Yesterday's Wall Street Journal article about Morgan Stanley portfolio manager Hassan Elmasry showed just how persistent a thorn he's been in the New York Times' side for the past couple of years. Since June 2005, Elmasry—whose fund owns a chunk of NYT stock—has been sending letters to NYT Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., outlining his stern disapproval of how the Times is conducting its business (a lot of it relating to the Sulzberger family's control over the company) and requesting to meet with Pinch. It took ages of lobbying before Sulzberger agreed to let Elmasry come and lay it all out, which he finally did before the board last month. And it was a shit-show.
The Elmasry story serves as an example of how Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is protected and insulated—even, apparently, from his friends who disagree with the choices his executives make.
For starters, Sulzberger is basically the George W. Bush to Times CEO Janet Robinson's Dick Cheney. Robinson—who told Jacques Steinberg in a softball interview at NYU's Stern School of Business in 2005, "I really like to shop," regarding company acquisitions—got her start at the company in 1983, at then-Times Co. property Tennis Magazine, after being a schoolteacher for 12 years. She's a company gal through and through, but she's hardly the only one.
Apart from the Sulzberger family on the board, Sulzberger has long sought the counsel of a small cabal of friends and associates. These include multimillionaire Steven Rattner (pictured), a managing principal at the Quadrangle Group, a private-equity firm specializing in media and technology investments.
Rattner and Sulzberger have known each other since the late 1970s, when both were Times reporters in Washington. Sulzberger turned to Rattner when the pressure from Morgan Stanley increased, and Rattner gave his own presentation to the Times board with suggestions about how to deal with Morgan Stanley's demands. (Rattner worked for Morgan Stanley in the '80s. In a 1986 profile in Washington Monthly, Philip Weiss presciently wrote, "At Morgan Stanley Rattner specializes in deals involving communications companies. Most of his time is devoted to mergers and acquisitions—helping to buy and sell media properties. In some cases, these efforts may have served to compromise the editorial quality of news organizations that, like The New York Times, have been known for valuing the product more than the bottom line.")
In a WSJ Op-Ed, Rattner laid out the case for a new model of newspapering, one based roughly on the BBC model, a kind of private-public partnership. When talking to the Times, his most drastic suggestion—to explore taking the company private—was totally dismissed.
And last evening, at a panel sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review, Rattner elaborated on his Journal piece. "Whether people want as much old-fashioned solid journalism as much as they used to is not completely obvious to me," he said. That was not what other participants, who included the American Prospect's Robert Kuttner, the Times' Jill Abramson, Bloomberg's Amanda Bennett, and Washingtonpost.com's Jim Brady, wanted to hear. (Who knows what Sewell Chan, out in the audience, thought.) Regarding the shift from print to online, Rattner said, bluntly, "It's a negative-sum game. The loss of readership on print side is not being made up for on online side."
When moderator and Columbia J-School Dean Nick Lemann asked Rattner if "all you wanted to do was make money, what would your newspaper look like?," Rattner seemed dismissive of the most recent attempts at launching newspaper-like publications online: "If you look at new journalistic enterprises that have worked, unfortunately most of the examples are ones that we would not be proud of or want to be associated with, like the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, things like that." And he said: "It's not obvious that the conventional for-profit model is going to provide the quality of journalism that people in this room think should exist."
After the panel, Rattner said he would not comment on the record about the Elmasry article.
Sulzberger's clique also reportedly includes Barry Diller; Edelman exec Steve Rubel; and Wired founder John Batelle, as well as the board of directors of the Ochs-Sulzberger family trust. All of them, the rumor-mill says, help guide Sulzberger, especially when it comes to Internet strategy.
With those friendly voices in his ear, Sulzberger remains insulated from real criticism, and being subject to criticism. And remember how tone-deaf he was to how Howell Raines was perceived in the newsroom? When the paper was doing well, it wasn't a problem. Now that the paper is barely turning a profit, the vultures are circling, and the cabinet is the one steering the ship. (Incidentally, the Times is probably in for at least 10 more years of Pinch, if history is any guide. His son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, went from Brown to the Providence Journal, and is now at the Oregonian—neither paper is a Times Co. property—but won't be ready to take over for some time.) It's also questionable whether this group necessarily has the paper's best interests at heart, or whether they have their own agenda regarding Internet strategey. (Ahem, Barry Diller!)
Which brings us back to why his kitchen cabinet was so reluctant to have him meet with Elmasry in the first place. For starters, when Sulzberger is unleashed, sometimes the results aren't pretty—like what happened when he was last allowed to speak on his own, without adult supervision. Catherine Mathis, clean-up please!
But. What if Rattner and other advisers think that Elmasry is at least partially right, but his executives don't? That is, what if they have made too many acquisitions, and the Times stock structure doesn't help the company, and their directors make way too much money and get too many options, and they never should have bought About.com, whose traffic consists quite largely of search engine results, much less embarked on a risky and expensive expansion into China?
On the outside, Elmasry and Morgan Stanley's actions have led to the predictable hand-wringing on the part of the journalism establishment; a January 2006 article in the Columbia Journalism Review moaned that the "real appetite of shareholders is for , not long-term strategic investment."
Even the response from the Newspaper Association of America to Rattner's WSJ Op-Ed—which, let's face it, was hardly extreme—was also predictably defensive. But those aren't business people. What matters is what the moguls and execs around Sulzberger really think, not a bunch of journalists who don't know much about business.
Take Elmasry's suggestion that the Times Co. sell off its nine television stations. In March 2006, Sulzberger defended the stations to Elmasry. A mere six months later, the Times announced it was selling the stations. Elmasry has also been critical of the company's investment in About.com. Well, that won't be going anywhere. Or will it, if they can unload it for at least a little chunk of that much-need "short-term" profit?