You all know the joke (repeated in “Annie Hall”) about the two old ladies at the diner, where one says “The food here is terrible, I can barely eat it” and the other says “I agree, and the portions are so small!” That’s exactly how I feel about the New York Times. The paper can be unbearably pretentious, it employs MoDo and Frank Bruni, it botched its WMD reporting terribly, it created the whole Whitewater story out of whole cloth…and it makes me want to cry to think it might disappear!
There have been a couple of really good articles about the head of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (“Pinch”), over the past few years, both titled “The Inheritance”, one in the New Yorker and one in Vanity Fair. Both quote Gay Talese saying of Pinch that “Sometimes you get a bad king.”
As you probably know, there is no record of serious papers in the United States being publicly owned. The Washington Post, New York Times, and, until recently, the Wall Street Journal are or were owned by the Graham, Sulzberger, and Bancroft families respectively. Pinch essentially inherited the paper from his father. And for all the hand-wringing about the inevitable death of newspapers, his poor business decisions are certainly a large part of why the paper is on death’s door. Michael Calderone summarizes the Vanity Fair piece pretty well:
Bowden makes his case by talking to those who know Sulzberger and running through a laundry list of past mistakes: buying back $1.8 billion worth of stock (that’s now junk); not diversifying enough (unlike the Washington Post buying Kaplan); passing up on investing in Google and Amazon; the $1.1 billion purchase of the New England papers (including the Boston Globe).
Make no mistake: if the newspaper industry were still doing well, some of these decisions would have been good ones. But it seems colossally stupid not to have hedged by investing in other areas rather than doubling down on the newspaper business. I wonder, though, if his doubling down on the newspaper business was really so different from the Big Three doubling down on SUVs or banks doubling down on CDOs and mortgage-backed securities. It’s tempting to think that the serious newspapers were doomed because they could exist only as long as the dynasties that ruled them kept producing effective monarchs. But maybe these hereditary monarchs aren’t really so different from the monarchs produced by our supposedly more meritocratic executive system.
That said, this quiz (from Arianna) comparing Pinch Sulzberger to George W. Bush is a classic.
You decide: is it W or is it Pinch? [Answers below]
1. Which of these men had a father who was considered stupid but is now thought to be a genius compared to his son?
2. Which of these men is currently on the defensive about his support for an incompetent woman in his office?
3. Which of these men may have to ask for the resignation of a subordinate because of a mounting scandal?
4. Which of these men appointed as his top deputy a loyal member of his father’s regime?
5. Which of these two men’s favorite TV series was “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and even owned a watch with the inscription “Live Long and Prosper”?