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Feb. 2, 2012, 11 a.m.
nytimes-building

The newsonomics of the next New York Times CEO

Why is it proving hard to come up with strong candidates to lead The New York Times Co.? A few possibilities — some serious, some whimsical.

Talk about a plum job: chief executive officer of The New York Times Company.

The Times is one of the most respected brands on the planet. It is a pinnacle of the news trade. It generated revenues of $2.32 billion in 2011, according to the latest quarterly numbers released this morning. It just announced it added 390,000 digital subscribers in 2011. (“At Almost 400,000 Digital Subscribers, Inside the NYT Pay Strategy, Year 2.“) It sits square in the middle of the planet’s media capital, New York. And yet its long-time CEO just parachuted out in a cloud of more than 20 million dollar bills, and few can come up with a shortlist of names who could, or should, take on the job.

It’s a plum job with a big pit in the middle: a pit of doubt, worry, and of straight-line arithmetic. Add up the Times’ last decade of financial woe, shared by its entire industry, and project it a little further forward, and a pit forms also in the stomach. Why would anyone want to take on such a job, and indeed, who might be among the few who have both the ability and the willingness, the courage, and the cunning?

The Times needs its next CEO to be transformational. He or she must see the set of the Times’ assets — print, digital, brand, and influence — fresh and new.

If these were the good old days, the Times could round up the usual suspects, the best operators in the trade. Newspapers, to their R&D-shunning discredit, have clung to those operational roots — the perfection of daily manufacturing of news and advertising — far too long. Those who have become the CEOs of other newspaper companies should be potential candidates, but they’re not. Most spend their days managing decline, so despite their knowledge of the trade, they’re not on the list.

Internally, a number of talented executives are is the midst of taking the business to the next level — witness the fledgling success of 2011’s digital circulation strategy. Despite the hoots and hollers from those in and around the industry, it’s a significant achievement, with about $86 million in annual revenue and little loss of traffic, as noted by Poynter’s Steve Myers. The potential of an internal appointment spurs two responses: (a) they would have done it already if they were going to do it, and (b) maybe they are going to do it, since they haven’t hired any top headhunter yet. The conventional wisdom is that no one appears to be sufficiently ready for the big job — but that’s always the case until someone moves up into the chair. As you peruse a beginning list of outsiders, consider how much safer — to Times culture — an inside appointment may seem, especially if a search process drags on.

It’s intriguing to speculate on that lack of perceived internal readiness. My sense: It’s as much about the landscape as the execs. The lesson for the Times here: It’s hard to focus both on operational excellence and transform the business at the same time. Yes, Times execs have been more change-oriented than their newspaper industry peers. Yet the underlying structure of their business — traditional advertising + tradition circulation, now applied more creatively — hasn’t changed. So at this particular moment in Times history, the unplanned departure of Janet Robinson, added to the contemporaneous retirement of long-time NYT digital business leader Martin Nisenholtz, produces a special moment.

The next CEO is a big roll of the dice, as the gaming table shrinks. There’s little room for error. Pick the right new leader and the Times has improved its chances for survival; pick wrong and these key years of 2012-2014, as news crosses over into a mainly digital business, will be cited in the obit. AP faces a similar tension as it seeks a successor for long-time CEO Tom Curley. Dow Jones, cushioned by parent News Corp.’s better-lined pockets, too, is finalizing its CEO search. Put them together, and it’s a signal moment for American news media, as three top positions open themselves up to possibility, and imagination, simultaneously.

The Times needs its next CEO to be transformational. He or she must see the set of the Times’ assets — print, digital, brand, and influence — fresh and new, and figure out how to more quickly multiply their value in a world in which digital advertising is surpassing print and “mobile” is turning the Internet into ubiquitous electricity.

The new CEO must also be tradition-respecting, understanding of the unique value of The New York Times in an American and global society itself in the midst of multiple transformations. The Times, as institutionally arrogant as it often can be, is important to the Republic. Let’s just take one recent story, the first in its iEconomy series, that illustrates the Times’ place in society. Ten days ago, the Times published “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” That story has driven a new national argument. It painted the reality, the complex reality, of Apple’s outsourcing to China. It moved the conversation beyond the banal, superficial political banter of the Capitol and the campaign trail.

The Times certainly wasn’t first to focus on the story. We’ve heard parts of it told in many ways for years. In fact, two weeks before the Times’ story, public radio’s This American Life aired “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” a searing on-the-Shenzhen-ground exploration of the issue. Given the program’s sensibility, it asked the question a little more piquantly — “Who makes all my crap?” — and let us hear the voices of actual workers. What’s significant with the Times’ story is its ability to change the national political agenda. That’s what great newspapers, and leading news media do, and what we need them to do more of. In a world of 24/7 political spinning and “debates” that could have been staged by P.T. Barnum, fewer (and here we could speculate about the future of the similarly family- and public service-directed Washington Post Co.) national news media now have the institutional weight and public-service willingness to slow the runaway train of self-righteousness.

Fewer media — an increasingly useful punching bag for Super PAC money — can be listened to when they say, Wait a minute: Let’s look at the facts. Only a few have the ability to say It’s complicated and have people listen and maybe act on those learnings. (Even Newt Gingrich, who’s built much of his campaign on media elite bashing, has fallen back on citing The New York Times — even when he sometimes should have cited others, including Reuters — when he wants to say something is important and true.) Yes, it’s a new ecosystem of news, one coolly able to incorporate both This American Life and The New York Times, Ira Glass and Jill Abramson, but one with as much need to prize the old as award the new.

Transformational and tradition-respecting. It’s a unique combination of traits befitting a unique challenge. Let’s look at the landscape of potential Times Co. CEOs — after consultation with a few people in the know, and with a nod to HBO’s “Luck,” let’s look at some candidates from realistic to whimsical. You decide which is which.

The outsiders

If the Times looks outside media as we know it:

What would Eric do? Google’s Eric Schmidt has already made his billions, and has returned CEO reins to Larry Page. He understands the value of newspapers in society and his company and the Times have formed numerous, stronger-than-newspaper-industry-average partnerships. Obviously, he’d bring deep tech roots and the top-of-the-industry relationships that could propel the Times into its next stage of life while preserving its principles. He knows advertising and analytics. He knows how to be CEO in a distributed power structure, as he shared duties in the Google troika of Schmidt, Page, and Brin; that’s akin to power-sharing with Arthur Sulzberger, who, of course remains chairman and the Times’ publisher. Have he and Arthur already talked? A long shot, but transformational and jaw-dropping, just the tonic for early 2012.

How about an old New York Times reporter with connections? That could be Steve Rattner, financier, dealmaker, pundit, and a Times reporter in his youth. He’s got a long, close relationship with Arthur. He is a player. But he’s got baggage, a Securities and Exchange Commission plea in a pension kickback case. A longer shot still.

In the trade

How about an erstwhile competitor? Former WSJ publisher Gordon Crovitz has a to-the-point resume: deep editorial and business cred, premium ad and global experience, and he was in the paid-content trenches while the Times was first failing with TimesSelect. He and Steve Brill built, and continue to operate, Press+ since its 2011 sale to RR Donnelley.

Borrowing a page from magazines: Magazines have faced the same struggles as newspapers. In the process, they’ve washed out many an exec. At this moment, Hearst Magazines president David Carey is riding high, but the Condé Nast veteran has only been in that job for a year. Jack Griffin is in the media-advisory business after Time Inc. rejected the Meredith-successful transplant; his reinvention credentials are well established.

Borrow from the best: ESPN is among the leaders in the multi-platform, multimedia journalism business. President George Bodenheimer may be too great a reach; what about John Kosner, SVP and GM for print and digital media?

Anyone from the GAFA gaggle?

Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are reinventing the current digital world. Sheryl Sandberg could be a natural. The Facebook COO’s well-monied resume — starting with Treasury (seven years), Google sales+ (six years), and Facebook (since 2008) — could rub off on the money-starved Times. She’s in the midst of a huge IPO, so the timing is of course problematic. Says one newspaper admirer: “She understands that ultimately content is what will make a platform successful and is methodically executing against that. She’s a huge consumer of news content and cares about journalism.”

Tim Armstrong looks, and speaks, the role, but the Times needs someone coming from a point of success, not struggle. For the same reasons, the Times can’t move on some with resumes that fit on the surface — old media experience, new media chops — but who instead of graduating with honors, left Yahoo and other places in shambles.

How about the Randys?

A host of Randys could be intriguing candidates.

Take Randy Smith, chief of Alden Global Capital. In 2011, he showed signs of wanting to roll up the U.S. newspaper industry (Europe in 2013?), trying to merge MediaNews with Freedom and staking out major Digital First territory, on the foundation of a John Paton-supercharged Journal Register. Now, though, it seems like he’s selling off his 30-percent stake in Philadelphia Media Holdings. If you want to invest big in the newspaper game, there’s no better place than the Times. And this Randy could inject his own capital.

Or Randy Rothenburg, Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO, and at the nexus of the digital ad revolution. A former Times technology editor, he boomeranged back to IAB, after Time Inc.’s culture (tough place) rejected him as a new digital leader.

Or Randy Michaels, former COO of the Tribune Company. He brought a little, well a lot, of levity to the Tribune Company, and Sam Zell’s boy genius could be ready for a revival after being sacked, by, well, a Times story.

Enough for my speculation, real or otherwise. Who’s your pick?

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2012, 11 a.m.
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