Interview with The New York Times Publisher A. G. Sulzberger 'To Produce Good Journalism, There Are No Shortcuts'
Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, discusses his public spat with President Trump, the erosion of trust in the media and the challenge of adapting a 167-year-old institution to the changing times.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Sulzberger, you're one year into your role as the publisher of The New York Times. How much is resting on your shoulders?
Sulzberger: This is a really difficult time for media. Journalists and journalism are under attack by political forces all over the globe. Trust in media is declining, the business models are changing. Anyone who cares about journalism should be very worried about this. But I don't feel a high degree of weight falling on me personally.
DER SPIEGEL: The New York Times is 167 years old, you are the fifth generation of the Ochs Sulzberger family to take over as publisher. Are you afraid of screwing up?
Sulzberger: In the last couple of years, The New York Times has managed to develop a real clear sense of our vision for what The Times will become in the future. And we have a strong team to pursue it: Dean Baquet is the best executive editor in the business, the newsroom is incredibly strong, our business team too. So, I don't think there is a lot of weight falling on any one person here.
DER SPIEGEL: Have President Trump's constant attacks helped forge the team together?
Sulzberger: What helped to forge this team together is a profound and growing concern that our vision for quality journalism is at risk of disappearing around the country and around the world: journalism that takes time, that takes travel, that takes expertise, that takes lawyers and fact-checking. Time and resources are the two things that are most at risk in our profession right now. The New York Times is trying to lead the fight to prove that this type of journalism has a path forward in the world right now. That is our mission.
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DER SPIEGEL: And Trump's constant attacks don't matter?
Sulzberger: This administration is a story that we're committed to covering the way we cover every administration: fairly and aggressively.
DER SPIEGEL: In mid-July, the president invited you to the White House for an off-the-record conversation, only to make the meeting public a little later via Twitter and to once again attack The Times. Was this meeting a highlight or rather a low point of your tenure as a publisher so far?
Sulzberger: I don't think either, it's just part of the job. As the publisher I am, in a way, the court of appeals: Anyone who is receiving tough coverage deserves the opportunity to raise concerns about our coverage, regardless of whether that's a company like Facebook, the president of the United States or anyone else.
DER SPIEGEL: What was your expectation of the meeting?
Sulzberger: Trump has been very vocal in his criticism of The New York Times, as you know. He even has a nickname for us.
DER SPIEGEL: The "Failing New York Times."
Sulzberger: Yes. So, I assumed that I'd be hearing some concern about our coverage. But the conversation was civil. He raised some incidental concerns but nothing directly. I think in his mind it was a just a chance to meet.
DER SPIEGEL: Dean Baquet, the executive editor, has the golden rule of never talking to the president off the record. Why did you agree to a confidential conversation with Trump?
Sulzberger: Dean Baquet is the top journalistic leader of this company, and his rule makes perfect sense for the newsroom. But my job is different. As the publisher, I'm the overall leader of The Times. For me it was an opportunity to raise my concerns about his increasingly dangerous rhetoric about the media as the "enemy of the people," about the impact of this language and the fact that it plays into the hands of dictators all over the world.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you have the impression that he was listening?
Sulzberger: He made a show of listening intently. I didn't record the meeting, but he said things along the lines of: That's not good; you've really made me think. It would have been impossible to not come away with the sense that he would think about whether he could pull back.
DER SPIEGEL: Only a few days later, he went to battle against The New York Times on Twitter. Did you feel you'd been used for the Trump show?
Sulzberger: No, I was glad that the conversation got placed on the record. So now, at least, the world knows that he was warned directly, face to face, that the type of rhetoric he's using has and will continue to have consequences. And we're seeing those consequences.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you heard from the president since? * (please see footnote)
Sulzberger: He reached out to me and invited me for an off-the-record dinner. I declined, saying I would prefer an on-the-record interview that included two of our reporters. He agreed.
DER SPIEGEL: Two months after your first meeting, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, allegedly at the behest of the Saudi royal family. He had been critical of the Saudi government in his reporting. So, it is no longer just a matter of rhetoric, but of violence.
Sulzberger: Trump's rhetoric is comparable to climate change: We know it's happening, we know it's dangerous, but it's really hard to attribute any one storm to climate change. We're seeing the same thing with the president's rhetoric: We know it's dangerous. We know that it's creating a climate, even beyond the U.S., in which more attacks on journalists are happening, where laws are being passed to crack down on an independent press. But we can't point to any single incident and say, "that was because of the president's rhetoric." But the U.S. has historically been the most vocal and relentless champion of free speech and a free press on the global stage. And we have publicly retreated from that position.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain that Trump's attacks on the press are so well received -- and not only by his followers? What part does the media play in this erosion of trust?
Sulzberger: I can't get into anyone's mind, but we do need to acknowledge that there has been not just an erosion of trust in media but a growing political polarization. For a news organization that prides itself on being independent and impartial, this is a problem.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump's voters don't believe you to be impartial. How can you regain trust?
Sulzberger: We need to do a better job of explaining the extraordinary lengths that we go to ensure that everything we publish is fair and accurate. That, for example, we did not just speak with the three people quoted in an article but with many more. When we invited the documentary crew from Showtime into the building, I asked Dean why he had made this decision despite the stress the newsroom was under. His answer was: Because I believe that it is impossible to see our journalists, Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman and others, at work and not come away fundamentally respecting what they're doing.
DER SPIEGEL: Doesn't the media, including The New York Times, participate in Trump's reality show by constantly repeating what he says and tweets?
Sulzberger: Let me start by pushing back on the word "the media." I really find it a problematic word. Cable news operates with a fundamentally different set of standards than most digital and traditional publishers. And many of "the media" lack the resources The New York Times has to deeply interrogate what is happening. Our piece on the president's wealth and his tax schemes took 18 months, three full-time reporters and behind them an army of editors and lawyers who helped to bring that story to life. That's a different thing than having a panel of experts five minutes after the president's speech saying they agree or disagree.
DER SPIEGEL: Autographed photos of U.S. presidents hang in The Times' boardroom. Former president Richard Nixon signed his picture with the following words: "To the New York Times: Some read it and like it. Some read it and don't like it. But everybody reads it." When Trump visited The New York Times two years ago, your father took him past Nixon's photo and said, "That was the last president to mess with the free press. Remember how it ended for him." Has Trump left a note on his picture?
Sulzberger: Yes. He wrote: "Arthur - Great Being with You - MAGA. Best Wishes!" The photos of the presidents have a long tradition in The Times. We have seen many governments. Trump is another one we report on.
DER SPIEGEL: The Sulzberger family is one of the last families in the country to have held on to their newspaper despite economic risks. How does it feel to inherit this responsibility?
Sulzberger: It's a legacy. My father has achieved something fairly extraordinary in his 25-year tenure as a publisher, which is to hand off The New York Times even stronger than he received it, with more journalists, not fewer. It's my goal to pull this off and to show that there is a path forward for the type of journalism we do. And the growth we've experienced over the last few years proves that people are willing to pay for quality journalism.
DER SPIEGEL: You started your journalistic career at The Providence Journal and The Oregonian. How were you treated there, given your famous surname?
Sulzberger: I feel I have been treated graciously at every stop. I've always wanted to be known for my work, not for my name.
DER SPIEGEL: To escape your surname might be difficult in U.S. journalism.
Sulzberger: I once had an editor at The Oregonian pull me aside. He said: journalism is one of the only professions where I never need to meet someone to know how good he is at his work. All I need is a stack of clips dropped off on my desk. I tried to show that I was willing to take any assignment, to work my ass off and to let my work speak for itself. My colleagues treated me like any other reporter, and I felt like any other reporter. It wasn't a station of the cross for me. It was work I loved doing. It's work I miss doing today.
DER SPIEGEL: As a Sulzberger, did you even have a choice about going into journalism?
Sulzberger: My family has been consistent in always saying that they want people to choose their own path. So, I never felt under any pressure to pursue journalism. And for most my life I didn't think I would.
DER SPIEGEL: What would have been the alternative?
Sulzberger: I thought the world of nonprofits was interesting. I thought politics, not as a politician, but as someone who works behind the scenes.
DER SPIEGEL: And how come you were drawn into journalism after all?
Sulzberger: At college I was working with a professor who was teaching long-form writing. She also worked as an investigative journalist at The Providence Journal. It was the most I ever enjoyed a class in college. I loved how grounded the work was, how real it was, and the rigor and the standards that she brought to it. There are so many things I love about academia, but once you had a general sense of the thesis that professors were advocating, the work was pretty easy. To produce good journalism, there are no shortcuts. You have to be out there and doing the hard work. At the end of college, she offered me an internship at The Providence Journal, and she made a case that if I didn't like it then I would know. I really liked it and have never looked back.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2009, the Sulzberger family had to sell part of The New York Times Company's stock to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to put money into the newspaper. A few years ago, rumors circulated about a sale to New York City's former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Was there ever a point at which you had to fear that The Times might no longer be majority-owned by the family?
Sulzberger: No, that's never been a thought or a concern. The Sulzberger family is deeply committed to this institution. The long view that the family has brought to the institution is actually why at a period when so many other journalistic organizations are in decline, we're experiencing unprecedented growth. Our commitment to The Times is enduring and was never in jeopardy.
DER SPIEGEL: So, there was never any truth to the rumors about a sale?
Sulzberger: I don't remember if there were any rumors that The Times was for sale. There are always rumors that people want to buy it. Those are different things. We should expect to hear those rumors for the foreseeable future, because The Times is doing really well, both journalistically and economically.
DER SPIEGEL: At a panel discussion last year, you were asked what you would do if a billionaire gave you a billion dollars.
Sulzberger: My answer was: The New York Times is not for sale. And: We're going to have to make that billion dollars ourselves. You know what I should have said? We get a billion dollars every single year. From our readers! I much prefer that to the money of a billionaire, with all the problems and conflicts of interest that go with it. We invest the readers' money in the newsroom, which today is larger than ever before. Our readers benefit from this.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2014, you led a team that drafted the Innovation Report, which painted a gloomy picture of the state of the paper: The Times, the report warned, was in danger of being left behind by digital competitors such as The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed. If you had to write a new report today, how would you describe the current state of The New York Times?
Sulzberger: We are further along than I ever could have hoped. At that time the number of people reading us was shrinking, our subscriber growth had plateaued. There was effectively a caste system in the newsroom with traditional journalists and then a lower caste of people in digital roles. This group weren't even allowed to have business cards, because they were told they didn't want them to be confused for real journalists. Our strategy was built too much around print, too much around advertising. Today we are reaching 150 million people a month, we have 4 million paying subscribers, which is probably more than twice what we had when the Innovation Report was released. But the world and our business are changing fast, and we constantly have to interrogate what we're doing, and adapt.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you give an example?
Sulzberger: Part of my message to the organization over the last five years is that we should be more comfortable with mistakes and failures. For many years we were convinced that podcasts don't work. Because we had tried it, and it had not worked. We had a daily news podcast that was a reporter reading the front page aloud. In January 2017 we created "The Daily." That's now the single most downloaded podcast in the country, which reaches more people each day than the newspaper ever did.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you reconcile the traditions of a 167-year-old institution with the need to constantly change and adapt?
Sulzberger: The most important thing is to have a deep understanding of what is not changing. If everything can change, if everything is up for debate, you have no reason to succeed. Then younger, hungrier people or companies can come in behind and displace you. Figuring out what's not changing gives you much more confidence to lean in to change.
DER SPIEGEL: What should not change at The Times?
Sulzberger: Original reporting, on the ground reporting, journalism that's independent and fair, journalism that's expert and with the highest integrity. That's the base of what we do. But what's changed is everything around it: How we tell those stories and bring them to life.
DER SPIEGEL: "The Daily" was your last big innovation. What's next?
Sulzberger: We're launching a TV show called "The Weekly" in a matter of months now. "The Daily" has shown that the journalism we do in print and online can really work in a medium like audio, and that it can reach totally new, younger audiences. With a television show I believe we can do the exact same thing. There hasn't been too much serious journalism there, and I believe that people want it. TV is yet another part of our strategy.
DER SPIEGEL: Does the printed newspaper have a future at all?
Sulzberger: I think print has a much longer life than most people assume. A million people pay for the paper, it's a really loyal base of readers, they spend a lot of time with the paper each week, and it still has a large and profitable advertising business. As long as people want the news in print, I hope we're able to continue delivering it that way.
DER SPIEGEL: Doesn't the printed newspaper stand in the way of your online strategy?
Sulzberger: No, but indeed the major change that this company has gone through in the last five years is that we are no longer built around print, but rather around the assumption that we are a digital news organization that also has a print newspaper. We cannot count on print to sustain our journalistic ambitions in the near future. Digital revenue has to carry the weight of supporting bureaus in Iraq or Afghanistan, of supporting trips to the front lines in Yemen, of supporting 18 months to dig into the president's finances, of supporting a Washington bureau with 100 reporters. That's why our focus is on making money in digital.
DER SPIEGEL: For many years, The New York Times had a public editor who served as an ombudsman for readers, looking critically at the paper's coverage and even publishing his or her criticism in the paper. That role was abolished in May 2017. Was that a wise move in times of eroding trust?
Sulzberger: The public editor was conceived in an era before Facebook and Twitter, when it was hard to reach the newsroom and raise concerns. We're no longer in that era. There are many ways to reach our reporters and editors and to raise concerns.
DER SPIEGEL: But doesn't it need someone to bundle the criticism that comes via Twitter and Facebook?
Sulzberger: The public editor in a strange way made it harder for the institution to accept the fact that we all need to be in a dialogue with our readers. We have 1,500 journalists at The New York Times. The notion that only one of them should be responsive to the readers is ridiculous. A public editor who would take five days to make a decision on whether or not the concerns are massive enough to write about them in The New York Times is not a great way in the modern era to engage with readers. If a story is controversial and demands explanation, that explanation should come in real time and it should come from reporters and editors.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2003, The Times discovered that the reporter Jayson Blair had made up stories, invented quotes and stolen material from other newspapers on a massive scale. With Claas Relotius, DER SPIEGEL now has its own scandal. The former reporter made up many of his stories. What advice can you give us?
Sulzberger: I obviously read about it, but I don't know the specifics of your case enough to give great advice. We are in the trust business. There's nothing more important than the trust of our readers. The second we started to realize that something profound was wrong with Blair's stories, we put some of our best and most fearless reporters on showing exactly what happened. We made them entirely independent of the newsroom management at the time and then we published those results. It was one of the longest stories we ever produced. The commitment to accountability and transparency, especially when things go wrong, is really important.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Sulzberger, we thank you for this interview.
* Clarification: DER SPIEGEL interviewed A.G. Sulzberger on Jan. 11. This question was added following his Jan. 31 interview with President Trump with The New York Times' authorization.
For the sake of transparency and to avoid any confusion, we want to clarify that all the questions that follow it were answered on Jan. 11 prior to the Jan. 31 interview with the U.S. president.