A.G. Sulzberger says New York Times aims to communicate value, values to readers

By Nevin Kallepalli

New York, United States


From his recent 12,000-word essay, its clear how A.G. Sulzberger, chairman and publisher of The New York Times, feels about the importance of journalistic independence.

“Every year or two, you should try writing something to remind colleagues you know how to swing and remind yourself how unnerving it is to step up to the plate,” Sulzberger said during a “fireside chat” with INMA Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton at the World Congress of News Media on Thursday.

Distilling his tome on journalistic independence into a few words, Sulzberger defined it as the power to report news “without fear or favour,” meaning to follow the facts wherever they go and to describe the world as it is, not how we wish it to be.

A commitment to a truth without an agenda may seem uncontroversial, but Sulzberger fears the license to render the world with honesty is becoming rarer and rarer.

Do readers care?

In a time when people are more skeptical of reporting that challenges their world view, misinformation and deep fakes run amok. If algorithms only feed users content that aligns with their biases, what is the value of independent journalism?

While he acknowledges that bifurcation is a real problem, Sulzberger said he believes this time of insecurity has actually strengthened people’s reliance on legacy publications like The New York Times.

“I’m the last to want to push back on cynicism,” he said, “but as the information ecosystem devolves, people are turning back to trusted sources.”

He presented a few points of data to back up his claim. For most of its history, The Times had approximately 1 million subscribers. As of February that figure has grown to a whopping 9.6 million. Other newspapers like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have followed suit.

A challenge that Sulzberger and The Times must face is how to communicate with subscribers the amount of diligence behind their careful reporting. The fact that some of the companys war correspondents are veterans and court reporters are former attorneys — even the very meaning of a dateline — is totally unbeknownst to readers.

In the minds of many, reporting is simply taking calls from around the world in the comfort of their Times Square office. While that’s certainly part of it, editors are making an effort to communicate to readers that The Times reporters are dispatched all around the world – often at great risk – to get the facts directly from the source.

Technology and platforms: friends or foes?

On the topic of emerging technologies such as generative AI, Sulzberger she he believes it is best to constantly ask questions as opposed to jumping to conclusions.

“If you’re using the word existential to describe AI, if the question is big enough that youre using phrases like may destroy all of humanity … then you need a team assigned to it,” he said.

That team must consist of skeptics of the conventional wisdom, but also people brave enough to challenge the decisions that the leadership is making. Ultimately, workers on the inside must utilise the same ethos of objectivity that they practice when they’re reporting on the field — making a sober assessment of future gains and pitfalls.

Sulzberger took a moment to reflect on past moments in media history and how The Times responded with its strategy. There was a time when people thought video would replace print. People then thought audio would replace everything. He is a staunch believer that no medium really disappears, and it's more useful to understand how newsrooms can best contribute to the particularities of each format or placement.

“If we can't add value, we just really shouldn't be on the platform,” he said, adding that there is a sweet spot in the middle of a Venn diagram that is mutually beneficial for both parties.

For example, the importance of creating short-form video content on social media stems from the fact that this is where many users begin their conversation with The New York Times. But it is on The Times Web site and many apps that readers develop a relationship and ultimately subscribe.

A full service restaurant

The future of The New York Times seems to be moving in unexpected directions. The company has been tremendously successful in developing a multiplatform strategy by investing in audio content, NYT Cooking, T Magazine, Wirecutter, the recently acquired Athletic, and surprisingly, Wordle.

“In many ways, I think this is a return to the newspaper era,” he said. “And for those of you who remember, newspapers once served a ridiculous number of needs in your life, right?”

Indeed, before the Internet, physical newspapers were how fans learned who won last night’s game, the weather report, how people got their job, met their life partners, and played crossword puzzles.

Sulzberger likens The Times strategy to a full-service restaurant. The news remains the foundation of the meal, but all of these exciting flourishes are what make eating out truly enjoyable: the ambiance, the cocktails, and perhaps a bit of live entertainment.

This also applies to the question of personalisation. There still must be some kind of editorial guidance in the news of the day. Just because a reader is leaning into light stories at a given moment doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be faced with the most pressing stories, even when those are challenging, Sulzberger said: “That’s a distinctive type of judgment that we should be careful about.”

INMA World Congress of News Media continues through May 26.

About Nevin Kallepalli

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