What we learnt from Arthur Sulzberger

Waking up to read about the death of a man like Arthur Sulzberger, the former New York Times publisher, is, indeed, very sad. The man’s contribution to free and meaningful journalism in the 20th century is, arguably, unparalleled.

Today, where the foremost concern in media circles around the democratic world is to find a balance between hard-hitting journalism and financial independence of the firm, Sulzberger stands as a role model.

At a time when the Cold War was at its zenith, the reigns of the New York Times were handed down to Arthur Sulzberger in 1963 from his father. Back then, the New York Times was a reputed paper that set the national agenda but was also facing a shaky financial condition. Sulzberger’s challenge was to keep up its reputation as a serious newspaper while making it financially independent. And, he couldn’t have done his job better.

In his 34 years at the helm of affairs of the New York Times Company, he not only thrived as a journalist but also as a publisher. He faced persecution for publishing the Pentagon Papers, which finally led to the downfall of the Nixon government, thereby upholding the honour of journalism. At the same time, the entrepreneur in him created pages like science, food and entertainment that were oriented towards consumers. He also started separate sections for metropolitan and business news. These pages continue to add to the variety and depth of New York Times’ journalism till date. Many such changes on the business side of the enterprise made the NYT Company a multi-billion dollar media firm. This also strengthens my belief that given a large enough educated population of the country, a newspaper needn’t rely on its tabloid sections to gain financial independence.

According to the Associated Press, the Times‘ weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 when Sulzberger became publisher in 1963 to 1.1 million upon his retirement as publisher in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times’ corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion.

One of the finest contributions of the Times to journalism today is its beautiful form of descriptive journalism. I was once told by an avid Times reader that reading the Times is like seeing the world with your bare eyes. I would indirectly credit this to Sulzberger because had he not strived to keep the newspaper financially independent, its journalists wouldn’t have had a free hand at their job. According to the Times, Sulzberger is once said to have remarked that it was no coincidence that family-owned papers were among the best, “Nepotism works,” he joked.

Today, when the world is at the cusp of new technological advancements like the internet, the financial independence of media firms is again under question. In this era of declining print subscriptions, The New York Times Company has come a full circle. It has been selling off many of its properties and has not paid a dividend in several years. Its share price also has been slumping. For the NYT Company, the death of its strongest guide has surely come at a wrong time.

While I was a journalism student in New York, Rupert Murdoch had recently bought the Wall Street Journal and rumours spread that he now eyed the jewel of American journalism – the New York Times. Arthur Sulzberger Jr and several others on the board of the New York Times were striving hard to keep the company under the control of the family. Sulzberger Jr came to our University (Columbia) to justify the Times policy of paid subscriptions on the internet, his attempt to further the legacy of Sulzberger Sr, which will live on for many media executives across the world to remember and adopt.

Originally Posted :What we learnt from Arthur Sulzberger (Tehelka, September 2012)

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