There was lots of chatter this week surrounding Mark Bowden's piece in Vanity Fair. It's a rather epic take-down of the Times' beleaguered publisher; the daunting task he faces trying to save the legendary daily, as well as the many, many well-chronicled missteps Sulzberger's made at the helm of the newspaper empire. (Judy Miller, Jayson Blair, etc.) They're mistakes that have only been exacerbated by the daily's increasingly thin financial footing. The Vanity Fair take-away is that Sulzberger, the latest in a line of Sulzberger men to steer the newspaper, is in over his head.
Most of us senior citizens of Mediaworld—that is, people out of the "desirable" 18-to-29 demo—have a love-hate relationship with the Times, much as we do with our own families. It drives us crazy on a daily basis but we wouldn't want to live without it and prefer not to imagine a world in which we might have to.
I remember as a young media reporter being told by my boss, on a very cold January day in 1992, to go up to the New York Times to cover a press conference announcing Arthur Sulzberger's promotion to publisher. It wasn't a press conference in the traditional sense. Instead, a couple dozen reporters were ushered into the Times' august, wood paneled boardroom where we sat around an epically long conference table surrounded by portraits of long-gone Sulzbergers who had run the newspaper since Arthur's great-grandfather saved it from the brink of bankruptcy by purchasing it for $75,000 in 1896.
At the head of the dark wooden table that day, the boyish looking Sulzberger (aka "Pinch") and his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (aka "Punch"), fielded questions about the carefully orchestrated plans of succession. The sense of history was palpable. And the power the two men enjoyed, as the stewards of the Times in the pre-Internet world of 1992, really could not be overstated.
For me, covering the event was like being ushered into the bullpen at Yankee Stadium, or being waved backstage at a Springsteen show. I certainly revered the newspaper growing up. In fact, I had been completely stunned just two years earlier when the Times published an unsolicited Op-ed column I had written up on my typewriter and mailed in to W. 43rd Street. (Or maybe I hand-delivered it?) It was about the press coverage of the U.S. invasion of Panama. (Hint: I didn't think it was very good.) I'm not sure why I ever thought the Times would publish it, but a few days later as I sat at my $16,000-a-year job, two years out of college, I got a call from an assistant on the Times' editorial page informing me the paper was going to run the column.
I didn't even tell anyone prior to publication because I wasn't really sure it was going to happen. But I sure remember, to this day, walking to my local subway station, buying the Times and reading my column, which was placed right beneath Russell Baker's. Friends and family were fairly flabbergasted, since I'd never really been published anywhere before the Times column ran. And I remember my boss had a sort of stunned look on his face when he saw the Op-ed page that day. (Not that it helped; a few weeks later I was out of a job.)
All of which is a rather round-about and self-involved way of say that watching Sulzberger's woes mount is depressing, especially for fans of the newspaper and for people who've had a small, up-close taste of the Times' mystique over years.