The New York Times Has Not Sunk…Yet

Sulzberger talks up company at annual meeting

At the New York Times Company’s annual meeting on Wednesday, chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did his best to keep the focus on the flagship paper’s high quality journalism. But, inevitably, the conversation turned to the company’s financial situation.

On the heels of Times executive editor Bill Keller’s fight with Arianna Huffington, who he accused of pushing a watered down, aggregated form of kitten-videos-and-pro-bono-blogging journalism, Sulzberger stressed to investors that as other publications abandon the “hard, expensive business of on-the-ground reporting,” the Times has not. “We know the business challenges we face, but let us not forget the personal costs that come,” Sulzberger said, paying tribute to the four Times journalists who were held captive in Libya for six days.

Sulzberger moved on to discuss the company’s need for “constant innovation,” with the company’s paywall as the headlining act. Sulzberger said it was considered “an article of faith that people wouldn’t pay for Web content,” using the now-defunct online pay model TimesSelect as an example that “demonstrated that people would pay” for Times columnists. Despite the fact that the paper dropped TimesSelect in 2007, two years after its initial launch, Sulzberger told shareholders that the Times was “ahead of our time, but the impulse behind TimesSelect was right.” Alluding back to the company’s journalists in Libya, Sulzberger said, “Dangerous and complicated stories are worth paying for.”

When CEO Janet Robinson took the stage, things shifted more to the financial side of things. Robinson touted the fact that the company tripled its operating profit in 2010, in contrast to bleak returns in 2009. She also highlighted the company’s efficiency, with $800 million in operating costs savings since 2006 and a significant reduction in debt.

This shiny picture of The New York Times’ financial health did not sit comfortably with one shareholder, who—like everyone else in the Times Center’s auditorium—hasn’t seen any dividends since the Times suspended them in 2009. When the shareholder asked why, if the company is doing so well, the dividend hasn’t been reinstated, even at one penny, Sulzberger responded by saying that the company confronted a “great lack of clarity” and that “when we see our earnings are stable and growing,” dividends will be reinstated.

Question-and-answer sessions, whether at an annual meeting or a book reading, always provide plenty of opportunity for people who don’t have much better to do to get in some odd questions, and this was no different. Perhaps most pressing was this question: Is the New York Times literally sinking? A concerned shareholder inquired about the New York Times’ printing plant, built in College Point, Queens, on what, in the questioner’s view, amounted to “a swamp,” asking, “Has the building sunk at all?”

After much laughter, executives confirmed that the Times has not sunk. Not yet.