Last summer, when word hit the street that Don Graham was selling the Washington Post to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, virtually everyone who follows media was stunned, but perhaps no one more than Graham’s New York City counterpart.
At a Media Minds breakfast discussion in Midtown Manhattan Thursday morning, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, described the moment when he and his Gray Lady brethren first learned of the all-cash $250 million deal, which was announced unexpectedly by Paul Farhi on the Post’s website on Aug. 5, 2013.
“It really sent a shock through the institution, and through my colleagues and our colleagues at the Times,” Sulzberger told a roomful of about 150 journalists and other media professionals. “Everybody called me saying, ‘The Times is next, the Times is next.’”
Indeed, the Post’s sale to a Seattle-based tech billionaire sparked no shortage of speculative think pieces on whether or not the Sulzberger family should make a similar move. But those who think the 62-year-old Sulzberger should get out of the way should probably not hold their breath. In fact, Sulzberger said that he and his cousin Michael Golden, vice chairman of the New York Times Company (NYSE:NYT), had a group discussion with other members of the family shortly after the Post deal was announced. When the possibility of selling the Times came up, not a single person thought it was a good idea. “It was that kind of amazing sort of moment for the family,” Sulzberger said. “We are not selling the New York Times.”
Sulzberger said that, although he plans to stick around for a while, a succession plan is in the works, and will likely involve one of six members of the next generation, which would be the fifth to own the Times since Adolf Ochs took control of the then-struggling paper in 1896. Sulzberger, who is Ochs’ great-grandson, said he and his family are committed to continuing that lineage. “The family is united around its ownership, and its responsibility, to maintaining the New York Times and its journalistic integrity and its journalistic independence,” he said.
Cathy Gay, who produces the Media Minds series, asked Sulzberger if he had any insight as to what motivated Bezos to scoop up the Washington Post. Sulzberger said he was not privy to any insider information, but he speculated that Bezos sees the storied paper as “an important institution that needs to be supported.” On that note, he went on to praise one of his biggest marketplace rivals. “We need this paper,” he said of the Post. “As Americans, as citizens and honorable competitors, we need this.”
Sulzberger appeared on the panel with Mark Thompson, president and chief executive of the Times Co., who was the head of the BBC before joining the Times in 2012. The panel was moderated by Harvard University’s Alex S. Jones, a former Times journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1987. A persistent interviewer, Jones asked Thompson about some of the criticism within media circles that he was either asleep at the wheel at the BBC or should have been aware of the burgeoning Jimmy Savile sexual-abuse scandal, which garnered worldwide attention just as Thompson was leaving the organization. (Thompson said at the time that he was never told about the former BBC host's abuse allegations.) In response to Jones, Thompson said that the unwieldy BBC, with its myriad channels and services, is a different animal altogether than the Times -- and too large an operation to manage with complete knowledge of every detail.
Fortunately, most of the discussion was decidedly lighter. In speaking about the Times’ commitment to old-school journalism, Sulzberger didn’t miss an opportunity to take a shot at one of his paper’s tabloid counterparts. (We’re not going to … be putting up the wrong picture of the Boston bomber,” he said.)
But he got the biggest laugh toward the end of the interview, when he thanked Jones for “not asking anything about Jayson Blair,” the notorious former Times journalist who resigned in 2003 amid a plagiarism scandal that remains one of the most embarrassing chapters in the Times’ history.
“Which brings up Jayson Blair ...” Jones responded jokingly.