Arthur “Punch” Sulberger died this morning at 86. As the publisher of the New York Times from the 60’s through the 90’s, he was one of the last giants of journalism. Sulzberger instinctively understood something very important about his business: Profitability does not mean you sold out, it means you’ve bought yourself the freedom to be independent.
The New York Times was a family-owned and run newspaper empire but it was also always a business, and Punch never apologized for that. Rather than sheepishly accepting criticism for putting profits on an equal plane with journalistic integrity, he took that kind of criticism head-on with a very substantial counter-argument. While rival newsmen sniped at the Times for creating lifestyle content around which to drive female readers and sell ads, Sulzberger smiled at the criticism while counting his money and stepping over the corpses of his fallen competitors.
The below comes from the New York Times’ massive obituary today:
“A financially sound Times is good for our readers, our advertisers, our shareholders and our employees,” he wrote to The Wall Street Journal, responding to criticisms there, in 1978. “A financially sound Times also is good newspapering. A newspaper that is broke is not going to be able to spend the money necessary to support thorough and aggressive reporting.”
I think there’s a great big universal truth to this idea that transcends journalism. Your favorite indie rock band isn’t a sell-out just because they pop up on MTV or at a radio station’s festival concert – they’re merely putting themselves into a good enough financial situation so they can keep making music in the way they’d like. The great artists of the Renaissance, from Da Vinci to Caravaggio to Michelangelo to Ghiberti all had patrons among the de’ Medici’s and other powerful clans, many of whom would commission the artwork specifically and leave only the execution to the artists themselves. Was Da Vinci a sellout for accepting the commission (and the gold that went along with it)?
Having money represents having the freedom to choose what you will do and how you will do it – in journalism and elsewhere. Having no money leads to real selling out, the kind where your product no longer resembles what you would have chosen to put out in the world.
The Sulzberger obit is below…