The September 30 Sunday Times's front page obituary for Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, 1926-2012, the New York Times's publisher from 1963-92 -- and grandson of Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896 -- was a well-deserved in house encomium, even if it bordered, especially its length, on hagiography. The obituary, by longtime reporter Clyde Haberman, looked back with some nostalgia to the Golden Age of the Times when it bestrode the American newsworld like a Colossus. Eloquent columns the next day by former executive editor Max Frankel and former managing editor Arthur Gelb established how Sulzberger earned the esteem of his senior employees by having high regard for their abilities and not meddling in their roles.
Historians of the Times are properly generous in evaluating his years as publisher, and I am no exception. During his years as publisher, the Times continued to be the Paper of Record to which readers looked daily, and it was the most esteemed and trusted label in American journalism. At the same time, the daily paper changed from the two section newspaper to a multi-section hybrid newspaper-magazine with a rotating focus on Sports (Monday), Science (Tuesday), Dining (Wednesday), Home and, later, Style (Thursday), and Weekend (Friday) with its focus on the Arts. On Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's watch, the Times became the arbiter of cultural excellence and played an important role in establishing New York as the centerpiece of American culture, notwithstanding the film industry's venue in California.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's major accomplishments included the courageous publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers that outlined how the USA became involved in Vietnam. Given the Supreme Court ruling in favor of publication without prior restraint, it can be said that the Times was responsible for extending the First Amendment rights of the press. With the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as Harrison Salisbury put it in his Without Fear or Favor:
The Times was no longer handmaiden, supporter, crony, adherent, bondsman, counselor or confident to the 'government' but was itself an independent power with independent rights, independent judgment, and independent responsibility.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, affectionately known as Punch, appointed Abe Rosenthal as the first Jewish executive editor, something his father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger -- who opposed the creation of Israel and allowed the Times on his watch to minimize the Holocaust -- would not have done. That appointment turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Although Punch Sulzberger and Rosenthal were apparently in personality polar opposites, the affable and low-keyed Sulzberger gave Rosenthal -- passionate, imaginative, and innovative (although at times irascible and abrasive) -- a free hand to move the Times from simply reporting facts to more analytic and contextual reporting. Himself a brilliant reporter and writer, Rosenthal also pushed the Times to a more lively style at a time when some of the writing -- while detailed and thorough -- could be colorless, repetitious, and ponderous. And Rosenthal played a central role in urging the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
In contrast to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, his very assimilated father and publisher from 1935 to 1961,who downplayed the family's Jewish roots, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was pro-Israel. He was still the Times Company's CEO when the Times apologized for its coverage of the Holocaust at its 1996 centenary celebration exhibit at the New York Public Library.
Nevertheless, when Punch became publisher, the Times still saw itself as the voice of the dominant social and political culture -- the world inhabited by people of means, often with degrees from elite colleges -- and aligned itself with paradigmatic American values: the nuclear family, heterosexuality, male privilege, material success, and USA exceptionalism, sometimes inflected with Scotty Reston's optimistic belief in the specialness of the people living in the US. The sixties challenged the assumption that the U.S. was a stable and homogeneous culture, but Punch and the Times under Rosenthal were slow to change. Although fascinated by China and Japan, by today's standards the Times during Punch's years was, despite its coverage of the Vietnam War, Eurocentric in its foreign coverage; it failed to recognize the importance of non-Western countries and non-Western culture.
Media historians also need to take account of some of the other aspects of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's leadership. Merging the Sunday Times and daily Times in 1964 under one editor, Turner Catledge, when to an extent they were two separate papers now seems not only logical, but inevitable. Yet Punch inherited a divisive situation in which Leslie Markel presided over the Sunday Times on the eighth floor of the old Times building as if it were a separate fiefdom.
While the Times commendably supported the American Civil Rights Movement, early in Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's publishing years the Times overlooked the need for diversity within its own ranks. A good deal of improvement was made after 1972 when women rebelled against their lower pay and lower status. By 1989 Carolyn Lee was the first female assistant managing editor; she had the power to hire women and minorities. But it was Punch's son, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. who made diversity a major focus and brought significant gender and racial diversity into the newsroom, notably when he picked Gerald Boyd to be managing editor under executive editor Howell Raines.
The passing of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger reminds us of how rapidly the Times has changed in recent years and how the current publisher, his son and successor Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. faces more difficult financial challenges than his father ever faced. In the context of today's newsgathering world with its social media and blogosphere, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger is almost a quaint figure, someone who presided over the Times in a different era. In the past several years, its financial situation has changed drastically for the worst.
When Arthur Ochs Sulzberger took the paper public to raise capital for future purchases and to maintain the quality of the Times, it was a brilliant business decision. With two tiers of stock, the Sulzberger's' extended family controlled the B shares and elected the majority of the Board of Directors. With a rising stock price and generous dividend, the Sulzberger family was in the financial catbird's seat.
But now with the stock hovering around $10 -- when it was once in the low 50s -- and the dividends cut to zero, I am not sure that the family can hold on to the company in perpetuity because I don't see a workable business model even if the Times drastically reduces staff as well as paper and delivery costs. I am doubtful that the Times, now the only quality paper in America devoted to the entire spectrum of international, national and local news -- plus finance, sports, and culture -- can survive another dozen years in its current print form, although I can image a shorter daily newspaper on the model of the Times Company's International Herald Tribune and a separate weekly magazine containing many of its back-of the-book articles. My guess is that the Saturday Times will be the first to go and will be merged in to a weekend edition.
Given that digital advertising does not begin to replace lost print advertising, what is the long-term future of any and all print newspapers? Even someone with the imagination, flexibility, and business acumen of an Arthur Ochs Sulzberger would have great difficulty in preserving the Times as a print newspaper, and perhaps even as a newsgathering operation. We can only hope that future publishers of the Times, whether the next generation of Sulzbergers or others who might purchase it, can sustain the quality of newsgathering that has made it one of the world's pre-eminent sources of news -- especially international news -- and analyses.
Author of the recently published Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/ danRSchwarz
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