real idea how many people would pay money of their own. When subscriptions hit half a million, some wondered if a plateau had been reached. But as the digital product improved, so did the numbers. And the news certainly helped. Like ratings for cable news, subscriptions surged during the 2016 presidential contest, and soared after the result. For the Times, the “Trump bump”–more than 300,000 new subscriptions in the final quarter–would drop off in 2017. Subscriptions since have been roughly steady and mostly robust, nearing the halfway point on the road to 10 million.

“There is no greater media success story of the last eight years than the Times paywall,” says Jack Shafer, the media columnist for Politico.

But the breakthrough brought more than money. It also brought a direct connection with the reader, a channel bypassing everything the Internet (and especially social media) has put in the way. As a subscriber, you’re going somewhere specific for news, rather than finding it placed in front of you by an overpolitical uncle, or an algorithm engineered to encourage outrage because outrage means more time on the site. You have a direct line to a professional news organization, one with biases and flaws but also something else: responsibility for what it publishes.

Facebook and Instagram do not have the same responsibility. Neither does YouTube or any other part of the Internet. Congress absolved online platforms for most of what gets posted on them in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. At the time it passed, tech still looked like a force for unmitigated good.

What followed, of course, was a hard lesson in human nature, one with deep consequences for democracies, relying as they do on agreed-upon facts. The ambient confusion has been exploited by authoritarians, who label critical news coverage “fake” and push their preferred version of reality through state media, social media or private outlets that have sold out.

News organizations are businesses too, but–crucially–businesses based on providing what a citizen needs to know. The core transaction of a traditional news organization is a wholesome one, grounded in what might be called the civic impulse. That impulse is what drives editors to argue among themselves about what is worthy of the front page and what stirs a reader to examine it. It’s also what impelled the Sulzberger family to shovel money into a newsroom after it ceased to be lucrative.

Why didn’t this happen elsewhere? A generation ago, family ownership of a newspaper was regarded as what protected quality journalism from the predations of the markets the way the First Amendment protected it from the government. But most of the great newspaper families–the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, the Bancrofts of the Wall Street Journal, the Binghams of Louisville–did not survive even the flush times. “It’s usually a case of family members being really unhappy or the wrong person being put in the job with the result that the company blows up,” says Donald Graham, whose family sold the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013. “And that has never been the case at the New York Times. I’m happy to talk about A.G., I think this guy is aces.”

The fourth generation of the Ochs-Sulzbergers, led by A.G.’s father, took pains to ensure that other branches of the family were involved in choosing the new publisher, even hiring a psychologist specializing in dynastic succession in family-owned firms. When the competition formally opened sometime in 2015, all three cousins–Dolnick, Perpich and A.G.–raised their hands. And all remain with the company, where they are viewed with respect and some wonder.

“The three of them, it’s like they were grown in a lab,” says James Bennet, who edits the Times editorial page. “They’re young, but they kind of came of age as all this disruption was happening, and they must have been conscious that on their watch, whether the New York Times is going to survive is going to be a real question.”

Sulzberger found a partner in Times editor Baquet, left
Sulzberger found a partner in Times editor Baquet, leftMark Peterson—Redux for TIME

The existential challenges keep on coming. With murder surpassing combat as the leading cause of on-the-job fatality for journalists, Sulzberger no longer waits for a White House invitation to confront a U.S. President who demonizes independent reporters and cossets despots who jail and even kill them. The publisher noted in a Sept. 23 op-ed that the State Department has ceased warning U.S. journalists who face arrest abroad. When the Times‘ Cairo bureau chief was threatened, he had to be spirited to the airport by the Irish embassy.

Yet the primary destroyer of journalists remains the Internet, especially at the community level, where 1,800 local papers have been shuttered since 2004 and hedge funds joust to wring those that remain. To turn that around, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by charities, think tanks, and even Google and Facebook, which have a business interest in quality content: when Facebook set up a news feed highlighting local stories, it discovered a third of Americans lived where it could not find the five stories per day needed for “Today In.”

The responsible rich are also helping, investing in papers in Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and more. Should a proven template for subscriptions emerge, it’s not impossible to imagine someone of extravagant means seeding it in communities across the country the way public libraries were by Andrew Carnegie a century ago.

Is the Times that model? “If we can do 5 million, I do sort of wonder whether other American newspapers shouldn’t be aiming a bit higher,” says Thompson, the Times CEO. “I don’t think our advantages are so unique that others couldn’t do it. Journalism which can’t be paid for isn’t going to exist.”

It may be a question of scale. “The Internet, traditionally, is winner take most,” notes Rich Greenfield, a media-technology analyst. And Jodi Rudoren left her job as a senior Times strategist to edit the Forward to try to discover a way for smaller media like the Jewish news outlet to survive. “The Times model may work for a couple of places,” she says, “but it absolutely will not work for the many journalistic enterprises we need for a vibrant democracy.”

One challenge of a “subscriber-led” approach is all too evident in the age of Trump: people take sides. The Times‘ marketing slogan–“The truth is worth it”–itself walks the line between fearless reporting and confrontation. On Twitter there were calls to cancel subscriptions in early August over a stenographic headline (Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism) that was changed for the next edition. “They are completely reader-focused now,” says Shafer. “And I think that’s why Dean Baquet went on his groveling tour to explain what was just a sh-tty headline.”

In many ways, the fevered attention signals the stakes–for the leader of a free press, in a fraught world. So for the Times, perhaps the trickiest part may be signing subscribers who do not fret about the Republic but are keen on movies, science, books–the world the Times has always offered. A parenting app is being weighed. Among the opportunities of the digital world is leaving behind baggage, including the long-held reputation as an “elite” read. “There’s a percentage of people who will listen to The Daily every day who don’t know it’s from the New York Times,” Sulzberger says. And each can become a subscriber for $15 a month–less, with promotions. That’s why Facebook, Instagram and the rest still feature in the Times‘ strategy. Those first 10 free stories have to appear somewhere, and the Times gathers page views on the scale of Fox News and CNN. The idea is to cast the net as widely as possible for subscribers and then, with each scroll, tap and alert, become as much a part of daily life through the phone as the newspaper once was.

That means treating the reader with a certain deference. If your data is mined, it’s done relatively lightly. The Times invites advertisers to buy ads in stories based not on who’s reading them but on the emotional response a story evokes, like “happy” or “inspiration.” In May, a Times rep informed an auditorium of advertising buyers, “We now have more than 18 emotions available.” What advertisers are really buying is something rare on the Internet: a committed relationship.

Only subscribers, for instance, get access to “Times Insider,” featuring interviews with reporters and behind-the-scenes accounts of major stories. It’s a daily, online version of something older, the annual Family Assembly, when members of the Sulzberger family gather at the Times headquarters for a day.

“We invite a foreign correspondent every year to talk about what they do,” says Sulzberger, explaining how it works. “And the reporters are always asking me, like, ‘What should I expect? What’s the crowd going to be like?’ And I would say, ‘Like, they’re just the biggest fans of the New York Times.'”

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