World

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger: 'Following the truth, wherever it leads'

by Mark Thompson

Staff Writer

In the spring of 2014, a low rumble could be felt deep in the media landscape. An in-house report about the need for digital innovation at The New York Times was leaked by competitors, and what it revealed was a major news organization clearly struggling to overcome internal stasis and catch up with new fleet-footed players.

Not long after the leak, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab called the report one of the “key documents of this digital age,” and it quickly became a wake-up call for both the Times and other media outlets around the world facing similar challenges. Calling for structural changes and a multidepartment embrace of digital-first strategies, its frank plea for change resonated with many legacy publications.

The report can also be seen as a turning point for Arthur Gregg — known as A.G. — Sulzberger, a fairly young reporter who had been asked to lead the team behind it. A.G. also happens to be the son of then-publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and at that time, he was gradually becoming the heir apparent. The report’s impact was palpable, and over time, NYT’s strategic investment into digital and subscriber-centric strategies began to bear fruit.

In October 2016, A.G. Sulzberger was named deputy publisher, and a year ago, he became the fifth generation of Sulzbergers to oversee one of the world’s largest and most influential media organizations. Visiting Tokyo on a quick tour to Asia in November, Sulzberger spoke passionately about his new role at the helm of the colossal media company and the challenges that lie ahead.

Born in 1980, the 38-year-old sits on the cusp of Generation Y. His speech has a millennial lilt that turns statements into a half-questions, and his confidence is tempered with modesty and humility. His ethos seems to be less about “me” and more about “we.” Above all, though, his commitment to the critical role of journalism is crystal clear.

Sulzberger explained that he wasn’t a digital innovator by nature. He began his journalism career, like his father, initially working as a reporter at small-scale newspapers and finally joining the Times in 2009.

After being tasked with developing in new digital products by former executive editor Jill Abramson, Sulzberger said he assembled a team with the right skills and approached the task as any reporter would: “Talk to a lot of people who know more than you, and ask them a bunch of tough questions.”

He soon saw a bigger problem.

The New York Times was “not systematically empowering digital thinkers within the ecosystem of the newsroom,” he said.

The cover of the 2014
The cover of the 2014 ‘Innovation Report’ | THE NEW YORK TIMES

Sulzberger said the team soon realized the report would need to be diagnostic in nature: “Change is particularly hard in a 160-year-old institution that really prides itself on its traditions. One of the things this effort taught me is you really need everyone to have a shared sense of reality in order to get the buy-in and the participation to have change.”

Ultimately, the unplanned release of the report ended up being a blessing in disguise. “I think (the leak) was actually humanizing for an institution that sometimes has a reputation for being sort of aloof,” Sulzberger said. “I think it ended up for the industry just feeling like a refreshingly candid look at the challenges that all of us were facing in different ways.”

The warts-and-all report was wide ranging, encompassing everything from failings in reader experience and social media promotions to the humiliating successes of much younger rivals. Subsequent reports, designed for public consumption, would lay out a road map for the future.

“We wrote that report at a moment when BuzzFeed, Fox, Vice, the Huffington Post were ascendent, when traffic to The New York Times was declining, and subscribers had seemingly sort of plateaued,” he said. “And five years later, I think our audience has somewhere between tripled and quintupled, depending on how you measure it. Our subscriber base has grown significantly, more than three times. And so just by this sort of bare measure, are we succeeding as a digital enterprise? I think the answer is yes.”

Old values, new spaces

Sulzberger said part of the key to kickstarting successful innovation within a legacy publication is knowing what not to change.

“If everything is up for debate, if every single thing can be changed, then what you actually don’t have is a reason for succeeding in the changing world, right? If there’s nothing at your core, then some younger, hungrier entrepreneur should come into your space and deserve to win.”

“I think for us, a big part of this is to understand what is at our core. What is the thing that everything changes in service of. For us it was original, expert, on the ground, deeply reported, resource-intensive journalism that’s independent, fair and accurate. And that’s the basis, and then everything else around them can change in service of that mission.”

While the latest Sulzberger publisher is definitely intent on reaching future generations of readers, he’s also conscious of the need to retain core values. It’s something that he sees manifested in “The Daily,” The New York Times’ wildly successful podcast that launched two years ago. Sulzberger admits, however, it wasn’t something that he anticipated when he helped pen the in-house report.

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The podcast “grew up organically,” he said. “But what I love about it is it feels quintessentially ‘Timesian.’ It feels like it has the quality and sophistication that I think our readers expect from us. But it also feels totally native to the medium. It feels friendly and familiar in a way and has none of that sort of aloofness that I think sometimes the print paper could project.”

Sulzberger said “The Daily” now reaches more people each morning than the print edition ever did, and that, in and of itself, is a revelation. “What we’ve done is we’ve created another platform on which to engage with a totally different population of consumers, including a bunch of new consumers who didn’t know they wanted to be news consumers, and start developing a long relationship with them.”

Sulzberger added: “There’s no reason why the inverted pyramid structure or the 100-word article should be the defining way to convey information to a curious reader.”

An important component of the podcast’s growth was creating something “polished” and worth paying for, but not charging for it. “You have to build an audience,” he explained. Another unexpected byproduct was the fact that radio stations now broadcast it.

“What I always loved about being a reporter was that you have two jobs,” Sulzberger said. “Half of your job was to learn and half of your job was to teach. And the best way in our profession to teach is to tell a really interesting story, to digest all of this information and find the most compelling way to bring it to the world. What we’ve learned is that audio is way better at that for some things — not for everything — but for some things, it is.”

Sulzberger also admitted that the NYT is still “trying to figure out what the right mix is” — whether it’s for a long-form multimedia presentation, a podcast or even a new TV show. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to storytelling.

Case in point: “The Weekly,” a TV series created by the NYT that will launch early this year on FX and Hulu.

“What we’re discovering is that some of the things that work so well on ‘The Daily’ don’t work well at all in the context of video or TV because the form is just really different. And I think the exciting challenge for all of us in journalism right now is figuring out what are each of these different storytelling forms for.

“‘The Weekly’ is going to follow up very much in the footsteps of ‘The Daily’ in terms of diving really deep into one story that’s front of mind and occasionally diving in deep into one story that’s not front of mind but that should be.”

Matter of time

While Sulzberger is proud of the company’s shared vision and its successful experiments in sales and editorial, he also seems to be acutely aware of the risk of pushing the newsroom in too many directions at the same time. The landscape has changed, but focus, and the time to focus, is as important as ever.

“The most precious resource that we can give our reporters is time. It’s time to do good work, and every other responsibility we layer on is a tax on that time, and we should be really careful about it,” he said.

“I often tell my colleagues that one of the most important parts of my job is separating fads from trends, and trends cannot be ignored. You have to respond to trends. If you don’t, you will have to respond to it eventually, and you’ll be late. Fads are a waste of everyone’s time, right? But it’s really hard, in real time, to see which is which. Is this a fad or trend? And you know we sometimes get it wrong.”

While he believes that there are “journalistic reasons” for reporters to be monitoring crucial social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook — “because that’s where the world is” — he is wary of editorial staff overextending themselves and losing sight of what truly matters.

“So I think we’re trying to figure out constantly, ‘Are we putting too much on the plate?’ The most important thing is the time to report, and I think that is the thing that’s been the casualty at way too many publications,” he said.

The New York Times newsroom, after it was announced that NYT had won three Pulitzer Prizes in April 2016.
The New York Times newsroom, after it was announced that NYT had won three Pulitzer Prizes in April 2016. | THE NEW YORK TIMES

“It’s like all the other work — getting stories up faster, getting more stories up, being active on social in a way that like builds an audience or builds a brand — has undermined people’s ability to take the time they need, to study an issue, to get to know it, to break new ground on a story, to dig up new information and to make sure it’s fully accurate and get it out to the world.”

Ironically, the tweeting U.S. president, who is prone to preface almost every mention of The New York Times with “failing,” has had a considerable hand in boosting its readership. The “Trump bump” has profited many news outlets, both left and right.

This challenging chapter in the paper’s history was dramatically illustrated in “The Fourth Estate,” a Showtime series in which documentarian Liz Garbus was embedded in the NYT newsroom at a time when the paper chose to call a lie a lie in its headlines and publish Oval Office profanities uncensored.

An unchanging mission

While the company is responding to the changing times, some critics say it’s not doing enough in response to a leader who is doing his best to undermine the media’s legitimacy. Sulzberger, though, believes the paper’s original mission was built to last.

“The mission of The New York Times doesn’t need to change to meet the moment because the mission of The New York Times is perfect for this moment,” Sulzberger said confidently. “Our job is to seek the truth, hold power to account and help people to understand the world. That’s what this moment demands, right?”

He cited the 18-month investigation that resulted in a bombshell report, published in October, about the president’s accumulation of wealth as a good example of “the truth bucket.”

As for holding power to account, Sulzberger proudly said that The New York Times has brought the federal government in the United States to court “more times than any other media organization.”

And then there’s helping readers understand the world during extremely confusing times.

“What is the line that (Rudy) Giuliani said, ‘Truth isn’t truth’? At the moment when you’ve got a top adviser to the president of the United States saying, ‘Truth isn’t truth.’ Or, you know, there’s President Trump alleging that ‘the media is the enemy of the people’ and ‘fake news,'” Sulzberger says. “Having a place that is committed to the old-fashioned values of finding the truth, wherever it leads, following the truth, wherever it leads, without regards to party, without regards to ideology, only with regards to our readers expanding their understanding of the world … to me, that’s what this moment calls for.

“The world needs activists, and the world needs advocates. Those are really important, but activists and advocates need facts. They need information, and our job is not to skip to the activism. It’s to arm everyone with an understanding of what’s happening.”

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In the summer of last year, it was revealed that Sulzberger, during a courtesy visit to the White House, had confronted Trump about his constant bashing of the media. The content of such a meeting is traditionally off the record, but Trump forced the NYT’s hand after the president misrepresented it in a tweet. In an ensuing statement, Sulzberger said he had asked the president to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence,” it read.

While Sulzberger said he didn’t expect an about-face, he said he remains extremely concerned about the repercussions of unrelenting attacks.

“I can’t overstate how important I believe journalism is for functioning democracies. And the role the journalism can play only works with societal trust, and I believe that the president, with his rhetoric — and others who are cynically trying to discredit media organizations because they know that our job is to hold powerful people and institutions accountable and to ask tough questions — I believe that that is dangerous and could have profound long-term implications for not just American democracy but the global commitment to free speech and free press.”

Sulzberger likened Trump’s rhetoric to climate change: “You can’t say any one storm was caused by climate change. There’s always been violent storms, but there’s many more of them today, and I think this type of dangerous rhetoric is the same thing.

The facade of The New York Times building, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano
The facade of The New York Times building, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano | JEENAH MOON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

“I don’t know if you can directly attribute (Jamal) Khashoggi’s death to the president’s rhetoric. What I do know is that if I was a foreign leader or tyrant, looking to crack down on a free press through violence and intimidation, and I was wondering whether there will be consequences for my action … I would feel much less restrained, because the United States has retreated as a defender of these principles.”

Indeed, it is a global crisis, being played out in more than one democracy. Which is why The New York Times continues to expand not only with overseas reporting but also publishing its content in various languages (Chinese, Spanish, etc.).

“We believe that there is an appetite for great journalism all over the world and that the world is increasingly wrestling with the same handful of forces everywhere,” Sulzberger said, be it the rise of populism, technology’s influence, climate change, income equality, migration and so on.

“It’s a stew of issues that are increasingly borderless … and we believe that we’ve got great journalists, with a lot of expertise on these topics, but we also believe in our tradition of independence.”