Arthur Sulzberger, on life in the Internet age
"Will we print the NY Times in five years? I don't care," says the NY Times publisher
Despite his personal fortune and impressive lineage, Arthur Sulzberger, owner, chairman and publisher of the most respected newspaper in the world, is a stressed man.
Why would the man behind the New York Times be stressed? Well, profits from the paper have been declining for four years now, and the Times company's market cap has been shrinking, too. Its share lags far behind the benchmark and just last week, the group Sulzberger leads admitted to a loss of $570 million because of writeoffs and losses at the Boston Globe.
As if that weren't enough, his personal bank, Morgan Stanley, recently set out on a campaign that could cost the man control over the paper.
All this may explain why Sulzberger does not talk with the press.
But perhaps the rarified Alpine air at the World Economic Forum at Davos relaxes the CEOs of the world's leading companies, and what began as a casual chat ended in a fascinating glimpse into Sulzberger's world and how he sees the future of the news business.
Arthur Sulzberger - Given the constant erosion of the printed press, do you see the New York Times still being printed in five years?
"I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care, either," he says. He's looking at how best to manage the transition from print to Internet.
"Internet is a wonderful place to be and we're leading there," he adds. The Times has doubled its online readership, and now has 1.1 million subscribing to the print edition - and 1.5 million readers online, each day.
The New York Times is on a journey, Sulzberger says, and its end will be the day the company decides to stop printing the paper. That will be the end of the transition.
It's a long journey, and there will be bumps in the road, says the man at the driving wheel: but he doesn't see a black void ahead.
Asked if local papers have a future, Sulzberger points out that the New York Times is not a local paper: it's a national one based in New York, and has more readers outside the city than in it.
Classifieds have long been a major source of income to the press, but the business is moving to Internet.
Sulzberger agrees with that assessment: but what the papers lose the websites gain.
What the media groups can do is develop their online advertising business, he explains. Also, because Internet advertising doesn't involve paper, ink and distribution, companies can make the same money even if it gets less for the ads.
Really? What about the costs of development and computerization?
"These costs aren't even near what print costs," Sulzberger explains. "The last time we made a major investment in print, it cost no less than a billion dollars. Site development costs don't grow to that magnitude."
The New York Times recently merged its print and online news desks. Did it go smoothly or were there ruffled feathers? Which team is in the lead these days?
"You know what a newspaper's news desk is like? It's like the emergency room at a hospital, or a military system. both organizations are very goal-oriented, and both are very hard to change," Sulzberger says.
But once change begins, it happens quickly. So yes, it was difficult, he says: "But once the journalists grasped the concept, they flipped and embraced it, and supported the move." That included the veteran managers too.
How are you preparing for the changes to the paper that Internet dictates?
"We live the Internet world. We have, for example, five people working in a special development unit, whose whole job is to initiate and develop things in the electronic world - Internet, cellular, whatever comes. And do you know who our biggest customer is, at the level of the group? Google!"
The average age of New York Times readers is 42, Sulzberger says, and that hasn't changed in ten years. The average age of the paper's Internet readers is 37, which shows that the group is managing to recruit young readers too, for both print and website.
Also, the Times entered a deal with Microsoft, to distribute the paper through a software program called Times Reader, Sulzberger relates. The software enables users to conveniently read the paper on screens, mainly laptops: "I very much believe that the experience of reading a paper can be transferred to these new devices."
Will it be free?
It will not, Sulzberger avers: if you want to read the New York Times online, you will have to pay.
In the age of bloggers, what is the future of online newspapers and the profession in general?
There are millions of bloggers out there and if the Times forgets who and what it is, it will lose the war, and rightly so, re Sulzberger. "We are curators," he explains: curators of news. People don't click onto the New York Times to read blogs: they want reliable news that they can trust.
"We aren't ignoring what's happening: we understand well that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was ten years ago," he says.
Once upon a time, you had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theatre: today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information. But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers, "We need to be part of that community," he says: to have dialog with the online world.
And while on community, the scandal about Jayson Blair, the reporter caught plagiarizing and fabricating, hurt the brand but not the business, he says. Blair was forced to quit in May 2003.
You're one of the few papers that continues to print on broadsheet, which people consider to be too big and clumsy. Until when?
Until when? The New York Times has no intention of changing that, Sulzberger avows. In any case, transiting from broadsheet to tabloid size would be prohibitively expensive. Speaking of which, he says that the International Herald Tribune had a terrific year in 2006, and could possibly break even.
Do you feel that the newspaper world is weakening? Are the advertisers pressing harder for better deals?
Advertisers always press harder for better deals and influence over content, Sulzberger shrugs. But the New York Times has nothing to apologize for and no reason to fold, "as long as I am sure that what we wrote and what we're about to write, is right."
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