During a talk with a group of journalism students last night, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. revealed many an interesting thing about The Gray Lady — or the “Good Gray Lady,” as he said she was originally called (and he should know, since his grandmother coined the nickname). Sitting in Bedford + Bowery’s backyard at 20 Cooper Square, he told moderator Meryl Gordon that after just two days, C.J. Chivers’s piece about the coverup of harmful chemical weapons abandoned in Iraq was one of the paper’s top 20 most-read stories of the year.
Though Gordon — a former colleague of Sulzberger’s and a current colleague of mine at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, which produces Bedford + Bowery — pressed Sulzberger about newsroom reductions and their effect on morale, he assured her that the paper had more foreign bureaus, foreign journalists, and national correspondents than ever before. “Even though we’ve had — what? — three or four rounds of reductions in the newsroom in the past decade (I’m guessing that’s roughly right),” he said, “We have more journalists in our newsroom today than we’ve ever had in our history — about 1,300. We are going to go down some but yes, we are continuing to hire as well.”
In addressing one notorious firing (that of Jill Abramson), Sulzberger contested Ken Auletta’s report in the New Yorker (which Auletta ultimately backed away from) that she was unhappy about being paid less than her predecessor. “Jill was not being paid in her second year as executive editor the same salary as her predecessor in his eighth year,” Sulzberger admitted. “But when you add in the added compensation of bonus, [long-term incentive plan], stock options, etc., she was being paid more.”
For the most part, however, the talk centered around new directions that the paper is taking, partly in light of the innovation report that Sulzberg’s son Arthur Gregg and others in the newsroom released in May, and partly because of changes in the ways Times readers engage with content. “The shocking transition,” he said, “is not from print to digital, it’s from desktop to mobile. That’s where the big shift is taking place and we’re seeing that desktop is — mobile growth is remarkable. It may well be that print lasts longer than desktop.”
The Times seems to have learned some lessons after the innovation report, as well. Sulzberger pointed to Maureen Dowd’s infamous (or as he put it, “wonderful”) column about the time she went to Colorado and “imbibed a little brownie — marijuana brownie.” That column was headlined “Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude,” which wasn’t exactly search-engine friendly. “The column was brilliant but if you went to search and you typed in — oh, yeah I heard about that — ‘Maureen Dowd, marijuana,’ it didn’t take you to the New York Times, it took you to the Huffington Post which said ‘Maureen Dowd Had Marijuana in Colorado,'” Sulzberger said. (Huff Po’s actual headline: “Maureen Dowd Eats Some Pot Candy, Succumbs To Reefer Madness.”)
The Times, Sulzberger said, has since gotten better about SEO-ish subheadlines (its World Cup coverage was particularly successful) — and it seems to be working, because when we googled “maureen dowd marijuana brownie,” the Paper of Record’s story was the first story to pop up.
Watch the archived livestream, above, because there were plenty more interesting nuggets about everything from the paper’s policy about reporting (or not reporting) from war-torn countries, to the one thing that provoked the most hate mail during Sulzberger’s tenure (the switch to color). For our money, the highlight of the talk came when Gordon brought up the Obama administration’s crackdown on leakers. Sulzberger told the story of how Lincoln, during the Civil War, authorized the rerouting of telegraph lines through a federal office so that his secretary of war could monitor journalists as they filed stories from the battlefield (ultimately, dozens of them were arrested).
“Lincoln saw the telegraph as a huge, huge problem, and we’ve learned recently — well, not that recently but a while back — that every telegram went through an office in Washington that the federal government was running,” Sulzberger said, going on to ask, “So what is it about Illinois lawyers? That’s all I’ve got to say — what is it? What’s wrong with these guys?”