Arthur Sulzberger Jr.: He led the New York Times Into the Digital Age and 61 Pulitzer Prizes

From a New York Times story by Marc Tracy headlined “Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to Retire as New York Times Company Chairman”:

The New York Times Company announced on Wednesday that Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. will retire as the chairman and as an active member of its board of directors on Dec. 31, completing a generational shift at a newspaper that has been in the same family for more than 120 years. He will be succeeded as the board’s chairman by his son, A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher.

Mr. Sulzberger, 69, served as publisher of The Times from 1992 to 2017. He made sweeping changes during his tenure, taking the print newspaper from black and white to color starting in 1993 — a move viewed with suspicion by some traditionalists — and later transforming it into a digital publication. He became chairman in 1997 and will assume the title of chairman emeritus.

His retirement concludes a changing of the guard, coming nearly three years after his son became the publisher and weeks after Meredith Kopit Levien, previously the chief operating officer, replaced Mark Thompson as the chief executive and president. Mr. Thompson, who held the chief executive job for eight years, was appointed to that role by the elder Mr. Sulzberger. . . .

The Times has been run by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896, when its patriarch, Adolph S. Ochs, bought the paper in a bankruptcy sale. Arthur Sulzberger was the fifth publisher in its history.

He assumed the job of publisher when George H.W. Bush was president and Max Frankel was the newspaper’s executive editor. To prepare, he served in a variety of jobs at The Times, including as a correspondent in Washington and the night production manager overseeing the newspaper’s printing presses at its former location on West 43rd Street. He also put in a two-year stint as a reporter at the London bureau of The Associated Press.

With Mr. Sulzberger in control, The Times weathered not only the rocky early days of its digital transformation, but an economic recession that claimed dozens of newspapers nationwide.

Mr. Sulzberger led The Times to 61 Pulitzer Prizes during his time as publisher. In 1996, he moved The Times to the internet. In 2011, he instituted a pay wall that was seen as a risk at the time, but has since become the centerpiece of the company’s business. . . .

Mr. Sulzberger’s time in charge was not without its missteps and moments of office turmoil. In 2003, he parted ways with Howell Raines, who had been the newspaper’s executive editor for less than two years, after it was revealed that a staff reporter, Jayson Blair, had committed dozens of acts of journalistic fraud in his work for The Times.

Another dramatic moment came in 2014, when Mr. Sulzberger dismissed Jill Abramson as the executive editor because of what he characterized as “an issue with management in the newsroom.” Ms. Abramson was the first woman to serve as the executive editor of The Times when Mr. Sulzberger appointed her to the job in 2011. He replaced her with Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s first Black executive editor, who has led the newsroom since her departure.

Much of his tenure as publisher coincided with a time of crisis in the news media industry, when newspapers across the country were dying off, unable to survive the one-two punch of the transition to digital and the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Sulzberger continued the family’s commitment to journalism, keeping bureaus open around the world and adding journalists to its newsroom.

When he left as publisher at the end of 2017, The Times had 3.5 million subscribers, 2.5 million of them digital-only. Since A. G. Sulzberger succeeded his father in that role, the growth in subscriptions has accelerated. At the end of the second quarter of 2020, the paper had 6.5 million total subscribers, a figure that included 5.7 million digital-only subscriptions. This year, for the first time, the Times Company earned more from its digital products than the print newspaper in a quarter. . . .

A. G. Sulzberger became the leader of the Times Company, on Jan. 1, 2018, partly on the strength of his “innovation report,” a 2014 document that was critical of the newspaper’s failure to adapt quickly enough to sound digital-media practices while also laying out a plan for its online future.

Nearly two decades before the report, Arthur Sulzberger reconsidered print’s role in news. In a 2015 interview for an oral history project of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, he said his experience as a wire-service reporter at The Associated Press had influenced his thinking on print.

“We would transmit our information from London, where I was working, and it would go around the world, and it would appear in countries everywhere,” he said. “I never felt tied to a particular piece of paper. Perhaps that was the beginning of thinking about it more broadly.”

In the mid-1990s, he added, he could see that the emerging medium “was going to change the way people consumed news information.”

Marc Tracy covers print and digital media. He previously covered college sports. @marcatracy

Speak Your Mind