Sulzberger’s reaction to the overture was notably cool, but Galloway and his partners continued accumulating stock until they owned more than 28 million shares, just under 20 percent of the Times. When the newcomers threatened a proxy fight to get their nominees on the board, Sulzberger relented, negotiating a compromise that added two extra seats to the board to accommodate Galloway and a fellow nominee, James Kohlberg. It was the first time in the 112 years the Ochs-Sulzberger family has controlled the Times that outside directors not put forward by the family have elbowed their way on to the board. Perhaps the key factor was that Galloway, unlike Elmasry, promised not to challenge family control. In an e-mail, Galloway declined to elaborate on his plans for the Times Company (“I’m ducking the press right now,” he wrote), but longtime media analyst John Morton doubts Galloway’s influence will be much more substantial on the board than off it. “The board meetings may be a little more of a pain in the ass than they used to be,” says Morton. “But it’s not necessarily bad to listen to outsiders who don’t share their culture and background.”
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.”