The rising discussion about whether the Sulzberger family will sell the New York Times – now that the Graham family has sold the Washington Post – identifies two different media camps.
One camp asks the question “will they?” as a way to reassure themselves that, even in the maelstrom, some boats make it. We do not all drown. The treasure is preserved.
The other asks the question “will they have to?” in a way that is shaded by schadenfreude and that presumes some amount of inevitability – and even invites the deluge.
In the “will they?” view, the declaration by the paper’s publisher and the family head, Arthur Sulzberger, that the paper and the company is not for sale – both in the past and renewed last week – is determinative. Even though this is what is almost invariably said by every company before it is sold.
There are other hurdles to a sale of the Times, as well as exceptions to the bleak fate of newspapers everywhere, that are regularly pointed out by those who see the continued ownership of the Times by the Sulzberger family as a Maginot line between established journalistic standards and relative free-market anarchy. The company has a dual-class voting structure, which allows the family to own relatively little of the paper but vote as if they owned it all. Not only that, but there is also a complicated requirement for a super-majority within the family itself.
While it’s true that a similar structure did not save the Post from being sold, the argument for the Times maintains that the Sulzberger family remains somehow more loyal and devoted and resolved.
Then, there is the monumental burden, harsh light, and implicit threat waiting to greet anyone buying the Times. Who would want to have to justify their cultural and political worthiness and dependability that way? Who’d want that kind of scrutiny? You’d reap the whirlwind. This view assumes, of course, that the Times continues to represent the establishment (whatever that now is) in a way that would cause the establishment to defend it.
And then, there is, against the odds, the business argument. The Post was losing $50m a year, but the Times is actually eking out a few pennies. There is here a tremor of determined hope, even though most everyone making this argument about positive digital transformation would generally confess to having little or no idea what they are talking about. Still, despite many expectations, the Times is selling online subscriptions, isn’t it? The traffic is good, isn’t it? The brand is, well, the brand: the Times, damn it.
The “will they have to sell it?” camp is trying to suggest the choice has all but slipped from the Sulzberger family. This camp is partial to and even excited by a sale, not least because of longstanding antipathy to the idea of family rule and, in particularly, to Arthur Sulzberger himself.
According to these partisans, the Sulzbergers – though now, in effect, the last newspaper family standing – have nevertheless phumphered while Rome burned. Arthur Sulzberger, even though he has outlasted Don Graham, who was always reputed to be much brighter, is regarded by them as a lightweight – one of the inevitable mistakes of primogeniture and not up to the task of guiding the Times through a period of great technological and intellectual transformation.
This group includes almost everybody who used to work for the Times, but no longer does so. Change, in this view, is long in coming – and that the Times itself is a barrier to change. The group also includes traditionalists who believe the Times, in its phumphering, has turned into an ever-sloppier product, always trying to be some new idea which it never quite becomes or, in a variation on that theme, an old-news-cum-dopey-trends purveyor.
And here you’ll also find those who believe in the oppressiveness of the Times’ traditionalism. Its writing is dull. Its culture coverage ossified. Its politics predictable. Its news sense parochial. Its point of view heavy-handed. Its favorites banal. Its enemies, those who have crossed it.
Another subset of the “will they have to sell it?” group are the business gamers. For them, the Times is a sort of Sim City of media. There is a kind of delight in spelling out the numbers.
The Times has this $918m on hand, in Tom McGovern’s lovely analysis in Capital New York, which is good news. But wait, it is carrying $694m in debt, and its pensions are underfunded by $150m. And with its recent sale of the Boston Globe, the NYT now has nothing left to sell. It’s reduced to its own fate: can it grow its online revenue faster than it loses print advertising revenue? Most informed gamblers would say not.
And then there is the pressure, the crisis-driven vortex of the media industry. The Washington Post gone. Likely, the Financial Times next to go. A news class of media owners who will not be denied. Really, how can the Sulzbergers resist the obvious, the only intelligent call?
There it is: the former camp believes the New York Times should go on as always – and that it will, a symbol of standards and constancy, not to mention relative liberal goodwill. The latter camp believes much would be better, and certainly more interesting, if it didn’t – and that it can’t, anyway.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010