New York magazine set the media world a-chatter this weekend with a swirling tale of intrigue and in-fighting at the New York Times.
The article, A New York Times Whodunnit, is plump with gossip but also drives home the crucial business challenges the Times must address sooner than later, exploring the infamous exit of former CEO Janet Robinson, who pocketed $24 million after her sudden departure last December.
- The piece reveals how the rapid shrinking of the New York Times Company has led to a financial and management crisis for the family who runs it.
- The Ochs-Sulzberger clan, we learn, is under strain from dwindling dividends and a dearth of prestige positions for family members to assume.
- It was this backdrop that helped fuel the clashes between Robinson and the girlfriend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. which was the ostensible reason for Robinson’s sudden firing.
- Overall, though, the article makes clear that the “other woman” narrative is just a symptom and not the cause of the Times’ troubles.
Here are three key takeaways for the New York Times Company, whose share price has been lagging the market by nearly 25 percent:
1. NYT Co desperately needs a CEO
On an April earnings call, one analyst pressed Sulzberger directly about the the company’s CEO search and asked if he would take on the role himself. Sulzberger demurred but everyone else appears to be fed up with the company’s rudderless leadership. In April, a leaked email from a Times reporter blasted the “ghost ship” and took Sulzberger to task for palling around with a series of mountain-climbing gurus rather than running the company.
The New York magazine article reveals that the strategic crisis may be more acute than imagined due to internal divisions over the Times’ critically-important digital initiatives. The article reveals that the Times’ controversial pay wall gambit was actually Robinson’s baby and that Sulzberger instead favored the open strategy of the paper’s longtime digital veteran, Martin Nisenholtz. Now both Robinson and Nisenholtz are gone, meaning Sulzberger will have to find a new evangelist for the pay wall religion he apparently doesn’t share or else carry out a strategic pivot.
2. The Boston Globe and About.com are distractions
The New York Times Company has been shedding assets, including regional newspapers and a stake in the Boston Red Sox, to buttress its cash reserves. The moves make sense but also raise questions about how much longer the company will keep its other properties. While the Times has been talking up the digital makeover of BostonGlobe.com, the site only has 18,000 paid subscribers, which seems frightfully low, even considering the site’s recent launch date.
The New York magazine article also makes it clear that the Boston property has been a pawn at the mercy of the company’s rival fiefdoms. Likewise, revenues at the Times’ one-time cash cow, About.com, have declined significantly (though it is still profitable) and the how-to site appears to be more of a distraction than a key element of any New York Times turnaround plan.
This is not to disparage either the Boston Globe or About.com but simply to point out that they are languishing under Sulzberger. He or a new CEO must take steps soon to shape them up or sell them.
3. Mayor Mike Bloomberg could save the Times
The New York magazine article concluded with the tantalizing suggestion that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a likely candidate to swoop in and rescue the Times. Other media outlets have already egged him on with pieces like The Atlantic Wire’s “Everyone Wants Mayor Bloomberg to Buy the New York Times.”
The speculation makes a ton of sense - and not only because Bloomberg will be unemployed next year and in possession of a personal fortune worth at least $22 billion. The purchase would also make strategic and business sense.
Recall that Bloomberg’s eponymous financial company also has extensive media experience. While an actual merger would be a non-starter, the New York Times could contribute valuable data to the existing Bloomberg platform while retaining its editorial autonomy.
Michael Bloomberg would also be a better fit to lead the Times than other rumored candidates (like Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim) and, in any case, would also certainly be an improvement over the status quo.