Arthur Sulzberger, Jr, Knight-Bahehot Anniversary Dinner
November 15, 1999
Thank you and good evening.
Each year, the Knight-Bagehot Dinner Committee invites a speaker to give this keynote address, one focused on the major journalistic and business issues of the day. On the eve of a new millennium, the organizers of this event wanted to do something special, something different, something truly memorable.
So they decided to go out and find someone who would be willing to discuss a topic that they knew would be of great concern to everyone here tonight: What is it like - what is it really like - to be the spouse of a Knight-Bagehot Fellow?
And so here I stand. It is a rich and rewarding topic indeed.
I am particularly well-qualified for this assignment because in 1981 my wife, Gail Gregg - that drop-dead brunette over there - was, indeed, a Bagehotian.
It was a tumultuous and exciting year for Gail, actually for both of us. She completed her course of studies while heavy with child, giving birth to our daughter two weeks before finals. Her memories would be a lot fonder if she hadn’t been sick most of the time.
But as rewarding as it was being the spouse of a Bagehoteer - not to mention the friend and colleague of any number of Bagehotites sprinkled around this room - it all pales by comparison to being the spouse of a member of that distinguished body known as the Knight-Bagehot Fellows Board of Advisors. It is in this position which I currently serve.
Since my wife is quite familiar with your interests and concerns (and for purposes of marital bliss I shall spend no more time regaling you with any further Bagehot-like spousal adventures), I asked Gail what I should talk about. She wisely said: “Given what you do for a living and given what most of the people in your audience do for a living, isn’t the answer sort of obvious?”
There’s that Bagehotenzian training at work.
As Knight-Bagehot spouses tend toward obedience, I knew enough to discard my brilliantly-crafted, hour-long dissertation on the future of the international monetary system. Not that you should feel you’re missing anything.
But the truth is, what I should speak about wasn’t so clear. Even as Gail and I were driving home from New Paltz this weekend, I was struggling with what I wanted to say to all of you tonight. All I knew for sure was that whatever I said would be over 15 minutes. So set your watches.
And then I read a quote from Joe Torre. For out-of-towners, Joe’s the manager of the New York Yankees; for those of you here from Boston, the Yankees are the baseball team Babe Ruth was traded to. Here’s what Joe recently said of his team:
“Everyone is nervous. The idea is that if you make nervousness work for you, it becomes excitement. If you let it work against you, it becomes fear and pressure.”
I like this quote a lot. Yes, it makes me a bit nervous to recall that Joe was fired three times before the Yankees brought him aboard, but I’m doing what I can to turn that into a feeling of excitement.
I like this quote because I think Joe has captured precisely how we - journalists and business people alike - should be feeling about competing in the Digital Age.
For all the gnashing of journalistic teeth as we try to adapt to a new way of thinking about our role and our relationship to our readers and viewers; for all the scratching of business-side heads as we try to build a profit model that both is worth more than a quarter and works for more then one (little pun there); for all the doubt and worry and envy and frustration of our employees and our executives - for all that, let’s hold on to this thought: this is an era of excitement and adventure that captures the imagination. This is a great time to be a journalist.
Of course, there is the fear and pressure part too. But let me give you a little story.
A year or so ago, The Times received an e-mail which read:
Love The New York Times on the Web. Feel more connected than ever. Thanks.
Not exactly poetry, I know. But a compelling missive nonetheless. Why? Because it came from the Italian Ambassador. To Tanzania.
I love the thought of this remarkably intelligent and discerning man waking each morning, watching the sun rise over the Indian Ocean as he reads Floyd Norris’ or Leslie Wayne’s latest insights. To me, to my colleagues, and perhaps to all of you this is powerful stuff, because this is no longer about how many print sites you have or how far your trucks can drive or how many stations will carry your signal. Now it’s about the quality of your journalism and the value of your voice.
So, is that the good news or the bad news? Good question. But probably not worth spending too much time on, for the answer’s simple. It’s the inevitable news. More to the point is the question of what it means for us as journalists, given our unique mandate as the only business in America explicitly protected by the Constitution of the United States - a statement which, I suppose, tells you how I read the Second Amendment.
Let me throw out a few hopeful premises to guide this brief discussion:
Premise one: the insight and analysis offered by the best newspapers, magazines and websites are still making a major contribution to the deliberations of our democratic society;
Premise two: checking facts and using reliable sources are not old-fashioned ideas from a bygone era imposed by a pre-digital values system;
Premise three: journalists continue to be more trustworthy than fortune tellers, sports agents and garage mechanics and really are the kind of people you would invite into your own home, and
Premise four: It is still possible to distinguish between 60 Minutes and Access Hollywood, between The Washington Post and The National Enquirer and between The McLaughlin Group and the World Wrestling Federation - OK, this last one may be a bit fuzzy.
These propositions may seem self-evident to us, but the rest of society is not so sure. While we continue to profess belief in our basic principles, some of our practices have gotten a little shaky. To be fair, this problem predates the Internet by I’d say about 600 years - ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press. But the rise of the Internet as a dissemination vehicle has massively exacerbated the problem.
While all businesses are trying to adjust to the demands and challenges of these turbulent times, not many are questioning their very purpose for being. Not many are undergoing the deep self-scrutiny you see reflected in the pages of our journalism reviews.
Just this month, for example, Mike Oreskes, The Time’s Washington bureau chief, gave this counsel:
To persuade readers to stick with us in this Electronic Age, we have to reassert our basic value to them and to the society we are all a part of.
Let me be clear, I think Mike is exactly right. But why is it we have to say this? Or more to the point, why do we doubt it is true?
Well, for one thing, journalists are always full of doubts. I think it comes from making a career of chronicling the misdeeds and misadventures - along with the successes - of those around us. We’d be having this debate with or without the Internet.
But the Internet makes us all a little bit crazy too, doesn’t it. It carries with it the threat of stripping away some of our anonymity. With all that reach and immediacy comes - what? More accountability? More responsibility? Less camouflage? Less relevance?
Enough psychology. Gail will attest to the fact that this is not my strength. I am, however, a reasonable storyteller - perhaps it comes from all those Outward Bound nights around campfires. So let me tell you another story - one that some in this audience have heard before but what the hell. I love it and you’re not going anywhere.
Several years ago, I purchased a wonderful 1968 BMW R//60 motorcycle. As do many of us these days, I plugged into the Net to see what was out there of help or interest regarding my new toy.
As you would imagine, there were hundreds of entries, one more useless than the next, primarily concerned with making your own repairs: “If you have a 1954 BMW with a leak in the left fork…” That kind of stuff.
So I was surfing along, wasting my time, when I came upon a true gem - a well-written and detailed explanation as to how BMW motorcycles became known as ‘boxers.’”
The story was engrossing. It had to do with a serious engineering problem that BMWs had in their early days that resulted in the bike’s front tire rising up off the ground with such force that the instrument panel would hit the rider in the face and knock him off the bike. Engineers couldn’t solve the problem because no test rider could stay on long enough to discover what was wrong.
So they came upon the idea of hiring professional boxers to ride the bike. These men were accustomed to being hit in the face, and indeed, they stayed on the motorcycle long enough for engineers to understand the problem and solve it - thus, the term, ‘boxers.’”
Great story, right? There was only one problem: It was a total fabrication. BMWs are known as ‘boxers’ for a reason so pedestrian that I don’t remember it anymore, but having something to do with the shape of the cylinders - not that fascinating lie that I came upon on the World Wide Web.
The point of this story is that people will continue to need a trustworthy guide through all the raw data dumps that are proliferating on the Internet. No one has the time, energy or desire to sift through the billions of gigabytes of undigested and unanalyzed information presently floating around the Internet.
The Internet reaffirms what we instinctively know: Words aren’t powerful. Indeed, information isn’t powerful. Only knowledge is powerful.
And knowledge, in a nutshell, is our job. And in an era that defines itself as the information age, it’s a more critical task then it has ever been.
Now, before I come off as Little Mary Sunshine, utterly oblivious to the cliff I am excitedly racing towards, let me quickly acknowledge to all those teeth-gnashing, head-scratching news and business types among you that there is much to be nervous about. Remember Joe Torre’s quote?
Too often we act as if we are in the midst of a world-wide media free-for-all, where there are few rules and unrealizable expectations. We do risk waking up one morning to discover that our profession and our industry have disintegrated around us because our priorities and our motivations have been so compromised.
We add to the traditional journalistic pressures of newsroom independence and profit growth new concerns brought about by the accelerated pace of information which not only changes the nature of what we do but also risks having a profound affect on the course of the events we cover.
Alan Greenspan’s power to shock and stimulate the global markets has become truly remarkable and he may well be the Digital Age’s real superstar. Every time he leaves the Fed and offers another pronouncement on the rate of inflation, his words are instantly transmitted to Palm Pilots throughout the world.
Then, a moment or two later, traders use their own state-of-the-art technology to respond swiftly, and sometimes brutally, even though many of them don’t really have a clue as to what he meant.
Where’s the flaw in our economy today? Too many people making decisions based on words, or at best on information. Too few using knowledge.
I am the fifth member of my family to be publisher of The New York Times. If any of you have read the recent book on the Ochs/Sulzberger clan, you know two things about us: First of all, we are all human, full of foibles and the occasional indiscretion; second, and I hope more to the point, we have always gotten the one important thing right - we’ve all, in our time, made The Times a better newspaper. (Knock on wood).
And we’ve all done so by following the precepts laid down by the first of us - Adolph Ochs. We have embraced change; we have adapted to the changing needs of our readers and advertisers; we have invested in the quality of our news reports and our business operations.
And it is in that spirit that we remain today fundamentally agnostic about how we distribute our news. Ink on wood via trucks is time consuming and expensive. As the 21st century rapidly approaches, we are committed to transmitting the news any way our customers prefer.
This is not the time nor the place for an exhaustive review of The New York Times Company’s digital ambitions. The evening is late, my 15 minutes are closing fast and you’ve all had too much to drink.
But I can tell you that we, as an industry, have been here before.
More than a century ago, well before my great-grandfather bought The New York Times, one of the legendary newspaper editors in New York thought he saw the end of newspaper approaching. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, had built his reputation in large part by getting the news first. But now a disturbing new technology had appeared.
‘The telegraph may not affect magazine literature,’ he said. ‘but the mere newspaper must submit to destiny and go out of business.’
That didn’t happen, I am very happy to report. Indeed, by the time that Gail was a Bagehot, the idea of the local newspaper as monopoly cash-flow provider had become a popular one. Those of us in the industry heard lots about how profit margins could be pushed ever higher by holding down editorial costs. After all, the readers had no alternatives, and neither did the advertisers. Far too many newspapers followed that siren song.
In fact, the Internet is providing us with competition from every direction, whether it be in providing news or classified ads or local movie listings. What we are left with is not a monopoly, but a reputation. There is great value in such brand names as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and many others.
But that value will be preserved and enhanced only to the extent we provide top-quality, reliable journalism. The more information that is available, the more people are likely to turn to sources they consider reliable.
Serious journalism will be needed to meet the demand for reliable, original information; for a respected and trusted voice; and for someone to set a common agenda for decision makers in a wide variety of fields, not the least of which is democracy.
This last bit is not just puffery. It is something that every day must motivate publishers, editors and reporters. We have a special charter in society and damn us if we forget it.
All of us are counting on our readers’ desire for insight and understanding of our increasingly-confusing and complex world. We are also counting on their ability to differentiate information from entertainment - regardless of how either is characterized.
And we are counting on their need, above all, for knowledge.
Thus the preservation of our reputation is now more important than ever before. A good reputation is not easy to get, but it can be surprisingly easy to destroy when the pursuit of short-term profits causes a newspaper to allow the impression to be created that the integrity of the news operation is not paramount. There are no more monopolies of information. But that does not mean that newspapers are headed for extinction, any more than the introduction of the telegraph did.
One of the great journalists of the 20th century was James Reston, or ‘Scotty’ as he was known at The Times and elsewhere. I can think of no better way of ending these remarks than by quoting this master on the trade he loved so much:
‘I don’t want the press to be popular,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘just to be believed.’
Thank you for inviting me.