NEAL CONAN, host:
The New York Times is the most important newspaper in the country and maybe in the world. It is, writes Mark Bowden in this month's Vanity Fair, the flagship of serious journalism. No newspaper has won so many prizes or produces such consistently outstanding work. No other journalism Web site comes near its excellence or its readership. And yet, many of its writers, readers and staunchest supporters wonder if it can survive.
Protecting The Times legacy is a legacy himself - Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. -the fifth in his family to preside as publisher, and the man who, Bowden declares, has steered his inheritance into a ditch.
Mark Bowden is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. This profile is his first article for the magazine. He joins us now from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia. Nice to have you back on the program today.
Mr. MARK BOWDEN (Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And you start the story about Arthur Ochs Sulzberger with a story about a time he called you in a taxicab basically to tell you why he wasn't going to speak with you.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. He said to me, after having read an article about him in The New Yorker - and I had previously asked for an opportunity to interview him - he told me he was getting out of the business. And I thought for a moment that he was telling me that he was leaving The New York Times and newspapers. So I said, wait a minute, is this a scoop or are you just telling me you don't want to interview me and - you don't want me to interview you? And he said, no, no, I just didn't want to do more anymore interviews.
CONAN: And he didn't, again, for this profile. You write that, you know, hey, nobody wants to be - cooperate in their own evisceration in the press.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Nevertheless, a curious habit for a man who daily sends out a small battalion of reporters to interview people.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. You know, I respect his decision and, you know, I think it's a sensible one. But I think if you're the publisher of The New York Times, it does put you in a kind of an awkward spot.
CONAN: He is a curious fellow, as you describe him. Born, it seems to be, the publisher of The New York Times, like his father and grandfather and all those line of Ochs and Sulzbergers before him. Nevertheless, it was something he was groomed for, and you write it was a decision he consciously made.
Mr. BOWDEN: It is. You know, his parents divorced when he was little. And he actually grew up with his stepmother and stepfather until he was about 14 years old. And at that point he made a conscious decision to leave his mother and his stepfather's house and cross town - they both lived in Manhattan - and move in with his father and his stepmother, Carol, who actually actively disliked him.
But in my - at least in my interpretation of events, and I think subsequent events uphold this, it was in part, if not, in large part his decision to claim his inheritance.
CONAN: And he went on to become a reporter, not just for The New York Times, later he did, as well, but for other publications and worked as a reporter for The Times and later on the business side of the paper, as well. But always seen as a dilettante by everybody he worked with. He wasn't really a reporter. And he wasn't really going to end up working in advertising either.
Mr. BOWDEN: Right. Which is not to say that he didn't do real work. I mean, he worked hard and earned the respect and friendship of his colleagues. But everybody knew, and Arthur himself knew, that he wasn't really a journalist. And he wasn't really, you know, in competition with anyone for a career. That he was on a kind of an apprenticeship path to ultimately be the publisher and chairman of The New York Times.
CONAN: A path which he had to, in the end, fight for. There was an attempt, you describe it, to stage a coup of sorts that maybe Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. was not going to be the next publisher of The New York Times.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. At the time, you know, The Times had long been family-owned and operated. And yet, you know, the business world had grown, The New York Times had grown, had become a much more complex organization. And it had its professional managers in-house, none of whom were terribly impressed with Arthur Jr. and didn't particularly like the idea of being supplanted by a guy, who, I think, Diane Baker, who was the chief financial officer, said reminded her of a 24-year-old geek. So they tried, I think, to stage a sort of professional managerial coup and promptly lost.
CONAN: When, among other things, he called his father.
Mr. BOWDEN: He called his dad. And for the story, I interviewed Penny Muse Abernathy, who was one of the business managers who walked into Arthur's office the day that an article had appeared in The Wall Street Journal explaining that he might not get to take the top job because the company was considering promoting its professional business managers into that role. And she recalls him placing a call to his father. She said it was the first time she'd ever actually heard him call him dad.
CONAN: Interesting. The - yet, he took over in 1992. And had he decided for whatever reason to retire, as he told you he might from the newspaper business, say, in 2001 or 2002, he would've been regarded as a very successful publisher, a person who brought the paper to increased circulation and increased profitability.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. And I think, you know, in the 1990s, as The New York Times prospered, Arthur deserves a lot of credit for that. They transitioned from mostly a New York City newspaper to a national newspaper and opened satellite plants all over the country. And it was an enormous success. The New York Times entered the new century with well over a billion dollars in surplus. It was as respected a newspaper as it had ever been. And all of - the seas looked sunny and clear for both The Times and for Arthur, Jr.
CONAN: And yet, you write, he is the person who has steered his inheritance into a ditch. How did he get there?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, he got there by a number of means, one is he used much of that billion-dollar surplus to invest in newspapers. The New York Times had already purchased The Boston Globe. Arthur would subsequently turn down a very ambitious effort by Boston area businessmen to purchase The Globe back. He used some of the money to force The Washington Post out of the International Herald Tribune, took over full ownership of that. And, you know, he invested a lot of money into just the, you know, New York Times' editorial product.
He made a number of forays into television. He bought a part of the Discovery Channel, but then quickly backed out of that deal. But for the most part, Arthur's investment was in the future of newspapers.
CONAN: And newspapers, it appears more and more, don't have much of a future.
Mr. BOWDEN: No, they don't. And in fact, that isn't just a new insight for many industry watchers and for many of the editors and businesspeople in newspapers. It had been evident for some time that the Internet was tantamount to an evolutionary shift in the way that people accessed information.
And even people within The Times building like Max Frankel, who was forced out as a executive editor not long after Arthur became chairman, and Diane Baker, who was the company's chief financial officer, had been thinking hard about what the implications of the Internet were and were prescribing far more radical moves and changes than Arthur was inclined to consider.
CONAN: But is it fair to blame him for that? Nobody, as I can figure out, in the newspaper businesses - and you say this in the piece too - nobody's gotten this right.
Mr. BOWDEN: No, that's right. You know, Arthur isn't wholly to blame, certainly, you know, this is a historic crisis and it may actually be the end crisis for newspapers. But I will say that of all the newspapers in America, The New York Times was in the best position to adapt and change. They had, as I said, this tremendous surplus there. The most respected and well-known brand in American journalism in almost every way you can imagine. What The New York Times does sets the standard for what newspapers do all over the country.
So if any newspaper was in a good position to adapt, to understand the way the market was shifting, to change the way it did business in order to survive, I would have to have said that they were in the best position to do that.
CONAN: Yet, they have the most successful, the most visited Web site in journalism today.
Mr. BOWDEN: Right. Which just illustrates, Neal, the nature of the crisis. The crisis in newspapers is not in readership. The New York Times' readership has gone up. People are still just as respectful and interested in newspapers and news organizations as they've ever been.
The problem is advertising has deserted newspapers for the Internet. And what advertising does exist on the Internet sells for about one-tenth of what it costs to buy print advertising. So even though the NewYorkTimes.com is this great Internet Web site, and they do attract advertising revenue, it's nowhere near what they need to sustain their journalistic operation.
CONAN: If there's no business plan, why do you pursue it?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, of course, The New York Times pursues the goal of putting out the best newspaper in the world every day. And Arthur is absolutely dedicated to maintaining the excellence of The New York Times, but I think he has neglected the basic business principle that journalism costs money. And the way that it's been paid for traditionally is through advertising. So if you don't have a business model that produces a revenue stream, you can't continue to do the journalism.
CONAN: And you described this dilemma brilliantly. It's a terrific piece. Do you have any prescriptions for solving it?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, you know, I already wrote a really long story. And if I'd tried to get into how to solve the problem, I, number one, be a lot smarter than I am, and number two, have a lot more clout at Vanity Fair than I have. But there are a number of different scenarios that are unfolding. One is to charge people who access stories generated by The New York Times. Generally they find them nowadays by going to Google or Yahoo. But they pay a small amount for reading that story. Another way is…
CONAN: Micro-chapters, it's called, yeah.
Mr. BOWDEN: Micropayment, yeah. And then another way is for the big news organizations to get together and basically pull their material off of free distribution on the Internet and make people pay, in the same way in television you pay from premium channels, on the Internet you will have to pay for premium content. There are other methods, but those are two that are out there, and I think people are already actively exploring.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Bowden about his profile of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. in the latest edition of Vanity Fair magazine.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to ask you about some business deals, some prospective and some retrospective. One, The Times had the opportunity to make, which seems to have been a great lost opportunity, and that was to work with Amazon.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. Early on, as Amazon was really just still a book seller, they approached The New York Times with a proposal to take all of the book reviews in the Sunday book review section, which was a long time money loser for The New York Times, and allow readers to click on a link to that book if they were interested it and buy it immediately from Amazon.com.
Diane Baker, who was the chief financial officer, saw this as a wonderful opportunity, because, first of all, it could turn the book review section into a moneymaker, and secondly, she knew that Amazon was planning on becoming basically the Wal-Mart of the Internet.
And then, you know, looking down the road, the possible - the possibilities of linking, let's say, stories in the travel section to travel agencies that would sell you tickets to that place, or an article about knives, you know, would link you to a company that sold cutlery. She could see a new business model, basically, for the newspaper that would take advantage of the position that Amazon had gained on the Internet.
CONAN: And the deal was turned down, why?
Mr. BOWDEN: She said The New York Times turned it down because they had a -Barnes & Noble was a big advertiser with them, and they didn't want to upset them.
CONAN: Seems shortsighted in retrospect.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Looking prospectively, you suggest, in fact, one of the comparisons that you draw between The New York Times is between the publisher you describe as rapacious - and I think a lot of people would agree with you - and that's Rupert Murdoch, who now owns The Wall Street Journal, which is competing head-to-head with The New York Times in a way that nobody thought it would.
Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah. I call him a pirate, you know? But sometimes the pirates are savvier about how to survive than the heir to the family fortune. Murdoch, of course, has a thriving international telecommunications and information business. And while The Wall Street Journal is not a big moneymaker for him right now, in fact, it's a drag on News Corp, the earnings of his corporation are certainly sufficient to carry The Wall Street Journal.
And the brand of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal is tremendously valuable. And I think you'll see Murdoch using it to build more of a presence on television, and on the Internet and on cell phones in every other way that you nowadays get information. I think that diversity and that depth of investment worldwide gives Murdoch a real financial advantage to survive in this new age.
CONAN: And could shock, horror, The New York Times end up in the hands of, well, Rupert Murdoch, or Carlos Slim or anybody else other than the Sulzberger family? It seems impossible to even think of.
Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah, it does. And, you know, I know that that's not what they want. And, I mean, you know, I know that it's not what Arthur Sulzberger wants. And he's adamant, and I think he's probably right, that as of right now, his extended family - which for the first time this year will be getting no dividends for their ownership of New York Times stock - will see out this dark spiral with him.
But in the long run - and I'm not talking about decades here, I'm talking about, you know, in a year or two - I wonder, you know, whether the Sulzberger family will be content to operate The New York Times company at a loss. Right now they're very heavily in debt. A lot of those debts will come due before the year is out. And unless, you know, Arthur has a rabbit that he's going to pull out of his hat, I don't foresee an immediate solution to their problems.
CONAN: You write, in fact, many of the people who like him and many of the people who don't still pray for him to succeed, because if he fails, well, this really important institution will go with him.
Mr. BOWDEN: And I'm one of them. I mean, I think The New York Times is a national treasure. And it's too important to, you know, I think, just accept that the management is okay because we like Arthur. Arthur is a good man, and he has, I think, all the right values journalistically. But that company needs some help. And somebody's got to figure out a way to save them or none of us are going to get to read The New York Times in the future.
CONAN: Mark Bowden, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. BOWDEN: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Mark Bowden, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine. He joined us today from Audio Post in Philadelphia. If you'd like to read his article, you can find a link to it on our Web site at npr.org/talk. And you can now sign up for our new TALK OF THE NATION newsletter. It launches on Monday. Go to npr.org/email and click the box next to TALK OF THE NATION.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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