The press briefing the New York Times Co. held to announce the appointment of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. as the newspaper’s publisher began on what was, for me, a memorably strange note.
I was there to report for New York Newsday, a competitor to the Times and one of several news outlets the Times deigned to invite for the occasion. We were in the company’s boardroom at the old Forty-Third Street headquarters, and I was duly impressed as I inspected walls covered with signed photos of just about every notable personality of the twentieth century.
The new publisher, a very young-looking forty-year-old, and his father, publisher and chairman Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, were ready and waiting at the business end of the long table. But the Times publicist announced that she wanted to acquaint the reporters with someone else. “First, let me introduce Adolph S. Ochs,” she said, gesturing up at a painting of the family patriarch, who was the paper’s publisher from 1896 to 1935. She deadpanned this with zero irony and for a moment, it seemed more like the start of a seance than a news briefing. But it did impress on me how seriously the New York Times takes its history.
Times national political writer Adam Nagourney is the latest to write a book on that history, recounting the paper’s struggles from 1976 to 2016. The subtitle—“How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism”—presents this as the story of an important institution’s endurance in harrowing times. It is a valuable record of how one news organization stumbled through the difficult transition from print to internet, and a well-written history of the seven executive editors and the publishers who served during this period.
Its strength is in Nagourney’s brilliant portraits of the potentates who battled each other for power—probing, fair-minded, and extremely well-documented. It’s an engaging read in the tradition of Gay Talese’s 1969 history of the Times, The Kingdom and the Power. But the critique Nat Hentoff used in his 1969 Columbia Journalism Review piece on Talese’s book applies here: “The book is a spiral of fascinating tales…. But this spiral, alas, is also a weakness for those who might want to know more about the Times as a power in the country.”
The book is strongest when it shows how the personalities and power struggles of the masthead names impacted news coverage. Nagourney suggests, for example, that executive editor Abe Rosenthal’s “unease with homosexuality” explains why the Times was slow to cover the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. “Rosenthal’s antagonism for homosexuals was deeply rooted,” Nagourney writes, noting that he worried in his journal about a “homosexual clique” in the newsroom and once told a high-ranking editor “about his suspicion that there were clusters of homosexual editors” on two of the paper’s major desks.
Rosenthal, managing editor starting in 1969 and then executive editor from 1977 to 1986, is portrayed as a tyrant who pushed the paper in a more conservative direction. The more liberal Max Frankel, executive editor from 1986 to 1994, was his constant rival. After Rosenthal beat out Frankel for the executive editor job, Frankel got the considerable consolation prize of serving as editorial-page editor. Rosenthal then proceeded to undermine Frankel by badmouthing his editorials to the publisher (crossing a line that ought to exist between opinion pages and the news side). Their differences were also personal: Frankel was miffed that Rosenthal wouldn’t hire his wife at the time, Tobia Brown Frankel. “He didn’t like my politics,” Frankel would later say. “He didn’t like the tone of the editorial page. He just didn’t like me.”
Nagourney does fine renditions of the major newsroom controversies—for example, the newspaper’s gullible, unbalanced reporting on false claims from unidentified Bush-administration sources that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. Howell Raines, top editor from 2001 to 2003, was “less driven by ideology than competitiveness.” He dropped customary Times caution in his pursuit of stories “that were exciting to write and to read.” Nagourney concludes that Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd “enabled” reporter Judith Miller—whose stories enabled the Bush administration in its march toward the ill-fated occupation of Iraq. Boyd told one doubting editor, “Your job is to get her stories into the paper, not to block them.”
Miller knew how to deliver the splashy stories that Raines wanted—and so did a young reporter named Jayson Blair. But in Blair’s case, the problem wasn’t balance or excessive reliance on sources: he made it up or plagiarized, and, for too long, got away with it.
The Blair scandal led to the ousters of Raines and Boyd after the staff rebelled. Boyd’s journey rises to the level of tragedy in Nagourney’s account. When he first moved up the ranks, Frankel told Boyd he’d be “our Jackie Robinson.” As managing editor, Boyd was a stern figure in the newsroom, viewed as a bully. He was isolated by temperament and also keenly aware of being the only Black editor in the meetings held to choose page-one stories.
He was “one of those Times journalists who in no small part defined themselves by the words that often followed their name, ‘of The New York Times,’” Nagourney writes. Boyd was bitter about Sulzberger’s decision to fire him along with Raines, maybe with reason. He believed that because he was Black, it was wrongly assumed that he was Blair’s mentor. He became a recluse after his dismissal, and even more so after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He died three years after losing his job at the Times. Only at a memorial service did most of his colleagues “grasp the profound sadness of his story.” Sulzberger told Nagourney years later that after the service—which he took as “an evening of attacks on him for destroying Boyd”—he went home and broke down in tears.
For me, though, the most interesting characters in the book are not the feuding editors but people I didn’t know about, who played important roles in the paper’s transition to online media. One of them is Martin Nisenholtz, “a rapid-fire speaker and an even faster thinker” who was appointed in 1995 to lead the paper’s digital operations. He was tasked with bridging the gorge between two entities that were supposed to be “church and state” separate—the editorial and business sides of the paper.
In Nagourney’s telling, changing the culture of the Times comes across as no less difficult than modernizing operations in the Vatican. Newsrooms across the country were regrettably resistant to streamlining the internet and its vast potential into their coverage. Web operations at the Times and many other news organizations became separate fiefdoms. Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor from 1994 to 2001, saw the digital side as a rival that could siphon money from his newsroom. “The gulf between the digital and print newsrooms was paralyzing,” Nagourney writes.
Nisenholtz resigned from the paper in 2011 at the age of fifty-six, weary of the political infighting. Sulzberger would later call him the smartest hire he’d ever made. Given the immense circulation gains in the digital operation—the Times reports having more than 9.4 million digital-only subscribers—Nisenholtz certainly deserves some of the credit. Nagourney notes, however, that he opposed what turned out to be the very necessary decision to build a paywall in 2011 that would induce readers to subscribe.
Newsroom naysayers such as executive editor Jill Abramson (top editor from 2011 to 2014) weren’t wrong to be concerned about making the news operation more responsive to the business side. Dean Baquet, the paper’s editor from 2014 to 2022, played the diplomat. Baquet, the paper’s first Black editor and a star reporter earlier in his career, exudes a personable charm that eluded the editors who preceded him in this chronicle. He introduced innovations that advertising directors of the past could only dream of: links to deliver readers to Amazon to buy books the Book Review recommended, for example.
The portraits of these editors at the pinnacle of American journalism are entertaining, but the approach has limits. Critical as Nagourney can be, he is still a part of the Times family, as were the authors of previous histories of the paper: Harrison Salisbury (Without Fear or Favor, 1980); Talese (The Kingdom and the Power, 1969); Meyer Berger (The Story of The New York Times, 1851-1951); and Elmer Davis (History of the New York Times, 1851-1921). Their work is often laudatory, but it has left little room for professional historians who might be less immersed in the Times community’s assumptions and more likely to take a critical approach to how the newspaper’s leaders have wielded power.
For example, I would have liked to read in Nagourney’s book about Sulzberger’s role in New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s scheme to upend a term-limits law that should have prevented him from running for his third term in 2009. Bloomberg wanted the editorial support of the Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post before moving to sidestep a law that voters passed twice at the polls. The success of the city’s richest resident in rounding up support from fellow media bigwigs Rupert Murdoch, News owner Mort Zuckerman, and Sulzberger should surely be part of a Times history for this period.
Nor do we see how the Times gutted its local coverage, halving the staff of reporters from 2001 to 2017 and eliminating its metro section. It’s a historic change, driven by money: national- and world-news stories are positioned to receive far more clicks than local ones. The internet has solved a problem the paper’s 1921 history noted: “Every newspaper has to be printed and published somewhere,” making it logistically difficult to build a national readership. “The Times attempt[ed] to cover the local news as adequately as its competitors,” but also attracted local readers who wanted national news. That strategy changed to the point that the paper’s reader representative asked in 2017, “Why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing and London?”
The Times gradually pulled back from covering the New York metro area after competitor New York Newsday shut in 1995. More recently, the Times company has made much of its attempts to support local news coverage. But it could contribute a great deal to the cause if the paper returned to steadier coverage of the 6 percent of the U.S. population living in the New York metropolitan area. But that’s not where the money is.
I would have liked to learn something about the New York Times Co.’s considerable influence in prodding city officials toward the heavily subsidized redevelopment of Times Square in the 1980s and ’90s, not to mention how its fifty-two-story office building received huge tax breaks.
And finally, I would have enjoyed seeing the Times history more from the bottom up. What was it like for advocates of the poor to get attention for social-justice concerns? (Probably not so good, since they often turned to New York Newsday reporters in hopes of getting stories that could attract the attention of the more influential Times, as I recall.)
The story of the Ochs-Sulzberger publishing dynasty’s survival is remarkable, and this latest installment excels at capturing the inner dynamics of the succession from “Punch” Sulzberger to Arthur and, in 2018, to Arthur’s son, A.G. Sulzberger. The Times is a great read, but it may be time for a historian from outside the powerful institution’s orbit to step in as the paper takes on the next chapter in its history: the Age of Trump.
How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism
$35 | 592 pp.