Last Ones Standing

Why the family in charge of The New York Times doesn't have to sell

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Lucas Jackson / REUTERS

The New York Times headquarters in New York City

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Ochs-Sulzberger family, custodians of the New York Times, felt obliged to say that they have no interest in selling their newspaper after their peers at the Washington Post, the Meyer-Grahams, sold their family jewel to Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos. But their statement should not have been necessary. Despite apparent similarities—two fierce journalistic rivals run by fourth-generation publishers—the Post and the Times are different businesses in very important ways.

And while the digital revolution and the economic crash of 2008 have put severe stresses on both newspapers, the Times model offers more promise for growth. After a period of fits and starts, the Times is now moving aggressively and effectively to seize its advantages.

I know the differences because I spent a few years in management at the Post back in the day—when the online future was still a distant, faint rumbling—and once a year then-publisher Donald E. Graham would gather the newsroom leadership and lecture us sternly on precisely this topic. He knew that Post editors were obsessed with The Times. Nothing made us happier than to beat the Times on a story or to hire someone the Times also wanted. The fact that we were at war with the Times greatly unsettled the boss, because Graham understood that—as a business proposition—our true competitors were the much smaller and less distinguished local newspapers in the rapidly growing Washington suburbs. So he warned us that our ambitions were hostage to our profits, and reminded us that the Post made its profits by dominating our geography. Our battlefield was all within 50 miles of our newsroom, and we must care deeply about the threats posed by the likes of the Potomac News in Manassas, Virginia.

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The Times, by contrast, never sought to dominate Metropolitan New York. Didn’t then, doesn’t now. Its business depends on appealing to a certain demographic group wherever they might live. The Times found them in artsy neighborhoods and college towns and state capitals across the country: relatively wealthy, politically and socially liberal, culturally highbrow. Call them Upper West Siders in spirit. This great newspaper was, in business terms, akin to a magazine. (In fact its strongest advertising vehicles are its weekly feature sections and its Sunday and fashion magazines.) A Vogue reader is a certain kind of person, different from a Cosmopolitan reader, who is different from a Good Housekeeping reader, who is different from a Guns & Ammo reader. Potential Times subscribers can be found wherever a book group tackles the latest from Jonathan Franzen or a foodie dreams of Zabar’s.

The Post tried to appeal to everyone. We didn’t just offer comic strips, for example. We offered four pages of comic strips, from Family Circle to Zippy the Pinhead. We had a horoscope, Ann Landers, high school sports scores, and Parade magazine. You won’t find any of that stuff in the New York Times—because if that’s the sort of thing that would make you buy a newspaper, you’re not their kind of person.

This difference became critical as the digital revolutionaries thundered over the horizon, and specialty competitors (from Craigslist for classified ads to Politico for inside dope to Fandango for movie listings) began taking bites out of the business. At first, the Post joined other metro newspapers in hoping that the something-for-everybody model would translate to the Internet; that advertisers would pay a premium for a mass online audience just as they once paid a premium to reach the biggest possible metro readership.

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That hasn’t panned out. Though the Post’s online reach is vastly larger than its print readership could ever be, the return on all the additional eyeballs is pennies compared to dollars.

The Times, on the other hand, while building a hugely popular website, has not relied on web advertising to pay the bills. The company has gone directly to its readers, for whom the paper is a sign of identity and status—a luxury good they are willing to pay for. Jacking up prices (the Sunday newspaper retails for $5 now in New York and $6 a copy elsewhere), and targeting their demographic more and more precisely, the Times has been able to dampen its dependence on advertising while making paid circulation its principal source of revenue.

The Times is far ahead of the Post and other metro dailies in solving the core conundrum of digital journalism: how to make money from readers. They are experimenting with premium pricing for specialty content, like their wonderful crossword puzzles, and pushing into complementary product lines, including antiques, fine art, collectibles, jewelry, and Times-logo clothing and accessories. Other publications continue to use content mainly as a way of drawing an audience to receive an unrelated sales pitch, but the Times is increasingly able to sell the content without the pitch. And when the Times does deal with advertisers, it can offer a uniformly upscale and highly status-conscious readership.

This is why Times CEO and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his cousin Michael Golden were able to say in a statement: “The Times has both the ideas and the money to pursue innovation.” Does that mean some billionaire—people love to speculate about Michael Bloomberg—won’t one day make the family a head-tuning offer? Of course not. But it does mean that the family won’t have to say yes.

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