Sunday, January 7, 2024

News overworld

It is no secret that the news is a for-profit business, and that this is often the biggest flaw of news. In the modern day, news is both a profitable enterprise and a way to impart your desired influence in a very clear way. This explains someone like Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp, which in turn owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, HarperCollins, New York Post, and many others. He has a set of opinions, and over the course of his very long life he has designed a business that reports news and inputs his influence into the world. 

News Corp HQ (credit: author)

Years ago, before the penny press, journalism was partisan and biased with a limited audience. The penny press widely expanded who could afford, and thus read the news. This led journalists to be interested in not just catering to a single audience, and instead to offer objectivity so they could sell the paper to more customers. There is no secret that all newspapers are now businesses. They may hype up the level to which they believe they are offering a service to the world, but at the end of the day, no bills paid means no news written. This is the death knell of local news. Now that the older business model of selling physical newspapers delivered to your doorstep no longer works, the news industry has become significantly more concentrated because of the challenge of trying to convince people to purchase several different online subscriptions to things they would have to physically read. 

The fact that news is a for-profit business makes it impossible for bias to not be present in reporting. Even if the actual words written are all completely true, editorial choices, including what is reported on or from which angle make a difference. Depth of analysis is always intentional. Skepticism isn't always directed in equal amounts to all things. A great example is how The Economist reports on Israel. They are pro-Israel, and all their reporting on Israel has an implicit belief that Israel is usually in the right and only occasionally makes mistakes. A publication like Jacobin does the inverse. They always assume the worst of Israel. Depending on who you ask, both positions are a flaw. But to the core customers of both publications, the fact that they hold their core beliefs and values is a merit.

Similarly, The New York Times (hereon NYT) is also a business with an owner. In fact, NYT is actually owned in whole by The New York Times Company (disclosure: your author actually owned NYT stock. he did not make money on the trade). Like a typical newspaper, the NYT has a editor-in-chief, who they call the "executive editor." There are also managing editors. What is less obvious is that there is actually a business leadership team as well, part of the NYT Company.  The CEO of NYT Company, according to their website, "leads the Company’s global operations and directs its business strategy." She's not a journalist, and has worked in different revenue and operational roles at NYT and elsewhere. The executive editor is a two-time Pulitzer winner, and is tasked with overseeing the news operations of the paper. 

The NYT has another role that is far more interesting than CEO and EIC. They have a "publisher." Other newspapers have this too, I discovered. But NYT's is interesting. In 1896, a man called Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times from the founders with a $75,000 loan, after being told the paper was struggling to stay afloat. He took the helm, and as publisher led the publication to become more successful. Who is the publisher of NYT today, you might ask? Why, none other than A. G. Sulzberger — Ochs' great-great-grandson! The NYT is a family business! The biography for Sulzberger is frankly hilarious:

A.G. Sulzberger is chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of The New York Times. With a journalism operation of more than 2,000 people reporting from around the globe, The Times is the most influential and award-winning English-language news organization in the world.

As publisher and chairman, Mr. Sulzberger oversees both newsroom and company operations, and is the principal steward of the independence, ambition and excellence of Times journalism. During his tenure, Mr. Sulzberger has invested heavily in investigative journalism, pushed The Times to expand into new digital formats like audio and multimedia, and has been an outspoken defender of the free press in the United States and abroad. A key architect of the company’s digital transformation and business strategy, he has helped grow The Times’s digital subscriber base to more than nine million, from 800,000 in 2014, the year he authored the Innovation Report.

Before becoming publisher, Mr. Sulzberger worked as a reporter and editor. He began his career at The Providence Journal and The Oregonian before joining The Times as a metro reporter. He later served as a national correspondent, assistant metro editor, associate editor for newsroom strategy and deputy publisher. A graduate of Brown University, he is the sixth member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family to serve The Times as publisher since the newspaper was purchased by Adolph Ochs in 1896.

I am sure that Mr. Sulzberger is a really great guy and all, and very intelligent. But including the fact that he worked at other newspapers is a bit funny. In fact, including that he worked at a newspaper at all is really funny too. It's like mentioning that the Ottoman princes were governors, or that they were in the military. Like, what else were they going to do? Become software engineers? Before receiving the job offer to lead the company from his dad, he rose the ranks at the NYT tremendously fast. He was given the job at 37 — I guess that means that his dad, at the very least, believes in him. 

The NYT is a publicly traded company, but it has dual class shares. That means that although the Sulzberger family owns only 20% of the company (they are billionaires), the share type that they own isn't available to the general public and gives them special power. They control 70% of voting shares for the board, which appoints the publisher, CEO, and is generally charged with ensuring the company functions. This same structure exists in other companies, like Google or Meta, which give the founders control over the actions of the company despite not owning an outright financial majority. NYT shareholders did not like the dual-class structure when it was implemented, but it is not like they have the power to change it. 

It is intriguing to me that NYT is a family business. There are arguments, including those made by AG Sulzberger himself, that the family ownership structure leads the newspaper to be solely focused on the pursuit of independence and a better world and all the familiar newsy nonsense. That is probably completely rebutted by the existence of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, I think.