annals of communications
The New Yorker - June 28, 1993
opening up the times
Can the New York Times, America's family-owned newspaper of record, function as a democracy? Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who succeeded his father as publisher a year and a half ago, wants to change the power structure of the Times. And he has put his top editors through some soul-searching to see if they can make it happen.
On the surface, the New York Times, the world's most majestic newspaper, retains its serenity. Its circulation has grown steadily. Its leadership is secure. Beneath the surface, however, the paper is absorbed in a struggle over change and direction, of which the recent purchase of the Boston Globe, for a billion one hundred million dollars, is merely one indication. Another indication is what Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., who has been publisher of the Times for seventeen months now, has been putting his executives through--the equivalent of an Outward Bound adventure. True, they have not been asked to climb rocks or go rafting in white water, and they have not been asked to pitch tents and live in the wild for twenty-eight days--something that Sulzberger did when he was in high school. He recalls that experience as "a defining moment for me," because, he says, "it pushed me to limits in places I just had never been." What the editors and the executives of the Times have been asked to endure instead is an intense emotional search for the kind of "self-discovery" and "teamwork" that Outward Bound extolls.
Last September, in a speech to his advertising-sales force, Sulzberger acknowledged the difficulties he foresaw at the Times by announcing, bluntly, "Change sucks." But despite the pain that change entails, he said, the Times "must reject the comfort factor"--must stretch itself, as he had done in Outward Bound. Sulzberger is, of course, aware of the multitude of business questions that the Times must confront. Will it continue to print on paper, or will it distribute news only electronically? Will it be a national or an international paper? What will its advertising base be? Will technology be an ally or an enemy?
Sulzberger knows that the immediate question looming largest over the Times is the strength of its New York advertising base. While the paper's daily circulation for 1992 was an all-time high of 1,181,500 copies, advertising linage has fallen about forty per cent since 1987. Five years ago, the Times ran a hundred and twenty-three million lines of advertising; last year's total was only seventy-seven million lines, though the decline has now slowed. Partly because of a weakened local economy, and partly because of special accounting changes and charges, the New York Times Company reported a net loss of 44.7 million dollars in 1992.
Sulzberger is also aware of another potential pitfall: family discord. "The nightmare is that we as a family won't get along," says one cousin, Michael Golden, who runs the Times Company's women's magazine group. "I don't see that happening. We work hard to see that it doesn't happen." Still, the family is certainly mindful of how dissent among the offspring shattered the Bingham newspaper family and the Gallo wine family. Arthur Sulzberger's father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Sr., known as Punch, who is now the chairman and chief executive officer of the company, and Punch Sulzberger's sisters--Marian S. Heiskell, Ruth S. Holmberg, and Judith P. Sulzberger--have a total of thirteen children among them, four of whom have prominent management jobs at the New York Times Company. (A fifth, Susan W. Dryfoos, directs the New York Times History Project.) The family has set up a trust allowing Punch Sulzberger and his three sisters to select trustees to succeed them when they die. The trust controls over eighty per cent of Class B stock, in effect assuring the family dominance of the Times Company for at least another century.
There are a lot of additional cousins who have a stake in the company's future: fifty-seven family members attended the last reunion. In addition to Arthur, Jr., and Michael Golden, the cousins who have major roles in the company are Stephen Golden, who runs the forest-products group, and Daniel H. Cohen, who is the director of the promotion department at the newspaper. "You can't keep them all feeling enfranchised," one cousin says. "You've just got to keep some of them--the descendant children--involved in the business. If we can keep that core together, we've got a chance of keeping it all together." But to keep the cousins feeling enfranchised may require that one of them get one of the two top jobs at the company, publisher of the Times or chairman and C.E.O. "It seems to me it's got to be that way, unless they reorganize," Michael Golden says. His cousin Arthur, he adds, "has Punch's confidence, as well he should."
At present, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., prefers to concentrate not on the question of profit or the question of succession at the company but on changing the atmosphere at the paper, and on altering how the Times itself is managed. The war that he wants to wage right now is against an authoritarian decision-making process that exists on both the news and the business sides of the Times--a process that he believes breeds insularity and saps initiative. He makes this point by recalling, as he did for the sales staff last September, a question that Todd S. Purdum, then the City Hall bureau chief, had raised at a staff luncheon in January of 1992. This luncheon was the first of many get-in-touch-with-your-employees gatherings that Sulzberger has initiated, and Purdum brought the proceedings to a hush with his question: "Why is there so much fear at the New York Times?"
Although the question made his editors squirm, Sulzberger welcomed it. "The cost of allowing fear to permeate our newspaper is too high a cost for us to bear," he told his sales force in September. "Fear breeds mediocrity. . . .Some argue that fear is an inherent by-product of any structure based on hierarchy. I can't swear that's true, but I suspect it is. And if it is true, our course is clear. For the New York Times to become all it can and for it to flourish in the years ahead, we must reduce our dependency on hierarchy in decision-making of every sort."
To counter this hierarchy, Sulzberger has prescribed the management theories of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a professor emeritus at New York University and a business philosopher whose theories helped revitalize Japanese industry after the Second World War. Sulzberger and a team of Times managers studied Deming's theories during four days of seminars in Washington in 1990. Sulzberger first came across Deming when he read David Halberstam's book about the auto industry, "The Reckoning." Deming says that businesses must strive for "quality," and that they can achieve it by relying on two basic tenets: first, a scientific approach that seeks to quantify the production process mathematically, so that managers rely on data rather than anecdotes in making decisions; and, second, a more humanistic management, which depends on teamwork, not on orders, to get results.
Sulzberger is a man of remarkable self-assurance. Now forty-one years old, he has a full head of curly dark hair and a lean, firm physique. He lives on Central Park West, and works out at a West Side gym five mornings a week, goes on weekend rock-climbing expeditions, and spends an annual "Rambo weekend" braving the elements with three friends--his cousin Dan Cohen; Cohen's brother-in-law, Paul Hanafin; and Steven Rattner, an investment banker and former Times reporter. At work, Sulzberger often wanders through the Times offices, on West Forty-third Street, in colorful striped shirts and bright suspenders. He knows that his editors are sometimes irritated by his remarks, and he also knows that they have reason to be proud of their accomplishments. Under Max Frankel, as executive editor, they have improved the writing in the Times, have provided readers with more analytical stories, have sharpened the Sunday magazine and the sports and metropolitan sections, have hired more women and minorities for the newsroom, and have given individual writers greater freedom in how they write. Still, Sulzberger seems to some editors to prefer to dwell on the paper's weaknesses rather than on its strengths.
Sulzberger is more visible and more direct than any of his predecessors at the Times. After his morning workout, he takes a bus or the subway to work, and usually reads the paper between seven o'clock and eight-thirty. He frequently answers his own phone. He takes reporters to lunch or dinner. He insists that every reporter and editor hired by the Times have a private introductory audience in his office, on the eleventh floor. On the walls of this office are framed pictures of his great-grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896 and led it for nearly four decades; his grandfather, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as publisher from 1935 to 1961; and his uncle Orvil E. Dryfoos, who died after just two years as publisher. Arthur Sulzberger, Sr., succeeded Dryfoos, and was publisher for nearly three decades. Things have changed considerably since Arthur, Jr., became publisher. In years past, it was rare for a reporter simply to stroll into the publisher's office, but the door to Sulzberger's office is open, and journalists regularly visit him. "I've had conversations with Arthur I never could have had with Arthur, Sr.," Brent Staples, a member of the editorial board, says. "Punch is a lovely and a generous man, but Arthur and I are the same age and the same generation. And if I can get to see him and vent my opinions then a lot of other people are also coming to his office." Not surprisingly, this direct access sometimes discomforts his editors, though none complain.
The signals that Sulzberger is sending through his actions are unmistakable: he is eager to change the Times, and is impatient with the resistance he sometimes encounters. He wants more minority employees in executive positions. He wants more women in executive positions. He wants a less authoritarian newsroom and a business side that is more nimble. He wants each member of the staff to feel "empowered" as part of a team. "One of his missions is to humanize the place," Steven Rattner, who exercises daily with Sulzberger at the West Side gym, says. About all his objectives Sulzberger is fervent. In response to complaints about morale or the slow pace of change in the newsroom or on the business side, he has said of his managers, with a mixture of determination, cunning, and bravado, "I'll outlive the bastards!"
YOUNG ARTHUR, as he's sometimes called, to distinguish him from his father, had prepared to become publisher of the paper from the time he was very young indeed. He dreamed of this job as a boy living with his mother after his parents divorced, when he was four. His cousin Dan Cohen recalls that on the occasions when they got together and played soldiers "Arthur wanted to be the general." When asked what he aspired to be, Arthur would respond, "Publisher of the New York Times." Punch Sulzberger looks back on his son's apprenticeship at the paper--fourteen years spent as, progressively, reporter, assignment editor, advertising manager, corporate-planning analyst, production executive, assistant publisher, and deputy publisher--and says, "He certainly was better trained than I was. . . . He's been a great source of joy and pride to me. I voluntarily handed over the job to him with my eyes wide open. And I haven't regretted it for a day."
Since becoming publisher, on January 16, 1992, the son has imposed a style of management very different from that of his father. The father says, "We are a newspaper that has to come out every day, and it's not a democracy." Conversely, the son champions democracy in the newsroom. The father remained social friends with Sydney Gruson, the company's vice-chairman; A. M. Rosenthal, the paper's executive editor; Arthur Gelb, the managing editor; and James L. Greenfield, an assistant managing editor. By contrast, in recent years the son has deliberately formed all his close friendships outside the Times, and no longer regularly socializes with such longtime friends as Paul Goldberger, the cultural editor; Steven R. Weisman, a deputy foreign editor; Philip Taubman, a deputy national editor; and Judith Miller, a writer. Unlike his father, who served on the board of trustees of Columbia University and was chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the son has rejected invitations to serve on the board of Barnard College and other institutions, in order to avoid any appearance of conflict with his duties as publisher; the only boards on which he serves are ones that are related to his business (he is on the boards of the Times Square Business Improvement District and the Newspaper Association of America) and two that he says he chose to "grandfather in" when he became publisher (the New York City Outward Bound Center and North Carolina Outward Bound School).
"He's much more hands-on than Punch ever was," Anna Quindlen, who is an old friend and was the first Times columnist chosen by the son, says. (This was done at his father's invitation, just before young Arthur became publisher.) "Where they're alike is that both have a sense of family trust, to keep this paper better than anything else."
"Punch was much more magisterial in personnel decisions," Max Frankel observes. "He was not managing the paper. Arthur set out, and I think rightly so, to steep himself deeply in the affairs of every department."
To promote his vision of change, the younger Sulzberger has invited all employees to Town Hall for a series of question-and-answer sessions with him; he has initiated management retreats; he has installed a new editorial-page editor--Howell Raines, a former chief of the Washington bureau--and has encouraged a less formal, populist voice on a once mostly solemn page; he has recently hired Bob Herbert, formerly of the News, as the paper's first black columnist; and he has pressed the editors to consult their staff more than they have done in the past and to adopt a bottom-up, not top-down, approach. "If people in this organization are getting any single message from senior management, it is that we are trying to open up," Sulzberger says. "We are trying to become more egalitarian."
Sulzberger says that his greatest challenge will be to bring more racial diversity and sexual equality to the paper. This effort was under way long before he took over as publisher, since it conforms to what one reporter calls "the implicit assumption" at the Times, which is "moderate liberal." Frankel, who became executive editor in 1986, says, "One of the first things I did was stop the hiring of non-blacks and set up an unofficial little quota system." The new publisher applauded Frankel's hiring policies and also the newsroom's more extensive coverage of women and gays, despite grumbling by some members of the staff that the Times was becoming politically correct. At the last two annual meetings of the National Association of Black Journalists, Gerald M. Boyd, the metropolitan editor, recalls, Sulzberger gave dinners to recruit black reporters. "When people see a publisher so engaged, as Arthur is engaged, it makes a hell of a difference," Boyd says, and he points out that last year they hired two of four people they had targeted at a Detroit dinner. The reason the paper should advance minorities, says Dean P. Baquet, a Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Chicago Tribune andis black, has to do less with justicethan with good reporting. "It's because the ideal newspaper is made up of as many smart people from as many different backgrounds as possible," he says. "Small newspapers don't have that mix. How often do you see obituaries of Chinese-Americans? Why? Because there aren't many Chinese reporters."
Ninety per cent of the news executives on the Times masthead are male, and not one is black or brown. "When you get to department and section heads, it gets better--forty-two per cent women," says Suzanne Daley, the first assistant metropolitan editor, who is active in the women's committee at the Times. "But if you study the people on the masthead you see that they come from the big-five areas"--financial, the Washington bureau, and the metropolitan, foreign, and national desks. "If you look at the managers of these desks, it's about eighty per cent men at the head and deputy level."
The Book Review editor, Rebecca Sinkler, says, "The Times is so big and powerful that changing it is like teaching a hippopotamus how to tango. Moving the hippopotamus around is frustratingly slow. You find yourself getting all juiced up with an idea of how to do something," but what with the memos and the meetings and the search for consensus, she said, change is often measured in inches. The slow pace of change has been a constant source of frustration to the new publisher. He was exasperated that it took so long to launch the new Styles of the Times and an expanded metropolitan section on Sundays, to get color printing in the works, to induce the news and business sides of the paper to speak more freely.
To speed the pace, Sulzberger instituted a series of five retreats, the first one involving the members of the newspaper's business masthead. (There are eleven of them, including the publisher.) The retreats began in October of 1992 and ran through January of this year. Unlike the traditional company-wide retreats, including a three-day gathering of managers in Princeton in May, Arthur, Jr.,'s would be less polite, for he believes that self-discovery and candor flow from conflict and adversity and that improved teamwork will follow. That's how Outward Bound works. To promote discussion, he drafted a brief statement describing a journalistic and business value system that Times employees might embrace. The purpose was to test "our assumptions as to what we were, what we really stand for," he says, and explains, "If you go into any process of re-creating an organization, you better damn well have agreement as to what can't change. What is it that above everything else we hold sacred?"
There was probably a hidden purpose in the retreats as well. "I believe it was his ambition to say, 'I'd like to redefine the job of publisher,' " says Jack Rosenthal, who is now an assistant managing editor and the editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, and who as the editorial-page editor from 1986 until this January worked closely with both Sulzbergers. One headache that a publisher at the Times confronts, the elder Sulzberger says, is this: "We don't operate in the form of a triangle, with the publisher at the top. We are more like a forest of trees, with everything growing straight up." There was reluctance in the news department to share information, he says, adding, "If an advertising man was found on the news floor, he'd practically be lynched. We've got a lot better." The son, however, did not accept a basic premise of his father's, which was that the publisher had to mediate all differences between the business and the news sides of the paper. "It seems to me that Arthur's hope was 'We're all grownups--can't we find a consensus model?' " Rosenthal says. The publisher didn't want to referee differences; he wanted one team.
That first retreat, for the business side, was held last October 16th at the Times' new printing plant, in Edison, New Jersey. Sulzberger brought along Doug Wesley, a management consultant who served as the "facilitator," and distributed copies of his draft statement on values. He challenged the managers to welcome change, to be less hierarchical, to be fearless. There were, of course, the usual complaints about how the news department treated the business employees like second-class citizens, but the dialogue livened up after Wesley remarked that one out of every four companies that started a process of change had dropped it. "Those agents of change at lower levels find themselves out on limbs, and often their limbs get cut," he said. A three-hour debate followed, with the business people challenging Sulzberger by asking this basic question: "Arthur, how do we know you won't take us down the road of change and then abandon us?"
The retreat ended inconclusively, and over the next several weeks the publisher summoned the business-side executives to two more such meetings, at which they argued over what change meant and wrestled with the statement of values. Sulzberger was pleased by the dialogue. "These meetings have to become contentious or you're not digging deep enough," he says. "You're testing your fundamental assumptions about what you believe in."
The first retreat for the news side was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut, on December 1st and 2nd. All the senior editors then on the masthead--eight white men and one white woman--were invited, along with a sprinkling of others one or two rungs down. All the participants--there were twenty--gathered around a horseshoe-shaped Formica table in a conference room, and Wesley worked from inside the horseshoe, often pacing from an overhead projector to a portable easel, multicolored markers in hand to jot down the salient discussion points.
Some of the news executives quickly came to feel that Wesley was acting the part of Grand Inquisitor. He started the first morning by discussing the statement of values, and then jarred everyone by changing the subject and encouraging people to speak candidly about their frustrations in the newsroom--about the fear, the authoritarianism. When they resisted, Sulzberger himself weighed in, describing his own unhappiness with communications at the paper. He challenged Max Frankel and his staff to practice bottom-up rather than top-down management, to open themselves to change, to be--well, nicer.
MAX FRANKEL tends to bristle at the notion of "nice," and not just because it's a nebulous word. Ever since he replaced Abe Rosenthal as executive editor, he has thought of himself as the man who made the newsroom less authoritarian and lifted the sense of fear felt by many Times employees. He doesn't exile people, as Rosenthal was accused of doing. He doesn't personalize. He relies less on instinct than on fact. To Frankel, it was a fact that he inherited a great newspaper and a great staff and made them even greater. Whatever the complaints about Rosenthal, few people deny that he was a brilliant editor with exacting standards who led the paper during a period of historic growth. But Frankel sees himself as a more avuncular figure than Rosenthal, and he looks the part: he has a round face and thinning gray hair. Jeffrey Schmalz, an assistant national editor who covers gay issues for the Times, and who has AIDS and collapsed in the newsroom two and a half years ago, tells of Frankel's walking by his desk this year to wish him a happy New Year: Frankel left the newsroom but then returned, leaned over Schmalz's desk, and said, "I especially thought of you on New Year's Eve, and I'm glad you have another year."
Frankel believes that the newsroom is filled with "tension," not "fear." He does not see himself as an intimidating figure, except in one respect: "I know I can't walk into a huddle in the newsroom without everyone falling silent. . . . I wish I could be closer down in the chatting and gossip range," he said recently. Frankel was born in Gera, Germany, in April of 1930, and came to the United States with his mother in 1940. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia in 1952, and went on to earn a graduate degree in government there. Beginning in 1952, he held a variety of jobs at the Times, including Washington bureau chief and editorial-page editor. Not surprisingly, Frankel disdains the kind of emotional, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings approach favored in programs like Outward Bound. At work, he is dour. When Frankel is asked if he thinks that the newsroom is joyless, he responds, "Joyless? No. Do I feel overworked and overburdened? Yes. I say sometimes in jest that the only time I enjoy the New York Times is when I'm away and reading it, because from the moment I come in the door what I hear about is what's gone wrong." At the December retreat for the news side in Greenwich, Frankel said of the paper's daily page-one meetings, at which the editors discuss how the day's news will be played, "I've got to make an omelette, and to do that I've got to break some eggs."
Wesley wanted to discuss the page-one meetings. They are conducted by Frankel, with the editors gathered around an oval table in his conference room. At the time, Frankel and Joseph Lelyveld, the managing editor, would sit at one end of the table, and Frankel, in his own words, had "forty-five minutes to play tutor." When he found that an editor was unprepared to answer his rigorous questions about a story, he might suddenly raise his fists to his temples or roll his eyes or simply erupt.
Joe Lelyveld, who is fifty-six, can be just as severe. In his previous job, as foreign editor, he would interrupt editors in mid-sentence, because they were laboring to explain something he already understood. In one sense, Lelyveld is known as a reporters' editor, and not just because he is considered to have been a model correspondent, who combined lively writing with assiduous reporting. Three and a half years ago, when he became No. 2 in the newsroom, he sent a memorandum to editors warning that he wanted "to be as tough on overediting as we are on sloppy prose," and suggesting that if a story needed a sharper focus "the first choice . . . should be to have the writer do it." Like Frankel, he is admired for his probity and his intelligence, but both men are widely accused of talking down to the staff. "They've tried hard to open the newsroom up," one reporter has complained, "but rarely is there a vehicle for Max or Joe to sit down and say, 'What about our coverage of the city? Of culture?' There is no basic discussion of coverage. The coverage is all dictated." Editors voice similar complaints. One editor observes, "They're like Prime Ministers. They're always exhorting."
Neither Frankel nor Lelyveld apologizes for his management style. "At the end of the day, someone has to make up page one," Frankel says. And Lelyveld says, "Choices have to be made by the minute. You have to decide what to lead the paper with, whom to assign to it. . . . This is not simply an institution for the fulfillment of journalists." Because of daily deadline pressures, a newsroom can be a neurotic place.
At the December retreat, Doug Wesley encouraged the editors to speak up. According to several participants, the national editor, Soma B. Golden, who worked for Frankel as a member of the editorial board when he was the editorial-page editor, said she thought of him as a warm man, and wondered aloud what it was about the job of executive editor and the page-one meeting that made him seem so harsh. She spoke of how intimidating the meetings were, of how brusque Frankel could be, of how women got little attention, of how humiliated and chastised an editor sometimes felt.
"I think of the page-one meeting as a colloquy," Frankel responded.
"I've been in a lot of page-one meetings," Sulzberger said, "and the one thing I can tell you, Max, is that it ain't no colloquy!"
The room fell silent. "I found it extremely unpleasant," Frankel says of the morning session. "It implied that everything was rotten in Denmark and only profound and revolutionary change in everything we did and everything we thought was necessary. . . . That was the premise of the so-called facilitator." Though Frankel doesn't say so, he and others probably feared that it was the assumption of Sulzberger as well.
Wesley stood at his easel and pressed the editors to free-associate. He asked them to describe in a few words the news department, say, or "the rules of the road" in the newsroom.
"When in doubt, dissemble" was a rule that one editor cited.
"Paradox: the best newspaper in the world can't keep its bathrooms clean" was another editor's contribution.
Each remark was written on the board, for a total of about thirty items.
Frankel exploded. "Let's not play these stupid games," he said. "This is intellectually dishonest. This doesn't represent what we think of ourselves." Few disagreed.
Wesley then suggested that they break up into small groups and continue. According to the notes of one participant, Frankel cried out, "Stop all this mindless clamor for change, change, change! Let's get specific. Let's put the problems on the table and work to solve them."
It was a pivotal moment in the meeting. "Everyone felt for Max," Suzanne Daley, the first assistant metropolitan editor, recalls. One participant remembers leaning over to Arthur Sulzberger and whispering, "It isn't fair. Max made the newsroom so much better that to haul him out like this seems unfair and simpleminded."
"Arthur lost control of the meeting," another participant says, and people began to ask him, "Why did you drag us here?"
After lunch, the publisher explained to his news editors that he had not meant for the morning session to turn into a flogging of Frankel or Lelyveld. He said he admired both of them and the job they did, and that is what he says privately as well--except that he does want them to be more democratic.
When Frankel spoke after lunch, he took care to express his fidelity to the Sulzberger family, which he respectfully likens to "a monarchy" that protects news values, and to reaffirm his commitment to the process of change begun by the publisher. He added, however, that the people in the news department didn't need outside business consultants or productivity experts. They would do it themselves. The publisher welcomed this idea, and the group devoted much of the remainder of the afternoon to producing five revisions of the statement of values.
The next morning, the editors returned to tackle a sixth draft; all twenty participants pitched in. By the lunch hour, they thought they were about done, and after two days of this most of them had had enough. But Howell Raines, the editorial-page editor, was agitated, and his opinion mattered, since he was one of the first top managers the new publisher had appointed. Raines said he found himself troubled by the statement's summons to the news and business sides of the Times to "learn new ways of working together." In a soft drawl--Raines is from Alabama--he challenged a basic assumption of the new publisher: Did the Times really need a statement calling on news and business to communicate and cooeperate more? "Drafting a statement that talked about the relations between the business and the news sides had inherent dangers," he recalls saying. "If it is drafted so that future managers and editors don't understand the historical wall we have had between business and news, they could seize some element of language to harm the paper," he says. "I felt strongly that we had to think not only of the Times but of journalism." He adds, "We have a set of values we have to guard, because if we don't guard them they have no protector. Why reinvent the wheel when the Times is a great success?"
Some of the editors wondered why Sulzberger was unwilling to arbitrate between the news and the business departments himself. "You're the publisher of the New York Times. That's your job," one editor declared.
Sulzberger says that when the meeting finally adjourned he felt "a little beaten up." Over the two days, though it was Wesley who drew the most flak, the publisher had no illusions. "He was never their target," Sulzberger says. "I was their target. Even when they were aiming at him, they were aiming at me." He came away undeterred. "In the end, this process has to be guided by me," he says. "I want those challenges."
Suzanne Daley came away thinking that the retreat had been tougher than any page-one meeting, and pinpointed an essential contradiction that recurred throughout the retreat: "If you want to be 'nice,' do you lose your edge? Do you lose your edge if the page-one meeting is 'nice'? When I head for a page-one meeting, I want to know everything I possibly can, because if I don't I'll be humiliated. If I don't worry about being humiliated, will I care less? We got the way we were by being the way we were. If we change it, do we lose it?"
There is a conflict between deadlines and democracy, news standards and niceness, Howell Raines says. "I'm not sure Arthur has fully confronted the collision between two principles--to treat people more gently, and to be honest with them. . . . This is the most demanding professional environment I've ever encountered. . . . The informing idea is 'You're here because you're the best in the business, and the game is on the field. Get on with it.' Our meetings are meant to rip away the details," he says. "This is a talent meritocracy. We're not building cars here."
A woman reporter on the metropolitan staff says that there'll always be a conflict between professional values and personal values. "You cannot cover a breaking story and be home to take over for your babysitter, and Arthur hasn't faced that."
Still, Sulzberger believes that the anxiety of the newsroom can be relieved--that people can both make quick, authoritative decisions and be more civil. Based in part on his exposure at the Times to the often rancorous labor negotiations between management and unionized blue-collar production workers, in part on his reading of management philosophers like W. Edwards Deming, and in part on his own affable nature, his concept of workplace democracy extends to employee-management cooeperation. Such cooeperation is essential, he believes, for liberating ideas and energy. It is particularly essential to the Times, which in his view is not just a job but a calling.
As Sulzberger and others thought about the two-day retreat after it was over, they sensed that everyone had come away feeling bruised. In discussing the meeting later, Frankel and the publisher decided that to heal the wounds the publisher would invite those who had attended the Greenwich retreat to reassemble, on December 4th, in a penthouse meeting room at the Times. The publisher began, one editor recalls, "by acknowledging that it was not a happy occasion and it had got out of control." He then asked the editors to describe their feelings. Out poured their anguish: about how the meeting had conveyed a lack of trust in the news department and its managers; about how they worried that a circulation manager might suggest a story idea to a city editor; about how W. Edwards Deming's production-line ideas were less relevant to a newsroom, which relied on individual performance. Sulzberger took notes on a lined yellow pad. When everyone had spoken, he reviewed the notes and tried to address each objection. But he also made clear that it was his intention to continue as an agent of change. He promised no relief from this. "We'll be at this for ten, maybe twenty years," he says.
Soon after this meeting, Frankel appointed several news-side task forces to improve internal communications and the work environment. Also, he and Lelyveld sent a memo to the senior editors describing a new, more egalitarian seating arrangement for the daily page-one meeting. From now on, it announced, Frankel and Lelyveld would no longer sit at one end of the oval table but would sit among their colleagues around the table. At the first page-one meeting with the new seating chart, Frankel and Lelyveld arranged to serve chilled wine and shrimp, telling colleagues, with a smile, that they hopedto improve the atmosphere. "Strangely enough, the seating arrangement worked," one editor says.
Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., had one more retreat planned, for January 18th and 19th, which would again be held at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich. This time, both the business and the news sides were invited. The publisher opened the proceedings by expressing some frustrations. The paper had expanded its metropolitan and sports sections and had added a style section on Sundays, and in June it would bring color to the Book Review, he said, but all these things took too damned long. "What we discovered was that we were too slow," Sulzberger later explained. A new City Weekly section had stalled, because the business side felt that news didn't want it and the news side felt that business was intruding. Sulzberger said that the traditional wall the newsroom had erected to repel the advertising side was vital. But the wall had become an obstacle that impeded joint planning.
This time, Sulzberger did not rely on Wesley but instead started by reviewing the statement of values himself. It spoke of the Times' twin goals of "editorial excellence" and "profitability." The word "profitability" irked the journalists. They worried that the Times might make "a golden calf out of profits," Lelyveld recalls. They didn't decide whether to cover a story on the basis of what it might cost. They wanted to know whether the new City Weekly was being pushed by the business side because it served a journalistic or an advertising purpose. And if it didn't serve a journalistic purpose, they wanted to guard the Times' good name. They felt defensive; they felt a new publisher breathing on them, insisting that they change their ways. They heard the call for breaking down the wall between the business and the news sides, and sensed the balance of power might be tipping. "This place has been so weighted toward the mission of the paper that traditionally it has not been easy for business managers to make a constructive point without causing fear in the news department," Lelyveld says.
The decibel level rose as the editors continued to talk about excellence and the business executives stressed the importance of profits. To Frankel, it was a clash of religions. "In the end, how are you judged?" he says. "A writer or an editor is judged by the brilliance of his journalism, even if it costs too much--especially if it costs too much. A business manager is judged by how he cuts costs and makes profits."
Some members of the business side felt they were being condescended to, told they didn't love the Times with as much ardor as the news people. "In many cases, journalists view the business side as greedy ogres whose only interest is making a dollar and not a product," observes one important business executive, Dan Cohen. "There are business people who care as much about the product as journalists do."
Despite this skirmish, everyone struggled to be collegial--until the publisher steered the discussion to a part of the values statement that spoke of breaking down the wall between news and business. Howell Raines spoke at length. According to participants, one deputy general manager, John M. O'Brien, was upset at what he took to be Raines' moralizing, claiming it was just another example of the tendency on the news side to relegate business to the back of the bus. The business side was no less committed to an excellent paper than Howell Raines was. Others from the business side jumped in.
At this point, another deputy general manager, Russell T. Lewis, who sat beside Raines, interceded and lent a calming voice. Lewis had some credentials as a peacemaker, for he started his career on the news side, as a copy boy, in 1966, and once won a Publisher's Award for a story he wrote. In effect, Lewis said the business side loved news, too. Love and devotion were not the issue, he said; reality was. And the reality was that if news and business didn't work together, the paper would not come out. They needed each other.
The statement said that news should be protected from "commercial pressure." A business executive made this suggestion: "What if the language read 'outside commercial pressure'?"
No, it applies to inside or outside pressure, the editors insisted. Raines was the fiercest. Some people on both sides complained later that Raines fought too ostentatiously. But knowing the stakes to be high, and knowing the publisher was watching, so did others. In the end, the news and business sides could not resolve their differences among themselves. In this sense, Sulzberger did not succeed. He had hoped to induce both sides to reach agreement without the publisher having to act as referee. When he realized near the end of this retreat that he could not, he announced some decisions.
First, he appointed a committee composed of three members of the news staff and three members of the business staff to draft a final values document. Second, he praised the debate for pinpointing for him where the wall should stand, and announced that no one from the business side should get in touch with anyone from news below the masthead level. No one from circulation or advertising could get in touch with, say, the metropolitan or cultural or business editor. A third decision he made but did not announce was that he would elevate Russell Lewis to be president and general manager of the paper, a decision revealed a month later.
In one sense, these retreats were a success for Sulzberger. Many of his managers and editors had been stunned by the vehemence of the debate, but Sulzberger believed that they had been shocked only because they had not previously engaged in an honest dialogue. He came away satisfied. He hoped news and business would now act more like a team--see themselves as one company, not two. "We got rid of a lot of the underbrush," he says. "We uncovered the fundamentals. And we reached agreement." Joe Lelyveld put it another way: "He dragged us into consultations with our business-side colleagues. . . . It had a healthy and cathartic effect."
EVEN if confrontational techniques help Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., change the atmosphere within the Times, he will still face formidable challenges from the outside. First, there is the New York City economy, which lapsed into a recession soon after the stock-market crash in October of 1987. The basic question is whether thiseconomic downturn is cyclical or permanent. The Sulzbergers are in the optimists' camp, believing that it is temporary. "I think it's coming to an end," Sulzberger says of the recession. William L. Pollak, who directs the two-hundred-person Times ad-sales force, says, "Anyone who says the New York economy won't bounce back hasn't read the history of New York."
Robert M. Johnson, the publisher and C.E.O. of Newsday since 1986, is in the pessimists' camp. He thinks history is a poor guide. "This has not been a recession," he says. "This has been a structural change in the New York City economy. The pie has gotten smaller." He mentions the department stores--B. Altman & Company, Alexander's, Bonwit Teller, Gimbel's--that have closed, as well as the shrinking number of classified and financial ads.
A second business question pressing upon Sulzberger is whether, in a period of rapid technological advances, the Times Company's growth strategy has been sufficient. It has been Punch Sulzberger's belief that the Times Company should cautiously stick to the areas it knows best. When he became publisher, in 1963, the Times was basically a two-section newspaper, and the company was almost totally reliant on its revenues alone. In 1969, he decided to make a public stock offering--the family retained control through Class B stock--to generate the funds the company needed to diversify. Today, the company owns five network-affiliated TV stations, thirty-one regional newspapers, the Boston Globe, an AM and an FM radio station, twenty magazines, two wholesale newspaper distributors, a forest-products division, and an information-services group. The expansion helped cushion the paper and the company from the fluctuations of the business cycle. "One thing we've learned over the years of acquisitions is that we do better when we acquire something we know about," Punch Sulzberger says. "We'll keep looking at new technologies. . . . We have lots of little pieces. We don't see any immediate area where it makes sense to make a massive commitment. So we're watching. A lot of people made a lot of mistakes in the eighties."
When the younger Sulzberger was asked if he shared the view of many that the Times had been too cautious in terms of new businesses, he said, "Sure. Now, I'm only speaking about the New York Times newspaper. I don't know the company." He knows that telephone and television and computer and newspaper and consumer-electronics companies are all racing toward one another, blurring traditional distinctions. Telephone companies are now in the cable-television business. Cable companies offer phone service. Newspapers invest in television, and some produce shows. Studios sell programs to consumer-electronics firms. TV networks become partners with cable companies, cable companies with studios, studios with computer companies. The business is moving fast, and, even under the younger Sulzberger and an eight-person strategic-planning group, the newspaper reacts more slowly than some of its executives would like. In its business moves, the Times has not been a crucible of change. The publisher has taken a few small steps to reach new readers, including TimesFax, a six- to eight-page summary of the day's newspaper that is sent to hotels and cruise ships around the world, and Critics' Choice, a weekly magazine on the arts and nightlife designed to reach tourists at their hotels in New York.
"Time for people's attention is the competition," Sulzberger, Jr., says. "It's not just television or news magazines or other newspapers or radio--it's all of that, plus the things that people can do with their time that are new and different, whether it's playing Nintendo or calling up movies on their cable boxes. The days when we could write a story about a news event on Day One, the reaction to that news event on Day Two, and the news analysis on Day Three are gone. You had better have all three of those elements in your first story." He goes on, "Whether we beam it directly into your head or provide it on newsprint--I am agnostic on that. As far as I'm concerned, the day we move away from newsprint is the day we cut some seven hundred million dollars out of our cost structure." He believes that in perhaps twenty years it will be commonplace for newspapers to be delivered electronically as well as by newsprint.
Another problem that Sulzberger faces is that newspapers have become what economists call a mature business; in short, their growth has stalled. The Times' response to this new reality, one Wall Street figure says, is to be a nibbler. "There is a husbanding-of-the-acorns mind-set," he says. "Arthur is much more concerned with what's on the front page than with the price of his stock. He's much more a newspaperman than a businessman." The acquisition of the Boston Globe is, in this view, a nibble, not a bold, futuristic thrust. Punch Sulzberger would disagree. After months of negotiations, which foundered more than once over "issues of governance," he says, the sale was concluded on June 11th. "We're not just buying a newspaper," Sulzberger says. "We're buying a distribution system. We're buying a database. And we're buying a paper that has a much higher penetration in its marketplace than the Times has." Sulzberger says the Times now has a broader, more attractive database to travel over a future electronic highway. And the purchase was made without sacrificing cash to make future deals. "This is not a cash deal. This is a stock deal," he says. "So our cash is preserved."
The Times wants to make friends with potential hardware allies. But if such partnerships are the wave of the future for communications and information companies, that future is still distant, the Sulzbergers believe.
STILL another concern at the Times is the imminent need to choose the next executive editor. The retirement age for masthead executives at the Times is sixty-five, and Frankel just turned sixty-three. Frankel says he has decided that when he leaves he is not going to write a column, as A. M. Rosenthal does, but instead will write a memoir. "I have a big book in me," he says. "I've been storing it up all my life." First, though, he must sort out when he will retire. "I have to start discussing that with Arthur," Frankel said in April. While Sulzberger acknowledges that "there are differences" between the type of management he advocates and the hierarchical management generally practiced by both Frankel and Lelyveld, he has no desire to see Frankel depart. "I have learned a lot from Max in terms of being a manager," he said.
Punch Sulzberger says he expects to be consulted on the choice. He also says that Joe Lelyveld is the obvious front-runner to succeed Frankel. "I would hope that Max would be there a number of years more, and it would be foolish to name a successor at this point," he says. "There is no reason to. And why lock yourself in? But it is certainly true that Joe has the inside track." Frankel says that "at the moment" he could not imagine another choice, but, of course, he says, the decision is the publisher's.
What criteria will Sulzberger rely on in making the decision? "Journalistic integrity and confidence--that's obviously Number One," he says, and he cites as other factors "the ability to delegate authority" and a "commitment to diversity" and "making this the kind of place to work that it can be." He adds, "But overriding everything has to be the quality of the news mind." If "the quality of the news mind" determines Sulzberger's decision, Joe Lelyveld will probably be the next executive editor, for many say he has the sharpest mind in the newsroom, a mind that quickly cuts to the heart of a story and can instantly suggest a new lead paragraph or structure.
Lelyveld offers other talents. The publisher knows that he has high standards. He knows that both Lelyveld and Frankel often provoke and nurture the paper's best correspondents. He knows that while many people complain about Lelyveld's intellectual arrogance, the same critics respect him and sometimes refer to him as "a sweet man." He knows that within the Times no other contender musters the internal support Lelyveld would, for his appointment is widely viewed as based on merit.
The publisher also knows the debit side of the ledger. He knows that Lelyveld can be abrupt, has problems speaking in public, and is painfully shy. "He has no people skills," one of the paper's star writers says. Lelyveld is aware of his awkwardness. From the time he was a boy through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science and Harvard, he recalls that his father always said to him, "You have to be more outgoing." He knows that some people regard him as aloof, and says, "One reason is that I've always been comfortable in the role of a reporter. I prefer to stand aside, to watch and observe, and not be public. I can be brusque. It's a failing. I don't think it's coldness. It's obsessiveness. I'm very comfortable in small groups. I'm not very comfortable getting up and addressing the staff." When he speaks, there are long, awkward pauses. "I've learned I have to devote time to programming what I'm going to say."
Sulzberger's alternative choice as Frankel's successor is Howell Raines. When Sulzberger is asked to describe Raines and Lelyveld, he says of both men, "wonderful writer" and "first-class intellect." Like Lelyveld, Raines is said to be a demanding taskmaster; he ran the Washington bureau in an autocratic fashion. But Raines has a more vivid personality than does Lelyveld. "He's a very warm and agreeable fellow," says a man who has been at the Times for his entire career. Of the younger Sulzberger, this man observes, "I know he's very close to Howell. He picked Howell as his choice. Joe and Max were Punch's appointments." Raines got to know Arthur, Jr., in the early eighties, when both worked as reporters in the Washington bureau.
Raines says he would love to write a Washington-based column, but when asked if he would accept the job of executive editor he paused a long while, and then said, "I'm the creature of this newspaper, I suppose. It's not something that I think about, frankly."
While Lelyveld remains the likely choice, the new publisher wants options. He saw his father boxed into a corner with only one obvious choice--Max Frankel--when Abe Rosenthal reached sixty-five. Raines has a strong hand in the card game the publisher will play over the next few years. Like the man who holds the cards, he's an extrovert. Together, they laugh easily at jokes and at Raines' barnyard metaphors. The two men meet every Thursday afternoon to review editorial ideas, and speak frequently. While Raines' support is not nearly as broad as Lelyveld's, Raines did develop a devoted band of followers when he was Washington bureau chief.
And, like Lelyveld, Raines is unafraid to speak his mind. Before Raines took over the editorial page, the publisher intervened and asked Jack Rosenthal to write an editorial backing away from criticism levelled in a previous editorial at Vernon Jordan, the chairman of the Clinton transition team, over alleged conflicts of interest. Sulzberger says that the earlier editorial "was unfair to a man I did not know" because it "singled him out" as the personification of all the evils of influence peddling in Washington. The members of the editorial board were distressed, and the publisher called a meeting in the editorial offices to explain why, for the first time ever, he had overruled them. He went around the room seeking opinions, and then turned to Raines, who had been invited, even though he had yet to start his editorial-page job. Raines hesitated, torn between the intimacy and the trust he would need with the publisher and the trust he would need with the board members and Times readers. According to several people who were there, Raines responded, in his slow, measured drawl, "I don't have a dog in this fight, but I think the first editorial was fine and the second one should not have run. Writing the second editorial inhibited our ability to write on this subject." The publisher says he was not moved to change his position, though several members of the board were impressed. "That was bold--to sit there with a guy who signs his checks," a witness recalls. "In the corporate culture, not many guys would say that."
A few other names are mentioned as potential future executive editors--particularly that of the columnist Anna Quindlen, who is forty. She has told friends that she expects to tire of writing a column in five years or so, and might want to step aside before readers tire of her. Her experience is limited: she has never been a foreign correspondent, and her only editing job at the Times was as deputy metropolitan editor. (Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel both tried to persuade her to become metropolitan editor, but she declined. She wanted to be able to spend more time with her children.) What she would bring, in addition to brains and long-standing ties to Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and his wife, the artist Gail Gregg, is the bottom-up management approach Sulzberger champions. "I don't think it makes sense for an editor to tell reporters how to cover a story, how long it has to be, or how it should be played," she says. "A reporter ought to tell me. There's too much macho throughout the business--'I know what the story should be!' It's too rare that an editor says to a reporter, 'Is this a page-one story?' " One possibility is to make Quindlen the managing editor under either Lelyveld or Raines, but for Sulzberger to do that would mean that he would lose her popular column. Worse, from his vantage point, he might have to choose as early as this fall, when one and maybe two assistant-managing-editor slots open. If he should offer Quindlen such a slot, she would have to decide whether to sacrifice her platform and independence for a climb up the management ladder. Such a maneuver could create a traffic jam, since Sulzberger is eager to promote a black editor to the masthead (Gerald Boyd, the metropolitan editor, would be the choice), and might like a second woman there, too (the national editor, Soma Golden, is now the prime contender).
Sulzberger has more than a few such dilemmas to ponder. Even if Joe Lelyveld--or Howell Raines--is thought of as autocratic, how could he pass on their obvious talent without subverting Times traditions? Will the paper, in its zeal to recruit a more diverse workforce, settle for less than the best reporters and editors? In its determination to be more understanding of gay rights, say, or race relations, will the Times meekly succumb to political correctness? Will it lower its standards, as many believe it has with its Sunday style section? How does the Times stay as good as it is without surrendering to arrogance and insularity? How does it reach younger readers, who grew up watching television and may have attenuated attention spans, without providing merely quick, easily absorbed information?
Another constraint is his predecessor, who happens to be his father and boss. The son wants to change the institution, yet not suggest that his father, whom he admires, has somehow been derelict. "If I could be as successful as he was, I would consider myself a very successful publisher," the son says of the father. "He saved the paper." But their relationship is more complicated than shared adoration. The father says he tries to resist interfering. "And sometimes I'm not good at it," he adds.
A corollary constraint is that, because the elder Sulzberger actively runs the company, the son operates one rung down the corporate ladder. Unlike his father and his three aunts, he's not a member of the Times' board of directors. "He reports to Lance on the business side," Punch Sulzberger says, referring to Lance Primis, the Times Company's president. "When it comes time to get money, he has to wait on line."
Despite the concerns that burden his days, Arthur, Jr., says that he truly loves what he does. "For my money, I have the best job in the world right now, publisher of the New York Times," he says. "Don Graham warned me in the most friendly way that I have the best job and to hold on to it." Donald Graham, of course, holds two jobs--publisher of the Washington Post and president and chief executive officer of its parent company. It is possible that when Punch Sulzberger steps down as chairman, Arthur, Jr., will have to choose between the two posts. One family member says that both Michael and Stephen Golden see themselves as the potential chairman. "But I'd put my money on Arthur," he says. "We're a traditional company. He's a Sulzberger. He's the publisher of the company's flagship. And the two others have less knowledge of the newspaper business." It is possible that the family will follow the example of the Hearst Corporation and bring in a non-family member as C.E.O. Many things are possible.
What seems certain at the moment is that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., like his great-grandfather and his grandfather and his father, will preside over the Times for a very long while. Like his predecessors, he will probably decide to invest more money in the paper even during recessions, or when doing so momentarily depresses earnings.
Ironically, while Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., genuinely believes that the vibrancy of the world's best newspaper depends on a more democratic newsroom, he also knows that the Times can resist economic slumps and the short-term preoccupations of shareholders only because it is a family-owned monarchy. And despite his genuine affability, like all monarchs the new publisher charts a fairly lonely path. A cousin says, "There are not many people in this company who tell Arthur he's doing a good job whom he can believe." And he will no doubt continue to push for change, cautiously. Although he wants to change the Times, he is constrained because he knows he has a tradition and a franchise to protect. "We produce the finest newspaper certainly in this country, and probably in the world," he says. "You don't want to tamper with a system that does that. When I say tamper, I mean experiment--tear it apart without being able to put things back together." (c)