Still, the company’s ongoing tussles with large shareholders combined with its sinking stock have fueled persistent speculation in the press (including some from Howell Raines, the former Times executive editor) that the Times Company might be on the market. Potential buyers bandied about have ranged from Google to New York mayor/billionaire Michael Bloomberg to a coalition of elite universities. Such speculation reached sufficient pitch that it caused Sulzberger to reiterate that the company his family controls is not for sale. “There have been a number of recent newspaper and magazine articles that have suggested otherwise,” Sulzberger told shareholders in April. “They are ill-informed.”
In fact, despite the company’s recent struggles, Sulzberger remains aggressively upbeat. While he calls the current period “the most disruptive transition in the history of mass communications,” he maintains that in some ways the Times brand has never been stronger. And while he concedes that overall print circulation is falling, he notes that circulation revenue has actually ticked up recently due to price increases, which “speaks to the willingness of people to pay for this medium.” Sulzberger also points out that the number of two-year subscribers to the paper is at an all-time high, a measure of the “brand loyalty” of readers and “the remarkable strength of our print base.” As for newsroom layoffs, Sulzberger notes they came from the largest newsroom in the paper’s history, 1,300 strong, and he characterized them more as an ongoing reallocation of personnel away from print and toward the Internet, where the company continues to expand.
Indeed, Times Company revenue from digital operations was up 22 percent last year and continues to grow rapidly. Much of that increase comes from About.com, the online research service the company acquired in 2005 for $410 million. Though the deal was panned by critics, Martin Nisenholtz, who heads digital operations for the Times Company, says that About is easily worth two or three times what the company paid for it. “People didn’t understand it,” says Nisenholtz. “Search wasn’t at the forefront, Google wasn’t public yet, and people thought it was Web 1.0 technology. We’ve proven them wrong to date.” Last year, About’s revenue topped $100 million for the first time. In total, digital operations brought in $330 million last year, about 10 percent of the Times Company’s total revenue, up from 8 percent in 2006.
Still, overall revenue dropped, leading to a basic question: When will gains online realistically make up for losses on the print side? “We don’t know when digital revenues will offset the decline in print,” Sulzberger wrote in an e-mail, adding that “this is a question we often ask ourselves.”
Others do, too. Investors seem to have a split opinion on how the company is coping with rapid changes in the industry. “It’s actually doing a better job than most,” says Edward Atorino, a media analyst with The Benchmark Company. “It’s going after luxury goods with T magazine; its Internet revenues are growing; its circulation remains fairly strong.” Some analysts and large investors don’t see things in such a rosy light, and though they prefer to do their sniping off the record to avoid publicly antagonizing Sulzberger, it’s safe to say they have serious qualms about his management competence. Rank-and-file shareholders , meanwhile, were not shy at the Times Company annual meeting, where they pressed Sulzberger on alleged blunders. For example, one shareholder raised the issue of the deal the company made on its former Times Square headquarters. In 2004, the Times sold its longtime home at 229 West 43rd Street to Tishman Speyer, a real-estate firm, for $175 million. Tishman then flipped the fifteen-story building less than three years later, selling it for $525 million before the Times had even finished moving out. That $300-million-plus gain for Tishman exceeded what the Times cleared by selling nine television stations the same year. When queried about the property sale at the annual the meeting, Michael Golden, the company’s vice chairman and Arthur Sulzberger’s cousin, admitted that the company had “missed” on the building sale, but contended that no one could have predicted the heat of the New York real-estate market, an assertion that might come as a surprise to anyone who had shopped for real estate in Manhattan in the last decade or so.
When another shareholder rose to complain about the lack of accountability of management to shareholders for such decisions and whether family control of The New York Times Company was good for shareholders, Sulzberger readily conceded: “That’s a core question.”