Monday, October 01, 2012

Punch-drunk: Arthur Sulzberger (1926-2012)

By Carl 

(Ed. note: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger died on Saturday at the age of 86. -- MJWS)

It's a given that Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger changed The New York Times and created the Newspaper of Record that we've come to know.

It's also a given that his decision to publish The Pentagon Papers was a watershed moment in U.S. press reporting and in journalism. It's also a given that he was late to the boat on Watergate.

That he took a local New York City newspaper and made it into a worldwide phenomenon is also indisputable, although one might make the argument that in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, that was likely to happen as the world spotlight centered on the US, and the US was New York City and the other 50 states.

He also took his eye off local reporting, in particular local politics, and focused the lens of the paper on national politics. It sold newspapers, to be sure, but also sold the people of NYC up the river. What had been the most reliable source of hard facts about the city had ceded the field to the sensationalist New York Post (then a liberal rag) and the middle-of-the-road New York Daily News.

So much so that New Yorkers who could have shaped and influenced the direction of events here knew more about President Ford's plan to "Whip Inflation Now" than about the burgeoning financial crisis. To this day, sweetheart deals for councilmembers and borough presidents get very short shrift (e.g. Christine Quinn profting politically off her wife's legal connections).

I blame Watergate, which so galvanized the nation and all but created The Washington Post. That sold papers. That forced Sulzberger to shift his focus. After all, you have 330 million Americans and about ten million New Yorkers and commuters. Who do you think deserves to be served by a national paper? 

As it turns out, both. The advent of the internet and 24 hour cable news made the Times almost an irrelevancy. Where it would break roughly a story a month, it now finds itself on the "analysis" end of the story, backending and summarizing where once it would lead things that bled over the paper.

Sulzberger was long gone (he left the publisher position in 1992, the board in 1997) when all this transpired, but one wonders if Sulzberger could have been a little more prescient and hired thinkers, rather than the David Brooks and Ross Douthats of the world.

Anyway, godspeed, Mr. Sulzberger. You were a giant among giants and for that, you deserve your day in the sun.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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