In 2009, a byline began appearing in the Times that carried with it the harbinger of dynastic transition. A new general-assignment reporter named A. G. Sulzberger was banging around the city, writing about a Third Avenue flop house upstairs from J. G. Melon, a high-end burger joint; about the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. New York, a ship fashioned in part from the wreckage of the World Trade Center; and about the fading popularity of the “humble tool” known as the Pooper Scooper. Not long after, the very same Sulzberger was based in Kansas City, where he described the experience of being a vegetarian in a city known as a “Mecca of meat.” At Arthur Bryant’s famous barbecue place, he rejected the brisket and the “lard-bathed French fries” and drank a Bud for lunch. Despite the grandeur of the byline, carnivorous readers could not help but feel sympathy for their self-denying correspondent.
A. G. Sulzberger’s apprenticeship is now at an end. On New Year’s Day, he will become the publisher of The New York Times, occupying the position that his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., who is sixty-six, assumed after the retirement of his father, Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger. A. G., who also goes by Arthur, is thirty-seven. He is the sixth member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family to lead the paper. Earlier this week, he came by our offices for an interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour. He seemed earnest, serious, disciplined, even a bit nervous. This surely had less to do with the fact that this was his first interview as publisher than it was about the challenges at hand. The institution that he now leads is almost certainly the most influential media property in the country—and, arguably, the most important civic institution in private hands. He comes into this inheritance while revenues from print advertising plummet, Google and Facebook consume more than three-quarters of the digital-ad market, and the President of the United States feels free to smear his home-town paper as the “failing” New York Times.
And yet this is an optimistic moment for a family that bought the paper in 1896 but, despite its commitment to the future, seemed in recent years to be losing its hold. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the outgoing publisher—he will remain as chairman—has taken a lot of criticism, not least for making some costly deals. When the accelerating digital revolution intersected with the financial implosion of 2008, there was more and more talk that the Sulzberger family might have to sell control of the Times to a far wealthier investor, such as Michael Bloomberg. This was alarming. Bloomberg, who constantly complained about the way he was covered in the paper as mayor, had ill-concealed contempt for the Times. (I’ve heard it direct.) If Bloomberg had bought the Times, there was no guarantee that he would have run it with the same commitment to journalistic depth and daring. The Times under Ochs-Sulzberger ownership has made mistakes over the decades, serious ones, but its principles and sense of ambition—its commitment to publish “without fear or favor”—remain benchmarks in the news business.
For all the low and painful moments in his tenure (including the firing of two executive editors, Howell Raines and Jill Abramson), Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., achieved serious things. Above all, he managed to sustain, and even deepen, the quality of the paper’s journalism while deciding on the right financial path for a vital future—an emphasis on digital subscriptions sold at a high price to a national, and even an international, audience. And so even while ad revenues are dropping precipitously, the Times’ subscription picture is brightening. The Times now has 3.5 million subscribers—2.5 million of them digital-only. Meanwhile, the paper this year continued to publish remarkable reporting, including Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker on the Trump White House, and Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Susan Chira, Emily Steel, Michael Schmidt, and others on sexual harassment in the United States.
A few years ago, A. G. Sulzberger led a study that became known as the Innovation Report, a self-critical hundred-page-long exploration of newsroom culture and the future that helped set the paper’s current digital direction.
The paper’s promising situation is at odds with what happened at the Wall Street Journal, in 2007, when the Bancroft family, a far more fractured and less journalistically committed clan than the Sulzbergers, gave up on the paper and sold it to Rupert Murdoch for five billion dollars (a gaudily inflated price). And it’s different from what happened at the Washington Post. The Post’s chief proprietor, Donald Graham, was deeply committed to the paper, but, in the end, he and his family could not find a feasible way out of decline. Graham’s last great service to the Post, no matter how personally painful it might have been to carry out, was, in 2013, to find a buyer in Jeff Bezos, the founder and chairman of Amazon. So far, Bezos, who is worth nearly a hundred billion dollars, has poured money into the paper, demanded deeper digital innovation, and left the journalism to the editors, led by Martin Baron.
Sulzberger grew up in New York and went to the Fieldston School. His mother is Gail Gregg, a writer and painter; in 2008, his parents announced they were divorcing. He graduated from Brown, in 2003, with a degree in political science and worked at the Providence Journal and the Oregonian before coming to the Times.
Jill Abramson, who helped bring Sulzberger along as a young reporter and editor at the Times, told me that he was initially quite anxious about coming to the paper. “He was nervous that people would think it was nepotism,” she said. “But he was a terrific reporter and writer. I genuinely would have hired him if he’d had a different last name.” Sulzberger studied the paper with unusual attention. “Early on, I remember I met him for breakfast, and he read the Times more carefully than I did,” Abramson said. “That made an impression on me. He recited the first paragraph of a story by Monica Davey, out of Chicago. He was clearly studying up on everything.”
Sulzberger competed in a kind of bake-off for the top spot at the paper against two of his cousins, Sam Dolnick and David Perpich. All three are said to command respect at the Times, but the combination of Sulzberger’s work on the Innovation Report, his journalistic experience, and, yes, the fact that his father was first among equals in the family, helped settle matters. The three cousins are said to maintain a good familial and professional relationship. Dolnick is a masthead-level editor who works on digital initiatives, including podcasts, and Perpich is an executive at the paper and runs the Wirecutter, a gadget-review site, which the Times bought last year.
But even while the Times has settled its succession plan and has made concrete gains in both strategy and revenue recently, there is no shortage of lingering anxiety at the headquarters on Eighth Avenue. Sulzberger recently promised that there would be no cuts to the news budget for the next two years, but ad revenues continue to drop, the Trump Administration continues to lash out at the purveyors of “fake news,” the newsroom staff is squeezing into fewer floors, and the media business, in general, is not exactly a warm bath of stability. Our interview with A. G. Sulzberger, which was edited for space and clarity, transcribed by Hannah Wilentz, and produced for the Radio Hour by Mythili Rao, began with notes of both congratulation and trepidation.
David Remnick: I should begin by congratulating you on getting what seems like one of the hardest jobs imaginable. Do you feel like you should be congratulated, or do you feel like you should be given a cool glass of water?
A. G. Sulzberger: Well, thank you. It’s definitely an honor and a privilege—and a daunting one. Maybe the best note I got from a colleague was, “Congratulations/Sorry!” Which I think is probably a statement of the pretty profound challenges facing journalism in this moment.
D.R.: At the Washington Post, Donald Graham was the publisher, and he was essentially raised to be the publisher. He worked as a policeman in Washington, D.C., to get to know the city; he was a sports editor; he had all kinds of jobs that were, in a sense, training him for this future. Did you always know, as a kid, that this was the likely future for you?
A.G.S.: I’ve always had a theory that decent journalists are contrarians by nature, because they have to ask tough questions of people. They have to ask tough questions of people, and assume people are lying to them, and wake up in the middle of the night wondering if they got something wrong. And, like any decent journalist, I have a contrarian streak, and I actually spent most of my life not thinking I would go into journalism.
D.R.: But you grew up with the Sulzberger family and the New York Times. How could you picture yourself outside of it? Was that really open to you?
A.G.S.: My parents and the broader Sulzberger family have always encouraged people to chart their own course. For me, it changed in college. I was always a little frustrated with academia and the sort of indirectness of it. In my senior year, I took a class with a professor who was a full-time investigative reporter at the Providence Journal. Her name is Tracy Breton. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the Journal, a great investigative reporter. And I found I just loved that type of writing.
D.R.: So you got the bug from her?
A.G.S.: I ended up doing two classes with her. At the end of it, we had this moment that I’ll never forget. The conversation basically went like this: “Arthur, I’ve got a job for you at the Providence Journal. It’s a two-year internship, and I’d really like you to do it. You’ll be covering a small town in southern Rhode Island, a town called Narragansett.” And I said, “Tracy, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about following such a predictable route. I think I’m going to start my career trying some other things.” And she looked and me and she said, “Arthur, you know, I can just tell, from working with you, that you’re going to love this, and I think, if you don’t try it, you’ll always wonder. And, if you try it and you don’t love it, then you’ll do something else.” And, you know, the first three months on any new beat are terrifying.
D.R.: What was your beat?
A.G.S.: Narragansett is one of the largest fishing communities in the Northeast. But it’s also become a sort of vacation destination, second homes. I was a town reporter—I covered town-council meetings, I covered school-board meetings. Every morning, I’d call the police chief to ask what happened overnight. And I’d do the slice-of-life stories that any small-town reporter does.
The first three months were a jump, because the job of the reporter is to explain something to everyone else. But, whenever you start a new beat, you’re keenly aware of how much you don’t know. So for the first three months, I wondered, Is this for me? After about six months, I said, Is there any better way that you could spend—
D.R.: You were addicted. Why did you get addicted?
A.G.S.: Well, for me, it wasn’t a specific story; it was just that beautiful combination of spending half your day learning and half your day teaching. Half your day talking to people, finding out what’s going on in the world, half your day alone pulling a story out of yourself. I just loved the rhythm of the days. So I worked there, I worked at the Oregonian, eventually joined the Metro desk at the Times. And then I covered the Great Plains as the Times Kansas City Bureau Chief. And then for the last few years switched to editing and then digital strategy. That work has brought me in much closer contact with the big business questions facing the Times, and all newspapers.
D.R.: Let’s get into that a little bit. Because these are existential questions for the news business, for the New York Times, and frankly for the family ownership of the New York Times. And, unless I’ve got this wrong, the great dilemma is that print advertising has, if not cratered, than certainly declined much more rapidly than anybody had thought possible, or had hoped. And that’s a trend that’s not likely to reverse. When it comes to online advertising, there’s the phenomenon of what we call pennies for dollars. You can’t really make a business of it completely from online advertising.
A.G.S.: The famous phrase here is “print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”
D.R.: So, the only way, it seems to me, for the New York Times, or for, quite frankly, The New Yorker, and a number of other publications to go forward and have a healthy newsgathering business, and business in general, is to go to the reader and say, “We hope you like what we do, and we have to charge you a great deal more for it than in 1985 or 1995.”
A.G.S.: Yeah, I mean, so, let’s start from the advertising side of the business. I actually think it’s more difficult and complex than you’re letting on. The other great factor here is that almost all the growth in digital advertising is going to two companies—Google and Facebook. The rest of media is battling over the remainders. There’s some evidence that that pie may actually shrink. Which is why you’ve seen businesses that rely exclusively on advertising under such pressure. We saw that first with newspapers and magazines, because print dollars started disappearing first. But increasingly we’ve been seeing it with digital publications—you’ve just seen news about places like Mashable or BuzzFeed struggling to meet revenue projections, or selling low. The entire ad ecosystem is becoming very, very difficult for news organizations, particularly news organizations that do the expensive work of original reporting. So the model that we shifted to about three years ago was to declare ourselves “subscription first.” Which basically means that, today, the vast majority of our revenue comes directly from our readers.
D.R.: So at the peak of the advertising era, what percentage of the revenue of the New York Times came from advertisements, and what is it now?
A.G.S.: I believe it was around eighty per cent. And what’s remarkable is that that’s relatively low for many print publications, which would get as much as ninety-five per cent of their revenue from ads. Now the majority is through subscribers. So now we’re about two-thirds subscribers.
D.R.: And probably rising.
A.G.S.: And rising every day.
D.R.: And your subscription numbers are exploding. You’ve got 2.5 million subscribers who are digital-only and 3.5 million over all.
A.G.S.: Which is more than any American newspaper had at the peak of print.
One thing I’d say about the subscription model that we didn’t expect, which was an unintended benefit of this strategic shift we made, is that everyone in the New York Times today wakes up thinking how can we serve our readers. That’s aligned our journalistic mission and all of our business incentives in a really clean and consistent way.
D.R.: How is that different from the past?
A.G.S.: Well, in the past, you’re aware of the old notion of the old wall between the news and the business side. And the big reason that the wall existed was that advertising was serving a different master than news. The folks in the newsroom [thought], “How can we put out the best journalism that meets the needs and interests of our readers every day?” And then on the advertising [side], it was, “How can we get a bunch of rich and powerful corporations to buy a bunch of ads?” There’s an inherent tension there, which is why all these very important rules exist about ad acceptability and insuring that advertising and newsroom aren’t interacting and it wasn’t skewing the report inadvertently. Which organizations like The New Yorker, the New York Times pride themselves on.
D.R.: Does that mean the wall’s gone? Does that mean that the business side and reporters and editors can both physically and metaphorically waltz into each other’s offices? Is there any separation at all left?
A.G.S.: So, to me, what matters is protecting against conflicts of interest. I just gave a speech to my colleagues, in which I said two things. I said, “We are one company, with a shared mission and a shared strategy, but we are also one company that knows that the independence and integrity of our journalism always comes first.” So, to me, the most important thing is to have real strong protections around the editorial independence of our newsroom. But even the notion of news and the business sides––these are catch-all phrases that sort of miss the point. Four years ago, when I started thinking about how the Times had to evolve in order to keep pace with this fast-changing world, one of the things that really struck me was that we regarded the members of our technology team and product team as being on the business side. So, you had this really unhelpful construct in which the folks who were building our Web site weren’t able to talk to the people who were filling the Web site with great journalism each day. So we’ve tried to move away from the construct of “a wall” and toward a more nuanced understanding of how, in a fast-changing digital environment, does this company need to work together to get where we need to go.
D.R.: It seems to me that your apprenticeship was not merely as a reporter in various bureaus. Maybe the most important phase of that apprenticeship was working on something that become known as the Innovation Report. Tell me a little about that.
A.G.S.: I’d been an editor on Metro for a couple years and I was looking for a new challenge. Jill Abramson, who was then the editor of the Times, approached me and said she wanted me to lead a small group that would be charged with coming up with a new product idea. And her belief, which is something I really agree with, is that the newsroom should be a hub of innovation. So I pulled together a team—smart people from around the newsroom, people who had taken very different paths and journeys to get where they were—and we started brainstorming. It pointed me to a clear spot: the New York Times wasn’t lacking for good ideas about new products. What it was lacking was a full embrace that we were becoming a digital-media company. This would force us to break a lot of habits that we had built for print and to really re-think a lot of what we were doing.
D.R.: In other words, it’s campaigning for cultural change.
A.G.S.: Yeah, so I wrote a hundred-page memo, printed eight copies, very discreetly delivered them to a small number of newsroom leaders. And you can only imagine my surprise when, several weeks later, it was printed in full on BuzzFeed.
D.R.: There were politics involved. What were the politics at that point? What was the sense of conflict over this report?
A.G.S.: Well, if there’s one thing I learned as a journalist, it’s don’t waste your time chasing leakers. Just move on to addressing the problems that the leaks reveal.
D.R.: You’re the only one in political power who’s learned that lesson.
A.G.S.: I won’t get into that. But, look, it was a controversial document at the time. I think it was read outside the building as, the New York Times, with a lot of humility and reflection, trying to understand what it wasn’t doing right as the world was changing around it. And one of the theses was that, if we didn’t move fast, we were at risk of being left behind. I know that there were people who were unhappy with that notion. One of the things that makes an institution like the New York Times, or The New Yorker, or the Washington Post, successful, is these traditions that have been passed down through generations, these really old-fashioned public-oriented notions about service and about truth and about fairness. When journalists who feel those things strongly see change, I think it’s inevitable to worry that some of those special things could be at risk.
D.R.: Was the conflict along generational lines?
A.G.S.: Not exclusively, but it probably trended that way. But the leak of it, I have to say, was the most productive thing that happened in the evolution of the Times.
D.R.: Because it forced the conversation?
A.G.S.: It didn’t just force the conversation. There’s this phrase in journalism—“show, don’t tell”—and I think leaders of news organizations for many years had been telling people to change. You know, you have to file faster, because the Web is fast; you have to go on social media, because that’s where the conversation is; you have to change how you tell stories, because we have all these new storytelling tools, and the Internet is more visual. But we weren’t arming our colleagues with the shared sense of reality. Where are we? What are the forces we’re facing? And there were some really tough findings in there, and tough statistics.
D.R.: What do you think was the toughest thing for people to bear, statistically or just in terms of the facts of the matter?
A.G.S.: I think at the time it was really tough to realize that a whole bunch of digital players, like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, had rapidly eclipsed us and our journalism in reach.
D.R.: And that hurt the pride of people in the newsroom?
A.G.S.: I don’t know if it’s pride. I’m not sure if people had fully engaged with how dramatically the way that people were finding and engaging with journalism had changed. You can only imagine how worried you are that this very candid hundred-page internal document is now being read simultaneously by the entire world, and with particular interest by our competitors in media. But a Pulitzer Prize winner—actually, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner—David Barstow, pulled me aside that day, and he had just read it. On paper, he would seem like the type of old-fashioned journalist that may feel threatened by a document like this. Instead, he pulled me aside and said, “I get it now. I’ve been hearing all this stuff for years, but I needed to read that. If I started over here, and you started over here, you brought me ninety per cent of the way.”
D.R.: You’re now in your late thirties. At what point do you expect that the print New York Times will be either completely gone or just something that very special readers read in very tiny numbers.
A.G.S.: I’m always amazed at how often this question comes up.
D.R.: Do you care? Do you think it’s important at all?
A.G.S.: Well, I think it’s a testament to how much people love the print New York Times, that this is this enduring concern. What I will say is that we’ve got a million loyal readers, the paper is profitable every day of the week, even without a single advertisement, and I expect it to be around for a long time.
D.R.: But sooner or later—we all read the statistics, it’s fifteen per cent [less print advertising] this year, fifteen per cent the next year—does it matter to you in terms of the experience of reading the Times? I’m now at the point where I read both, and a lot of the time I have the sensation, when reading the [print] paper, is, oh, I read this two days ago. And then I have the other frustration—maybe some people agree, maybe you do, maybe you don’t—but that the one thing reading on the phone doesn’t do as well is surface more things. It’s very hard on a device that’s the size of an index card to surface as many things as efficiently as turning the pages of a broadsheet newspaper.
A.G.S.: For serendipity, and if you’re a completist—you know, you want to have read everything—nothing beats print. But you look at the type of storytelling we’re doing on the phone or on the desktop right now, or in podcasts, and it is qualitatively better experiences that we’re creating. Things that you could not do in ink and paper.
D.R.: I don’t want to speak for you, but essentially what you’re saying is, when the advertising finally dribbles out, even more, it’ll be completely atavistic. A print, broadsheet newspaper.
A.G.S.: I’m certainly not saying that, because, as I say, print is profitable every day of the week without a single ad dollar.
D.R.: Despite the trucks, despite the ink and the printing and all the costs.
A.G.S.: If we were just relying on the loyal readers who really care about that tactile experience of leaning back on their couch and unfolding the broadsheet, then we will keep printing. You know, the reason I’m not predicting an end date, is that everyone who has tried to predict an end date has been wrong. It’s proved to be a really enduring thing. And it’s proved to be not incompatible with the phone. In fact, we’ve found that many of our readers love reading us on the phone during the work week, as they commute on the subway to work, and love nothing more than not staring at a screen on the weekend and leaning back on the couch and passing sections to the family.
D.R.: Donald Trump calls you the “failing” New York Times. But, at the same time, your subscription numbers are way up; the level of journalism is what it is. I used to hear things about how the [Sulzberger] family wouldn’t be able to hold on to the paper anymore, because this is your only business in a sense, there’s no tech company on the side that’s providing billions of dollars. But I no longer hear as much about Mike Bloomberg, or Laurene Jobs, or somebody plucking away the New York Times. Do you feel more confident?
A.G.S.: I think that’s a testament to the progress that we’ve made. You asked me about the innovation report. Four years later, our audience, our subscriber base, and our digital revenue have all more than doubled. We are now the most consumed news organization in the country.
D.R.: But it is expensive to do.
A.G.S.: It is expensive to do. This is the thing I say to my colleagues, when I say it’s important for us to keep growing, I say, “Great journalism is more expensive than people understand.” This is an institution that gives reporters weeks, months, sometimes years to report a single story. Last year—and this is one of the statistics I’m proudest of—we put reporters on the ground in a hundred and seventy-four countries. As you know, as a former foreign correspondent, it is so important to actually immerse yourself in a place in order to understand it. Increasingly, we’re seeing that people are recognizing that original, deeply reported, rigorously fair, expert journalism is worth paying for.
D.R.: Has Donald Trump helped you? Did you get a “Trump bump” like the rest of us? How big was the Trump bump for the New York Times?
A.G.S.: Hundreds of thousands. Significant. But I think we started to see this growth even before the election. We’ve seen it even after that initial surge following Election Day. We’re seeing steady growth still. I actually attribute it to a couple things. One, we’ve gotten much better as a digital news organization. Our product, our journalism, is drawing people in in a new way. Two, I think that we’re seeing a real shift in people’s willingness to pay for services online—not just goods but services—so I think that it’s not a coincidence that before the election we were having our best subscription quarters at the same time that Spotify and Netflix were having their best subscription quarters. Three––and I think this is the tough one that I think all of us who care about journalism and who care about this country should really be worrying about—I think we’ve been seeing growth because the rest of the media ecosystem has been getting so weak.
D.R.: You mean regional newspapers, and many other organizations that we would normally depend on.
A.G.S.: That’s right. I talked about the struggles of even some of the digital players. Over the last year, we’ve seen report after report of layoffs even on the newer entrants that people had hoped would fill the void left from the decline of local news.
D.R.: At the Washington Post, I’m reliably told, there’s a committee studying what would happen, in business terms, at the Post if and when Donald Trump is not the President of the United States. In other words, if the Trump bump is reversible, will there be a slackening of audience when the kind of anxiety level lowers? Do you worry about this? In a saner time, would there be fewer readers of the New York Times?
A.G.S.: I think we are living at the intersection. Trump is front-of-mind to many people. But Trump is actually part of a broader and very important story, which is the rise of global populism. And that broader story is one of three or four stories of our time that are unfolding. Technology is remaking every aspect of how life is lived and re-ordering our economy with breathtaking speed. Climate change is doing the exact same thing, except it’s much less visible, and its consequences are less clearly known, although they will be serious. The fourth story is the story around race and gender that is growing in volume, particularly since the Harvey Weinstein story that we broke.
D.R.: For many in the general public, the New York Times is seen as a liberal newspaper. True or false?
A.G.S.: False. And I can send you all the hate mail that I’ve gotten from our aggressive coverage of the Clinton campaign.
D.R.: O.K., but do you really think that it’s possible to argue that the New York Times, by and large, isn’t both populated by people who are left of center, and that the tone of the newspaper isn’t left of center?
A.G.S.: We’re committed to a really old-fashioned notion. It’s a notion that isn’t too popular these days, which is reporting the news “without fear or favor.” Those are words that my great-great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, wrote in our initial mission statement. What that means to me is reporting on the world aggressively, searching for the truth wherever it leads, and not putting our thumb on the scale. I really deeply admire my colleagues’ commitment to that. We strive to understand every side of the story, and to convey it fairly.
D.R.: Do you believe in the notion of objectivity?
A.G.S.: I do believe in the notion of objectivity. I think it’s something you have to work at; I think it’s something that we don’t always get right.
D.R.: I have a hard time with the notion of objectivity. Objectivity, to me, sounds to me like what you do in a science lab. Fairness is another matter. I struggle with that—the notion of objectivity. You think it’s possible to accommodate it?
A.G.S.: You know, I think fairness is a word that comes pretty close to me, too, if you want to call it fairness. The point is the discipline of trying to strip away your own biases—whether they come from a worldview or lived experience—and to try to tell a story in a way that’s fair to all the participants in it. I think it’s a discipline. As I say, this isn’t the most popular position right now. One of the first things we did after the election was we hired a conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for the Wall Street Journal.
D.R.: Were you concerned after his first column, about climate change, blew up?
A.G.S.: If you look back at the history of conservative columnists at the New York Times, you see this type of reaction each time someone starts. It certainly happened when Bill Safire started.
D.R.: But that tells you what about the audience of the New York Times?
A.G.S.: Well, what’s fascinating is that, when Bill Safire died, he was mourned universally across our audience. What it tells me is that our audience likes to be challenged. And already, we’re getting notes—and I’m sure you can see on social media—of people being surprised to have ideas, assumptions challenged even in our opinion pages. And certainly we strive to do that every day in our news pages.
D.R.: Now you have a situation where the editor of the newspaper is Dean Baquet, who is [sixty-one]. And you have a hard retirement age now for the executive editor. You just hired a new editorial-page editor, James Bennet came from The Atlantic. Probably the biggest decision you have to make in your position is who’s the next editor, and it seems to the rest of the world as if Joe Kahn is in that position. Is that true?
A.G.S.: We’ve got the best editor in the business, Dean Baquet, and I hope he is with us for a very long time. I always find it interesting how the second there’s one succession decision—in this case, me stepping into the publishing role—we immediately start gossiping about the next one. I think we’re years away from looking at that.
D.R.: You just announced to your staff—and this was a big deal—that the Times newsroom budget will remain stable for at least the next couple of years. What gave you the confidence to make that announcement, and what does it mean for the staff?
A.G.S.: Earlier, you asked, what is the value of family control in a news organization like the Times? Because it can seem like an old-fashioned notion. One of the things it allows you to do is to build towards a longer time horizon. To make bets that pay off in decades or even generations, rather than this quarter or this year. And, when I look at all the decisions that my father, Arthur, made over the years, the one that was the most important was never to cut back on the size or ambition of our newsroom. Ultimately, that wasn’t just good for our journalism; it was really good for our business. And it’s what’s left us in such a strong position today. So I think that that reflects a continued understanding that, at this particular moment, when the newsroom is pursuing all these important stories all at once, that we want to offer our colleagues there some sense of stability, even as the world is going to continue to change rapidly.
D.R.: One thing has clearly changed—and it’s been an evolution, but it’s clearly now the case, unless you tell me otherwise—and that is we used to think of the New York Times as a New York newspaper. It was one of any number of New York papers, and there were times when there were a dozen or more. And now you’ve got, in terms of authoritative newspapers, you’ve got the national, if not international, New York Times, the national Washington Post, which is now gone from the Graham family to Jeff Bezos. But, all around, when it comes to newspapers, you see shrinkage. Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility now that you are playing a bigger role than a generation ago to deal with, say, malfeasance in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Dallas, Texas, or Sacramento, California?
A.G.S.: I don’t think our country can rely on a single newspaper to fill this void that’s been opening up around local journalism. It can’t and it shouldn’t. It’s not healthy for our country. The New York Times, particularly under Dean Baquet, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter, has been deeply investing in the form of investigative and accountability reporting all around the country. Over the last year, we’ve hired a hundred new journalists, and hiring investigative reporters from places like Miami and Milwaukee has been at the top of that list. But I actually think that the service that the Times can provide to the broader industry, more than any other, is to find a path forward for quality, resource-intensive journalism, and to lead the way on the business model.
D.R.: How have you felt about the change at the Washington Post? It’s now owned by Jeff Bezos, who has essentially unlimited resources, which is an extraordinary thing in any business. And it’s made a difference. You now have what is, to my mind, a real, old-fashioned newspaper war going on between the Post and the New York Times, particularly in Washington.
A.G.S.: The numbers would say it’s a mobile-app war. How do I feel about the growth at the Washington Post? It’s wonderful to see that institution growing again.
D.R.: Is it good for you?
A.G.S.: It’s good for our country, first and foremost. After years of shrinking—you were probably there at its height.
D.R.: Yes, but then I’d call my friends, and every afternoon they were cutting another sheet cake to say goodbye to yet another person.
A.G.S.: And closing their foreign bureaus, and closing their national bureaus. And it’s wonderful to see this institution—the country needs a great newspaper in Washington growing again. And I think competition is really healthy. I have a bunch of admiration, both for Marty Baron [the editor of the Post] and for Jeff Bezos, for what they’ve done to that place in just a couple years.
D.R.: You used to have, until very recently, a public editor, who was a kind of in-house critic of whatever he or she wanted to critique. You’ve decided to get rid of that. Why?
A.G.S.: It felt like a vestige of print. One of my jobs over the last few jobs is to look at all the things that we’re doing that made total sense in an era in which the news came once a day—or, if you were a Sunday subscriber, once a week—and don’t make sense in a world in which you don’t have a passive, removed audience, and you can respond immediately to concerns that arise. And I think it felt like, in some ways, we were dis-intermediating—we were putting an intermediary around—accountability, and asking a single person to call us out if we did something wrong. I actually think that there’s a much better model, which is the reporters and the editors immediately stepping forward and responding in the moment to readers, and saying, “This didn’t work.” There’s a great example of this: we had a pretty lousy story, about a year ago, about what would all the dads do in Montclair when all the moms went to the Women’s March.
A.G.S.: And it was just a bad story. In the old system, we would have waited a week for the public editor to decide whether or not it was bad; she would weigh in; the editor and reporter in question probably would have crossed their fingers and hoped that she deem that it wasn’t bad, even though all of social media has decided, no, this is a very bad story. In this scenario, what actually happened was the Metro editor, within hours, went public and said, “Hey, I really messed up here. This was a really terrible story. Please don’t blame it on our reporter. It was a bad assignment that he was given.” I think that that is a much more responsive model that fits much better with the moment.
D.R.: Are you a big presence on Twitter and social media?
A.G.S.: I’m not a big presence on social media. I think if you opened up my Twitter account you’d find two tweets from my Kansas City reporting days.
D.R.: Why’d you back out?
A.G.S.: I’m not on social media. I’m a pretty private person. When I initially signed up for Twitter, in the first few days, I discovered that every media critic in America had decided to follow me in those initial days. And reporting is enough of a high-wire act.
D.R.: And yet you say that all the conversation is there. We hear this from all kinds of wise heads. I remember the late David Carr going on, “If you’re not on Twitter, you’re not in the conversation.” And then some of those same people have been slowly backing out of Twitter, because they’re tired of the poisonous side of it. Is that why you don’t jump back in?
A.G.S.: I haven’t felt like I needed to be on social media to do my job effectively. I have felt I needed to understand social media to do my job effectively. I’ve made myself a student of it. But I think that that’s really the reason I’m not spending time on it.
D.R.: I’m giving you a very important opportunity here. I just saw the new Steven Spielberg movie, “The Post.” And I hope this doesn’t hurt, but this is about the Washington Post’s experience vis-a-vis the Pentagon Papers. Now, the Times is given credit for breaking the story, but I’m told that people at the New York Times are really annoyed with this movie.
A.G.S.: I wouldn’t say really annoyed.
D.R.: No, I mean, super annoyed at this movie.
A.G.S.: I think we’re all looking forward to the next Watergate movie. Focussing on the extraordinary reporting of the New York Times.
D.R.: Why is Times-level journalism under risk?
A.G.S.: Because it’s expensive. In fact, I think our pretty spectacular growth in audience and subscribers is a testament that people actually do want quality. I believe it’s the reason behind The New Yorker’s rapid growth as well. These are two organizations that are committed to adding value with everything they do––to digging deep, to asking tough questions. So I believe that the single most important challenge facing folks like you and me is proving that there’s a path forward for that type of journalism. And I’m really encouraged by the path we’re on right now. I think there’s a secondary challenge that has more to do with this moment in the life of the country, when our politics are so polarized, when our media diets are so fragmented, when even the underlying notion of truth is somehow in question. In that environment, I really do believe that the New York Times can play a role in bringing people together around a shared understanding of the truth.
D.R.: Maybe this is a rude question, and maybe it’s a private question, but it’s an essential question to our discussion: The Wall Street Journal finally got sold by the Bancroft family, to Rupert Murdoch, for an ungodly sum, for five billion dollars, because the Bancroft family got larger and larger—this is a historic dynamic we see in all kinds of families—and less and less interested in the challenges of journalism. They finally wanted the cash. We see you, and hear your commitment to journalism, but the Sulzberger family is large, complicated, diverse, [with] different opinions. Is there any guarantee against that kind of fracturing of commitment so that it’s hard to maintain a hold on it?
A.G.S.: My family is unequivocally committed to this institution. In fact, we feel like it’s the great privilege of our lives to be in service of an institution that is so important to this country. I actually think that the smoothness of this publisher transition that you’ve just witnessed is actually a testament to how unified we are. I’ve got five other cousins who work at the New York Times, but I’m always particularly struck by how deep the commitment is of my aunts and uncles and cousins who’ve never spent a day working at the Times. They feel it just as strongly as we do.
D.R.: So even when times get tough, and dividends might disappear, the commitment is to the end?
A.G.S.: I think you have your test case. Times were tough for much of the past decade, and the family didn’t just hold strong, we got stronger. And we’re deeply committed to the Times for the future. We’re building something for generations.