October 25, 2016

Talk about having your work cut out for you.

In a few days, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger will start as deputy publisher for The New York Times, a promotion that was announced by the paper last week. The new job positions him to eventually succeed his father as publisher, which would make him the fifth generation of the Sulzberger family to lead The New York Times.

When that handoff happens, Sulzberger will inherit more than a title. He’ll also take up a series of responsibilities and challenges that sound familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news business: keeping up with the relentless pace of digital disruption, competing with innovative rivals for audience attention and turning drive-by readers into paying customers.

But the challenges are not entirely new to Sulzberger, 36. A former reporter for The New York Times, Sulzberger was the brains behind the Innovation Report, its much-discussed blueprint for the newspaper’s digital reinvention. He’s collaborated with The Times’ business side on strategy, and he’s intimately familiar with its news operation after stints on the metro and national desks.

I exchanged emails with Sulzberger, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory board, and asked for his thoughts on the ongoing reinvention of The New York Times. The full back-and-forth is below.

First of all, congratulations on your new gig! You start in November. Where will you start? Where do you want to be in three months? Six months? A year?

Thank you. It’s an incredible privilege. I’ll be doing a lot of listening and learning over the next couple of months. There are lots of people around The Times I’m looking forward to getting to know better, and I’m also eager to leave the building to talk to smart people about how the broader media and technology landscape is evolving.

At the same time, I expect the broad focus to be pretty similar to my current job, which is to help speed and smooth our transformation into a truly digital first company. A lot of that work, at least initially, will take place in the newsroom, and Dean [Baquet] has encouraged me to keep my office on the third floor. I’ve spent my entire adult life working in newsrooms and am excited to keep a strong presence down here and help with the important change efforts that are underway.

The New York Times is in the midst of finalizing the 2020 report, which is said to be a kind of blueprint for a reimagined New York Times. In that sense, it sounds similar to The New York Times Innovation Report, which shook up the media world when it was leaked two years ago. The 2020 report hasn’t been released yet, but I wonder if you could outline some of the conclusions it reaches? Will it propose as many drastic changes as the New York Times Innovation report did?

The starting premise of the 2020 project is that The Times is better positioned to succeed in this fast-evolving landscape than any other news organization. That is clear from the excellence of our journalism, loyalty of our readers, and the growth of our digital business. But making the most of that advantage and accelerating our growth means the newsroom needs to change even more than we’ve already changed over the past couple of years.

David Leonhardt, who is leading the effort, sometimes talks about three powerful forces pushing all media organizations to change. The first is that we have better storytelling tools than we used to — not only the written word and photographs but also interactives, video, virtual reality and so much more. The second is that the internet has made journalism even more competitive, because the barriers to entry are lower and the feedback loops are faster and much more intense. The third force is the most important: Our readers’ habits — and particularly the ways they consume information — are radically changing.

I expect their recommendations to be ambitious but will leave it to them to say more. I’ll just add that they’ve been working closely with Dean and you can already see their fingerprints on many of the exciting initiatives around the newsroom.

The pace of change in journalism is ever-quickening. With only 24 hours in the day and limited resources, how do you help steer a colossal institution like The New York Times in the right direction? How do you figure out where those directions are?

I think Dean, Mark, Arthur and many others have done an excellent job in placing the big strategic bets. From watching the media landscape closely, I’m keenly aware that one of the most difficult challenges is moving quickly to adapt to trends, while resisting the impulse to chase fads — and having the wisdom to recognize which is which.

Regarding the future of The New York Times, what keeps you up at night?

We’ve got a pretty different business model from most other publishers, which is built more on loyalty than scale. The vast majority of our revenue comes directly from our most dedicated readers. That’s a good thing, since it aligns our business model with our journalistic mission. We need to make journalism that is so original, useful and engaging that it’s worth paying for.

So my biggest concern is ensuring the news report is living up to the very high expectations we set for ourselves and making sure that we’re building a digital business large enough to sustain those ambitions. Thankfully the report has never looked better, particularly on the phone. And we’ve been getting a lot of feedback to back that up, including our rising subscription numbers.

One of your big initiatives from the past few years has been The New York Times Innovation Report. In it, you noted that competitors like BuzzFeed and Vox Media were gaining on The New York Times. You also identified a number of important gaps: Product creation, audience development, curation, building up the brands of individual journalists and structuring New York Times information. In the years since, how do you think the Times has responded to the challenges you outlined? What did you guys do well at? Where have you come up short?

The Innovation Report was a catch-up document that warned that The Times was lagging in its print-to-digital transition. Thanks to Dean and many others, we’ve not only caught up in the last few years but we’ve started leading in so many key areas. Take virtual reality, where we’ve been a pioneer. Or visual and interactive storytelling, where Steve Duenes and his amazing team continue to transform what great journalism looks like. Or our fast-evolving report on mobile under Cliff Levy, which Ken Doctor recently called the best news experience on the phone. I could go on. Overall, this is a far more digital and innovative newsroom than even just a couple of years ago.

Most of The New York Times audience consumes your journalism online, but the majority of its revenue comes from the print edition. Does that concern you? If so, what steps have to be taken to change that equation?

The New York Times has built the largest digital business of any news organization, with over $500 million in digital revenue alone. That’s a great start. But we know our journalistic ambitions are expensive — for example, sending reporters to cover the fighting in Mosul or enlisting a team to dig into a presidential candidate’s finances — and that reality requires that we continue to focus on aggressively growing digital revenue. Meredith Kopit Levien is one of the smartest people in the business and has built a great team that is attacking these questions with creativity and urgency. The Wirecutter acquisition this week is another example of how we believe growing the business and being useful to our readers works best in tandem.

Do you foresee a day when The New York Times will no longer put out a print edition? If so, when do you think that will be?

The landscape is changing so fast these days that it’s wise to stay away from predictions. But I don’t think many newspapers can say this: We would still be profitable on subscriber revenue alone. That’s a testament to our incredibly loyal readers. Our intention is to continue to serve those readers our journalism in whatever format they prefer. Over the last few years, you’ve seen us continue to invest and innovate in the print paper – the greatly improved magazine is just one example — and we’ve got some more exciting ideas lined up.

It’s no secret that staff cuts are looming for The New York Times next year. Do you have any information about which areas the Times is looking to prune, or how many positions the Times plans to cut? As the Times gets smaller, what can you do for employees who’ve already been asked to do more with less?

Our newsroom is larger today than it’s ever been and Dean has acknowledged that it needs to be smaller. But you’re right that we can’t simply ask people to do more with less. The path to excellence requires us to make choices. And if we’re being honest, we still do a lot of things that no longer serve today’s readers as well as they served readers in the past. My colleagues make the case regularly that we’re doing too many things simply because we’ve always done them.

One example is Dean’s push to publish fewer obligatory articles. We publish more than can fit in the print paper and vastly more than we can promote online. Cuts like this — as much we all lament the need to make them — don’t hurt the quality of the report. The key is to protect the things that make The Times special, such as our news coverage, our investigative reporting, our most engaging features, our visual journalism and more.

Edmond Lee of Recode suggested that, if appointed publisher, you might run The New York Times in a kind of triumvirate with Sam Dolnick and David Perpich. Is that the plan? Do you have any idea of how you might work with Dolnick and Perpich, who were also candidates for the deputy publisher job?

Sam and David are two of the most talented and effective leaders at The Times. And that view is widely shared by my colleagues. Sam is an outstanding journalist who has won a boatload of prizes and has launched successful initiatives like VR and podcasting. David is a brilliant strategic thinker who played a central role in establishing the digital subscription business and improving our mobile products. If they weren’t members of the Ochs/Sulzberger family, our competitors would be bombarding them with job offers. But they are deeply devoted to this place and the three of us are committed to continuing to work as a team.

Jeff Bezos has reinvigorated The Washington Post by giving it ample resources to compete with some of the biggest and best news organizations in the world, including The New York Times. Would the Sulzbergers be willing to make investments in the Times in the same way that Bezos has? Does the Post’s ascendency make you nervous at all?

As a longtime reporter who has been pained by the decline of so many great American newspapers, it’s been so encouraging to watch what The Post has done under Marty and Jeff. A strong Washington Post is good for the country, which needs all the high-quality journalism it can get. I’ll be watching them closely to see if there are useful lessons for The Times.

But I want to push back on the premise of the question. Though it’s great to see The Post investing again after years of cuts, please remember that The Times is still unrivaled in its journalistic investment. Even if we do face cuts, our newsroom and our technology team will remain far larger than those at other newspapers and digital publishers. And just as important as the size of the staff, is the time and resources we offer our journalists to do their most important and most impactful work. When journalists come to the newsroom from other news organizations – including The Post – they’re always amazed by the resources and manpower we put behind their journalism.

What’s something you think is true about The New York Times that most people don’t know?

Here are two small facts that capture why I’m so confident in the future of The New York Times. The first is that The Times put reporters on the ground in well over 170 countries last year, nearly blanketing the globe. The second is that The Times currently employs more journalists who write code than any news organization. That combination — our enduring commitment to original, boots-on-the-ground reporting and our increasing ability to tell the world’s most important stories in ways our predecessors never dreamed of — is pretty powerful. Figuring the best ways to marry those skills will be an exciting challenge for all of us who believe so deeply in the mission of this place and who believe that our best years are still ahead of us.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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