NY Times publisher:
Our goal is to manage the transition from print to internet
By Eytan Avriel
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, 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 suffering a $570 million loss because of write offs 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, Switzerland, which ended last week, 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.
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.
Sulzberger is focusing on how to best manage the transition from print to Internet.
“The Internet is a wonderful place to be, and we’re leading there,” he points out.
The Times, in fact, has doubled its online readership to 1.5 million a day to go along with its 1.1 million subscribers for the print edition.
Sulzberger says the New York Times is on a journey that will conclude the day the company decides to stop printing the paper. That will mark the end of the transition. It’s a long journey, and there will be bumps on 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, but rather a national one based in New York that enjoys more readers from outside, than within, the city.
Classifieds have long been a major source of income to the press, but the business is moving to the Internet.
Sulzberger agrees, but what papers lose, Web sites gain. Media groups can develop their online advertising business, he explains. Also, because Internet advertising doesn’t involve paper, ink and distribution, companies can earn the same amount of money even if it receives less advertising revenue.
Really? What about the costs of development and computerization?
“These costs aren’t anywhere near what print costs,” Sulzberger says. “The last time we made a major investment in print, it cost no less than $1 billion. 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 leading the way today?
“You know what a newspaper’s news desk is like? It’s like the emergency room at a hospital, or an office in the military. Both organizations are very goal-oriented, and both are very hard to change,” Sulzberger says.
Once change begins, it happens quickly, so the transition was difficult, he says. “But once the journalists grasped the concept, they flipped and embraced it, and supported the move.” That included veteran managers, too.
How are you preparing for changes to the paper that are dictated by the Internet?
"We live in the Internet world. We have, for example, five people working in a special development unit whose only job is to initiate and develop things related to the electronic world - Internet, cellular, whatever comes.
The average age of readers of the New York Times print edition is 42, Sulzberger says, and that hasn’t changed in 10 years. The average age of readers of its Internet edition is 37, which shows that the group is also managing to recruit young readers for both the printed version and Web site.
Also, the Times signed a deal with Microsoft to distribute the paper through a software program called Times Reader, Sulzberger says. 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 transfered to these new devices.”
Will it be free?
No, Sulzberger says. 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 they are, it will lose the war, and rightly so, according to Sulzberger. “We are curators, curators of news. People don’t click onto the New York Times to read blogs. They want reliable news that they can trust,” he says.
"We aren’t ignoring what’s happening. We understand that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was 10 years ago.
"Once upon a time, people had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theater. Today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information," he says. “But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers. We need to be part of that community and to have dialogue with the online world.”
And while on community, the scandal about Jayson Blair, the reporter caught plagiarizing and fabricating, hurt the brand, 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 promises. At any rate, transitioning from broadsheet to tabloid would be prohibitively expensive, he says.
Do you feel that the newspaper world is weakening? Are advertisers pressing harder for better deals?
“Advertisers always press harder for better deals and influence over content,” Sulzberger says. But the New York Times has nothing to apologize for and no reason to fold, “as long as I’m sure that what we wrote and what we’re about to write is right.”