“I am an unapologetic champion for this institution and its journalistic mission,” A. G. Sulzberger said. “And I’ll continue to be that as publisher.”
Despite his in-house reputation as an innovator, the incoming publisher said that he did not expect to shake things up early in his tenure.
“I don’t expect there to be some flurry of change,” he said.
During his quarter-century tenure as publisher, the elder Mr. Sulzberger presided over the paper’s national expansion and guided it through the advent of the internet. In 1996, he moved The Times online. In 2011, he instituted a pay wall that risked pushing away readers but has since become the centerpiece of the company’s growth model.
In recent years, as print advertising revenue declined sharply, The Times has focused on adding subscribers and accelerating its digital expansion. With 3.5 million paid subscriptions (2.5 million of them are digital-only), The Times is one of the few newspaper companies whose newsroom is growing at a time when the industry is struggling.
The elder Mr. Sulzberger assumed the job of publisher when George H.W. Bush was president and Max Frankel was the newspaper’s executive editor. To prepare for the role, 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 press at its former location on West 43rd Street.
With Mr. Sulzberger in control, The Times weathered not only the sometimes rocky early days of its digital transformation, but also an economic recession that claimed dozens of newspapers nationwide.
His term was not without financial missteps and newsroom turmoil, including the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal in 2003 and the firing of a chief executive and two executive editors. Yet even as American newspapers fell increasingly into the hands of corporations and billionaires, Mr. Sulzberger remained committed to The Times, investing in its journalism and keeping bureaus open around the world.
The newsroom, with roughly 1,450 journalists, is larger now than it was when he started his term. Under his leadership, The Times has won 60 Pulitzer Prizes, nearly double the number the paper was awarded under his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who served as publisher for 29 years.
A. G. Sulzberger, like his predecessors, will oversee all aspects of the company’s news, editorial and business operations. In taking the helm, he will become a crucial steward of journalism at a time of widespread mistrust in the media, fueled by a president who delights in attacking the press.
The New Generation
The younger Mr. Sulzberger was one of three cousins who were candidates for the job of publisher. The others were Sam Dolnick, 37, an assistant managing editor who oversees many digital and mobile initiatives, and David Perpich, 40, a senior executive at The Times who helped establish its pay wall.
Succession at The Times has been a fraught process in previous years, with some family members perceiving that sons in the Sulzberger line had an advantage. The most recent selection process included the formation of a seven-member committee intended to give each candidate equal consideration.
The Ochs-Sulzberger family, through several trusts, controls about 91 percent of the stock that elects 70 percent of the company’s board members.
A fifth-generation descendant of Mr. Ochs, the younger Mr. Sulzberger is soft-spoken and measured. Where his father is quick with quips, some of which miss the mark — he once joked to President George W. Bush that he thought it was fascinating they both worked in their fathers’ old offices (Mr. Bush, he said, did not respond) — the younger Mr. Sulzberger is more restrained. While acknowledging that he does not seek the spotlight, A.G. Sulzberger says that he has strong views and is willing to push the company.
“I wasn’t someone who grew up aspiring to become publisher of The New York Times,” Mr. Sulzberger said in an interview in his office this week. “But having spent the last eight years of my life here and understanding how important the work being done here every day is, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling or rewarding way to spend my days.”
Born in Washington, Mr. Sulzberger grew up in Manhattan and attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an elite private school known for its progressive ethos. His mother, Gail Gregg, is a painter and writer who has worked as a journalist. She and his father divorced in 2009 after more than 30 years of marriage. (The elder Mr. Sulzberger remarried in 2014.)
After graduating from Brown University in 2003 with a degree in political science, Mr. Sulzberger worked as a reporter at The Providence Journal and The Oregonian. He joined The Times in 2009 as a reporter on the metropolitan desk. Later, as the head of the Kansas City bureau, he covered the Midwest, including the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., in 2011.
In his office, he keeps a framed metal plate of the front page that featured his first article as Kansas City bureau chief, about a 103-year-old federal judge. Those who have worked with Mr. Sulzberger have noted his whimsical descriptions of his quests for sustenance as a vegetarian in the Midwest.
He established himself as a newsroom leader in a different role — a leader of the team behind the so-called innovation report, a document that became a guide for the company’s digital transformation and a template for the rest of the industry. From there, Mr. Sulzberger was named an associate editor. He was also part of the group that outlined the plan to double The Times’s digital revenue by 2020.
“He’s not a vocal, stand-on-the-desk, beat-his-chest kind of leader — but that’s not the only kind of leadership,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said. “He is very thoughtful. He is very forceful.”
Since he was appointed deputy publisher last year, Mr. Sulzberger has spent time learning other parts of the company, including advertising, marketing, technology and human resources. He also said he had “spent a lot of time getting to know the opinion folks,” which included working with James Bennet, the editorial page editor.
A Look Back — and Ahead
Although the elder Mr. Sulzberger will continue as the company’s chairman — a title he has held since 1997 — his decision to step aside as publisher puts an end to a long reign atop one of the world’s most influential, and most scrutinized, media companies.
His supporters highlight the fact that he has brought The Times to a position of relative financial strength, particularly given the hurdles he faced. On his watch, the company found new sources of revenue to offset the decline in print advertising, including mobile apps for cooking and crossword puzzles. Still, The Times has had to figure out how to do more with less. The company last year brought in about $1.6 billion in revenue, down roughly 2 percent compared with the previous year.
“The paper was in a very good position when I took over, given where we were,” the elder Mr. Sulzberger said in an interview on Wednesday. “We are in a better position now, because we are much more accustomed to embracing change.”
When Mr. Sulzberger became publisher, The Times was in many ways a vastly different company, with regional newspapers, magazines and local television stations. One of his first initiatives was to take the paper national. A year into his tenure, in 1993, The Times acquired The Boston Globe.
“It really took some heavy lifting, honestly, because it wasn’t clear that the business model would work,” Mr. Sulzberger said of the national expansion.
He was also quick to embrace the internet’s potential, forming a partnership in 1994 with America Online to introduce @times, a digital news and information service. Two years later, The Times started a daily website, The New York Times on the Web.
Going online was not an easy sell. “Many of our colleagues way back then thought that digital was getting in the way of the mission,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And it was only when they started to see that, in fact, it was enhancing their ability to get their journalism out that they started to truly embrace it.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Times appeared to be firing on all cylinders. The front page featured its first color photograph in October 1997. Mr. Sulzberger also created or revamped sections, including Thursday Styles, Business Day, Culture and Travel.
In 2003, The Times introduced T Magazine, a fashion and style publication that was a magnet for advertising dollars. The Times also became the sole owner of The International Herald Tribune, which it would later use as a springboard for international expansion.
Five years later, amid the financial crisis and a continuing erosion of print advertising, the momentum came to a halt. The company significantly cut its dividend in 2008, reversing years of increases. Though dividends were a substantial source of income for the Ochs-Sulzberger family, the family trustees supported the decision, a move that Mr. Sulzberger said highlighted their commitment to the newspaper’s mission.
In 2009, facing financial headwinds, the company received a $250 million loan from the Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim Helú. It also signed a sale-leaseback agreement for its new headquarters at 620 Eighth Avenue — a 52-story building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano — which it spent more than $600 million to build.
“You have to see the ship through that storm,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “It was very hard.”
As the downturn in the industry stretched on, Mr. Sulzberger pared down assets. In short order, The New York Times Company sold its regional newspaper group and its stake in Fenway Sports Group, the owner of the Boston Red Sox. It also sold The Boston Globe and About.com, an information site it had purchased in 2005 for more than $400 million. The financial loss on The Globe sale was substantial; The Times bought it for $1.1 billion in 1993 and sold it in 2013 for $70 million.
Some bets during that troubled period, however, paid off. Amid much debate inside and outside the newsroom, The Times introduced a pay wall in 2011, paving the way for the subscription-driven business model the company has since adopted.
During Mr. Sulzberger’s tenure, the paper published some of its most towering reports, including series on Chinese princelings and Ebola and comprehensive coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks that earned the paper six Pulitzer Prizes. This year, its reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct against the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have set off a national reckoning over inappropriate behavior by powerful men and sexism in the workplace.
But The Times also ran plagiarized and fabricated stories by Mr. Blair — a stain on the newspaper’s reputation that Mr. Sulzberger cited as a low point of his tenure. The Times published a lengthy article describing Mr. Blair’s “trail of deception” in 2003. During a town-hall meeting, Mr. Sulzberger pulled a stuffed toy moose out of a bag in an effort to encourage those present to discuss an uncomfortable issue. The tactic, however, did not go over well in a room full of anxious, and angry, journalists.
Howell Raines, the executive editor at the time, was soon forced out.
The next year, The Times shined a spotlight on a series of flawed articles about the United States’ entry into the Iraq war, publishing a lengthy editor’s note acknowledging that, in many instances, the coverage was “not as rigorous as it should have been.’’
There were other periods of Mr. Sulzberger’s term as publisher that were marked by leadership turmoil. Janet Robinson, the chief executive of The Times, left abruptly in late 2011. And in 2014, Mr. Sulzberger hastily gathered the newsroom and informed those in attendance that The Times had dismissed Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor.
With Ms. Abramson’s ouster, Mr. Sulzberger elevated Mr. Baquet, the first African-American executive editor at The Times.
Many who have worked with Mr. Sulzberger say he deserves credit for maneuvering The Times through perhaps the most challenging era in its history. Mr. Sulzberger is often spotted in the newsroom, sometimes just to chat, but he has never been known to meddle in The Times’s journalism in the manner of publishers who seek to protect friends or go after adversaries.
“Arthur never, ever asked me not to publish a story,” Mr. Baquet said. “Never.”
Several years ago, Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Abramson decided to publish a series about Chinese princelings even after the Chinese ambassador threatened to block The Times in China. The Times was making significant investments in its Chinese operations at the time, and the decision to run the articles cost the company money and exposure to a vast new audience.
Over the last year, the company has undertaken an overhaul of its news operation that involved restructuring its editing operation — including the elimination of a stand-alone copy desk — and a redesign of its physical newsroom. Hiring priorities have broadened to include positions aimed at increasing online readership and deepening its engagement with its audience.
Although the advent of digital media proved a destabilizing force at the company for many years, executives are optimistic that The Times will bring in at least $800 million in digital revenue by 2020, double what the company earned in 2014.
As they prepare for the transition, both father and son insist the family’s commitment is unwavering.
Seated at a table in his office, sipping from a paper cup of tea, A.G. Sulzberger recalled a phrase in Adolph Ochs’s will asking his descendants to maintain the editorial independence and integrity of The Times.
“Those are the last words of this man — to think about what is the future of this institution and what is this institution’s responsibility to the public,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “I think that’s something that everyone in my family feels, which I suspect I feel particularly acutely, given this pretty profound responsibility.”
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