Here are 11 key quotes from our exclusive interview with New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger

Sulzberger delivered the 2024 Reuters Memorial Lecture. We've selected excerpts on eleven important topics from our conversation with him
New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger. | Credit: New York Times

New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger. | Credit: New York Times

26th February 2024

In early February 2024 I had a wide-ranging conversation with New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, who would be in Oxford a few weeks later to deliver the 2024 Reuters Memorial Lecture, the main event the Reuters Institute hosts every year. 

As a result of my conversation with Sulzberger, I wrote this 7,000-word article which you can also read in Spanish in this link. It's a long article and journalists are busy people. That's why I've selected responses on 11 important topics he covered throughout our conversation below. You'll find many more quotes and context in the full piece.

1. On his role in the Innovation Report. 

“People thought it was a document staring into the future. But it was a culture document and it was just about trying to create the conditions for people to stop saying no to change. There were many things I got wrong. The biggest, I suspect, is that we oscillated too far towards social media. But we were coming from a position of institutional arrogance and we had to be there because that's where our future readers were. We now know these are powerful companies. You need to be on them, and to find ways to partner with them, but your interests are not aligned. You should be clear-eyed on that, treat this as a professional partnership and make sure it meets clearly articulated standards.” 

2. On the types of news executives. 

“I realised there were two categories of news executives trying to figure out success in a digital environment. Category 1 was the group that would go to the digital conferences and ask everyone, “what should we be doing?” Category 2 was the very confident set, saying the future of journalism is X or Y. 

And I came to believe that the path forward in any period of giant transformation is always asking questions, and being sceptical of the answers, and really not believing in any silver bullets. There's some insight that each person has gotten to. But it’s a mistake to view this as a holistic solution to a very complicated problem. At the Times we've worked really hard to cobble together a collection of insights that integrate into an increasingly complex operation. And why is it increasingly complex? Because the ways people are engaging with journalism are increasingly complex.”

3. On the business challenges facing US newspapers.

“The trends that are decimating news have nothing to do with the success of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic or the New Yorker. They are a set of existential pressures that are stemming from the decimation of the legacy business models and the replacement of those with the much more economically challenging digital options. We are seeing it in every country right now. So I don't think this pressure is about the success of one organisation. 

I also think that people may be overstating the challenge the Washington Post is going through. If you had told them 10 years ago that they would have a newsroom with hundreds more journalists and maybe two million more subscribers, they would have taken that in a heartbeat, even if it involves some painful moments along the way.”

4. On why the industry should think bigger.

“I’d say that our industry is still thinking too small, and I think that’s fair: we've been absolutely battered for 20 years. But I think our industry needs to think bigger. If you add up all the news subscriptions in this country today, I don't know what that number would be, but I would guess that it is closer to 30-40 million. That’s significantly less than Paramount+, which is not exactly a successful streamer. We are not even sniffing at Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. 

We are still many factors smaller than those players. I don't think that our industry can or should accept that we are going to collectively be smaller than an eighth-grade streamer.”

5. On defending editorial independence.

“The tension of keeping a news organisation independent and making sure that our report lives up to that promise every day is not new. That is something that generations of journalists have grappled with. It’s also not unique to my country. The BBC is perpetually grappling with many of the same questions, and I’m mentioning them because they face a similar level of scrutiny. Because audiences believe that what they broadcast matters, people are always trying to push them in one way or the other.

So these are not new questions, and they're not unique to the Times. But I do think that the dynamic has changed in recent years [because of the nature of social media]. This is why the editorial decisions of news organisations like mine are going to be continually contested from one side or the other, and often from both sides or every side all at once. This is certainly a challenge. But we are committed to meeting that fundamental promise of independent journalism, without fear of favour, even in the context of the challenge that comes often from the outside.” 

6. On the threat of self-censorship.

“Some of our critics have legitimate grievances, and we have to be open to hearing those grievances. But not all criticism, and not even all good criticism, is aimed really at correcting the record. Often it's aimed at intimidating independent reporting. So our job is to help give the staff confidence to do those stories that explore unpopular positions and wade into controversial areas that challenge conventional wisdom. 

The good news is that journalists are a pretty tough bunch. Most good journalists have a little bit of a contrarian streak because they always wonder what they're missing in the story. They're always wondering if someone's lying. That's part of the job! So our journalists don't need a heck of a lot of nudging to bridle at individuals or groups that are trying to intimidate them from telling the full picture. But at the same time we as an institution also have to show support for that work.” 

7. On what independence really means.

“I don't subscribe to the belief that independence is the same as balance. Balance is actually a somewhat insidious word in our industry because it suggests that the truth is in the middle. Instead, I’m much more interested in completeness and fairness. Are we covering the whole story? And are we doing it fairly? In the end the story won't always be in the middle. You have to be willing to tell the truth, even when telling the truth may lead a partisan to think that you're biassed against them.

Some people sometimes suggest that independent journalism is in some way less idealistic because you're not picking a righteous cause and doing everything you can to move it forward. But I think it’s the most idealistic thing our profession can do, because it’s about arming the public with the information it needs to solve problems.” 

8. On the New York Times’ coverage of Gaza.

“This is a particularly challenging conflict to cover. First of all, just the awfulness of it, the loss of life on all sides. And then the challenge of covering these two populations, both of which have legitimate claims and are locked in an effectively zero-sum conflict in which both sides feel an existential risk. 

In this context, hearing from the other side in an empathetic way and reading sceptical coverage of your own side are often viewed as increasing the risk that you face. So I don't believe that old adage that says ‘if both sides are angry, it means you're doing something right.’ It’s too simplistic and flip. But I do believe that in a conflict like this, any independent, fair, complete coverage would inevitably make both sides angry, and our job is to try to tune that out as much as possible, and instead labour every day to make sure that we are covering the whole story as fully and fairly as possible. 

I don’t think anyone could imagine this conflict will resolve itself without some move towards mutual understanding, and I don't think that will happen unless you have independent news organisations trying to help each side understand the other. That's what we are trying to do.”

9. On covering Trump and other authoritarian politicians.

“On one side, there is the risk of the old sort of the-truth-is-in-the-middle model. And if we are being honest, some of the criticism of mainstream media as being too euphemistic and too instinctively even-handed in coverage is fair. The truth isn't always in the middle and one of the best things to come out of the digital transformations in media is a much more direct, plain-spoken writing style. 

On the other side, there is a risk in the media leaning into becoming the opposition to these candidates and becoming emotionally invested and trying to undermine them rather than to help the public understand their policies and the potential concerns those may raise. For me, the path forward is to fully and fairly convey this and do it unapologetically and with clear language while understanding that doing so may lead some people not to find it too credible.” 

10. On the value of an Opinion section in 2024.

“We are labelling opinions much more aggressively. Even if fewer people click on them as a result, we want to make it clear that opinion journalism is something different. But why does it still have value? Because it’s so useful to be able to sit in a deep way, not just a quote in a story, and hear the fullest, most carefully considered argument from someone who doesn't think like you. It's also useful with someone who does think like you because sometimes it sharpens your own thinking. 

Having a place where you are finding arguments that challenge your view is one of the rarest things in society right now. A place where people are being heard at length and in depth. So a great Opinion section absolutely advances our core journalistic mission of helping people understand the world, and it does it with the same commitment to independence. It just does so in aggregate, rather than at story level.” 

11. On the threat and opportunity of AI. 

“This technology offers great potential not just to the world but to the profession of journalism, but it also offers real risk. And as an industry, we need to care about these risks. We can’t allow a world in which the right of a news organisation to be paid for the work that spends money, and takes time and care and often risks to create, disappears. We cannot allow a world where the right for a news organisation to have a direct relationship with the audience for that very work disappears. That matters, and I hope the whole industry is taking this seriously.

But technology can be used in all sorts of ways, and I'm excited about many of the ways that we can use AI at the New York Times. Can you imagine a world in which every article we produce is translated into every language on Earth? We can and it’s exciting. Can you imagine a world in which every article we write is automatically turned into audio, and every podcast we make is automatically turned to text? We can and it’s exciting. It will make our journalism more accessible to more people than ever before.”

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