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Changing Times.

In April 21, 1991, Anna Quindlen did something that New York Times columnists never do. She used her "Public & Private" column on the op-ed page to attack the editors of the Times. She criticized the editors' treatment of Patricia Bowman, the woman who had accused William Kennedy Smith of sexual assault in the Palm Beach rape case. Quindlen wrote that the Times' news coverage of the woman's story--which used Bowman's name and recounted her bad driver's record and sexual history ("she had a wild streak," the story noted)was "beneath the traditions" of the paper. Quindlen also accused the editors of sexism and snobbery and of being voyeurs in the bargain. As is the custom of the op-ed page, Quindlen wrote the headline over the column herself. "A Mistake," it read.

The next morning, Quindlen arrived at work to find the Times staff divided and hesitant about how to respond to "A Mistake." Half the newsroom, seemingly, agreed with her criticisms. "The other half," Quindlen recalls, "thought I made a big mistake to air the Times' business." Then Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. visited the newsroom and sent everyone a strong signal. He passed Quindlen in an aisleway and, in a voice loud enough for a dozen witnesses to hear, complimented her on the column. It was important that she had spoken out the way she did, he told her.

At the time the column appeared, Arthur was listed as deputy publisher on the Times' masthead. His father, Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr., held the title of publisher. In fact, Arthur Jr., now 42, had been running the Times day to day since late 1988, and eight months after the Palm Beach rape story roiled the newsroom, he was formally designated publisher by the Times' board of directors, which included his father and his three aunts. "Punch" Sulzberger kept the title of chairman and CEO of the Times Co.

Whether Arthur Sulzberger's Times will be better or worse than the one his father supervised over the last quarter of a century is unclear. Certainly, it will be a different Times. The personalities and generational attitudes of the two men were different, as was the marketplace in which each found himself operating. The father left the affairs of the paper in order. But the father's prudence could extend only so far. For all the forward planning, no one foresaw the severe economic downturn in the paper's business fortunes and the major internal effort to restructure the institutional Times in response to changes in the media landscape.

Punch Sulzberger began as the accidental publisher, elevated only because of the illness of his father and the death of his brother-in-law. He learned the business on the job, and exercised his authority ad hoc. "I read stories like any other Times subscriber, when the paper came out," he said. "Then if I wanted to, I'd pick up the phone and discuss the directions we're going in with the editor." He believed in the Times hierarchy and dealt mostly with his executive editors-successively, Turner Catledge, A.M. Rosenthal and Max Frankel. There are Times writers who in 25 years never heard from Punch Sulzberger, pre- or post-publication.

By contrast, young Arthur Sulzberger quickly demonstrated, through highly visible episodes such as the one involving Quindlen, that he intended to be a hands-on, involved proprietor. He took his service as heir apparent seriously. His first job was as a reporter for the Times--of Raleigh, North Carolina. From there, he went to the Associated Press in London and then to the New York Times' Washington bureau. In the early 1980s, he went to New York to join the metro desk as a reporter. After his tours as a reporter, he crossed over to the business side in New York, working in advertising--making sales calls to corporate customers--and then in the circulation and production departments.

As publisher, Arthur sometimes acted as if he were still in the newsroom. He had a core of reporter pals from his days in the Washington bureau and on the metro desk. While he was still deputy publisher, he arranged a series of social dinners with small groups of Timespeople, typically, the younger reporters who were his contemporaries, men and women in their 30s and early 40s. He impressed an acquaintance at the time as "a take-charge command guy; if possible, he wanted to get to know all 1,000 people in the news department." Obviously, the acquaintance added, "as a Sulzberger and as the publisher, he can no longer be just one of the boys and girls."

When friends and associates described Arthur, certain adjectives kept coming up. He was called caring and ruthless in the same sentence by one former metro reporter. In private conversation, he could be very funny and fast on his feet. If his self-confident manner sometimes shaded into arrogance, there was a good reason: He was extraordinarily well prepared for the publisher's job, which he sensed was due him before late middle age.

Though he operated within the institutional imperatives of the Times, Arthur showed that he could be sensitive to his surroundings and to other people. "The old-think at this place tends not to worry about morale or about how the staff feels," Quindlen explained. "Miserable was best." When Quindlen was thinking about leaving the Times after the birth of her third child, Arthur worked out the arrangements for the op-ed column. According to Quindlen, "His attitude was, 'Let's find arrangements that are mutually beneficial for the individual and the company.' "At the same time, however, Arthur Sulzberger showed his reverence for the tools of market research--also a generational characteristic--and other currently fashionable mechanistic approaches to modern journalism. His absorption with profit margins demonstrated that he could count beans as well as any MBA.

During Arthur's tenure as deputy publisher, the newsroom was alert for clues to how he would run the Times of the 21st century. His public alliance with Quindien carried the unmistakable message that he intended to be an activist publisher.

But there were other clear signals that Sulzberger intended to put his own mark on the Times. He publicly announced his commitment to "diversity in the newsroom," and instructed his editors to follow a policy of affirmative action, hiring women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans whenever possible. Quietly, he extended his idea of diversity to include homosexual men and women, a minority that in the past felt the need to remain closeted at the Times. He also put his money quite literally where his mouth was, promising that he would provide Times health insurance and other benefits to employees living in "gay partnerships."

Sulzberger's affirmative action policies were sometimes mocked by the Times' more traditional hires. The most common complaint was that women and minorities were being promoted to mid-level and senior editing positions while they were a few years away from such leadership roles.

Despite the newsroom sniping, the Times' record for hiring and promoting minorities improved. Women in particular were moved forward. Some of the Times' lifestyle departments had been for a long time run by women editors. The more serious international and national news pages were considered male preserves. A dozen women moved into previously male-dominated senior positions in the news department. In 1988 Rebecca Sinkler, then 54, became the first woman to edit the Times Book Review. Two years later, Carolyn Lee, 44, was named an assistant managing editor. In the past, assignments that generated page one bylines were a fast track upward for ambitious male reporters. At the start of the 1992 presidential campaign, the Times named 12 people to high-profile assignments covering the candidates and politics. Six were women; three were African Americans.

At the same time, Arthur Sulzberger sent other, more ambiguous, signals about the direction he wanted to take the Times. In the mid-1980s, his father and Walter Mattson, then president and CEO, raised the Times' profits-to-revenues ratio to the desired 15 percent to 20 percent annual figure. By 1991, the ratio had fallen back to around 5 percent. While annual revenues held fairly steady, operating expenses kept rising, and the Times Co.'s net income declined from $167.7 million in 1988 to $44.7 million in 1992.

Arthur Sulzberger could not be held responsible for the national recession and the Times' consequent loss of advertising. But the Times' internal business affairs did come under his control. He let it be known that he wouldn't shrink from the management "efficiencies"--staff cuts, salary caps, tougher work rules--the Times said it needed to hold down costs.

"All around us we see once prosperous businesses failing or coming close to failing," he told the staff on April 7, 1992. "This newspaper will not be among them." He cast around for further efficiencies, consulting marketing theorist W. Edwards Deming.

Arthur organized no fewer than seven employee-management committees to spread the teachings of Deming throughout the paper. Timespeople mastered a Demingistic vocabulary ("process-oriented management," "holistic vision") and learned the value of "the three virtues" of self-esteem, instrinsic motivation and the curiosity to learn. They also picked up the rather unsettling news that when companies were Demingized they became "leaner and flatter." That is, they got along with fewer employees. Most important of all, Demingism meshed neatly with the strategy of a reader-friendly Times.

Arthur's faith in managerial bromides, like his father's before him, seemed harmless enough. More unsettling were the long-range plans for the editorial content of the Times. The search for reader-friendly formulas at times sounded hostile to the physical existence of the newspaper itself. The fault was not entirely the Times'. Its market research kept coming upon the infamous aliterate American, twentysomething men and women who could read but didn't.

Arthur Sulzberger and his lieutenants began talking up the importance of creating new "products." Arthur's ongoing subcommittees on the future began to act as if print were passe. As veteran Timesman Jack Rosenthal had asked, rhetorically, "Who said information must come in the format of a newspaper?"

At one point, the Times was involved with new information media. In the 1980s it owned one of the premium cable television systems in the country, NYT Cable in southern New Jersey. Securities analysts considered NYT Cable an attractive property and it served a growing suburban audience. Yet in 1988 the Times sold NYT Cable and walked away from its high4ech product line. Punch Sulzberger explained at the time that the company wanted "to focus our efforts on our core businesses."

At the beginning of 1993, the Times company owned 31 small- to modest-sized regional newspapers and published 17 average-to-good magazines, including Family Circle and McCall's. It also owned a group of television stations, mainly in smaller Southern markets. But the core of the core business was, obviously, the New York Times newspaper.

The soft consumer-oriented sections of the 1970s had attracted the upmarket New Yorkers and suburbanites needed to keep the Times healthy. By the late 1980s, however, the city's population growth and its economic activity slowed. In four decades New York City lost more than 7 percent of its population, from 7.9 million in 1950 to 7.3 million in 1990. As New York appeared to stagnate, Sunbelt cities reached double digit growth rates; Los Angeles and San Francisco became, respectively, the nation's No. 2 and No. 4 metropolitan areas in population. Punch Sulzberger decided that the Times would reach out to its kind of readers no matter how far they lived from West 43rd Street.

The new strategy became evident as early as 1988, when the Times began publishing three editions. The "basic" paper was the four-section edition available in the city, the suburbs and along the East Coast. A second Times, the national edition, was the two-section paper beamed by satellite to five printing plants around the country. The first section was composed of international and national news, plus one page of news of the New York metropolitan region. The second section led with material culled from the Business Day pages; a digest of the paper's coverage of culture, lifestyle and sports followed. The third Times version was the California edition, a three-section daily. The added section, the Living Arts, offered a somewhat wider selection from the Times' cultural and consumer service features. Distribution began in the San Francisco Bay area in April 1988, followed by expansion to Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and the Tacoma-Portland region. After more testing, the Living Arts idea was incorporated into the national edition and all eight plants began distributing a three-section Times.

The Times invested $10 million in 1988 alone in the three-section California edition. Promotion efforts included an extensive television and billboard campaign in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and introductory subscriptions at half the newsstand price of 50 cents. The circulation department sponsored West Coast cultural events to give the paper visibility among potential readers and advertisers.

The West Coast efforts produced modest results. Circulation in the San Francisco area increased from 18,000 to 31,000 the first year, while in the Los Angeles area, including Orange County, circulation went from 12,500 to 21,000. The numbers translated to about $454 in promotion and other expenditures for each new reader gained, a very high price to pay. On the other hand, these readers had the same desirable demographic profile found in readers of the New York City edition.

The new strategy was correct in its assumption that thousands of professionals around the country wanted the Times. National advertisers were harder to find. The national edition was an aesthetic success: a smart, good-looking, fast-reading product, a compact version of the basic paper without too much of the crime, grime and racial tensions of the city. But it wasn't the engine for company growth that management initially envisioned. In fact, it wasn't making money at all.

By 1991 some 250,000 upmarket people were reading the national edition; some special interest advertisers, like book publishers, found the paper useful. The advertising agency spacebuyers for such big-ticket products as automobiles, computers and financial services were less impressed. From their point of view, they could reach almost 2 million readers in either of the other two national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Similarly, the newsweeklies offered readerships 10 to 20 times larger than that of the Times. The Sulzbergers' planning committees had to consider the strong possibility that the national edition might never be attractive for national advertisers until its circulation doubled.

The committees told Arthur what he already knew: The expansionist 1980s were over. A Times internal document circulated in May 1992 said, "We need to invest time and effort on the Times' other business. A considerable portion of our resources will be dedicated to pursuing other revenue opportunities." Arthur put the same conclusion in more direct terms: "The painful economic truth is that we can no longer do business the old way."

Facing slow growth with the national Times and uncertain growth with informational services, Arthur reversed the marketing strategy of the previous decade. His Times would look homeward. It would be a New York City newspaper with a distinctly popular appeal to attract a broader, younger audience.

As the 1990s began, Arthur increased by 50 percent the size of the Times sports report to bring in younger male readers. He started the Styles of the Times section, with its features devoted to young, downtown trendoids. And he hired new staff and invested major resources in expanded coverage of the metropolitan region.

These new beats, like the people assigned to them, were intended to reflect "diversity." In 1951 the population of blacks, Latinos, Asians and others all together numbered around 1 million out of almost 8 million New Yorkers. By Arthur's 40th birthday, the number of whites in New York had declined by 50 percent while the nonwhite population had increased fourfold. Whites were another one of the racial minorities in Arthur's New York; the 1990 U.S. census showed the city to be 43 percent Caucasian, 28 percent black, 24 percent Latino, and 7 percent Asian (counting some white Hispanics twice). The new major force in the city was foreign-born immigrants.

The Times strategy during the Punch Sulzberger years was based on an appeal to an affluent audience. Arthur's resolve to reposition the Times on a New York base broke with the past: The readers he sought were not members of the dinner party set.

Punch Sulzberger had argued that the Times couldn't be local, or too ethnic: "We're not New York's hometown paper. We're read on Park Avenue but not in Chinatown or the East Bronx." There was an understanding inside the paper that the Times was edited by elites for elites. Glory came through the international and national reporting; being read by the people who belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations--or who lived, as Punch Sulzberger did, at 82nd and Fifth-counted more than being read in Bay Ridge.

The traditional Times was a newspaper with a grand mission. In the postwar years of the late 1940s through the 1960s particularly, superpower America had global interests, and the Times saw itself as the paper of responsibility, covering the American era. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Punch's father and Arthur's grandfather, wanted the Times to help shape American public policy. He reasoned that no single newspaper, magazine or radio broadcast between the two World Wars reached a significant number of the opinion elite. ln the absence of a nationally formed opinion, the Hitlers and Stalins of the world could rise to power, their manipulative propaganda unchallenged. "Arthur Hays Sulzberger wanted the Times to play the role of a great national forum," said lawyer James Goodale, who joined the Times in the early 1960s. "Some of us saw that as the Times' unique contribution to the world."

By and large, the postwar Times delivered: In the earnest pages of the Sunday Week in Review section and in the Times Magazine, the public policy matters were explored for an audience of worldly readers. The magazine's big-picture articles always seemed to be written by Dame Barbara Ward, the British economist; they always seemed to ponder the same grave "challenges" and "issues."

By the 1990s, the big-picture article became big color pictures with modest accompanying text. Warren Hoge, the magazine's editor in the first years of Arthur's tenure, sped the decline of the Dame Barbara form: The front of the magazine (the letters columns, the ruminative introspection of "About Men") and the back (the outre high-fashion spreads) steadily encroached on the middle well of public policy. Even there, in the center space devoted to the longer articles, the magazine regularly offered one soft feature, usually a personality profile, to provide "balance" for the substantive public affairs analysis.

The old wisdom held that the Times' news coverage couldn't be too "popular." "We're not an easy paper to fall into-you've got to work at it," Punch Sulzberger declared without apologies toward the end of his term as publisher.

The new-think wisdom holds that the Times should be accessible to those who weren't falling into the paper. Every few months, the Times carried analyses detailing the decline of reading.

Younger Times reporters and midlevel editors serving on the publishers' planning committees didn't need studies to grasp the significance of these generational changes. They looked through the one-way windows at members of focus groups assembled by the Times. They listened with growing horror as one after another of the group-- people who were their contemporaries, college graduates and professionals-- said they had no interest in picking up a copy of the Times.

Arthur knew the survey data. The Times' New York penetration--the percentage of metropolitan households that bought the paper regularly--was among the lowest of any big-city daily. The Washington Post had a penetration of 60 percent; the Dallas Morning News, 33 percent; the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, around 23 percent to 25 percent. In the New York metro area, the Times' penetration was just 10 percent.

These were upper-end households, and Arthur was glad to have them. But when he looked at New York in the 1990s, he saw a society "where the elites were redefining themselves," and where new elites, including younger New Yorkers and nonwhite arrivals, were developing new interests. He feared that if the Times stood still, stayed "narrow," or talked only to an aging--and shrinking--elite, then it would no longer be relevant. "We would be serious and unread, like the 1980s New Yorker." He resolved to change the Times' mix of news and features.

Punch Sulzberger's response had been different. "They are scary," he replied, when asked about the aliterates. But he thought that the solution lay with a public and policy makers who "paid more attention to the kind of education young people received."

Some of the contrasting responses of the old Times and the new were the consequence of generational emphasis; a young publisher's energetic resolve to do something about penetration in a changing market, measured against an older man's practiced acceptance of the fact that New York isn't Sarasota, or even Washington.

Sulzberger family members always tried to speak with one voice about their Times property, but the inevitable strains involved in any passing of institutional authority were intensified by the early 1990s business recession. In 1991 and again in 1992, Times advertising lineage continued to drop off in the key categories of retail, help wanted and real estate. The paper's profits fell by a third.

Arthur did what executives of most large corporations try to do in tough times. He looked for ways to reduce fixed operating costs. To cut the size of the staff, the Times in the summer of 1991 offered buyouts to employees age 55 or older and with more than 15 years' service at the paper.

In the early 1990s, Arthur's Times also faced its first real cross-town competition since the best days of the old Herald Tribune after World War II. The Times' rediscovery of local news, sports and downtown styles was a direct response to the upstart Newsday. When the Times' market surveyors discovered that young, affluent, male New Yorkers actually bought Newsday, or the Daily News or the Post, principally for their sports sections, Arthur resolved that if this desirable profile likes fun and games, the Times would supply them. He anchored sports in the same place in section B on Tuesday through Saturday so it could be more easily found.

The Metro section was also expanded with more than a glance at Newsday. Arthur implicitly acknowledged the Times' past disinterest in local news when he had to find "outsiders" to run the Metro pages. Gerald Boyd, a Midwesterner and a member of the Times' Washington bureau, became metro editor; Michael Oreskes, a former Daily News political reporter, was named Boyd's chief deputy. Martin Gottlieb, an investigative reporter and former editor of the Village Voice, was another key addition.

The Times also recruited Adam Moss, 34, the rounding editor of 7 Days, a self-consciously hip weekly aimed at young adults living on the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan. (Moss was the closing editor as well when the weekly was shut down in 1988 after two years of losses.) Moss informally joined the Times staff serving as "consultant" to the managing editor, an unusual arrangement in the unbending hierarchy of the newsroom, and a measure of Arthur's commitment to shake up the Times. Moss and Tom Botkin created Styles of the Times. But Moss was not appointed the first editor of Styles. The title went to Stephen Drucker, another thirtysomething outsider who had previously worked at Vogue. Within a year, Drucker left and Moss went to the Times Magazine, while Styles of the Times continued to search for its "voice" under the editorship of Claudia Payne. Last month, yet another new editor was appointed.

Arthur Sulzberger has made clear what he wants his contribution to be in the succession of family publishers who have run the Times. He plans to lead the return to New York, "our base and the energy that drives the Times machine." He hopes to hire a staff on both the business and news sides that reflects the city's diversity. He will try to engage new audiences with a relevant, reader-friendly Times of broad appeal. "We are a New York City paper," he emphasized the day he became publisher. "We have a role in the nation. But a majority of our advertisers are here. New York is the point from which we speak. I'm bullish on New York."

He says that he will accomplish these new goals while honoring the old standards of the Times. He will also nourish the international reporting "franchise." The Soviet Union may have collapsed and, with it, five decades of Cold War journalism, but the new publisher says that these changes will not affect the Times' international commitments: "Foreign coverage is fundamental to what we are." And for the record, the Times national edition will continue to receive his support, to serve upper-end professional and business readers.

While Arthur attempted this feat of balancing, he also tried to make the Times cost effective with profits once again equal to, or surpassing, the industry norm of 15 percent to 20 percent. Quietly, without provoking any dinner party conversation, Arthur's Times began shifting its revenue stream away from the usual formula of an 80-20 split--80 cents of each dollar coming from advertising and 20 cents from circulation--toward something closer to a 50-50 split. In the summer of 1992, the newsstand price of the Sunday Times sold around the country reached $3, and still the readers paid. Without sufficient national advertising, however, even robust national circulation could be harmful. Larger press runs meant more newsprint expenditures and delivery costs.

Not too long ago, Arthur and a dinner guest were discussing the future of newspapers. The guest mourned the retreat from hard news. Arthur responded lightly, calling the guest "a child of the 1950s." The days when newspapers were riding high and didn't worry about readership or audience surveys were finished. Print was on a new wavelength now: shorter stories, enticing writing, gossip, sex and service journalism (fitness, health, careers and getting ahead).

The conventional wisdom, the assumption that drove Punch Sulzberger and his editors toward starting the new sections, held that television's ability to deliver hard news headlines 12 to 14 hours before the Times appeared on doorsteps had altered the role of newspapers. Print had to go toward consumer-oriented features.

Arthur and his editors took the "news you can use" idea a step farther. Just as the definition of "news" was broadened, so too was the definition of "you" expanded to encompass potential new audiences. Possibly, though, both generations of Times managers misunderstood the new media landscape.

When Tina Brown, the then-38-year-old editor in chief of Vanity Fair, was invited to address the American Newspaper Publishers Association in May 1991, the assembled publishing executives expected some practical advice on how to be more popular and "with it." Instead of offering instructions in trendiness, Brown told the publishers that they were responding in the wrong way to the age of television. Their newspapers were too bland, too user friendly, "too safe, safe, safe." She urged them to stop trying to be soft to attract readers. They should be shriller, harder edged: "Once in a while you have to bite the hand that reads you."

Arthur's Times reached several crossroads in the early 1990s. It stood between the demands of its national ambitions and its rediscovered New York base; the interests of an older, elite readership and a new, less well-defined audience; the traditional desire to do one thing well and the attraction of creating new products; old-fashioned print vs. new technologies. If Tina Brown's views had merit, then Arthur needed also to stop and reconsider how far the Times ought to go down the road of reader friendliness.

He faced hard choices on a daunting journey. The obstacles that confronted Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. were arguably the greatest ever to face the publisher of the New York Times. All of his predecessors could at a minimum count on an intelligent audience that not only wanted to read the Times but felt that it had to read it. The paper's authority was unchallenged.

These certitudes no longer exist. The Times is now one of a number of national agenda setters, whose ranks include the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, the news magazines, and a half-dozen television and cable networks. The Times of the future, Arthur acknowledged, must share its old authority, as well as its primary market, with the present print competition, and with prospective electronic database rivals. But he insisted that the Times' kind of journalism will never be supplanted. "Twenty-five years from now, people will still need quality information and that's the business we're in," he said. "Given the way the human mind takes in knowledge, there will always be a New York Times."

Unfortunately, the high-profile objectives that Arthur Sulzberger has pursued in his first three years as publisher-skin-deep diversity, managerial Demingism and downtown chic--seem limp banners for rallying the forces of sustained, serious journalism..

Edwin Diamond writes on the media for New York magazine, where his column has appeared since 1985. He is also the author of 10 books on media and politics.

From the forthcoming book "Behind the Times" by Edwin Diamond. Copyright [C] 1993 by Edwin Diamond. To be published by Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Title Annotation:the current image and contents of The New York Times
Author:Diamond, Edwin
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:4934
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