The Blog

All The News That's FIT To Print

Does Arthur Sulzberger know his paper is sick today, as he knew it was in 1990? That's the great unknown question.
|
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

My goal with this post is to write something that explores a different but related track to the extraordinary reporting on The New York Times being done by Arianna Huffington and also, as of August 25th, by William E. Jackson. They are doing an inspiring job of tracking the disease that has infected The New York Times and investigating its root cause. Arianna has written many posts on the subject which you can find by scrolling through this directory. I think the first related post was on July 27th.

What I have to contribute to dealing with this mess is based on my knowledge of organizational development....and of a side of The New York Times that most people don't know. There's even a possibility that a cure for what ails The New York Times might be found in what I'll present here...just maybe.

The cure I am thinking of can only be implemented by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Fortunately, he need not do it on his own. In fact, he wouldn't be able to, because (like most effective cures) this one would involve outside help. But...wonder of all wonders...IT'S A CURE ARTHUR HAS IMPLEMENTED BEFORE...years ago...between 1990 and 1993.

This cure involves the top to bottom rebirth of an organizational...with the outside support of skilled consultants. It's what's known as an "organizational transformation"...and it's done all the time. Much like a person kicking a drug habit, it's a cure that purges an organization of all "bad habits" and replaces them with healthier ones. There are risks involved in such a process of course, because change always involves risks. But if an organization's leaders know their current reality is unhealthy enough, then the motivation is there to take the risk.

Does Arthur Sulzberger know his paper is sick today, as he knew it was in 1990? That's the great unknown question. This sickness is something Arianna and William are doing their best to point out to all who will listen. And if the strangely worded August 29th editorial "Free Judy Miller" is any indication, that necessary awareness appears to be developing. But more work is needed. What isn't working about The New York Times must continue to pushed into the public's consciousness...and into the consciousness of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

But beyond pointing out the disease and its cause, I see our challenge as being to reach out to Arthur Sulzberger with a call for personal leadership and a break with current reality once again...much as we would reach out to a special friend or member of the community if we knew they were sick but had not yet fully gotten to the point where they could see the need for help.

The good news, as I've already mentioned, is that Arthur Sulzberger has done this with The New York Times before. He has led his company to a healthier place before. In fact, he worked with none other than legendary management guru W. Edwards Deming the first time he did this. Dr. Deming is credited with enabling the Japanese to turn "Made in Japan" into the gold standard for quality products in the world, even though in the 1950's "Made in Japan" meant "junk". Now THAT'S a transformation! I stumbled on Dr. Deming's work myself in 1991, and what I learned so opened my eyes that I left my job with the government to become an advocate of the use of his human social systems and statistics based principles throughout the world.

Sulzberger's previous leadership work was written up by The Wharton School after he spoke at their annual Wharton Leadership Conference, 'Leading in All Directions,' in 2002. Here are some quotes from this article that give you some sense of the character of the man and what he did during this first transformation...

"A major moose at the Times, he said, is the role of the Sulzberger family in the publicly-held company. (The family controls the company through preferred stock.) At one retreat, Sulzberger recalled, a circulation executive finally piped up and said: 'Arthur, this is fine for you; no one's going to fire you. But what's going to happen to the rest of us?'

Sulzberger said he later made that executive, Russell Lewis, chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. and his main partner in driving change, because he had the courage to speak up."

"Sulzberger said the biggest moose facing the Times and all news organizations is what he called 'the false dichotomy between quality journalism and quality profits.' To address that, executives at the Times agreed on a value system that included the words, 'Editorial excellence and independence are essential to our profitability, and profit sustains them.'"

"At one point he was asked whether the scandals that have hit several major corporations are isolated incidents or symptoms of a larger collapse in corporate culture. His belief, he responded, is that most companies are honest, but he also expects more revelations of corporate corruption to come out. 'It speaks to the decade that just went by. It speaks to a culture of greed. You fall into a culture of blindness … unless you breed in a process for somebody to raise his hand and say, 'The emperor has no clothes on.' It's good this is getting out,' he added. 'I like the fact that I no longer have to compete with people who are getting their profits fraudulently.' Regulators and others, he suggested, should be aggressive in pursuing claims of fraud."

And Ken Auletta wrote about Sulzberger's work with Deming in The New Yorker back on June 28, 1993. That article began this way...

"Can the New York Times, America's family-owned newspaper of record, function as a democracy? Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who succeeded his father as publisher a year and a half ago, wants to change the power structure of the Times. And he has put his top editors through some soul-searching to see if they can make it happen."

And here is a passage that speaks directly to Sulzberger's willingness to have his reporters...his staff...tell the truth, even when it's about his paper. This comes from American Journalism Review, in an article entitled "Changing Times" from its Jan/Feb 1994 Issue...

"On April 21, 1991, Anna Quindlen did something that New York Times columnists never do. She used her "Public & Private" column on the op-ed page to attack the editors of the Times. She criticized the editors' treatment of Patricia Bowman, the woman who had accused William Kennedy Smith of sexual assault in the Palm Beach rape case. Quindlen wrote that the Times' news coverage of the woman's story – which used Bowman's name and recounted her bad driver's record and sexual history ("she had a wild streak," the story noted) – was "beneath the traditions" of the paper. Quindlen also accused the editors of sexism and snobbery and of being voyeurs in the bargain. As is the custom of the op-ed page, Quindlen wrote the headline over the column herself. "A Mistake," it read.

The next morning, Quindlen arrived at work to find the Times staff divided and hesitant about how to respond to "A Mistake." Half the newsroom, seemingly, agreed with her criticisms. "The other half," Quindlen recalls, "thought I made a big mistake to air the Times' business." Then Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. visited the newsroom and sent everyone a strong signal. He passed Quindlen in an aisleway and, in a voice loud enough for a dozen witnesses to hear, complimented her on the column. It was important that she had spoken out the way she did, he told her."

I'm almost done making my case that there's a very special spirit inside the leader of The New York Times Company...a spirit that might be reachable...and one that is matched to an intelligence that actually knows what it needs to do. After I do, I will mention one special additional motivation I think might call Sulzberger to action.

Here is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.'s May 1, 2001 talk at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which he recounts one of his newspaper's most famous acts of courage and integrity to its readers...and to the larger society of which it belongs. The talk is entitled Pentagon Papers, then and today. It's a speech about a very important time in our nation's history...but it's also about Arthur's family. I highly recommend you read the entire speech.

Can we in the blogging community reach Arthur Sulzberger? Can we get him to see that his company needs to transform itself again? Will he wake up and see for what they are the social, economic and political forces that have caused his company to become so different from the company that published The Pentagon Papers?

Maybe it would help if Arthur was given an alternative to see...an alternative beyond his company's loyalty to the forces that have made it the sick organization it is today. After all, change that is motivated by the desire to do something positive in the future is at least as powerful as change that is motivated by the desire to stop doing something that doesn't work today.

One outward manifestation of the 1990's-era transformation of The New York Times was the launch of several new sections of the newspaper. The Home Section is one example.

I'd like to propose that Arthur Sulzberger look at recent developments in the lives of his readers...including the enormous challenges associated with our rising energy costs and someday soon to be running out supply of oil...and consider re-focusing a significant portion of his company on reporting news related to the sustainable development movement. Just this past May, a ten-year long effort to develop new and improved education efforts related to creating a sustainable future for human society was launched at the UN. Arthur, I didn't see a lot of coverage of this launch event in your paper, or many others for that matter. But this is a ten-year long effort...the knowledge of which would, I think, attract all sorts of new readers to The New York Times.

Why? Because you would be demonstrating an ENTIRELY NEW APPRECIATION FOR THE MEANING OF THE PHRASE "ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT TO PRINT".

What does "fit to print" mean? I have a feeling that you have a lot of influence over how that phrase is interpreted within your company.

Does it mean "information voiced by anyone we are used to hearing say stuff"...the "most well known people on Earth"?

Couldn't it mean "information voiced by the people on Earth who really have innovative ideas to offer...innovative proposals for how to solve our problems..whether they are 'well known' or not"?

This would require that you and your staff include some new people in your Rolodex's. But think of the adventure of it all! Think of the Pulitzer Prizes your newspaper might receive...for reporting on the discovery of new solutions previously unreported!!!

It's possible, Arthur! But first, you'll have to shake up the culture in your organization. But you've done it before. You can do it again!

"Fit to print" can mean "What helps society be healthier". "What helps society work"!

By the way, I am positive that such a transformation on the part of The New York Times will be financially rewarded. Because the public will wind up reading "news they can use"..."fit news"...that helps them transform their lives (into ones based on more sustainable living habits) too!

You know...it's not a big stretch to go from "news that's fit" to "news that helps society become fit" (as in "physical and mentally fit")!

Does all this sound crazy?

Well, if it does, let me offer one last bit of information I know about Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. As reported in the book "The Trust", by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones (and also reported in The New Yorker magazine in 1999 before the book came out), Arthur Sulzberger is a big fan of Star Trek. (Something he and I share, in addition to being students of Dr. Deming's philosophy.) Here's a key paragraph from The New Yorker article...

"He took off his watch and showed us an inscription on the back: "Live long and prosper," the famous greeting by "Star Trek" 's Mr. Spock. "My favorite episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' is the one in which the captain gets a chance to relive his youth," he told us. "He vows to not make the mistakes of exuberance that he made then. So the greatest mistake in his life never takes place, because he doesn't allow it to take place. And when he's whisked back [to the present], he's an underling. An underling! It's an amazing story, because what he learns is that those mistakes were what helped define him—the things that pushed him a little bit, that got people saying, 'This is somebody you've got to start watching.'"

Arthur Sulzberger and The New York Times may have made some mistakes lately, but these mistakes - even made at this point in their lives - can be what helps Arthur become a leader in the 21st century the way his father, Punch, was in the 20th century...and what helps The New York Times become the leading publication it once was!

I know that there are some people who would like to see The New York Times punished for the relatively terrible job of reporting "what's fit to print" that it's doing now. But I would prefer to try and save The New York Times rather than bury it. I think it has the potential - under Arthur Sulzberger's leadership - to once again become the greatest newspaper in America...perhaps the greatest on Earth. After all, a newspaper that published an editorial like President Bush's Loss of Faith can't be all bad.

Lastly, on a personal note, if you look below you'll see that The New York Times has published a number of letters by yours truly over the years. So, why would I want a publication that has published some of my thoughts to go out of business???

-------------------------------------------------

Letters by Steven G. Brant published in The New York Times...

Popular in the Community