On Saturday night, the Poynter Institute honored New York Times chairman and former publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. with its Distinguished Service to Journalism prize.
In a Q&A with Poynter President Neil Brown, Sulzberger discussed his family’s role in international, national and local journalism, and got more than a few laughs from the audience of over 500.
Brown, who noted that Sulzberger was at the helm during an era of dozens of Pulitzer Prize wins, asked Sulzberger to name his favorite piece of reporting.
“He’s asking me to choose my favorite child,” Sulzberger joked. “There is no single one.”
Sulzberger described walking down a hallway in the Times building that showcases all the awards and the sense of pride he gets from making that trek.
Still, the paper’s reporting on and after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, stood out to him. He said the Times’ unwavering commitment to covering that tragedy was demonstrated over and over. He noted an anecdote in which a news clerk, who was in New Jersey, couldn’t get to work via the usual channels, since bridges, roads and subways were closed.
“There was no way to get into Manhattan,” Sulzberger said. “Basically (he) grabbed a raft, and he paddled his way across the Hudson River to make it to the Times so that he could be there to help.”
Sulzberger said the Times has never backed away from controversy because it might result in financial hardship, mentioning its reporting on investor Carlos Slim Helu (who loaned the Times $250 million in 2009) and the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“Harvey was one of our biggest advertisers in the arts section,” he said.
Sulzberger was also asked about this relationship to the many presidents he worked with as publisher.
“Our relationship with the presidents is always both at one moment warm and at other moments incredibly tense,” Sulzberger said. “And that’s been the case with all the presidents I’ve had to deal with.”
He said that publication of stories about illegal wiretapping strained relations with George W. Bush, but one of his most memorable meetings was with Bill Clinton.
“It was during some of his … issues,” Sulzberger said to audience laughter. He said he’d been invited to the White House for lunch, and Clinton was upset about the Times’ coverage.
“At some point I turned to him and said, ‘Mr. President, think of this as tough love.’ And he said, (imitating Clinton’s Arkansas drawl) ‘Don’t forget the loooovvvvve part.’”
Brown asked about the nature of covering America in a time of political polarization.
“What we have really doubled down on is having our journalists out in parts of the country that are not normally covered, trying to get the stories out to better understand what's happening in America and how it's affecting the people who in many cases don't read the New York Times at all," Sulzberger said. "It's about being more open, being willing to hear their stories and report their stories, and then use social media and other technologies to better engage with our readers and to answer questions and be more open about how we are committing to our journalism."
Brown teasingly pushed Sulzberger to answer a question at the back of everyone’s mind:
“Now, who wrote the op-ed?” Brown asked. “Do you know? … We want to know!”
“I’m not sure which op-ed you’re referring to,” Sulzberger joked back. He said only four or five people in the organization know the identity: the author, the op-ed editor, an attorney and his son, the current publisher.
“I literally do not know who Anonymous is. Now, could be Melania,” he joked to laughter, “but I do not know. I literally don’t know.”
He said he believes the New York Times has successfully made the transition to a new business model based on circulation and subscribers rather than just advertising. He said international reporting and sales have been critical to that.
“We have subscribers in North Korea. Isn’t that great?” Sulzberger said. “I’m more worried about local journalism and how they will make that transition to the new business model. I don’t have a great answer to what that is going to be but it’s coming, and we know it’s coming.”
In a sit-down with Poynter before his remarks, Sulzberger was asked what advice he’s given to his son, A.G. Sulzberger, who took over publisher duties for the Times a year ago.
“We are in a remarkable time, where the power of journalism is more critical than ever, and the need to maintain your integrity is more critical than ever, the need to invest in your journalism is critical,” Sulzberger said, noting that his son is doing just that.
He also addressed advice for newsroom leaders.
“My advice for leaders right now is be in touch with your audience,” he said. “Find ways to use social media to open lines and to show people the value of what we do and how we do it, so that people can start to see there are real human beings behind this journalism and behind these stories.”
Brown closed by asking what made people angriest in his tenure.
“I love journalists,” Sulzberger quipped to laughter. “It’s never, ‘What made people happiest?’”
He predicted the audience would be surprised by the answer.
“I have never received more hate mail from our readers than when we announced we were moving to color in the printed paper,” he said. “I was inundated with letters saying, ‘You’re destroying the New York Times!’ ‘I will never read it again!’ … It was unbelievable. … Once we made the switch to color, ‘Eh, that’s no so bad, and it doesn’t rub off on my fingers as much!’ It was amazing.”