Paper King of the Gray Lady


My conclusion is simple. Nepotism works.

— Arthur Ochs Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger has left us aged 86, though the old gray lady he was a steward to still remains, casting her lingering shadow over the publishing world, wrinkles and all.  The shadow of the New York Times has not always been a consistently cast one. The paper has maintained its aristocratic front for decades, but Sulzberger’s time saw it transform into a profitable, multi-sectioned grandiosity.

That particular era was monarchical and expansive, covering 34 years.  In 1963, the man nicknamed “Punch” took over as publisher (his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs having bought the paper in 1896), finding the coffers in a poor state. If the words of his father on seeing him at birth were anything to go by, Punch had certainly acquitted himself well.  Service in the Marines certainly bolstered his flagging confidence, though he saw little combat, courtesy of an understanding between General Macarthur and his father.

Some of the paper’s figures during Punch’s tenure are impressive – the 31 Pulitzer prizes the publication netted, and the increased circulation from 714,000 in 1963 to 1.1 million in 1992.  Annual revenues climbed from $100 million to a healthy $1.7 billion (AP, Sep 30). In the 1990s, the reins of power were passed to Arthur Sulzberger Jr..

The gray lady, for that reason, ceased being one during Sulzberger’s time.  Colour presses were brought in, as did special themed sections that could hardly, in the old credo of the paper, be deemed “news”. Dry stories and serious commentary was interspersed with luxury and food sections. The paper became one of national record, a country’s barometric metre.

The various court battles fought by the paper under Sulzberger were intense. In 1964, the US Supreme Court found in New York Times v. Sullivan that the press was protected from libel suits initiated by public figures unless evidence of actual malice could be shown.  That malice would take the form of knowledge of a statement’s falsity or reckless disregard to whether it was true or false.

When it came to his 1971 editorial decision to run the classified Defense Department history of US involvement in Vietnam, he framed the traditional position on whether such “state secrets” needed to be given a public airing.  Releasing the Pentagon Papers in defiance of various requests not to do so was “not a breach of national security,” Sulzberger emphatically stated.  “We gave away no national secrets.  We didn’t jeopardise any American soldiers or marines overseas.”  Rarely has the First Amendment had such defenders, and Sulzberger certainly feared the consequences of his decision.

There is a hushed manner the Sulzbergers tend to be described by, creatures curiously adapted to the world of the paper mill yet seemingly at odds with modern corporate viciousness.  When a rapacious Rupert Murdoch went, and got, the Wall Street Journal, the contrast with the Bancroft family, who had relinquished their crown jewels, was drawn.  Joe Hagan, writing for New York Magazine (Oct 13, 2008), illustrated the point.  “The Sulzberger family is a different clan from the Bancrofts, who were divided by trust funds and populated with restless socialites and horse enthusiasts whose hobbies required access to substantial funds.”

This is not to suggest that the Sulzbergers have not been a colourful family brimming with quirks.  The Trust: the Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (1999), a biography of these New York dynasts by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones reveals them to be creatures of self-deprecating humour and abundant mischief.  They radiated power, but never gave the impression they aspired to it.

That said, the sustained and unflagging nepotism behind the paper – glibly remarked upon by Punch Sulzberger himself – has created an impenetrable mythology, the cult of the paper mill and the hallmark of traditional family business.  So much so that “Young Arthur” made a point of preventing an incursion by Stanley Investment Management to challenge the family’s control over the paper.  Whether that sustains itself remains to be seen. The whirly gig of time is turning.

The Times story is itself one of variation. The social Darwinist tendencies of the print industry have made the paper format difficult to sustain.  Decisions made by Sulzberger – take the acquisition of the Boston Globe – were not exactly top drawer deals, leading to substantial write downs.  There have been declines in the stock price under Sulzberger Jr.  Decisions were made when the paper was doing well to buy back stock rather than invest in new properties.

The Times can no longer be said to be merely the paper one receives in the mail.  It is myriad, protean, comprising multiple digital forms and a bewildering assortment of online formats.  In 2007, when Young Arthur was asked about the pressures of the digital future, he exclaimed that he wasn’t sure “whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what?  I don’t care either” (American Journalism Review, April-May 2007).  Despite such pressures, the Sulzberger family have shown their mettle as the surviving aristocrats of the newspaper industry.  And Punch Sulzberger proved to be one of the best ones.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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