There is no doubt that the Jayson Blair outrage has created a crisis at the New York Times. And since the scandal caps a long series of complaints about the paper’s leftward bias, the Blair affair’s power to hurt the Times has become more than the sum of its parts. Yet those who believe that the New York Times is on the ropes are fooling themselves.
Beneath the well-publicized controversies over the Times’ ideological bias lie a couple of lesser known and intertwined stories: the tale of Times owner, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and of the business strategy that he and his associates have crafted. For some years now, Sulzberger has been bent on world domination — literally. The New York Times is a whole lot closer to consolidating a stranglehold over the world’s newspaper business than its detractors realize. The Blair affair may have exposed the papers’ vulnerability, but without understanding the personal and business background of this conflict, there will be no way out of our national newspaper dilemma.
Howell Raines is not the real issue, and getting rid of Raines won’t solve anything. The problem is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and he’s not going away. In his wonderful book, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace), Harry Stein lays out the disturbing facts about “Pinch” Sulzberger. (Sulzberger’s father was nicknamed “Punch,” and the none too flattering nickname for Junior is “Pinch.”)
Pinch was a political activist in the Sixties, and was twice arrested in anti-Vietnam protests. One day, the elder Sulzberger asked his son what Pinch calls, “the dumbest question I’ve ever heard in my life.” If an American soldier runs into a North Vietnamese soldier, which would you like to see get shot? Young Arthur answered, “I would want to see the American get shot. It’s the other guy’s country.” Some Sixties activists have since thought better of their early enthusiasms. Pinch hasn’t.
Sulzberger once remarked that if older white males were alienated by the changes he was making to the Times, that would only prove “we’re doing something right.” Clearly, by Pinch’s standards, the Times has lately been doing very well indeed. Around the time Sulzberger Jr. took over the reins of the Times, then Executive Editor Max Frankel admitted (with no apparent shame) that he had put a halt to the hiring of non-blacks and “set up an unofficial little quota system.” So it’s wrong to put the Blair affair entirely onto Howell Raines’s well-known white guilt. Sulzberger has been imposing these policies on the Times since well before the accession of Raines.
It would be easy to dismiss Pinch Sulzberger as an ideologue and a lightweight, who just happens to have inherited the world’s most powerful paper. The nickname invites ridicule. So does the stuffed moose that Pinch and others at the Times haul out whenever they want to talk about sensitive topics. An ideologue Pinch may be, but a lightweight he is not. On the contrary, Sulzberger has steered his paper to ever greater heights of business success. Sulzberger’s accomplishments need to be taken seriously.
Washington Post staff writer, Frank Ahrens, published a long and important story this past March detailing the Times business strategy. Sulzberger Jr. was a power at the Times throughout the Nineties, but particularly in the past six years, he has guided the paper with a focused and comprehensive business plan. That plan is largely the design of Times chief executive, Russell Lewis, who came to his post at just about the time Pinch took over the paper’s top job. Clearly, though, Sulzberger is the ultimate decision maker, and a full player in the execution of the paper’s business strategy.
Sulzberger’s father had acquired a variety of media units, essentially as insurance against periods of low advertising revenue at the Times. Sulzberger and Lewis designed a plan to expand the sales, influence, and brand recognition of the Times far beyond New York. In the process, they dumped any media holdings that did not directly advance that goal. Sulzberger and Lewis targeted the political-cultural elite (what they call “the knowledge audience”) throughout the world. Their goal was to make the New York Times the paper of those who control culture and government, wherever they might live. Sulzberger’s pedigree may have enabled him to forgo the “long march through the institutions” that his fellow Sixties activists undertook. But the audacity of his plan more than made up for the ease of Sulzberger’s ascent.
In less than a decade, Sulzberger and Lewis have transformed the Times from a New York paper to a national product. Nearly half of the Times’ daily circulation, and close to 90 percent of its advertising revenue, come from outside the New York metropolitan area. Remarkably, New York Times Digital, the division of the company that runs the websites of the Times and the Boston Globe, has just turned a profit — something rare for an online operation. And the Times recently completed a deal with the Discovery Channel, which will soon start broadcasting some special series featuring reporters from the Times. Making money from the newly acquired cable channel is almost secondary to the goal of extending the Times brand nationally. In the years since its adoption, Sulzberger’s ambitious strategy has yielded a steadily rising stock price, higher profits, increased circulation, and a jump in advertising revenues.
But the ultimate target of Lewis and Sulzberger is the world. For about a year, the Times has had a deal with France’s Le Monde to insert an eight page English-language supplement of Times stories into the Saturday edition. A similar arrangement has been in place with a Mexican newspaper chain for about six months. And the Times recently announced comparable deals with papers in Denmark, the Dominican Republic, India, and El Salvador.
Only in light of this plan to spread the Times brand across the world can we understand the recent dustup between the New York Times and the Washington Post over ownership of the International Herald Tribune. The Herald Tribune had long been a symbol of the American expatriate community in Europe, and throughout the world. Jointly owned by the Times and the Post, the Herald Tribune had an independent editorial policy, and was fully beholden to neither paper. But with their plans to expand throughout the world, Sulzberger and Lewis soon realized that they would be competing with their own joint holding with the Post (i.e. they would be competing with the International Herald Tribune).
The result was an unfriendly buyout of the Post’s half ownership of the Herald Tribune, and the sacking of the Tribune’s editor, when he insisted on keeping an independent editorial line. Post owner Donald Graham was indignant at the buyout attempt. Graham was less interested in the Post’s profit than in protecting the independent tradition of the International Herald Tribune — a tradition almost sacred to his mother, Katharine Graham, and to Sulzberger’s own father as well. But Graham was forced to sell out when Sulzberger threatened to start a competing European edition of the New York Times, and to withdraw Times subsidies for the Herald Tribune’s frequent losses.
So are Pinch Sulzberger and his New York Times about to take over the world? They’re certainly on their way. But there are obstacles and vulnerabilities as well. While the Times has successfully gone national, hometown circulation has been slipping badly. The Times has lost 45,000 readers in New York City since 1998, while its tabloid competition has soared. The New York Post, now chockfull of excellent, often conservative, columnists, has gained more than 100,000 readers since 2000. And while the Times is national, its readers are disproportionately concentrated in the New York, Boston, Washington corridor, as well as in college towns and parts of big cities in the heartland — an almost perfect picture of blue America. Yet over in neighboring New Jersey, USA Today outsells the New York Times.
Overseas, the Times is a growing power, but knowledgeable businessmen still read the overseas editions of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. American tourists go for USA Today. But the Times is gaining a lock on its target audience — the cultural and political elite.
So the New York Times is well on its way to world domination. Yet the story of its growth does reveal vulnerabilities. Times losses in New York, and its limited appeal in the heartland show that there is room for a thoughtful and more moderate paper to break into a national market. Of course, the Wall Street Journal, with its conservative editorial and op-ed pages already plays this role to some extent. But the Journal’s coverage of basic news will always remain thin. The Washington Times offers much needed balance to the New York Times, and there may well be a place for an overtly conservative national paper. But the country needs a middle ground “paper of record” and, frankly, the New York Times needs to feel the heat that can only come from an infringement on its subscription base. Only the Washington Post can quickly achieve that, by going national and challenging the Times.
I was delighted to see Mickey Kaus pick up on “Post Rising,” where I first floated the suggestion that the Post challenge the Times by going national. Kaus, along with Andrew Sullivan, has been a wonderfully effective scourge of the Times. Kaus is all for the Post going national, but he doubts Post owner Donald Graham will take the dare. As I suggested in “Post Rising,” and as Kaus believes as well, Graham is too comfortable keeping the Post a profitable, but local, enterprise.
I think Donald Graham is focused on a certain vision of stewardship. He wants to preserve the institutions — almost sacred institutions — that he inherited from his illustrious ancestors. Why risk that inheritance with an uncertain bid for a national audience? If I had an argument to put to Graham, it would be this: Sometimes stewardship is impossible without change. Straightforward stewardship couldn’t save the International Herald Tribune, because your partner in that enterprise had fundamentally changed his business philosophy. And as Sulzberger himself pointed out, the Times was able to win the battle over the Herald Tribune because it could leverage the power of a national advertising base that the Post lacked. So the lesson of the Herald Tribune battle is that sometimes you have to run just to stay in place. The New York Times is gunning to become the dominant voice of controlling cultural and political opinion throughout the world. That isn’t good for the United States, and it isn’t good for the rest of the world. If the Washington Post is going to continue to be a balance and a counterweight to the New York Times, it’s going to have to grow, just like the Times. If it doesn’t, the Post may someday be crushed, just as it was crushed in the International Herald Tribune deal.
To this refugee from the academy, the contrasting stories of the New York Times and the Washington Post look a lot more familiar than I’d like. I can’t help but think of all those fair-minded but feckless liberal faculty members unable to turn back the aggressive and ideologically motivated takeover plans of the tenured radicals. Pinch Sulzberger knows what he’s doing alright, and there’s no way to stop him except through direct competition. Bill Kristol sees that, too, and suggests that someone found a new national paper to take on the Times. Maybe Kristol is thinking of Conrad Black and some of the other folks who now fund the New York Sun. There’s a plan. In any case, Sulzberger is well dug in, and despite the Blair scandal, he’s a clear financial success.
One time Boston Globe reporter, David Warsh, has just put out a fine piece attacking Sulzberger, and even raising the possibility of Sulzberger’s cousins deciding to replace him. But I think Warsh is underplaying Sulzberger’s business success. Given that, the only sound strategy for change is competition. Even were Sulzberger to go, this country and the world need a fine paper to competes with the New York Times.
Talk radio, the Internet, the blogosphere, Fox News…it’s all been grand. And it will all go on. But so long as the New York Times remains the dominant, growing, and unchallenged newspaper power in the nation — and now the world — the problem of media bias will remain. Will anyone rise to the challenge?