Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Sulzberger’s lessons | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In the office of the executive editor of the New York Times, there is a large portrait of the paper’s late publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, who worked at the paper between 1963 and 1997. The managing editor told me: “He may not still be with us, but you will not find a single editor here who worked with him who does not have a tale to tell”. When he proposed the expansion of the newspaper’s supplements to include fashion, sport and the arts, some editors worried that it would affect the reputation of the newspaper as a source of serious news. “Punch” – Sulzberger’s nickname – told them: “any news that people read is serious and important”.

There is no doubt that the New York Times is among the most distinguished newspapers in the world. However, there is a problem with how Middle Eastern journalists treat the New York Times and similar publications: like a civil society institution or a global human rights body, whose mission it is to expose scandals and injustice around the world. In reality, the New York Times and other media outlets are business ventures, and many do not realize that the newspaper is still owned by the Sulzberger family. The family has been able to invest in other media areas – against the wishes of some journalists who consider this to be a commercial diversion from the newspaper’s message – and today the New York Times has a board of trustees that ensure the newspaper’s policies are not compromised by fluctuations in the media industry and the stock market.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger died last week. American newspapers and magazines commemorated the event by celebrating his life and his impact on American journalism. The rival Washington Post devoted a full page obituary to their rival’s late publisher. In a special editorial, the newspaper wrote, in professional acknowledgement: “Part of his legacy is the continuing excellence of the Times, which he helped put on a sounder footing when it faced what seemed like a financial death spiral in the 1970s” (Washington Post, 2nd October 2012).

Sulzberger inherited the newspaper from his grandfather when he was 37 years old. Were it not for the insistence of his mother, the job would have gone to the trusteeship council. Sulzberger’s importance was not a journalist, but as a successful financial administrator. During his chairmanship of the newspaper, he managed to float the company on the stock exchange by the end of the 1960s, against the wishes of some idealistic journalists. Over his career, he was able to increase the New York Times Company’s annual revenues from US$ 100 million to more than US$ 2.5 billion by the end of the 1990s, having invested in advertising companies and having acquired television and radio stations, and other businesses, enabling the newspaper to maintain its standards even in the current financial crisis.

In many of the articles written about him, newspaper editors always say that “Punch” did not interfere in editorial management. He had his opinions, and sometimes he would get upset with what he was publishing, but at the same time he kept enough distance to give editors the freedom to make their own judgments. One article remarked that on the rare occasions that he attended an editorial meeting, Sulzberger would be more interested in the air conditioning ducts.

When the newspaper decided in 1971 to publish the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ about the Vietnam War, it came under pressure from the White House. “Punch” tried to discourage the editors from their decision, because he feared – being a war veteran himself – that it would have negative consequences for American troops. He asked the editors: “Is there anything here that could affect our soldiers?” They told him no, and he published the papers after fighting a successful legal battle with the Nixon administration.

But while the newspaper gained a scoop by publishing the Pentagon Papers, and also reported alongside the Washington Post on the “Watergate” scandal, the astute publisher felt that the newspaper’s editors were perhaps becoming complacent and overconfident. He hired William Safire – a conservative journalist and one of President Nixon’s speechwriters – in a move that shocked the editors, who tried to isolate and avoid the newcomer. “Punch” sensed what Safire was going through, so he went to visit him in his office, carrying in his hand a framed portrait of his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs, which he proceeded to hang on the wall. He told Safire: “I want you to feel at home”. Safire went on to win three of the 31 Pulitzer Prizes won by the paper during Sulzberger’s era.

“Punch” also gave his journalists a lesson about paying attention to the views of the readers. When he observed the reluctance of the newspaper’s editors to do just that, he began to send messages to the readers’ mail column under the pseudonym “A. Sock”. Editors soon began to watch out for these letters and started taking into account the views and topics of the average reader. Sulzberger did not write in again, but the editors took a new interest in the readers’ mail, fearing that they might miss one from “Punch.”

Sulzberger’s example is an important one for our region, where the press often acts either as a government mouthpiece, or as an opposition entity with no qualms about serving its political objectives regardless of the facts. There can be a fine line between responsible journalism and propaganda. In our region there are hardly any independent boards of trustees to preserve the identity of a newspaper and its journalistic integrity, and at the same time ensure its commercial success. Exceptions include Asharq al-Awsat and a few others, who have tried to follow the example of the New York Times.

A good journalist can produce good stories, but without a publisher who knows the industry and has sound commercial sense, you cannot produce a successful newspaper. As Arthur Sulzberger said: “You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times. You’re buying judgment.”