The 'New York Times' Annual Meeting Brings Out The Crazies

The noted shareholder activist Evelyn Y. Davis was annoyed: Her hearing amplification headset, which had been provided by the New Amsterdam Theatre on occasion of the New York Times Company annual shareholder meeting, was not working, and she would not allow the meeting to begin until she was situated. "The woman gave me a broken one!" she yelled into the audience in her thick Dutch accent. At the podium, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. looked perturbed but spoke gently to the woman, as one might speak to one's great-aunt who is being kept in a sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps: "Evelyn, you have to sit down or you have to leave."

Finally, Ms. Davis procured another headset and Pinch's presentation could begin. He spoke of the "ongoing health of this enterprise" and the "commitment to shareholders." He said that pursuit of the core journalistic mission also delivered for shareholders. He said that the company was reinventing to succeed in the new digital era and that it would have new platforms in digital space.

Then he talked about some bad news. There have been declines in print revenue, Mr. Sulzberger said. The company has a stock price "that makes none of us happy." The company, he said, is working to increase revenue and reduce expenses. Aren't we all!

Some Wall Street analysts and shareholders don't like the way that the Times stock structure is set up, with one class of stock for family members and the board of the Ochs-Sulzberger trust (most of whom are family members). To that, Mr. Sulzberger said that the dual class structure was adopted to preserve the stability of the enterprise. And in any case, he said, shareholders were well aware of the company's share structure when they bought the stock! So there!

Mr. Sulzbeger said he was "vitally concerned with building shareholder value."

He mentioned that he and his cousin, Michael Golden, who is the publisher of the International Herald Tribune, had voluntarily given up their stock-based compensation last year, and that a pool of $2 million—the amount of this compensation—had been set aside and distributed to employees.

"We are committed to increasing shareholder value," Mr. Sulzberger said.

Times Co. CEO Janet Robinson took the podium. She said that the Times is the number one newspaper read among college students, as the article about the girls who go to Newton North High School flashed up on the screen. She mentioned that the New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, has run into a rough patch lately, but the company is optimistic because of the new banks, retailers, and hotels coming into the area. The hotels, it appears, will save us all. The Times has also purchased a company called Calorie-Count.com.

Did you know that the Times has a research and development team that does hush-hush projects like the (absolutely dreadful) Times Reader? And data-mining? The company has also engaged a "major consulting firm" to pursue cost reductions—that's right, the efficiency consultants are roaming the halls! Look out!—and is leasing out five floors of the new office building to the law firm Goodwin Procter, which used to be called Goodwin Procter & Hoar, until the partners realized that it sounded like the sister firm to Dewey, Cheatem & Howe.

Soon it would be time for questions from the audience! But first, more words from Arthur. He spoke of David Halberstam's death, mentioning that Mr. Halberstam had recently spoken at an event honoring Pinch's aunt. Mr. Halberstam had said that the Sulzbergers were a very special family, with a special obligation and responsibility. Then he said that the dual-class stock structure protected the journalistic integrity of the Times. His grandfather, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, had created this structure "to get us through times like these," he said. These times demand the Times stock structure.

"We will deliver," he said. It had been a long presentation, Mr. Sulzberger said, but he wanted to show the shareholders that the company was "ready to address the challenges of the web."

The 'New York Times' Annual Meeting Brings Out The Crazies

The two microphones were ready for questions from the audience. Evelyn Davis was first in line. She said that a jealous female secretary had manipulated the timing of this board meeting, and that she had been deprived of her rights as a shareholder. She said shareholders should be entitled to a paper stock certificate and decried that ongoing move to the web. She brought up the Morgan Stanley portfolio manager Hassan Elmasry and addressed Mr. Sulzberger directly, saying, "I feel very bad about the personal attacks he made on you. Of all the people here, you are the best of them all." The audience applauded.

Ms. Davis compared Mr. Elmasry to Robespierre. "Arthur, we have our disagreements, but I love you," Ms. Davis said. Mr. Sulzberger did not look as if he returned the favor. She asked about outside legal fees and was told that the figure last year was $11.8 million, and she said that outside lawyers were like taxi drivers. "They like to run up the meter and never take you directly to your destination!"

An angry Jewish man read a typed, single-spaced speech about the Times coverage of Israel, and another man seemed confused about the law of averages when he asked why the average age of Times readers was not lower. Another woman ranted about the Times' "knowingly false and misleading reporting," and said she had filed a "public-interest lawsuit" to that effect. When informed by the board that the lawsuit had been dismissed, she said that just yesterday she filed an appeal and had brought the appeal to the meeting for the board to read, which she then delivered to the stage.

Evelyn Davis retorted that this was not the place for lawsuits. Then she said that Times business writer Gretchen Morgenstern only cares about institutional investors. She asked if Times managing editor Jill Abramson was in attendance. When told she was not, Ms. Davis said that just like Ms. Abramson, she was a fan of Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, and she asked Mr. Sulzberger to have Ms. Abramson give her a call so that they could discuss their mutual interest.

Investors Withhold More Than 40 Percent of Votes for N.Y. Times Directors [AP]
Earlier: Arthur Sulzberger's Circle And Hassan Elmasry