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Efforts by Trump, others to discredit press ‘dangerous phenomenon’, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger says

  • ‘Worrying time’ for readers who care about journalism, says A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times
  • Distrust of the press comes as newspapers are facing major business challenges
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 11:21pm

In July, A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, was invited to the White House for a meeting with US President Donald Trump.

It is the type of discussion that has happened before between his predecessors and other presidents, but came at a particularly acrimonious time for journalism in the United States.

Dissatisfied with coverage of his administration, President Trump has regularly called the media the “enemy of the people” and labelled stories he dislikes as “fake news”. The Times is often a target of his attacks.

Sulzberger told the president that he was deeply troubled by the anti-press rhetoric coming out of the White House, but agreed for the conversation to be off the record as requested by the president’s aides as had been the practice in the past.

That changed when Trump tweeted about it.

This is a really worrying time for all of us who care about journalism and the role it plays in supporting a free and informed society
A.G. Sulzberger

“I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press,” Sulzberger said in the days following the meeting.

Four months later, Sulzberger said he remains disappointed that the president, who continued to attack the press this autumn in the run-up to the midterm elections in the US, has not heeded his warning.

“This is a really worrying time for all of us who care about journalism and the role it plays in supporting a free and informed society. That should be abundantly clear. Journalists are being jailed, murdered all over the world and the United States has publicly retreated from its historic role supporting freedom of speech and a free press,” Sulzberger said.

“The President of the United States himself has waged a deeply cynical attack on journalism for the apparent reason that these are the institutions that exist to ask the tough questions and hold powerful people and institutions accountable,” Sulzberger told the South China Morning Post. “I think we see both in the US and around the world an effort to pre-emptively discredit truth tellers and journalistic institutions for short-term gain. That’s a really dangerous phenomenon.”

Facing down a president is one of the many on-the-job challenges that Sulzberger, 38, has had to take on since assuming the publisher’s job in January, when he succeeded his father in the role.

He is the sixth member of his family to serve as publisher since his great-great-grandfather took control of the paper in 1896. In addition to becoming publisher, he also got married and became a father this year.

Sulzberger was visiting Hong Kong for a luxury conference sponsored by the Times.

A former reporter at The Providence Journal, The Oregonian and the Times, Sulzberger has taken the reins of the paper in a challenging period for the business of journalism.

Newspapers have seen advertising dollars, once the backbone of their revenue, dwindle dramatically in recent years.

Ad revenue at US newspapers declined by 23 per cent between 2013 and 2017, according to the PwC Global Media Outlook.

The changing business environment has required the Times to shift how it reaches readers and how it pays for its journalism.

Subscriptions accounted for 63 per cent of the company’s revenue in the first nine months of this year. Advertising – both print and digital – made up about 30 per cent of its revenue through September.

“I think the core of my job is to wrestle with a little bit of a paradox,” Sulzberger said. “I’m an agent of continuity and an agent of change. This is a 160-year-old institution that is justifiably proud of its history and traditions, but it’s also an institution that needs to succeed in a rapidly changing world. How you tell stories is changing. How people find and consume journalism is changing. And the business of journalism is changing.”

Sulzberger has already played a key role in that change, serving as one of the architects of the paper’s Innovation Report in 2014. The report prompted the newspaper to adopt a digital-first model.

The shift appears to be paying off.

The Times surpassed three million digital subscribers in the third quarter and has more than four million subscriptions in total.

Its 20-minute, five-day-a-week podcast, “The Daily”, now has more listeners than people who ever opened the print edition, Sulzberger said.

Overall, digital circulation is expected to increase in the US at a compound annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent between 2017 and 2022, according to PwC.

“Part of the reason for our significant growth over the last two years and it’s a big part of the reason, is that Facebook, Spotify and many other of these services have trained a generation of internet users to pay for services online,” Sulzberger said. “I think we’re benefiting from that shift in behaviour.”

The growth has allowed the paper to continue to invest in its journalism, particularly internationally, Sulzberger said.

The paper had reporters on the ground in 163 countries last year and is the last American news organisation to have a full-time presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sulzberger said.

The Times now has 100 people in its Hong Kong operations, he said.

“Initially we started growing it out at the home base of our Asia coverage,” Sulzberger said. “Increasingly it’s also for eight to 10 hours a day, the home base for The New York Times as a whole. This place has become really important to the Times.”

Despite the migration of readers to the digital product, the print newspaper remains an important part of the Times’ ongoing strategy, Sulzberger said.

“We think that the print newspaper has a really important role to play. It still reaches a million loyal readers, a million loyal subscribers,” Sulzberger said. “It’s still a great, robust reading experience that we continue to invest money in, continue to innovate in.”

The mission of the Times – to seek the truth, hold power to account and help people understand the world – remains more important than ever, Sulzberger said.

“It’s an extraordinary privilege to be able to serve this institution at this moment in time,” Sulzberger said. “This is the time when leadership actually matters. This is the time when the future of journalism is being written. It’s really uncertain. There are profound forces that are coming in multiple directions, from the decline of trust and the attacks on the free press to the erosion of the business model that supports not just journalism, but a particular type of journalism – quality, original, deeply reported journalism. We really need to get those questions right.”