During his 25 years as publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. had to make some tough decisions. But one choice that was always clear was publishing stories that “hold power to account” — even when it meant losing millions of dollars in revenue, Sulzberger told a group of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism supporters.
“The mission precedes everything — including the profits,” Sulzberger said to more than 30 Watchdog Club members and supporters gathered at the Madison home of Betty and Corkey Custer, who hosted the Nov. 14 event.
One of those stories was the investigation of sexual assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, which The New York Times broke in October 2017.
Before the scandal, Weinstein’s company spent millions on advertising with The New York Times. Despite that, Sulzberger, said keeping the Weinstein story under wraps was never even considered.
“That was not even the beginning of an issue,” said Sulzberger, who retired as publisher in 2017 but remains chairman of The New York Times Co. board of directors. “We were going to break that story.”
Sulzberger made a similar choice when publishing an investigation of corruption in Chinese leadership. He said the Chinese ambassador came to visit him in his office and told him that if the news organization published the story, China would “forever” block The New York Times from the country.
“We had just made a major, major investment in a Chinese language website based in Beijing. We had hired all these reporters. It was a multi-million dollar investment,” Sulzberger said. “And of course, we ran the story. And we’ve been blocked ever since.”
Above all else, it’s The New York Times’ job to report the truth and hold the powerful accountable — something that has been challenging with Donald Trump as president, Sulzberger said.
“We know the president is very antagonistic to the press,” Sulzberger said, noting the president’s frequent labeling of The Times as “failing” and the ousting — later reversed through a lawsuit — of CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House.
Sulzberger also pointed to Trump’s use of the term “fake news,” calling it a form of propaganda to undermine the credibility of the press. “Fake news” is actually a Russian term used as a way of “infiltrating … the American psychology.”
He said such antagonism “is very damaging” to journalism, makes reporting more dangerous and is “detrimental to democracy and to the very essence of an informed electorate.”
In meetings with Trump, Sulzberger said he told the president the newspaper planned to hold him accountable for his actions. After Trump became president, he met with staff at The New York Times office. In the boardroom, The Times has signed pictures of every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt.
Sulzberger showed Trump former President Richard Nixon’s picture, on which Nixon wrote: “To the New York Times: Some read it and like it. Some read it and don’t like it. But everybody reads it.”
Sulzberger said he told Trump: “That’s the last president that took on a free press. Think how it ended for him.”
Although it is a challenging time for journalism, Sulzberger said overall, The New York Times is “on remarkably good footing.”
As print advertising revenue declined, The Times decided to “embrace digital,” and in 2011, Sulzberger decided to begin charging for online access.
Now, he said, two-thirds of the revenue comes from subscriptions and there are more journalists, more foreign bureaus and more national bureaus than ever before.
Looking to journalism in the future, Sulzberger said he thinks large national newspapers will be fine. His “greatest single concern” is how local news outlets will fare.
“Without local journalism, how do we know who to vote for for mayor, for city council, or for the state legislatures?” Sulzberger said. “We really aren’t going to have that kind of scrutiny that we must have to keep democracy free and open.”
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Executive Director Andy Hall said he hopes the Center can continue to help fill that gap. The Center is seeking to double its annual budget so it can continue fostering an informed citizenry and strengthening democracy here in Wisconsin, he said.
“We have a lot of work to do as we produce these investigations and train the next generation of investigative journalists who will shine a light into dark places — for decades to come,” Hall said.
During his visit to Wisconsin, Sulzberger also spoke with former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser, a Center board member, at two events in Milwaukee — a luncheon with about 30 business leaders and a reception hosted by the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University with about 30 students, faculty members and residents.
“I have great faith in our country and I think we’re going to find our way through this period,” Sulzberger told the business leaders.
Sulzberger visited Wisconsin in support of the Center because of a mentorship that began two decades ago of Karen Lincoln Michel, who now is board president of the Center, and publisher and editor of Madison Magazine. The trip was sponsored by David Meissner, a former board member of Journal Communications in Milwaukee and a new member of the Center’s Watchdog Club.