It was standing-room-only for a conversation at SUNY New Paltz last Wednesday with journalistic peers Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of The New York Times, and James Ottaway, Jr., retired director and senior vice president of Dow Jones and former chairman of Ottaway Newspapers. The crowd overflowed Lecture Center 100 into the hallways and lobby, where others interested in the talk “Trust, Truth and the Future of Journalism” could watch the discussion live on large screens.
Besides having both grown up in newspaper families, starting their careers as beat reporters and working their way up the journalistic ladder to the executive suite, Ottaway and Sulzberger share other things in common: a deep love of New Paltz, a passion for environmental conservation, and a belief that our democracy would be in peril without quality journalism.
“Just consider: In the lifetime of the students at SUNY New Paltz, one-quarter of print newspapers have closed their doors, and more than half of all journalism jobs have been lost,” said Sulzberger. Sulzberger explained how the press, once reliant on advertising to sustain it, has had to invent an entirely different model to be sustainable — one that pays homage to the print newspaper while staying current in the digital world, and one that requires news coverage to move 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Back when we were reporting, we would cover our story, write it up on a typewriter, hand it to our editor, who would give us feedback; we’d make corrections and send it to the copy editor,” said Sulzberger as he pantomimed the act of writing and rewriting a story in the pre-Internet days. “Then we’d go off to the bar! It was a great life,” he said with a laugh.
The Times has evolved
Today’s world is different. The New York Times has moved from being a Northeast-based paper to having three major editorial headquarters: New York City, Hong Kong and London. “When New York is going to sleep, Hong Kong is waking up, and it becomes their responsibility to update stories, to report any breaking news that might be happening in the world and to make the tough decisions of what deserves coverage and where to put it,” explained Sulzberger.
And when Hong Kong goes to bed? “London takes over.”
Under Sulzberger, Jr.’s leadership and with the backing of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and shareholders, The Times decided to invest in moving to a digital, paywall, subscription-based model ten years ago, it is thriving, with 5.3 million subscribers worldwide. “We have a subscriber in every single country in the world,” said the chairman proudly, “even one in North Korea — and I’m dying to know who it is!”
“I think we know who it is,” joked Ottaway. How had The Times has been able to survive in a climate where newspapers are closing their doors daily and the Internet supplies a tsunami of false information and vitriolic opinions, with few vetted journalistic outlets?
“We were in a tough place ten years ago,” responded Sulzberger. “We were in a recession, the advertising-based model was not being supported and we had to think long-term, not short-term — and thank God we did!” He reflected on a conversation that the family had, via conference call, where they all agreed to back Sulzberger and his cousins, who believed that the future was largely digital and subscription-based.
“Then we had to invest heavily in our journalism, which we have done and continue to do. We have 1700 people working on the journalistic/editorial side of the company right now, which is more than we’ve ever had in the history of the paper.” Sometimes their best and brightest have spent months or even years chasing down the facts of a story.
“That story we did on Trump’s taxes took three of our top reporters working on it full-time for more than a year and a half,” Sulzberger said. “The Harvey Weinstein story took two of our reporters six months.” One of The Times’ podcasts, called The Daily, has ten million monthly listeners. It is intended to bring people behind the curtain of journalism to see how a reporter tackles a story and is able to unearth the facts that tell it.
Explaining the Trump Bump
Ottaway, who led the conversation with questions before opening it up to the general audience, asked Sulzberger about the effect of Donald Trump’s election on subscriptions to The Times. “We call that the ‘Trump Bump,’” replied Sulzberger. “Yes, we did experience a surge in readership, but that growth is not just about The Donald.”
Sulzberger said that his own son and recently anointed publisher, Arthur Gregg (a/k/a A. G.) Sulzberger, has had to “go to the Oval Office twice” to defend the press from attacks by the president. Sulzberger said that one of the positive sides of no longer being publisher is that he doesn’t “have to answer the phone when the president calls.”
At Ottaway’s prompting, he told about his experience with Trump when he was still publisher. “It was during that period after the election, but before the inauguration, when we invited president-elect Trump to have an on-the-record conversation with our journalists, which you can still listen to,” he explained. At that time Sulzberger was in correspondence with Trump’s press secretary, Hope Hicks, and the meeting was set.
“I wake up to find that Trump had tweeted something to the effect that ‘The New York Times has just changed the rules and I’m no longer going,’” said Sulzberger. He shook off his anger and e-mailed Hope Hicks and said, ‘I know it’s a lie, you know it’s a lie.”
Eventually Trump did come to meet with New York Times journalists. After speaking with Trump for 15 or 20 minutes, Sulzberger motioned to the doors of The Times board room, where journalists awaited them. There was a signed photograph of every American president since Teddy Roosevelt hanging on the walls. “We have one of president Trump now, too,” noted Sulzberger.
He asked Trump to pay special heed to one photo in particular, the one that has an inscription that read “The New York Times: Some read it and like it. Some read it and do not like it. But everyone reads it. Signed, Richard Nixon.”
“Think how that ended for him,” mused Sulzberger. “That was the last president to take on the free press…” The line about Nixon received a raucous round of applause.
Local news is under stress
Ottaway asked his fellow Paltzonian what two of his worst days as publisher were. He responded. “Jayson Blair,” referring to The Times reporter who had been making up stories and sources, claiming to have been places he wasn’t and talked to people with whom he had not spoken. “That was brutal, because it went to the core of our mission: trust.” The Blair affair ended with the firing of executive editor Howell Raines, whom Sulzberger had brought in, and under whose watch the Blair affair had gone unchecked.
“Can you think of another really, really bad day?” asked Ottaway with a smile. “I never received as much hate mail as I did for one story we wrote,” said Sulzberger. He was flooded with nasty letters and threats of boycotts and subscription cancellations due to “the announcement that we would be going to color. People were outraged!” he said, “because this is one of the hard human truths: Change sucks.”
The paper did not suffer from its move to color.
As for a happy day, Sulzberger cited the transferring of the leadership to his son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger. “That makes us an organization that has successfully moved through five generations, and it’s hard to think of many institutions like that — except for another one right in front of me: the Smiley family,” owners and operators of Mohonk Mountain House resort hotel for the past 150 years.
Sulzberger serves on the board of the Mohonk Preserve and Ottaway is treasurer of the Wallkill Valley Land Trust.
Both notables played well into the hands of the locals, proudly claiming that they’re subscribers and avid readers of New Paltz Times and asking everyone in the audience to subscribe and invest in “local journalism,” which they both believe faces the greatest economic threat. “Local news, in particular, is under more stress than any other part of the news ecosystem,” said Sulzberger. “It’s also critical to our safety, security and knowledge of our communities.”
Ottaway pleaded with everyone in the audience to support their local papers and to treat them like they would National Public Radio, making donations if they have to. “To think of all of these local dailies and weeklies shutting their doors is just horrendous,” said Ottaway. “It’s like living in darkness. I believe it poses a greater threat to our democracy than Trump does. At least Trump will eventually go away.”
“To borrow a line from the current publisher of The Times, my son, A. G. Sulzberger, ‘The world has enough podcasts, videos, tweets and hot takes to last us through the Apocalypse. But the world will always need more quality, deeply reported journalism.’ Indeed,” said Sulzberger, “it’s the stuff upon which a vibrant democracy, and a free and informed society, depends.”
The speakers took questions from the audience, with one resident, Bill Weinstein, asking about how The Times handled trolls on its Comments section. “We have a team that goes through those comments to make sure that they’re not inappropriate,” he responded, “that they add some value, and that they’re not the same comments being submitted 1200 times from Malta!”
Another resident asked, “Where are the women? It’s hard to look at your Opinion columns and see all men.” Sulzberger replied, “The Times has and continues to make a major commitment to diversity of voices including gender, race and ethnicity.”
Mr. Sulzberger’s socks
Village mayor Tim Rogers asked whether he “lived in a bubble, because I think our local journalism is strong. I think the reporters from the Oracle [SUNY New Paltz’s student paper] are really interested in the stories they cover, and I always answer their calls. I think New Paltz Times does a thorough job.”
Rogers did not express this same faith in the local dailies.
“But I bet you have people on staff who read them and let you know everything that they’ve written about you,” countered Sulzberger.
“I’m trying to keep taxes down in New Paltz, so I’m not in the business of paying staff to read the dailies,” said the mayor. “Touché,” answered Sulzberger.
Talking about a free and informed press being one of the key ingredients of a healthy democracy, Sulzberger said that we often think about the “free” part but not as often the “informed” part. Living in darkness or ignoring dogged reporting imperils not only our daily lives but also our society.
He referenced Thomas Jefferson, “one of our nation’s founders and fiercest advocates of a free press,” who put it this way: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.”
The last question came from someone watching the talk from outside of the crowded Lecture Center. College president Donald Christian read it out loud: “Mr. Sulzberger, I love your socks. Where did you get them?”
The answer? Rock and Snow, of course.