Newspapers and news culture are fixtures in American narratives, especially after Watergate, when the disruptive power of an obsessive, perseverant reporter or two was reaffirmed in a regime-toppling way. Most of our myths agree on the newsroom as a human pressure cooker populated by combustible editors, compromised suits and teeming hives of alternately competing and collaborating reporters: lean and hungry, insatiable as junkies, single-purpose agents of the democratic process. Whether the press is lionized as protectors or ridiculed as manipulable in the play of power depends on the mood of the story, or, in the present climate, on your party affiliation.
Lore aside, the profession of journalism does present as a perfect storm of stress, pressure and chronic instability, especially now. It has always been rigorously deadline-driven and time-sensitive, sworn to unforgiving standards of proof and accountability, bound by a relationship to power that is spicy and complex if not inherently adversarial. But even a digressive, provincial critic for an upstate weekly can see that these are weird times in the trade. Demonetized, deprofessionalized and balkanized in the blog era, the classic press seems as much a retro meme, a film prop, as a functioning institution. The political discourse of division, in which every fact belongs to an interest, erodes the efficacy of even the best reporting, probably by design. And the sluices of news distribution are famously and inscrutably slanted in the age of Big Data. What you see seems to depend mostly on who you are already known to be.
But what do I know? A little more, I must say, after spending an hour or so in conversation with Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. and James H. Ottaway, Jr. For them, the morning chat was a casual warmup and photo shoot a month in advance of their participation in SUNY-New Paltz’s Distinguished Speaker Series. On March 4, the two friends and New Paltz-area residents will run it for real when the college presents “Truth, Trust and the Future of Journalism: An Evening with Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. in Conversation with James H. Ottaway, Jr.” at Lecture Center 100.
Distinguished speakers, indeed. Sulzberger is chairman of The New York Times Company and was publisher of The New York Times between 1992 and 2017 (a period, you might note, in which a few important things happened to news delivery). Ottaway is retired director and senior vice president of Dow Jones, where he worked to build the European and Asian editions of the Wall Street Journal, and the former chairman of Ottaway Newspapers. In American journalism, these are among the heaviest of hitters.
Just as you would expect, my conversation with these eminences began (and lingered for a good while) on the topic of…me: how I got into music and book reviewing, my sense of the current music scene in the Hudson Valley, where my band would be playing next. What the thumbnail bios above fail to mention is that Sulzberger and Ottaway both began their careers as reporters, and both loved the work. Both moved with reluctance off the beat and into administration, business development and industry stewardship, where each has distinguished himself outrageously. Should I have really been surprised that they were the ones firing the questions?
The reporter’s mindset defined their careers, long after their reporting days had passed. “It was key to my management style,” Ottaway says, “learning how to ask questions. I managed by asking questions. I hardly ever gave an order. You’re always talking to people who are smarter than you are. I think reporter skills are quite helpful.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” says Sulzberger. “As someone with a journalistic background, you realize that for all of the challenges you face, you cannot destroy the brand value. As we move away from an advertising-driven business to a consumer-driven business, that is only enhanced, because now it is definitive: You have to preserve the quality of the brand, and that means the quality of the journalism.”
Sulzberger and Ottaway have at least one ulterior motive in deflecting the attention onto me: They are keen not to give away too much of the matter of their upcoming professional conversation and would prefer to talk about their shared love of, and commitment to, New Paltz and the Hudson Valley, its people and its landscape. In our conversation, a dual theme of retreat and engagement surfaces again and again. Both found escape, recreation and reflection in the Hudson Valley and a necessary antidote to their professional lives. But, being the kind of people they are, both were moved to action and have emerged as volunteers within the community. Sulzberger sits on the board at Mohonk Preserve. Since his retirement, Ottaway has served as treasurer of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, trustee of Bard College and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Storm King Art Center.
Ottaway moved here for good in the mid-’80s at the suggestion of his wife Mary. “I was in the embarrassing position of having moved us six times to different newspapers, and I finally said, ‘Well, it’s your turn.’ There are all kinds of interesting people in this college town, and some of the most fantastic landscape in New York State, but it is not a high-pressure social place to live,” he says. “This is not East Hampton.”
Sulzberger agrees enthusiastically. “The joy of New Paltz,” he says, “is that it is a place you can go to escape. I mean, there is so much here to embrace. I love the vitality of this place. But there is so much also that is not here.”
Sulzberger enthuses over recent developments at the Mohonk Preserve. “It has really been growing,” he says, “in visitors, in programming and in its footprint.” Meanwhile, further down the Ridge, Ottaway is helping the Open Space Institute in its efforts to build a visitors’ center at the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. “From the park’s establishment,” he says, “when those who loved its precious sky lakes, cliffs and historic carriage roads rallied to ensure its protection, it has needed a central welcoming location.”
“I think one of the things we share,” Ottaway adds, looking at Sulzberger, “is the love of this landscape as a quiet retreat from the wild and pressured life that we lived as newspaper publishers.”
A longtime rock climber who learned the literal ins-and-outs of the Gunks under the mentorship of climber Jim Munson before buying property here 30 years ago, Sulzberger sees a necessary relationship between his profession and his passion. “The reason that I love rock climbing so much,” he says, “is that when you are climbing, you cannot be thinking of anything else.”
The SUNY-New Paltz Distinguished Speaker Series will present “Truth, Trust and the Future of Journalism,” an evening with Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., chairman, The New York Times Company, in conversation with James H. Ottaway, Jr., retired director and senior vice president of Dow Jones, former chairman of Ottaway Newspapers, on Wednesday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Lecture Center 100. Tickets cost $10 and advance purchase is recommended. Visit www.newpaltz.edu/speakerseries for details, or call (845) 257-3880.