BREAKINGVIEWS-Center of gravitas shifts at the New York Times

Mon Oct 1, 2012 2:25pm IST

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own)

By Agnes T. Crane

NEW YORK, Oct 1 (Reuters Breakingviews) - One of the 20th century's most influential American publishers, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, died on Saturday. He was 86. The grandson of Adolph S. Ochs who bought the New York Times more than a century ago, Sulzberger transformed what had been a struggling paper into a media empire. Upheaval in the news business, however, has forced his son Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. to dismantle it. The elder Sulzberger's gravitas will be missed as his heir struggles to keep the paper a family affair.

Tough economic times for one of America's most influential newspapers are nothing new. The paper reported a loss in 1963, the year Sulzberger took over from his brother in-law who died unexpectedly, according to his obituary in the Times. A decade later Punch, his nickname from childhood, would fight a grim bottom line by expanding the breadth of the newspaper and bolting on new businesses.

His son has taken a different tack. In recent years, he has sold 16 regional papers, the online service About.com, television stations and other holdings to create what's become an enviable cash pile. The company needs the financial buffer. Though digital subscriptions have bumped revenue higher, the current publisher still faces challenges more daunting than those his father stared down more than four decades ago. The Internet and social media are upending newspapers and shredding the old print advertising model that once made large newsrooms, far-flung bureaus and generous employee pension plans possible.

That makes Sulzberger Jr.'s next move a favorite parlor game among not only journalists, but investors, who have had to stomach a 60 percent stock decline since 1997, the year Punch stepped down as chairman. Alongside incoming Chief Executive Mark Thompson, the 61-year old Sulzberger will be under pressure to use the cash to pay a dividend to the patient Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which still controls the company. Alternatively he may be tempted again to make acquisitions to leverage digital publishing.

While Punch was alive an outright sale of the flagship paper was unthinkable even as other publishing families, like the Bancrofts at the Wall Street Journal, threw in the towel. The Ochs-Sulzbergers have loyally stood by the Grey Lady. But Sulzberger Sr.’s passing gives the family an opportunity to rethink its legacy, financial and otherwise, for future generations. That could move the unthinkable into the realm of possibility.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher, chief executive and chairman of the New York Times, died on Sept. 29 at his home. He was 86.

- Sulzberger, hailed for publishing the Pentagon Papers and transforming the newspaper into a media conglomerate, handed the reins to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., in the 1990s. Sulzberger Jr. is the current publisher and chairman of the New York Times Co.

- NYT obituary: link.reuters.com/kah92t

- Reuters: Former NY Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger dies at 86 [ID:nL1E8KT132]

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(Editing by Rob Cox and David Evans)

((agnes.crane@thomsonreuters.com)) Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS NYTIMES/

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