My wife, Susan E. Tifft, and I have spent the last seven years writing a multigenerational biography of the Sulzberger family called “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.” Before that we wrote a biography of the Bingham family called “The Patriarch.” Both the Binghams and the Sulzbergers published newspapers of extraordinary quality, and both were family dynasties with great traditions. Yet the Sulzberger book is the story of a great success, and the book on the Binghams tells of a very unhappy failure.

Why? And, perhaps more important, what difference does it make that a family newspaper stays in the family? In 1986, the collapse of the Binghams hit the nation’s newspaper-owning families like an icy wind. There aren’t a lot of us anymore, and we few who remain feel like remnants of a world rapidly passing.

I am in the fourth generation of a family that has owned The Greeneville (TN) Sun for 83 years, and my father and two brothers still run the paper. During my childhood, I cannot remember a single dinner that wasn’t interrupted by a call for my father, almost always from someone who was furious. In the 1950’s, we went to meetings of the Tennessee Press Association with dozens of other families like ours. Now there are only a handful of owner-families who attend. From our perspective, the grim reaper has cut down all but a few survivors, and those of us still standing fear it’s just a matter of time until he comes for us.

When my father read an account of how the Binghams had self-destructed as a family and were selling The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, he was ashen at the thought that the same thing might happen to us. The Bingham tragedy was a great cautionary tale with a profound message: A family newspaper is—above all else—a family business.

A.O. “Punch” Sulzberger, the head of the nation’s most powerful newspaper clan, captured the gist of the lesson in a quip that made the rounds at the time. In the midst of the furor over the Bingham story, Punch was attending a board meeting of a newspaper organization. When he went to find the men’s room someone asked, “Where are you going?” He replied, in a deadpan voice, “To send flowers to my sisters.”

It would be wrong to think that the overwhelming consolidation of newspaper ownership in the last 40 years was rooted in family strife. It is a natural evolution for businesses to change hands, and newspapers have always been bought and sold. My family acquired The Greeneville Sun from another family that had been in the newspaper business in Greeneville for more than half a century. At that time, the Sun represented a way to make a decent living, but it was hardly a ticket to wealth. What has changed is that technology allowed newspapers to become quite profitable, and suddenly families weren’t selling to other families, but to corporations that could pay far more.

The Binghams were not one of those families that cashed out just for the money; they had done extensive estate planning calculated to keep their papers in the family for at least another generation. And they could have done so had Barry Bingham, Sr. and his wife, Mary, decided to favor one of their warring children over the others. But they could not bring themselves to do that and—in hopes of peace—elected instead to sell and divide the proceeds.

While the Binghams may have been an unhappy family, they were exemplary newspaper owners. Barry Bingham, Jr., who was furious at his father’s decision to sell, is a man who cares enormously about journalism ethics and would likely have been a powerful voice for stringent journalistic standards in today’s equivocal environment had he remained at the head of the family business. He did not, and journalism is the poorer for it.

The Sulzbergers demonstrate what is possible in a different family environment. The family has its stresses, its strains and its frictions. There are many more people to keep happy than in the Bingham clan, and most members of the family have no direct connection with the Times. A sale would make everyone fabulously rich. In other words, the Sulzbergers might seem to have far more going against them than did the Binghams.

Indeed, there was every reason to think that the transition of power from Punch and his three sisters—the third generation—to their 13 offspring could have been a disaster. The way the family had always handled important decisions was for the older generation to deliberate and simply hand down a ruling. It was considered rude to even ask questions. Punch had waited quietly for his parents to tell him whether he would be made publisher of the Times. And when his sister Ruth was made publisher of The Chattanooga Times—where Adolph Ochs, the family patriarch, made his start—no one had even discussed it with her.

To Punch’s son, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and the other members of the fourth generation, this was not an appropriate model. But instead of going to war with their seniors, they asked their parents to support a painstaking effort to reinvent the way the family operated. The result was a process in which the fourth and fifth generations of the Sulzberger family, including all spouses, formally declared that the good of The New York Times comes before their ambitions and interests. Remarkably, they seem to mean this.

And just as exceptionally, Punch and his sisters have gracefully—and almost completely—stepped aside. Two of the three sisters have retired from the board, which prompted genuine pain. One sister, Marian, said giving up her board seat was like losing a limb. Seldom has an older generation of ownership relinquished so much control with so little bitterness and hard feeling. As a result of the good will and sacrifice of both generations, family covenants assure that the Times will stay in Sulzberger hands for another century.

What difference does it make that the Times remains in family hands?

One short anecdote tells the tale.

In 1987, the Times was riding high and business was booming. Then came the stock market crash, which devastated New York, and a widespread newspaper recession squeezed the whole industry. During the next four years, the Times lost about 40 percent of its advertising lineage—a staggering hit. Yet, in each one of those four years, the news budget for The New York Times increased. It is at moments such as this when the family matters. There is almost certainly not another newspaper in the country that would have made the judgment that the quality of the news was worth that burden on the bottom line. This is especially the case when papers are owned by corporations fixated on short-term profit and loss. While The New York Times Company is serious about profit, it is even more serious about what the family terms “value.”

See an excerpt on this episode from “The Trust.” »
Similarly, it was Punch who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. He consulted neither his own board nor the pundits of Wall Street, although what he did put the whole company at risk. Indeed, his own lawyers refused to defend the Times when the Attorney General tried to stop publication of the classified documents. Punch simply made the decision he thought proper and never looked back. He had the support that counted: that of his sisters and his mother, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, who was Adolph Ochs’s only child. The family.

It is certainly true that corporate ownership has made some newspapers better than they were under family control. But I’d gladly trade the formulaic predictability of a McDonald’s hamburger for the hope of something sublime at a roadside diner, despite occasional cases of heartburn. And when the chips are down, I would rather trust a family with the critical job of running a town’s newspaper than I would a big, anonymous corporation. Maybe decisions would not be any better, but at least you’d know whose dinner to interrupt.

Alex S. Jones co-authored “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times,” with Susan E. Tifft. They share the Eugene Patterson Professorship at Duke University. Jones is also Host and Executive Editor of “Media Matters” on PBS. He is a 1982 Nieman Fellow.

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