Culture

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of the Times

Thursday, July 13, 2017
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Critics will always say that the New York Times is in turmoil, but they’ve never stopped breaking news—just look at their Donald Trump, Jr. scoop this week. As this 1976 story from the AVENUE archives shows, a large part of that success is thanks to the Sulzberger family and their decades of leadership. The issue back then? Merging the daily and Sunday staffs…


 


Every evening toward ten, a truck filled with the first Early City editions of tomorrow’s New York Times interrupts its nightly rounds of East Side newsstands to drop off a single copy at a Fifth Avenue apartment building. The beneficiary of this first-class service does not even subscribe to the paper. He owns it, more or less. Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, publisher of the nation’s most powerful newspaper, owns, along with other members of his family, some seventy percent of the voting stock of the parent New York Times Company.


These days, Sulzberger is reading his hand-delivered edition a bit more closely than usual. Since he assumed command in 1963, the publisher has been trying to shake the Times from a century of lethargy and turn it into a livelier, more profitable enterprise. Some important efforts in that campaign are beginning to show up in, so to speak, black and white: the paper’s new and more readable six-column format, the highly successful “Weekend” entertainment guide that appears every Friday, and new suburban editions.


Perhaps more important is what Sulzberger has done behind the front page. The long-sovereign daily and Sunday staffs were merged this year, the fustier members of the Times’ grandiloquent editorial board are finally being replaced, and the paper’s entire business operation has been vastly rebuilt. “When I took over, this place was organized like a forest,” says Sulzberger, puffing thoughtfully on a black briar pipe. “The trees grew straight and tall, but nothing ever came to a point. Circulation never talked to Advertising, and nobody ever talked to News.”


Sulzberger melded those independent duchys into a single peaceable kingdom, and moved the paper more heavily into broadcasting, magazines, smaller newspapers – such as the Wilmington, North Carolina, Star-News – and other lines with higher profit margins than a big-city daily like the Times. Today, that flagship paper accounts for about two-thirds of the company’s revenues, down from three-quarters in 1971.


Sulzberger has also replaced the Times’ aging executive corps with “men closer to my own age,” as he puts it, “and took them away to all kinds of meetings with all kinds of management consultants.” His bright younger men now know so much about corporate planning, budgeting and marketing research that the company rarely relies on outside consultants anymore. And those lessons have paid off. After a desultory year in 1975, revenues at the New York Times Company are up eleven percent so far this year, and earnings are ahead six percent. At the newspaper itself, revenues have risen eight percent and earnings an impressive sixty percent.


The man responsible for that performance, as well as for what many New Yorkers read over breakfast, moves through the dingy corridors of the Times building on West 43rd Street with the mild good-humor and quiet self-possession of someone who was born there. He wasn’t, of course, but he did play in the building as a child with his three sisters (and spent so much time with his sister Judy that their father nicknamed him “Punch.”) Punch’s grandfather, Adolph F. Ochs, bought the paper in 1896, and Punch’s father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, ran it until 1961, when he was succeeded by Punch’s brother-in-law, Orvil E. Dreyfoos. When Dreyfoos died suddenly two years later, Punch, then thirty-seven and serving in one of several minor positions he had held at the paper, was thrust into the publisher’s chair. “This is a family newspaper,” says Sulzberger, who has a son, Arthur Jr., who is with United Press International in London, as well as two nephews inside the company. “As long as I’m alive it’s going to say that way.”


Sulzberger runs the family business from a quiet, surprisingly-modest office on the fourteenth and topmost floor, just off the portrait-lined boardroom. He sits at an uncluttered mahogany desk that was once used by his father, with a single telephone and superannuated Underwood Standard typewriter at his side. Like his predecessors, Sulzberger takes an active interest in the editorial end of the paper. He frequently attends Managing Editor A.M. Rosenthal’s daily story conference, approves all major bureau-chief assignments, and examines most editorials before they are printed. (He does not, as did his father, insist that all editorials be read over the telephone to him when he is travelling.) Much of Sulzberger’s attention these days is devoted to plotting the future of the paper. A new suburban edition for Westchester County is in the wind, as well as a Tuesday “Style” section and a Wednesday food section, both modeled on Friday’s “Weekend.”


Such projects, and the fortunes of the entire company, depend in no small part on the future of New York City. Although profits at the paper are up this year, circulation within the city has been declined. “This is a difficult town for publishing a newspaper,” says Sulzberger. “It’s competitive, it’s highly unionized, and Times Square is a ridiculous spot for a manufacturing plant.” Accordingly, the Times is shifting one-third of its daily and most of its Sunday press-runs to a new plant in Carlstadt, New Jersey.


But the Times will never leave Times Square, promises the publisher, nor will the Times Company ever abandon the paper in favor of its more profitable new ventures. “There really is only one city, and we’re in it,” says Sulzberger, who is on the board of the Fifth Avenue Association, the Fresh Air Fund, the New York Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Columbia University and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “And we’re basically in business to produce this product,” he adds, holding up his Early City edition of the Times. “This is what our long love affair with the city is all about.”


A lifelong New Yorker, Sulzberger lives in a sunny apartment across from The Metropolitan Museum with his second wife, the former Carol Fox Fuhrman, and a daughter. Civic and professional gatherings keep him out most weekday nights, and on weekends the Sulzbergers retire to their house in Stamford. “I’m a putterer,” he says. “Light gardening only. I hurt my back a couple of years ago – don’t really know how – but there I was in the hospital. So it’s no more transplanting.” Sulzberger, who is fifty, does transplant himself every year to Labrador for a few precious days of salmon fishing. “This closest civilization is an Eskimo village forty miles away,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “There’s no phone, no TV. It’s wonderful.”


And no Early City editions, which pile up unread in his absence. Although he tries to read every inch of the paper every day, Sulzberger – no doubt like many of his readers – cannot always fit in all the news that’s fit to print. Says the publisher: “Anybody who says he reads The New York Times from cover to cover every day is either the world’s fastest speed reader or the world’s biggest liar. There’s so much there.”




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