Although he has been rocked by the public relations disaster over his firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has proved himself a survivor when dealing with most of the questions about his tenure as leader of the news organization over the past two decades.
In most accounts of the firing, Ms. Abramson has come across as a bad boss who lied to Mr. Sulzberger and to deputy Dean Baquet, who replaced her in the top news position. Sure, she got some points for trying to get as much money as her predecessor and her Rocky Balboa photo next to a punching bag suggested that she apparently intended to keep up the good fight.
Gawker described Mr. Sulzberger as a “human PR disaster.” The Awl, a popular New York City website, suggested that he fire himself. “He’s clearly not up to the challenge of being the publisher of the nation’s last newspaper during the newspaper extinction era,” the Awl said.
“Sulzberger’s 21-year tenure as publisher has been marred,” he wrote, including a variety of bad investments such as About.com, which lost $110 million, or about 25 percent of its value, during the six years the news organization owned it.
Mr. Sulzberger hired Howell Raines in 2001 and fired him two years later amid the scandal of Jayson Blair, who engaged in massive fraud as a news reporter. Also, it was Mr. Sulzberger who hired Janet Robinson as CEO in 2004 and then pushed her out seven years later with a severance package of $23 million.
Lost amid the Abramson firing was an internal study, headed by Mr. Sulzberger’s son, about the future of The New York Times. Simply put, the news organization is an old battleship that has not adapted well to digital technology. Again, that happened on Mr. Sulzberger’s watch.
Despite the positive reviews of Mr. Baquet, the first black editor of the newspaper, he has a Twitter account he hasn’t used at a time when the news organization’s internal analysis shows it is far behind the social media times. A report that runs nearly 100 pages found The Times spent far too much time on the print edition when fewer people were reading it while more turned to the digital edition. Moreover, the notion of “online first” — a concept embraced by most forward-looking news organizations — had fallen on relatively deaf ears. Many digitally savvy heavies left the company, while others rebuffed recruiting offers.
Former Times social media producer and editor Liz Heron, who now works for The Wall Street Journal, said on Facebook that the lack of interest in the digital product was why she left. “Some people might have thought [it] was a little crazy at the time,” she wrote. “For all its digital success, the NYT culture is still very print-focused. At least at The Wall Street Journal, a digital journalist like me was given a leadership role central to the news.”
Perhaps it may be time for the Sulzberger family, which actually runs the news organization through a complicated stock arrangement, to consider firing its publisher and look for someone better to take over.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.