"Your question is whether or not we would be interested in using the facsimile method of reproduction to make the New York Times available in other communities. The only answer I can give you at the present time is no."
--a memo from Arthur Hays Sulzberger, NYT's publisher, August 1, 1959
Fifty years later, the NYT has become exactly what the current publisher's grandfather wisely opposed: a national newspaper.
Today -- almost five decades to the day after Sulzberger wrote that memo blocking the national move -- the NYT did the unthinkable: it published a Sunday paper, with hundreds of pages of content at a first-time-ever $5 cover price, without a single local news story anywhere inside.
We believe that the shift to make the NYT a national newspaper -- begun in the early 1960s, and developed more fully under Sulzberger's son, Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger, in the 1980s and early 1990s -- has been the costliest mistake in the NYT's history, and the one that now threatens its very existence. As the NYT still chases down subscriptions for handfuls of readers in remote sections of the country, it has abandoned its core business -- the New York City market -- in ways that have cost the paper readers, revenue and respect.
And that mistake lies with those who inherited what authors Alex Jones and Susan Tifft labelled "The Trust" -- the control of the NYT that has been in the hands of the Sulzberger family for decades. Even though the dreamed-of millions in national advertising never quite materialized, Punch Sulzberger's notion of a national edition has become the paper's permanent policy, carried forward by his son Arthur into the twenty-first century. In doing so, father and son have led the NYT down a path towards its possible destruction. If the NYT fails to survive, it will be because this misguided strategy ignored the NYT's core mission as a local newspaper.
In 1992, Punch Sulzberger justified the NYT's limited, class-based approach to local coverage for a national audience, in a startlingly frank interview with media journalist Edwin Diamond:
"We're not New York's hometown newspaper. We're read on Park Avenue but not in Chinatown or the east Bronx....We should deal with the overall important urban stories that are of interest to Times readers wherever they live, Palo Alto or 82nd and Fifth."
It should be noted that 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue was the location of Sulzberger's apartment.
"Our journalism has never been more glorious," managing editor Jill Abramson boasted to readers in a "Talk To The Newsroom" feature this past January. But in reality, the NYT's abandonment of its mandate to cover New York City has left the paper with a warped identity of itself. Abramson, executive editor Bill Keller and the rest of the newsroom leadership see only what they want to see; their arrogance doesn't allow them to acknowledge the broad gaps in coverage created by a combination of massive budgets cuts and misguided decisions.
But readers know the difference, and realize that the NYT is no longer the newspaper of record for New York City. Its motto, emblazoned each day on the front page -- "All The News That's Fit To Print" -- sounds increasingly like a hollow promise from editors who have ceded local coverage to the competition, and who preside over a battered, weakened newspaper that ignores the city at its peril.