to become the
Paintings by Roberto Parada
The issue of succession is a difficult matter not just for family-run businesses but for the families that run them. Take the Murdochs, for instance. Or the Binghams, the Kentucky newspaper clan that imploded in the 1980s. Historically speaking, transitions in the Sulzberger family, which has run the New York Times for 119 years, have not gone all that smoothly. During the paper's early days, patriarch Adolph Ochs agonized over which heir should follow him: his nephew Julius Ochs Adler or his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. (His daughter, Iphigene, was never considered.) The competition took a toll on all involved. In 1932, Sulzberger suffered a stress-induced heart attack, which crippled his left hand; a year later, Adler had a nervous breakdown and spent six weeks in a mental institution. Ochs clung to the notion that maybe they could share the crown. "There can be only one head to a business," Sulzberger replied. Ultimately, Ochs punted on the decision. When he died in 1935, his will essentially left it to Arthur, Julius, and Iphigene to work it out among themselves. Iphigene, being the deciding vote, supported her husband, thus cleaving a fault line in the family that was never repaired. The Adlers and Sulzbergers stopped speaking. In 1959, the final Adler was forced out of the paper.
Now, three generations and 80 years later, Ochs's descendants are confronting a similar dilemma: Multiple capable family members from different branches want the top job. The House of Sulzberger is made up of four families, all descendants of Ochs's daughter, and each harbors its own ambitions and grievances. The central rivalry is between the two most powerful wings: the Goldens and the Sulzbergers. But the outcome is not just a matter of family politics; the next publisher of the New York Times will be responsible for preserving the independence of the country's greatest newspaper in an increasingly challenging media environment.
In recent months, I spoke with more than 65 current and former Times executives and journalists, plus Sulzberger-family members, advisers, and friends, to learn how the company is grooming its short list of potential successors. Three finalists have emerged: There's the current chairman and publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.'s 35-year-old son, Arthur Gregg "A. G." Sulzberger, best known for leading the committee that produced the digital wake-up call known as the "Innovation Report"; Sulzberger's nephew David Perpich, 38, a Harvard M.B.A. who successfully launched the paper's digital subscriptions; and Sam Dolnick, 34, the son of Sulzberger's cousin Lynn Golden Dolnick, an influential and outspoken fourth-generation family member. A.G. and Sam have ascended through the newsroom ranks as Perpich climbed the business side. A.G. was promoted to senior editor for strategy in July 2014; two months later, Dolnick was named senior editor for mobile. Then, on July 23, Dolnick was appointed associate editor. A week later, a press release went out announcing A.G. had the same title. Meanwhile, to boost his newsroom experience, Perpich, named senior vice-president in March, has started attending news masthead meetings. "David, Arthur, and Sam were put in jobs that were perceived as essential to the paper when they might be running it," a former senior editor says.
And this does not mean running it in the far-off future. Sulzberger has joked that "there's a mandatory retirement age for everyone except for me." But it's not true. According to the company's guidelines, Sulzberger, who turns 64 this September, may remain chairman of the board until 70. However, he is already three years older than his father, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, was when, in January 1987, he named Sulzberger assistant publisher, designating him heir apparent. When Punch turned 65, he gave his son the full title of publisher. Under this precedent, the family is behind schedule.
What's different this time around is that there are three candidates with a legitimate shot at the top job. "I have to say this in a way that doesn't make me sound like a PR guy," says executive editor Dean Baquet, "but they're all really good."
Inside the competitive newsroom of the Times, job appointments are forensically dissected by Times journalists to determine their institutional significance. So it's not surprising that handicapping the race between the Sulzberger cousins is a popular pastime at the paper. "Perpich is data-driven. If I had to sum him up in one word, it'd be M.B.A.," a former executive says. Dolnick has written award-winning stories but lacks management experience. "Sam is kind of junior and young and has primarily an editorial background," a source who worked on the business side says. That means A.G. — with management and newsroom experience, not to mention the Sulzberger name — is generally considered to be the front-runner.
The cousins rarely, if ever, acknowledge any suggestion of a rivalry. "They hate the idea of a horse race," a Times staffer says. And they mostly refrain from expressing any outward entitlement or ambition. "It's a testament to their personal style and values that you wouldn't know they are part of the family," says Kinsey Wilson, the Times' new digital chief. A veteran staffer wonders: "Do they even want it? I have no fucking clue."
But it's hard to think that they wouldn't. All three cousins grew up steeped in Times mythology, gathering at Hillandale, the onetime Sulzberger Connecticut estate, where copies of the Times were placed on benches in the gardens, and imbibing the belief that the family are stewards of a public trust. This indoctrination is how the Sulzbergers keep each new generation attached to the institution. (A good thing, considering that Michael Bloomberg, long considered the Times' white-knight-in-waiting in the event that the Sulzbergers decided to sell, recently told me through a spokesperson that he was not interested in buying.) A total of six (out of 27) fifth-generation cousins currently hold positions at the Times. "Our promise to members of the Ochs-Sulzberger family who want to work at the New York Times and have the skill set to do so is to give them careers," Sulzberger recently said.
It creates turbulence in the family when one cousin gets attention over another. A couple of years ago, after Adweek published a gushing profile of Perpich — headlined "The Heir to the Times' Throne?" — Michael Greenspon, another fifth-generation cousin, who has worked at the Times since 2007, was said to have walked into the Times' public-relations office. "Whose idea was this?" he said. "How could Perpich do this?" An executive responded that Perpich never talked to the reporter. "If the press focuses on certain people and says they've been anointed as the possible successor, that can be very painful for anyone not on the list," a fourth-generation family member told me. (The cousins declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.)
The selection of the next publisher is perhaps the most critical challenge facing the Times. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. steered the paper into the digital age and protected its journalism, but the next publisher can't afford to just be a competent steward; he (and it's almost certain to be a he) must navigate what Wilson called "one of the most turbulent, convulsive periods that media has gone through since Gutenberg." This year, digital subscriptions plateaued at 1 million, a respectable number, certainly, but far below what the paper needs to fund its $300 million news-gathering budget. Meanwhile, print advertising continues a seemingly inexorable decline, down 13 percent in the last quarter alone. This past winter, the paper suffered a brain drain in a wrenching round of buyouts and layoffs, losing a cadre of top editors and marquee bylines. And there is a widely held view that more layoffs are coming.
The last time power was transferred at the Times, "Punch" Sulzberger only had to convince his three sisters before naming his son publisher. Now the decision will involve balancing a complex set of competing interests, including a family that has grown to 40 cousins, who must get along without the benefit of the once-lucrative dividend generated by their Times stock. "We've created a very well-thought-through process such that when the time comes for me to announce a successor," Sulzberger told me in June during a public event at Hunter College, "it involves the board of directors, because obviously they have a stake in this; the family, because obviously they have a stake in this; and management, because they have a stake in this."
Like earlier generations of Sulzbergers, the fifth-generation contenders were encouraged by their parents to cut their teeth outside the Times. A.G.'s first job after graduating from Brown was at the Providence Journal. "He wanted to be treated like everyone else. He may have grown up in a famous family, but he truly did not feel confident," recalled former deputy executive editor Carol Young, who was in charge of hiring. "A.G. did not plant his name at all," she said. "If you called his voice-mail, all it said was, 'You've reached Arthur,' not 'This is Arthur Sulzberger.' "
A.G. quickly made friends with a group of junior reporters and even dated one of them, a Harvard grad named Elizabeth Gudrais, who covered state politics. He was eager to become a political writer himself, and, in August 2006, after two years in Rhode Island, he got his break to do that at the Portland Oregonian. The paper's then–managing editor, Stephen Engelberg, a Times veteran, took him under his wing. "I knew his father, and I wanted to keep an eye on him," Engelberg, now the editor of ProPublica, told me. After a few months, Engelberg teamed A.G. with Les Zaitz, the paper's most senior investigative reporter, to dig into accusations that a corrupt county sheriff had had an affair with the then-governor's wife. A.G. didn't always seem comfortable in the Woodward-and-Bernstein role. After interviewing one particularly chatty woman, he blanched at printing her revelations. "We walked out, and he said he felt bad because the lady was so nice," Zaitz recalled. He told A.G. to toughen up. "She's old enough to handle talking to the press," he said. A.G.'s articles created a splash in Oregon political circles. In May 2008, the sheriff resigned.
At the Times, senior editors had been monitoring A.G.'s career, feeding progress reports to his father. That summer, then–managing editor Jill Abramson told Sulzberger it was time for his son to come home. Sulzberger was thrilled. There was, however, one problem: A.G. didn't agree. "He didn't think he was talented enough," a high-placed Times source told me. Abramson had to persuade him to take the job.
With his stubble and dark plastic glasses, A.G. looked like any serious young Timesman. "We had some curiosity when he first came," says Metro editor Wendell Jamieson, "but he just turned out to be sort of, I don't want to say 'unassuming,' but just a regular guy." That's not the full story, though. "He's not a patsy at all. Underneath that very affable exterior is a certain amount of ambition," a prominent Times writer says. He is also extremely reserved. "He's almost willfully not his father," a former Times executive says. "I've never heard him crack a joke or laugh. You want him to loosen up." In private moments, A.G. explains his reserve as a coping strategy. "When they've been writing about you since you were 5, you learn to be private," he told a friend. But it's a difficult stance from which to run an organization, particularly one so public as the Times. "It's hard to know what he believes," a former senior executive says. "It's like if you go see a spiritual guru. He'll tell you, 'The answer is within yourself.' "
A.G.'s arrival, in February 2009, inevitably ignited speculation about succession. To many, it seemed that Sulzberger was handing his son a head start — just as his father, Punch, had done a generation earlier. The unintended casualties of Punch's favoritism were the four children of his sister Ruth Golden, some of whom harbored hopes of one day running the paper themselves. Their disadvantages began with their birthplace, Tennessee, where the family patriarch, Adolph Ochs, got his start in newspapers as the owner of the Chattanooga Times. The Golden kids — Michael, Stephen, Lynn, and Arthur — grew up in a turbulent home rife with resentment toward their New York relatives. Their father, Ben Hale Golden, was a hard drinker prone to bouts of verbal and physical violence. As publisher of the Chattanooga Times, he felt inadequate and indebted to the Sulzbergers for employment and social position. One drunken evening, he slashed a Sulzberger family portrait with a knife. Another time, he threatened Ruth with a gun. They divorced in 1965, and Ruth took over as publisher of the Chattanooga Times.
When the Golden boys went knocking on the door of the New York Times in the 1970s, Punch opened it but sidelined them with second-tier jobs. Stephen started in the regional-newspaper group before transferring to the Times' purchasing department and, later, the forest-products division. Michael was more credentialed: He spoke French, had a journalism degree and an M.B.A., and had helped his mother run the Chattanooga Times. But in 1987, when Punch gave Arthur the newly created job of assistant publisher, Michael was stuck in the magazine marketing division. "The race had started with Michael on second base and Arthur on third," a former senior editor close to the family said. "The Goldens felt slighted by that."
What kept the Sulzberger-Golden rivalry from boiling over was the firm hand of the family matriarch, Iphigene. "Iphigene had four children. They all agreed," the family's longtime trust lawyer, Ted Wagner, told me. Michael may have complained to his mother, Ruth, about not getting equal opportunities, but she wasn't going to question her mother. "It's all family dynamics," Wagner said. But when Iphigene died in 1990, it was suddenly every cousin for himself.
So, for the Goldens, A.G.'s arrival at the Times was a call to action. Sam, the oldest son of Lynn Golden Dolnick, was the same age as A.G. and also a talented journalist. "Lynn is ambitious for her son," says a former senior Times editor who knows the family well. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, Lynn embarked on a behind-the-scenes campaign to make sure there would be a competition, not a coronation.
Before A.G. arrived at the Times, Lynn Dolnick lobbied her cousins to formalize the process by which succession would be decided. As a result of these conversations, the board created the "Family Career Development Committee," a quasi-secret group that included Sulzberger Jr., vice-chairman Michael Golden, the Times' CEO, and the head of HR. Their official mandate was to ensure that family members working for the company received "fair" evaluations and an equal shot at promotion, according to a family member. "There were memos written in the beginning. They wanted the newsroom to be invested in making sure that all members of the family were being exposed to different things," says a former high-ranking editor. Unofficially, the group was also tasked with making sure A.G. didn't get too far ahead.
The cousins were inclined to listen to Lynn. By this time, she was a power center in family matters. Like her mother, Ruth, Lynn was forthright and very smart. She attended Brandeis in the '70s, earning an undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. in biology. There, she met her husband, the journalist and author Edward Dolnick. In 1996, she became the first member of her generation to be named a trustee of the Ochs-Sulzberger Trust, the vehicle through which the family controls the Times. In 2005, she joined the Times' board of directors.
She also had well-positioned allies. In January 2008, her brother Michael returned to headquarters from Paris, where he'd been publisher of the International Herald Tribune. Michael became a gatekeeper to securing employment for the fifth generation. "If you're in the family and you want to work at the company, you have to talk to Michael," a former senior executive says. Michael hosts annual family reunions at his Orange County home, like the ones that used to take place at Hillandale.
After graduating from Columbia, Sam interned for The Village Voice's hard-nosed investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, then moved to the night shift at the Staten Island Advance. Like A.G., he worked hard not to flaunt his connections, an effort made easier by the fact that hardly anyone knew that the Dolnick name was Times royalty. In fact, colleagues hazed him by dumping the worst assignments on his desk. "When the editor would yell out, 'Who's going to take a community-meeting notice?,' we gave him Sam's extension," recalled Glenn Nyback, a former reporter. Like A.G., Sam also found love in the newsroom. He started dating a reporter named Heidi Shrager, whom he later married.
But whereas A.G. wanted to be a political reporter, Sam's ambitions were more literary. His father was a successful author; Ben, his younger brother, was a novelist. At the Advance, editors didn't particularly embrace his writerly sensibility. "Get the fucking information in the lead!" one told him after he read his first story, which began with a four-line sentence. It was a sensitive point. Months later, the editor regaled staffers about it over drinks at the local watering hole. Sam pulled him aside afterward. "I wish you would have talked to me about this and not to my colleagues," he said.
In 2004, Sam joined the Associated Press. He spent three years as a metro reporter, covering everything from the GOP convention to Bill Clinton's quadruple bypass. Then he left for New Delhi to be a foreign correspondent. Editors were keenly aware that they were grooming a potential Times publisher and made sure he secured plum assignments. "It was always understood that we needed to give him a wide range of experience," a former senior AP editor said.
In August 2009, seven months after A.G. joined the Metro desk, Sam came aboard as a Metro reporter. Having two cousins working so closely together could have presented challenges. But A.G. soon shipped out to Kansas City to open a Midwest bureau. There, he wrote human-interest stories about a retired postman who built a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge over a creek behind his home, and got breaking-news experience covering the catastrophic tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri.
Shortly before A.G. left for the Midwest, David Perpich, the son of Sulzberger's half-sister Cathy, joined the paper's business staff. His recruitment was another plank in the Goldens' plan to position challengers to A.G. "Michael Golden brought Perpich back," with Sulzberger's blessing, said a former senior executive.
It wasn't easy convincing Perpich to come. For years, he resisted the gravitational pull of the family business. After graduating from Duke during the dot-com bubble, he dived into the start-up world. In the spring of 2002, he bumped into a Duke alumnus named Rob Principe, who mentioned he was starting a company called Scratch DJ Academy with Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC that would teach spinning records to the masses. "That is so simple. And I love it," Perpich told Principe. The business soon grew to several million dollars in revenue. "Dave was proud of his family, but he also wanted to build his own experience, initially, independent of his family," Principe told me. After three years at Scratch, Perpich went to Harvard Business School, then landed at the consulting firm Booz Allen.
When Perpich finally did come to the Times, he got an assignment with tremendous visibility: launching the paper's digital subscriptions, an attempt to get readers to pay for Times content online. "The risk was so high; if we stumbled in the execution, it would have been unforgivable," a former senior executive told me. Perpich's confidence and competence, combined with the success of the so-called paywall, rapidly raised his profile. He was eventually put in charge of NYT Beta, an in-house incubator with its own investment budget to finance new product launches. In the summer of 2012, Perpich was part of a team that persuaded the board to back a new series of Times apps like NYT Now and Cooking, designed to bring in new subscribers at lower price points.
Around this time, according to a high-level source, then–deputy managing editor Bill Schmidt presented a memo to Jill Abramson outlining how A.G. and Sam would rotate through various departments on the business side, following the path Sulzberger had traveled in the early 1980s. But A.G. and Sam wanted to be journalists — not suits — and they rejected the proposal.
Instead, they got promotions that elevated their profiles in the newsroom. In March 2012, A.G. was named an editor on the Metro desk — a job that gave him crucial management experience. Meanwhile, Sam spent more than a year reporting an award-winning investigative project about privatized halfway houses in New Jersey. Lynn often advocated for Sam with Times leadership. "She'd come in and say, 'What are you doing about Sam? Is he being treated unfairly because of Arthur Gregg?' " recalls an executive involved in the career-development conversations. "There's nothing subtle about it." Less than a year after A.G. joined the editorial ranks, Sam was named deputy sports editor.
Keenly aware of history, the fourth generation undertook elaborate measures to bring the three contenders closer together. To foster better relations between them, Abramson and Baquet organized monthly lunches at which they walked them through newsroom decisions, such as publishing the Snowden NSA documents or investigating the vast wealth of China's Communist leadership. The families also hired a family-business consultant and psychologist named Katherine Grady, who met regularly with the cousins and interviewed their colleagues, reporting back to their parents on their progress.
In 2013, Abramson put A.G. in charge of a committee tasked with dreaming up products that could bolster the Times' bottom line. It could have been a make-work assignment, like any number of committees the Times has convened that have produced earnest reports and memos that collect dust. But the hope was that A.G., who had very little digital experience at that point, might learn a thing or two. A.G. and his team set up shop in a conference room off the third-floor newsroom. They brought in a design expert who had worked for Ideo, the San Francisco design firm, and filled whiteboards with concepts. But after two months, according to a committee member, A.G. reached a startling conclusion: The paper's digital problems ran much, much deeper than the leadership suspected. The Graham family had just sold the Washington Post, which lent an additional sense of urgency to the project. If A.G.'s family wanted to avoid the fate of the Grahams, the Times would need a lot more than an app.
So A.G. changed his committee's mission to critiquing the Times' 164-year-old culture. In clinical detail, the 96-page "Innovation Report" the committee eventually produced documented how the Times found itself bogged down by outmoded processes, beset by baroque turf battles, and ultimately in danger of falling behind nimbler competitors like BuzzFeed, Vox, and Vice News. The report called for revolutionary changes, none more extreme than ending the division between the newsroom and business departments that had been all but a religion to an earlier generation of Times journalists. "It was a slap in the head," Baquet told me.
By this point, the publisher's relationship with executive editor Abramson had frayed. Sulzberger had been hearing troubling dispatches from A.G. and Sam about her management style. "A.G. and Sam were the publisher's eyes and ears in meetings and did report back it wasn't going well," a former senior Times editor says. On Friday, May 9, Sulzberger fired Abramson and promoted Baquet to executive editor. (Abramson declined to comment.)
The week after Abramson's dismissal, the "Innovation Report" was leaked to BuzzFeed. A.G. was exposed to the judgment of the 1,300 Times journalists he hoped to one day lead. Here's the publisher's kid, who doesn't even have a Facebook page or an active Twitter account, telling us to figure out the internet? "Think about the optics," one Times staffer grumbled.
Whether he wanted to or not, the leak pushed A.G. into the public role he'd been avoiding his entire career. In what amounted to a full-fledged political campaign, he barnstormed the paper and defended the report's findings to employees in meeting after meeting. At first, he faced skepticism and disbelief. In one session, senior editors audibly gasped when A.G. displayed a chart that showed traffic to the Times homepage had plummeted from 160 million readers per month to 80 million in just two years. "News people were in a state of shock," a veteran Times journalist says. But A.G.'s salesmanship was, by all accounts, a success. "He was humble about what he doesn't know," an attendee recalls. After one session, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter David Barstow gushed: "That was a holy-shit piece of reporting."
On June 19 last year, A.G. presented the report to the board of directors. It was his first audience with the 14 men and women who would help decide whether he would follow his father as publisher.
One senior editor told me that the next publisher of the New York Times will likely be decided in the next couple of years. And a Times spokesperson confirmed that Sulzberger will step down before he turns 70. In some ways, A.G. seems to be the most likely to be chosen. After all, his "Innovation Report" is actually changing the way the Times operates. His core insight is essentially a matter of distribution: He's fond of telling colleagues that the company historically invested millions of dollars in getting print papers from the plant to people's homes and needs to do the same in a digital context. This push to get Times content in front of as many readers as possible has fallen under the rubric of "Audience Development," a goal to which 35 jobs are now dedicated.
Meanwhile, the apps developed by Perpich's product team, while successful with users, have not generated revenue. And Dolnick has struggled to gain the stature A.G. was afforded by the "Innovation Report." Last summer, editors approached him about leading a committee that would study how to improve the print newspaper. According to a senior Times source, the Golden family felt the print project was "looking backwards." So instead Sam was named senior editor for mobile, assigned to work on NYT Now and the relaunch of the Times app. (In June, the team Sam worked on persuaded Times editors to temporarily shut off desktop access to the homepage so employees could read it only on their phones, a move some felt was a stunt.)
That said, right now, the eight trustees of the Ochs-Sulzberger trust, which elects 70 percent of the company's board of directors, are not automatically lined up in A.G.'s favor, a senior executive with knowledge of the family dynamics told me. The Golden wing has the most votes, with three trustees (Sam's uncle Michael, aunt Trudy, and cousin Hays). Arthur and his brother-in-law Steven Green represent the Sulzbergers. Perpich can count on his father, Joe. The swing votes include Carolyn Greenspon, who's said to back Dolnick or Perpich; and James Cohen, who's said to be undecided. (A Times spokesperson said: "Any idea that specific trustees would be voting for their children, nieces, or nephews would be wrong.")
One possible path to avert a family rupture would be to divide the top jobs among the three contenders. "I heard they were intrigued by the all-three deal," a former editor says of the cousins. In this scenario, A.G. could become publisher and chairman, Perpich could eventually become CEO, and Dolnick could eventually take over the running of the newsroom. Such a plan would play to each cousin's respective strengths. And it would bind the family ever tighter to the paper during an era when investing in serious public-spirited journalism requires a long-term view. "I believe, and the board of the company believes, that it's a strategic strength for the company to have family control," CEO Mark Thompson told me.
But there are risks involved in carving up fiefdoms for the three cousins, no matter their talents. If this scenario came to pass, it would be the first time that the positions of CEO and executive editor were held by family members. One senior editor told me it was essential for the Times' stature as the paper of record that the newsroom be run by a nonfamily member. Others wonder whether the Times would be able to retain top talent if the biggest jobs were monopolized by family members.
In the end, the "all-three deal" is probably less realistic than it is mollifying, another way to soothe anxieties and quiet the talk of horse races. After all, as A.G.'s great-grandfather Arthur Hays Sulzberger told Adolph Ochs some 80 years ago, "There can be only one head to a business."
*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.