Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Says Journalists' Voices Still Critical, Powerful
Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and former publisher of The New York Times, refuses to be daunted by threats of journalism’s decline.
“This is a challenging time, let’s all agree on that,” Sulzberger said. “But the ability for journalists to have a voice, to get out there and get the information out digitally is more powerful than ever.”
During the 2018 McGarr Symposium, held earlier this week in the Belo Center, Sulzberger shared anecdotes from his quarter-century tenure as leader of one of the nation’s most respected newspapers. The discussion, focused on the past and future of The Times, was officiated by UT alumnus Cappy McGarr.
Sulzberger stepped down as publisher last winter and is succeeded by his son A.G Sulzberger, the sixth member of the family to helm the newspaper.
Under his time as publisher, the paper won 60 Pulitzers and hit new levels of readership. Currently, there are 3.6 million paid subscribers to the site, with digital-only readers accounting for 70 percent.
The Times has weathered storms that have overtaken other newspapers, but it wasn’t smooth sailing. In 2007 Sulzberger implemented a paywall, a hotly contested decision at the time. But he credits the switch from reliance on advertising to a subscription-based model, plus an increasingly digital-minded approach, in ensuring the sustainability of a paper that now employs for 1,450 journalists and more foreign correspondents than ever before.
“It’s been a big, painful period but we were able to get there,” Sulzberger said.
Twenty-six years as publisher carried Sulzberger through several of the country’s most memorable political and cultural events, many of which were backdrops to his anecdotes.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were one such backdrop. For their coverage of the attacks, The Times famously won seven Pulitzers that year, more than any newspaper in the prize’s history. But coverage was often a grueling process, Sulzberger said.
“We had to have boots on the ground, we had to get people to the sights,” he said. “It’s not about winning a prize, it’s about really having that depth and commitment, and the people who could really help us understand what was really going on.”
More recently, The Times broke the story about sexual harassment allegations against influential entertainment executive Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was a major advertiser, Sulzberger said. Many other companies who have objected to the newspaper’s coverage of them or their industries have threatened to pull ads.
Even nations bear grudges. A reporter spent two years piecing together connections between China’s wealthiest citizens for a story that angered Chinese officials. But Sulzberger refused to be cowed by threats of zero access or loss of funding.
“Our journalists come first always, always,” Sulzberger said. “Of course we published the China story. [The reporter] won the Pulitzer, and we’ve been blocked in China ever since.”
The dialogue inevitably led to President Donald Trump, who has famously butted heads with The Times more than once. Sulzberger recalled an incident early on in Mr. Trump’s presidency in the newspaper’s boardroom, where signed photographs of every president since Teddy Roosevelt are displayed.
Sulzberger pointed out one in particular to Mr. Trump, which read “To The New York Times: some read it and like it, some read it and don’t like it. But everybody reads it.” It was signed Richard M. Nixon.
“I said, ‘that’s the last president who took on a free press. Think how it ended for him,’” Sulzberger said. “It went right over [Trump].”
But Sulzberger acknowledges that in a time of what feels like increasing polarization, solid journalism is vital.
“This is the time when we have to be committed, not just The New York Times but all journalists, to covering stories in an open and honest way,” Sulzberger said. “Cursing the darkness doesn’t help the world. Lighting a candle does.”
Photos by Marc Speir.
Freshman Journalism Major