A.G. Sulzberger ’03, publisher of the New York Times, returned to the University Monday evening to share his belief in the steadfast power of journalism in a world where reporters face unprecedented risk and newspapers face failing business models.
Sulzberger, who was promoted to Times publisher on Jan. 1, 2018, spoke to a packed Solomon Auditorium for the 99th Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs.
Sulzberger at Brown
Sulzberger took his place at the Times after years of work in journalism for the Providence Journal, the Oregonian and the Times Metro Desk. Sulzberger succeeded his father, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as publisher, becoming the sixth member of his family to preside over the New York Times. In 1886, Sulzberger’s great-great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, purchased a “small, fading newspaper in New York” and set it on its way to become the Times of today — with its over 4,000 employees and 4.7 million subscribers.
When Sulzberger first walked on to Brown’s campus, he was not set on pursuing a career in journalism — despite his strong familial ties to the field. “It wasn’t always a sure bet that A.G. would end up in the newspaper business,” said President Christina Paxson P’19 in her introduction.
At the University, Sulzberger not only met his wife and fostered a lasting love for East Side Pockets; he also found his way back toward his family’s business. Enrolled in ENGL 1160A S01: “Advanced Feature Writing” with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Visiting Professor of English Tracy Breton at the recommendation of a friend, Sulzberger “immediately appreciated how grounded (journalistic writing) was.”
“So much of academic writing is about making ideas more complicated and finding bigger words to describe things, and journalistic writing is the exact opposite,” Sulzberger said in an interview with The Herald. Where academic essays require large, multisyllabic words, journalism encourages concise, clear writing — something which made sense to Sulzberger. Quickly, he became enamored with journalism as a “profession that exists in the context of the world as it is, and seeks to interrogate that.”
Six months after Sulzberger graduated from the University with a degree in political science, Breton encouraged Sulzberger to apply for an internship at the Providence Journal, where he went on to cover the town of Narragansett until 2006. “My job was to chronicle every part of life there,” Sulzberger said. In order to thoroughly cover the town, Sulzberger attended city council meetings, covered incoming and outgoing businesses and called the police each morning to find out if anything had happened overnight — thoroughly embedding himself in the fabric of the community.
A new journalistic climate
13 years later, the Providence Journal has witnessed tremendous, shrinking change. All eleven of its local bureaus — including Sulzberger’s Narragansett office — have closed, and the paper’s staff size has been significantly reduced. Across the nation, jobs like Sulzberger’s first Narragansett post “have largely disappeared, and are leaving really profound vacuums of information and accountability.”
“A democracy can’t function without a free and reliable flow of information, so I think we as a society need to grapple with how we are going to ensure that,” Sulzberger said. The Times has worked to make notes on its strategy accessible to leaders of other media outlets, he said in his lecture. But it remains unclear if smaller venues can survive using the same model, one largely based on subscriptions.
Beyond the challenges facing journalism as an industry are international and domestic risks that threaten the very integrity of the free press.
Since the 2016 election, President Donald Trump has included the phrase “fake news” in 600 tweets, Sulzberger said. Beyond its significant impact on voters — who find themselves confined to “filter bubbles,” Sulzberger said — Trump’s rhetoric has influenced international leaders.
Sulzberger said that he and a colleague researched the spread of the phrase ‘fake news’ and found that in the past few years, more than 50 world leaders — from U.S. rivals and allies — have declared information ‘fake news.’
This characterization of the media, Sulzberger warned, has had detrimental effects on the safety of journalists around the world.
“I am going to tell you a story that I have not before shared publicly,” Sulzberger said, describing a call the Times received two years ago from a U.S. government official, warning that New York Times journalist Declan Walsh was in danger of being arrested in Egypt. While Sulzberger said the call itself was not unusual — tips of that kind are relatively common — “this particular call took a surprising and distressing turn.”
The official made it clear that they were reaching out without the permission of the Trump administration, and that the Trump administration might allow the arrest to occur without notifying the Times. Walsh’s native country, Ireland, was able to send diplomats to escort him to safety.
While journalists have always faced inherent risks — entering war zones, reporting on the corruption of powerful leaders, often running toward conflict instead of away from it — Sulzberger emphasized that “last year was the most dangerous year on record to be a journalist, with dozens killed, hundreds imprisoned and untold thousands harassed and threatened.”
Journalists face more dangers than ever before in part due to the current political hostility toward their work, he said during the lecture. “Media isn’t perfect. We make mistakes, we have blind spots, we sometimes drive people crazy.” Still, “the free press is foundational to a healthy democracy — and arguably the most important tool we have as citizens.”
Journalism in the digital age
Despite the threats facing journalists, publications like the Times persist and continue to innovate.
In 2014, Sulzberger authored the New York Times Innovation Report, an internal memo discussing the digital and multi-media future of the New York Times. The 96-page report, which was subsequently leaked and posted on Buzzfeed News, detailed the ways in which the Times was failing to adapt to the new digital-media landscape — and needed to change quickly. “It basically said, we’ve been holding not just the future at arm’s length, but the present at arm’s length,” Sulzberger said during the lecture.
Since the report was released five years ago, Sulzberger has continued to ask himself about the future of the changing Times. “If our mission is enduring — seek the truth and help people understand the world — what are the different ways in which we must act to best serve that mission?”
One such innovation is the Times’ “The Daily,” one of the most listened to podcasts in the U.S., according to Podtrac. “The Daily is totally consistent with the best standards of New York Times journalism; it’s smart, it’s original, it’s deeply reported. … It’s personal, it’s almost intimate, you are hearing from reporters in a much more unfiltered, unguarded way,” Sulzberger told The Herald.
The 1619 project, which dove deep into the 400th anniversary of American slavery through words, photo essays and interactive media, further exemplified the Times’ push for new and important storytelling. This philosophy even extends to how the Times staffs its urgent and relevant desks. For example, Sulzberger explained that the Times’ climate desk is capable of “doing the most creative, ambitious, important work on climate change” because it is led by Hannah Fairfield, a journalist with a background in multimedia storytelling.
Sulzberger believes that none of the work in his newsroom truly holds value unless news consumers like Brown students place value on original, independent journalism. “None of these efforts will make a difference unless all of you raise your voice. Care about where your news comes from, and how it is made,” he said near the conclusion of his lecture.