One of my old media pleasures, as many of you know, is reading the print edition of the Sunday New York Times. For one thing, the writing and thinking is always insightful and, sitting with my coffee on a Canadian weekend morning, I feel more connected to the centre of the world – NYC, that is :).
I also like how the articles vary in length from column to in depth feature and you can find stories that merit three pages or more – a different perspective from the always-connected-byte-size-social communications many of us rely on.
Today, there was a fascinating obituary/biography of former NYTimes publisher and scion, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who died on September 29. He took the reins of the family business when he was 37 and from the sound of things, expectations were not that high. His academic career was spotty, he may not have had the best journalistic instincts and by all accounts, he lacked experience for the role.
However, he had passion, commitment and rose to the occasion. He was responsible for overseeing many changes that helped maintain the company’s leadership and reputation including the shift from lead to linotype to computer typesetting, publishing a serious critique of the U.S. government based on the Pentagon Papers, replacing typewriters with computers to the newsroom, adding consumer-focused lifestyle sections and many business acquisitions including the Boston Globe.
Not everything he did was a success but he was a leader who listened, acted and learned from his mistakes.
Stories, strengths, principles
Here are three business lessons we can take away from his approach:
Content first: Sure he was in the content biz and he knew his company had to be profitable in order to publish the kinds of stories that made them stand out. But Sulzberger put a premium on editorial quality and let editors and writers do what they did best without imposing his opinion and biases (most of the time). It was all about the story. And if there was a decision to be made, he almost always sided with editorial as opposed to sales/marketing.
Focus on your strengths: Sulzberger realized his organization knew about news, but may not have been the right people to run television stations, power plants or publish books or celebrity gossip magazines. So he concentrated on building on the company’s strengths and pursuing opportunities where it was best positioned to succeed.
Stand by your principles: He stood by his decision to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers and went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend his right to freedom of the press. Similarly, he hired a conservative columnist (William Safire), much to the chagrin of some of his liberal colleagues because he wanted the publication to have a more balanced voice.
He saw a lot of change in his life and certainly knew when to shift directions, but he held fast to his core beliefs. And that’s valuable advice.