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And yet this is an optimistic moment for a family that bought the paper in 1896 but, despite its commitment to the future, seemed in recent years to be losing its hold.
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New York, a ship fashioned in part from the wreckage of the World Trade Center; and about the fading popularity of the “humble tool” known as the Pooper Scooper. On New Year’s Day, he will become the publisher of The New York father, Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger. Earlier this week, he came by our offices for an interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour.
He is the sixth member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family to lead the paper.
“He was nervous that people would think it was nepotism,” she said. I genuinely would have hired him if he’d had a different last name.” Sulzberger studied the paper with unusual attention. S.: You know, I think fairness is a word that comes pretty close to me, too, if you want to call it fairness. And I’m really encouraged by the path we’re on right now.
“Early on, I remember I met him for breakfast, and he read the more carefully than I did,” Abramson said. He recited the first paragraph of a story by Monica Davey, out of Chicago. The point is the discipline of trying to strip away your own biases—whether they come from a worldview or lived experience—and to try to tell a story in a way that’s fair to all the participants in it. As I say, this isn’t the most popular position right now. S.: Well, what’s fascinating is that, when Bill Safire died, he was mourned universally across our audience. I think there’s a secondary challenge that has more to do with this moment in the life of the country, when our politics are so polarized, when our media diets are so fragmented, when even the underlying notion of truth is somehow in question.
Did you always know, as a kid, that this was the likely future for you? They have to ask tough questions of people, and assume people are lying to them, and wake up in the middle of the night wondering if they got something wrong. And I’d do the slice-of-life stories that any small-town reporter does. That’s aligned our journalistic mission and all of our business incentives in a really clean and consistent way. ” And then on the advertising [side], it was, “How can we get a bunch of rich and powerful corporations to buy a bunch of ads? But even the notion of news and the business sides––these are catch-all phrases that sort of miss the point. You can only imagine how worried you are that this very candid hundred-page internal document is now being read simultaneously by the entire world, and with particular interest by our competitors in media. S.: Well, I think it’s a testament to how much people love the print New York , that this is this enduring concern. S.: If we were just relying on the loyal readers who really care about that tactile experience of leaning back on their couch and unfolding the broadsheet, then we will keep printing. This is the thing I say to my colleagues, when I say it’s important for us to keep growing, I say, “Great journalism is more expensive than people understand.” This is an institution that gives reporters weeks, months, sometimes years to report a single story. The fourth story is the story around race and gender that is growing in volume, particularly since the Harvey Weinstein story that we broke. R.: For many in the general public, the New York is seen as a liberal newspaper. Ultimately, that wasn’t just good for our journalism; it was really good for our business. One of my jobs over the last few jobs is to look at all the things that we’re doing that made total sense in an era in which the news came once a day—or, if you were a Sunday subscriber, once a week—and don’t make sense in a world in which you don’t have a passive, removed audience, and you can respond immediately to concerns that arise.
And, like any decent journalist, I have a contrarian streak, and I actually spent most of my life not thinking I would go into journalism. R.: But you grew up with the Sulzberger family and the New York . The first three months were tough, because the job of the reporter is to explain something to everyone else. S.: Well, for me, it wasn’t a specific story; it was just that beautiful combination of spending half your day learning and half your day teaching. And, unless I’ve got this wrong, the great dilemma is that print advertising has, if not cratered, than certainly declined much more rapidly than anybody had thought possible, or had hoped. When it comes to online advertising, there's the phenomenon of what we call pennies for dollars. S.: The famous phrase here is “print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”D. ” There’s an inherent tension there, which is why all these very important rules exist about ad acceptability and insuring that advertising and newsroom aren’t interacting and it wasn’t skewing the report inadvertently. Four years ago, when I started thinking about how the had to evolve in order to keep pace with this fast-changing world, one of the things that really struck me was that we regarded the members of our technology team and product team as being on the business side. There’s this phrase in journalism—“show, don’t tell”—and I think leaders of news organizations for many years had been telling people to change. S.: I think at the time it was really tough to realize that a whole bunch of digital players, like the Huffington Post and Buzz Feed, had rapidly eclipsed us and our journalism in reach. R.: And that hurt the pride of people in the newsroom? But a Pulitzer Prize winner—actually, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner—David Barstow, pulled me aside that day, and he had just read it. What I will say is that we’ve got a million loyal readers, the paper is profitable every day of the week, even without a single advertisement, and I expect it to be around for a long time. R.: But sooner or later—we all read the statistics, it’s fifteen per cent [less print advertising] this year, fifteen per cent the next year—does it matter to you in terms of the experience of reading the ? S.: I’m certainly not saying that, because, as I say, print is profitable every day of the week without a single ad dollar. R.: Despite the trucks, despite the ink and the printing and all the costs. You know, the reason I’m not predicting an end date, is that everyone who has tried to predict an end date has been wrong. And it’s proved to be not incompatible with the phone. Last year—and this is one of the statistics I’m proudest of—we put reporters on the ground in a hundred and seventy-four countries. And it’s what’s left us in such a strong position today. And I think it felt like, in some ways, we were dis-intermediating—we were putting an intermediary around—accountability, and asking a single person to call us out if we did something wrong.
Above all, he managed to sustain, and even deepen, the quality of the paper’s journalism while deciding on the right financial path for a vital future—an emphasis on digital subscriptions sold at a high price to a national, and even an international, audience.
And so even while ad revenues are dropping precipitously, the now has 3.5 million subscribers—2.5 million of them digital-only. Sulzberger led a study that became known as the Innovation Report, a self-critical hundred-page-long exploration of newsroom culture and the future that helped set the paper’s current digital direction.
But, whenever you start a new beat, you’re keenly aware of how much you don’t know. Half your day talking to people, finding out what’s going on in the world, half your day alone pulling a story out of yourself. You can’t really make a business of it completely from online advertising. R.: So, the only way, it seems to me, for the New York , and a number of other publications to go forward and have a healthy newsgathering business, and business in general, is to go to the reader and say, “We hope you like what we do, and we have to charge you a great deal more for it than in 1985 or 1995.”A. S.: Yeah, I mean, so, let’s start from the advertising side of the business. So, you had this really unhelpful construct in which the folks who were building our Web site weren’t able to talk to the people who were filling the Web site with great journalism each day. S.: I’d been an editor on Metro for a couple years and I was looking for a new challenge. But, look, it was a controversial document at the time. You know, you have to file faster, because the Web is fast; you have to go on social media, because that’s where the conversation is; you have to change how you tell stories, because we have all these new storytelling tools, and the Internet is more visual. And there were some really tough findings in there, and tough statistics. R.: What do you think was the toughest thing for people to bear, statistically or just in terms of the facts of the matter? On paper, he would seem like the type of old-fashioned journalist that may feel threatened by a document like this. I’m now at the point where I read both, and a lot of the time I have the sensation, when reading the [print] paper, is, oh, I read this two days ago. In fact, we’ve found that many of our readers love reading us on the phone during the work week, as they commute on the subway to work, and love nothing more than not staring at a screen on the weekend and leaning back on the couch and passing sections to the family. R.: Donald Trump calls you the “failing” New York . As you know, as a former foreign correspondent, it is so important to actually immerse yourself in a place in order to understand it. So I think that that reflects a continued understanding that, at this particular moment, when the newsroom is pursuing all these important stories all at once, that we want to offer our colleagues there some sense of stability, even as the world is going to continue to change rapidly. R.: One thing has clearly changed—and it’s been an evolution, but it’s clearly now the case, unless you tell me otherwise—and that is we used to think of the New York as a New York newspaper. I actually think that there’s a much better model, which is the reporters and the editors immediately stepping forward and responding in the moment to readers, and saying, “This didn’t work.” There’s a great example of this: we had a pretty lousy story, about a year ago, about what would all the dads do in Montclair when all the moms went to the Women’s March.