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Feb. 20, 2024, 2:58 p.m.

“We’ve really worked hard not to ever have a pivot at The New York Times”: A.G. Sulzberger on AI, local news, and that Trump bump

“Never get comfortable; always assume that the world is conspiring to take down the industry and that we will have to move heaven and earth to overcome those forces to blaze a path forward for quality journalism.”

Men named Arthur Sulzberger have tended to take over The New York Times at points of transition.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger became publisher in June 1963, just after the conclusion of 114-day printers’ strike that had kept all seven of New York’s daily newspapers from publishing. The strike had been directly responsible for Sulzberger’s ascent, at age 37, to the position; the Times’ previous publisher had been his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, but the stress of the job led him to be hospitalized just days after the strike’s conclusion. He died of heart failure at age 50.

Those months without newspapers had changed the media landscape like few before it, spawning new competitors and strengthening news rivals in television and radio. It accelerated a host of changes already underway.

Increased labor costs led the Times to double its newsstand price when it started up the presses again, but it came out of the strike relatively well positioned. The same could not be said for its rivals: The New York Daily Mirror shut down in October, and the New York Journal-American, New York World-Telegram, and New York Herald Tribune each struggled on until merging in 1966 and shutting down a few months later. A seven-newspaper city was suddenly left with just three — and the Times had, not for the last time, somehow navigated an industry disruption and come out stronger.

Arthur’s son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., took over as publisher in January 1992. At the time, he had no way of knowing that, five months earlier, a man in Switzerland had posted the first public description of his new project, which he called WorldWideWeb.

The Times, like other newspapers, spent several years underestimating the whole internet thing. (Here’s Sulzberger, incredulous, talking about the internet at a Nieman event in 1995: “Are you making the assumption that we’re going to put all of our reporters online? Is that the assumption built into the question, that every day, all of our reporters will have hundreds and hundreds of emails that they’ve got to respond to?…I’m not sure how that’s going to define what a newspaper of the future is, or how much different that’s going to be.”) But over time, the newspaper became less about the paper, moving online, figuring out a paywall (on its second try), and somehow becoming more dominant, in many ways, than it was in the print old days.

By the time Arthur Jr. stepped aside at the end of 2017, handing the publisher title to his 37-year-old son Arthur Gregg (A.G.) Sulzberger, the Times’ digital transition was already pointed firmly in the right direction, with a then-record 3.5 million total subscribers, an expanding newsroom, and a growing gap between it and its local-news peers. Under A.G. — and, it must be said, under CEOs Mark Thompson and Meredith Kopit Levien — those trend lines have continued (to the tune of 10 million subscribers), with additional emphasis on bundling the core news report with other products ranging from sports news to word games to audio. Other than a slight pandemic-driven dip in 2020, Times revenue has climbed healthily every year since 2016.

The past five years have been more about execution and growth than strategic change. While the A.G. Sulzberger era has overlapped with that global pandemic and rising authoritarianism, it hadn’t yet seen its signature disruption. (Generative AI would get my vote as the most likely disruptor.) But as the primary author of the Times’ famous 2014 Innovation Report, he should be well positioned to help point the Times in whatever direction it needs next.

Next month, Sulzberger, now 43, will give the Reuters Memorial Lecture at Oxford University, and in the lead-up, he’s given a thoughtful hour-long interview to RISJ’s Eduardo Suárez. I want to highlight a few of his comments; the whole thing is worth a read, both for Eduardo’s infusion of Times history and for a few topics I won’t get to here.

On what was misunderstood about the Times’ Innovation Report

The Innovation Report, issued internally in March 2014 and leaked two months later, was the result of a self-scouting team led by Sulzberger — at the time a mere assistant metro editor, though already a Sulzberger. (Also on the team: former Nieman Lab staffer Andrew Phelps.) Their mission: to figure out why the Times had been slow to innovate on its core product, and how that might change. It was a big deal; our story about it still remains one of the most-read stories in Nieman Lab history.

Sulzberger: People thought it was a document staring into the future. But it was a culture document and it was just about trying to create the conditions for people to stop saying no to change. There were many things I got wrong. The biggest, I suspect, is that we oscillated too far towards social media. But we were coming from a position of institutional arrogance, where we thought we didn’t really have to take social media seriously, and we had to be there because that’s where our future readers were.

We are going to meet our readers first off platform. But we now know these are powerful companies. They dominate the flow of traffic and engagement in the digital world. You need to be on them, and to find ways to partner with them, but your interests are not aligned. You should be clear-eyed on that, treat this as a professional partnership, and make sure it meets clearly articulated standards.

On the “Trump bump”

Sulzberger: A broadly held conception is that our subscription growth came as a result of the election of Donald Trump. I have a different diagnosis. I think it happened disproportionately because of Netflix and Spotify. They had just spent five years convincing the global public that it was okay to pull out your credit card to pay for a service rather than goods.

Trump’s election was an activating moment, where a whole bunch of people who were comfortable doing that said to themselves: “Wow, that seems like a big deal. I should probably be paying attention to the news.” But look at the other great surges of subscriber interest. It’s similar moments where people felt like the world needed to be understood, like COVID-19 or the war in Ukraine.

It is certainly true that streaming services helped pave the way for broader subscription success. And I get why Sulzberger — who has stood behind the banner of “independent journalism” to rhetorically distinguish the Times from the political world around it — wouldn’t want to give Trump too much “credit” here.

But c’mon, that is a Trump bump. Between the Q3s of 2014 and 2016, the Times went from 875,000 digital new subscriptions to 1,338,000 — an increase of 463,000 over two years. But between the Q3s of 2016 and 2017, the total shot up to 2,132,000 — a leap of 794,000 in just a single, extremely Trumpy year.

From 2016 to 2017, the percentage of conservative Americans who said they paid for digital news increased from 7% to 11%. But the percentage of liberal Americans who said they paid for digital news soared from 15% to 29% — with the biggest gains coming among 18- to 34-year-olds. And in Q2 2021 — the first full quarter after Trump’s grudging departure from the White House — the Times had its slowest growth in digital subs since 2016.

It’s totally fair to point out other factors as contributors to subscription increases — but it’s also true that many news subscribers are driven by factors more oppositional than “the world needed to be understood.”

On the Times as a full-service restaurant

Sulzberger: I don’t think the number of spaces that are worth that level of giant intervention like The Athletic is unlimited. At our core, we should be providing the world’s best general interest news product, a product that is really focused on helping anyone who wants to be an engaged global citizen understand the breadth of the world, and the forces, people and ideas shaping it. That’s our core promise.

And then around that, we’ve been really lucky to be able to build a handful of things that tap into people’s passions or everyday needs in a supportive way that deepens the relationship and increases loyalty. I don’t think it’s a radical strategy. It’s really similar to what newspapers used to be.

Young people can’t believe that a newspaper is how you found out who won last night’s game, what was on TV, how stocks were doing and (the one that most boggles their minds)…whether it was going to rain! We are trying to rebuild that sense of being a full service restaurant to some extent.

Sulzberger is talking here about the company’s increased emphasis on bundling its various products into a single all-access subscription. The Athletic, which the Times bought for $550 million two years ago, was by far the company’s largest outside acquisition for the bundle. While it likely makes ARPU-increasing sense to push the bundle in the short term, I do wonder how much farther it can go to reassemble the whole polyglot print-newspaper package. Remember, the reason people fed all those disparate information needs with the morning paper was that they had no other choice. As soon as stock prices, baseball scores, weather forecasts, and TV schedules were available elsewhere, people were quick to switch.

On whether the Times’ success plays a role in local news outlets’ struggles

This was in response to Eduardo asking how Sulzberger sees “the success of the Times in the context of American journalism. Many local newspapers, including the one where you started your career, have been decimated by cuts…As a citizen, do you find this problematic in the light of your own success?”

Sulzberger: I get versions of this question quite a lot, including from our own staff, and I’m going to push back on it really strongly.

The trends that are decimating news have nothing to do with the success of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker. They are a set of existential pressures that are stemming from the decimation of the legacy business models and the replacement of those with the much more economically challenging digital options…So I don’t think this pressure is about the success of one organization.

I think it’s broadly correct that the outsized success of the Times is not damaging the business models of local outlets. It’s more that they are both caused by the same phenomenon: the internet’s elimination of functional local monopolies on publication. In the print days, there were always people who wanted to read The New York Times but couldn’t — simply because the paper wasn’t sold where they were. And there were people who paid for The Local Gazette grudgingly, because they had no other options for daily reading about the world. The internet is very good at turning bell curves into power-law distributions.

On how, in that case, to rebuild local news

Sulzberger: The lesson is that if you continue to invest in that fundamental journalistic promise, the economies of scale basically will support national media in the U.S….The problem is that local media doesn’t get to benefit from those economies of scale. So I think local is its own very discrete, very profound challenge

I’d say that our industry is still thinking too small, and I think that’s fair: We’ve been absolutely battered for 20 years. But I think our industry needs to think bigger.

At the peak of print, something like 65 million Americans subscribed to a newspaper. On average, they subscribed to almost two newspapers. So let’s add that up and we have 120 million newspaper subscriptions at the peak of print…

If you add up all the news subscriptions in this country today, I don’t know what that number would be, but I would guess that it is closer to 30-40 million. That’s significantly less than Paramount+, which is not exactly a successful streamer. We are not even sniffing at Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime.

We are still many factors smaller than those players. I don’t think that our industry can or should accept that we are going to collectively be smaller than an eighth-grade streamer.

I’ve now spent well over a decade of my life reading disappointing Times executives’ answers to the “whither local news” question. There’s Mark Thompson talking airily about the need “to stand and fight” or that “at the regional and local level, it looks like something close to a wipeout without dramatic intervention”; there’s Dean Baquet1 saying “most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years”; there’s Meredith Kopit Levien leaving it at “we are still working through the best way to help…I do not have a full answer.”

The standard Times response is some variant of: We absolutely hate what’s happening to local news, it’s just awful, but we’re not going to go out of our way to do anything about it. I’d put Sulzberger’s “think bigger” in the same category of non-answers.

And…fair enough. It’s a company, not a charity. But I’ve argued before (and will argue again!) that if the Times is going to be truly mission-driven — if it believes in its “core journalistic mission of helping people understand the world” — it should be using its position of relative financial security to work harder on the biggest and most intractable part of the problem. And that’s local news, huge swaths of which has been left to the Huns. I’d be more enthusiastic about buying a bundle that supported local news than one with a really good recipe app.

On the role of Opinion at The New York Times

Here Sulzberger is responding to: “We both know reporting is what matters the most. What’s the point of having an opinion section in 2024?”

Sulzberger: As you noted, we moved opinion down the page [pushing the top Opinion stories down the NYTimes.com homepage from its previous home at top right] because my view is that the internet is oddly engineered to grease the flow of opinions but reporting doesn’t always find its audience, especially the boring but important topics that we feel so committed to writing about. So we are making reporting even more central than it has always been on our page.

As for opinions, we are labelling them much more aggressively. Even if fewer people click on them as a result, we want to make it clear that opinion journalism is something different. But why does it still have value? Because it’s so useful to be able to sit in a deep way, not just a quote in a story, and hear the fullest, most carefully considered argument from someone who doesn’t think like you. It’s also useful with someone who does think like you because sometimes it sharpens your own thinking.

I don’t doubt Sulzberger’s dedication to reporting a bit, but I’m not sure how to square the idea of de-emphasizing Opinion — he’s elsewhere said he’s kept the section “intentionally small” — with the fact that Times Opinion certainly looks bigger than ever before? As in: “The New York Times opinion section employs some 150 people, triple its size in 2017.” (Or is it only double?) Either way, the Times’ Opinion section alone employs more journalists than all but a dozen or so print/digital newsrooms.

(Personally, I have no quarrel with a big Opinion section. It isn’t siphoning resources from news; the Times’ newsroom is bigger than ever. It draws lots of readers and produces plenty of excellent work alongside the occasional duds that light up Twitter. But it hardly seems “intentionally small.”)

On generative AI

Sulzberger: We can’t allow a world in which the right of a news organization to be paid for the work that spends money, and takes time and care and often risks to create, disappears. We cannot allow a world where the right for a news organization to have a direct relationship with the audience for that very work disappears. That matters, and I hope the whole industry is taking this seriously…

Our industry would do well to remember that, in an era in which AI worsens the sort of crisis of trust in digital environments, our advantage is that we are human expert-led enterprises, where journalists are backed by the best editors, and editors are backed by the highest standards. We need to make sure that these tools are always working for us, and that we put our names behind them, rather than, as we’ve seen some places do, setting them free…

You started this interview asking about the Innovation Report. And one of my main lessons is: never get comfortable; always assume that the world is conspiring to take down the industry and that we will have to move heaven and earth to overcome those forces to blaze a path forward for quality journalism.

I absolutely worry about those things because it is only by worrying about them that you can prevent them from happening.

  1. Baquet, to his credit, now leads the Times’ valuable Local Investigation Fellowships, which currently supports seven reporters↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 20, 2024, 2:58 p.m.
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