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11 March 2008

New York Times Publisher to Visit Area

By Nick Cenegy
Star Staff Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

He has been behind the handlebars of one of the world's most influential newspapers for the past 15 years, guiding it through an undefined time of transition. Yet Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times and chairman of the New York Times Co., looks down the road with optimism.

Sulzberger is scheduled to take time away from his news empire and his cherished 1968 BMW R-60 motorcycle Wednesday afternoon to relate his thoughts and experiences as the guest speaker for the 2008 Harry M. and Edel Y. Ayers Lecture Series at Jacksonville State University.

Sulzberger, 56, is part of an Ochs-Sulzberger family legacy that has reigned over the Times since 1896.

Sulzberger said that because many of the previous speakers have been top-tier journalists, he likely will address the evolving business realities brought by digital journalism.

"I am absolutely optimistic about the future of newspaper," Sulzberger said in a phone interview. Newspapers have endured change before, he said.

What has remained is that quality information matters, whether at the community level, as in school districts, or at a global level, as with the war in Iraq, he said.

During his tenure, the paper has been awarded 28 Pulitzer Prizes, including coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sulzberger oversaw the growth and development of the newspaper's Web site,, which is now the most highly trafficked newspaper Web site in the nation.

The paper has also been through scandals including plagiarism and falsification in 2003 by reporter Jayson Blair and the 2005 imprisonment of Judith Miller after she refused to reveal sources to federal investigators.

In recent months, a Birmingham-based investment firm, Harbinger Capital, has been raising its stake in the newspaper company, closing in on the controlling ownership stake of the Sulzberger family. As it stands, the Sulzberger family is entrusted with electing nine of the Times' 13 directors through a special class of shares. Four are elected by public shareholders.

To pay for efforts to compete better in the online world, the investors have expressed an interest in selling some of the company's assets, such as The Boston Globe, a group of 15 local papers, a minority stake in the Boston Red Sox and the new corporate headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.

Sulzberger said the family will continue to provide a stable base for the newspaper's mission.

"We don't have to defend anything," he said. "We have a trust that makes it clear what the role of the trustees is."

Sulzberger's confidence and enthusiasm often referred to as "infectious" is at times the target of critics.

"I love this profession. I love what we do," he said. The Times performs a service to society and does it better than any other newspaper, he added.

The paper has an average circulation of about 1.1 million readers daily and reported 20.5 million unique visitors in January on Sulzberger said. But the horizons are ever-expanding, he said.

"The ability to translate into different languages using the Web means people in Russia can read the Times' series on Vladimir Putin," said Sulzberger.

It will also allow for newspaper companies to use multimedia as a way to further convey powerful images.

"I think we have the ability to make this our own," he said.

"If you look out a few years, you see a tipping point where digital revenue will make up 10 percent of the revenue for the New York Times Company," he said.

Things can get tough during the transition, but it is a worthy pursuit, he said.

"The digital world does give us some tools," he said, like an ability for newspapers to have a more immediate conversation with readers. "They can ask the editor a specific question and get a response quickly instead of waiting 24 to 48 hours for letters to the editor," he said.

With some moderation, readers also can add their comments on stories, he said.

"It is more than instant gratification, it is a discussion," he said.

Though the feedback is on vastly different scales and infinitely more immediate, it is not altogether different from his time working for the Raleigh Times in the 1970s, he said.

"The joy of writing for the Raleigh Times in North Carolina was that when the mayor got upset with a story you wrote, he would yell at you on the street. You learn the impact of journalism in a real way when you write about your neighbors," said Sulzberger.

The broad platform of the New York Times changes the dynamic of the conversation, he said.

"The president of the U.S., of the U.N. General Assembly or of Mobile Oil rarely picks up the phone to respond to a story. I don't mean to suggest we don't get feedback, but it's not as emotional," he said.

But in order to facilitate a forum for discussion, the company has to first navigate a landscape shifting in two ways. One is the change of a growing digital realm; the other is the cyclical nature of a weakening economy, Sulzberger said.

But he said he is not losing sleep over either.

If you go

When: Lecture begins: 2 p.m.
Where: 11th floor of Houston Cole Library on the Jacksonville State University campus.
Open to the public

About Nick Cenegy

Nick Cenegy is crime and courts beat writer for The Star.

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