Since the death of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger on Saturday, many have expressed their tributes to and memories of the man nicknamed Punch, who brought the US paper of record from “the heyday of postwar America to the twilight of the 20th century, from the era of hot lead and Linotype machines to the birth of the digital world,” as the impressive 7000+ word obituary by Clyde Haberman in The New York Times itself puts it.
As a publisher he is most celebrated for his decision to go forward with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, historian Alex S. Jones noted in Time. Sulzberger “helped change the face of American journalism” says The Washington Post, “by broadening his newspaper’s coverage, standing up to government pressure and making the Times a newspaper of national scope, with distribution throughout the country.” He was a “forceful visionary,” said the Los Angeles Times.
He was undoubtedly a man who oversaw and led great change. But what his death made me remember was that some challenges remain the same. Earlier this year, current New York Times chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr quoted his father in a speech at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe conference. He read part of a staff memo issued by Sulzberger Sr in 1966, which is reminiscent of the situation in which many in the industry find themselves today:
“The New York newspaper industry has entered a new era. The facts that underlie this are simple and sad…
… There are about 3,000 fewer newspaper jobs. There are about 1,000,000 fewer New York newspapers sold each week.
I don’t think that this shrinking age is something that anyone – either labor or management – could have wanted. That it nevertheless occurred ought to be a matter for grave, private reflection by all of us whose lives and energies are committed to this vital industry.
…To meet this cost burden we shall have to seek additional revenue and redouble our efforts to operate as efficiently as we can.
Our major responsibility… is to keep raising the quality of The New York Times.”
“I mention all this,” said the son who took over from his father as publisher in 1992 and as chairman in 1997, “to remind us that while the challenges we face are real and hard, we are not the first in newspaper leadership to confront profound change.”
It is a useful lesson for struggling papers to remember.