A few weeks ago, New York Times science and health reporter Don McNeil sent out a scathing email to colleagues attacking Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for piloting a "ghost ship" and running off to the Himalayas with a management guru while the paper founders.
The email, sent out to roughly 150 Times reporters and editors in the midst of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the paper's management, lays out the case that Sulzberger—a scion who inherited his role as publisher from his father—is an easily distracted dilettante who's more interested in trendy leadership "philosophies" than newspapering.
At a time when Times reporters are in open revolt over Guild contract talks and the paper lacks a CEO (the last one having been sent packing with a whopping $23 million retirement package), McNeil wrote, Sulzberger has cancelled his annual "State of the Times" talk and failed to offer any words at the memorial service for Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died while covering the Syrian conflict.
Instead, McNeil wrote, Sulzberger is in thrall to a "management guru" and Wharton School of Business professor named Michael Useem: "So where is Arthur these days? At the small dinners he is having with staff, he offered an answer: He has found a new management guru, Michael Useem. And he is going trekking with Mr. Useem in the Himalayas soon.... A Nepal trek is very Arthur, since he's a rock climber and Outward Bound tripper.... But to learn leadership? Shouldn't a 60-year-old corporate chairman already know whether he's a leader or not? Shouldn't that have been decided by age 35 or so? And a trek now? In mid-crisis? We put out a great newspaper every day. But outside the newsroom, at the corporate level, we're sailing on a ghost ship." (Read the full email below.)
The Times offered only the following statement in response: "We look forward to reaching a full and fair agreement with the Guild." It should be noted that the State of the Times address is not a strictly annual event (though the Times itself has described it as such), so Sulzberger's failure to schedule one so far in 2012 isn't unprecedented. And I'm told that his Himalayan trek with Useem, which is scheduled for late May, isn't about learning leadership so much as (ahem) teaching it. Sulzberger will be imparting his wisdom to MBA candidates in the mountain setting, using the decisions to publish the Wikileaks documents and institute a paywall as case studies.
And not all of McNeil's colleagues supported his attack on Sulzberger. Times editor Walter Baranger responded to the email with a plea: "Before this gets out of hand — and I may already be too late — let's throttle the sniping at Arthur."
Here's the full text of McNeil's email:
On 29 Mar 2012, at 08:42, McNeil, Donald wrote:
The Times is in labor turmoil. Journalists are openly angry. Even the sacred Page One meeting has had a protest.
The company has no C.E.O.
Arthur has cancelled his annual State of the Times address.
He didn't even speak at Anthony Shadid's memorial. Jill "greeted us in his name" as he sat there.
And don't forget what Bloomberg observed on Jan. 27: "In the meantime, the 60-year-old chairman is serving as interim CEO amid internal concerns about his travels overseas, according to two people familiar with the matter. In the last 19 months, Sulzberger has attended at least a dozen conferences and panels in Istanbul, Beijing, Munich, London, Paris and Switzerland where his girlfriend, Claudia Gonzalez, works."
So where is Arthur these days?
At the small dinners he is having with staff, he offered an answer: He has found a new management guru, Michael Useem. And he is going trekking with Mr. Useem in the Himalayas soon.
Michael Useem is the author of "The Leadership Moment" and "The Leader's Checklist."
He offers annual "Himalayan Leadership Treks":
The next begins on May 27:
Quick history lesson: over the last 20 years, Arthur has adopted a series of management consultants. First there was W. Edwards Deming, who led workshops having NYT staffers form "quality circles." Then there was one whose name I forgot who had us all post plastic-coated cards with "The Rules of the Road" on our desks. (For a reality-bending trip down memory lane, read the company's web page about those rules of the road: http://www.nytco.com/careers/mission.html Read especially carefully the part at right called Ten Reasons To Work at The New York Times Company. One reason: "You Are Valued," which ends: "And to cap it off, the Company maintains a rich retirement program that helps you build a prosperous financial future.") Then there was Jim Clemmer and his "Put the Moose on the Table" philosophy that led Arthur to bring the infamous stuffed moose to the town meeting that finished off Howell Raines.
Enter guru No. 4.
A Nepal trek is very Arthur, since he's a rock climber and Outward Bound tripper.
(He discusses that on YouTube here)
But to learn leadership? Shouldn't a 60-year-old corporate chairman already know whether he's a leader or not? Shouldn't that have been decided by age 35 or so?
And a trek now? In mid-crisis?
We put out a great newspaper every day. But outside the newsroom, at the corporate level, we're sailing on a ghost ship.
[Image via Getty]