Accuracy in Media

There might have been a time when science and health reporter Donald McNeil enjoyed working for The New York Times, but that apparently isn’t the case now.

According to Gawker, McNeil sent out an email to about 150 of his colleagues a few weeks ago taking issue with the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s  lack of leadership.

The Times is in labor turmoil. Journalists are openly angry. Even the sacred Page One meeting has had a protest.

The company has no C.E.O.

Arthur has cancelled his annual State of the Times address.

He didn’t even speak at Anthony Shadid’s memorial. Jill “greeted us in his name” as he sat there.

And don’t forget what Bloomberg observed on Jan. 27: “In the meantime, the 60-year-old chairman is serving as interim CEO amid internal concerns about his travels overseas, according to two people familiar with the matter. In the last 19 months, Sulzberger has attended at least a dozen conferences and panels in Istanbul, Beijing, Munich, London, Paris and Switzerland where his girlfriend, Claudia Gonzalez, works.”

So where is Arthur these days?

At the small dinners he is having with staff, he offered an answer: He has found a new management guru, Michael Useem. And he is going trekking with Mr. Useem in the Himalayas soon.

No, really.

Michael Useem is the author of “The Leadership Moment” and “The Leader’s Checklist.”

Quick history lesson: over the last 20 years, Arthur has adopted a series of management consultants. First there was W. Edwards Deming, who led workshops having NYT staffers form “quality circles.” Then there was one whose name I forgot who had us all post plastic-coated cards with “The Rules of the Road” on our desks. (For a reality-bending trip down memory lane, read the company’s web page about those rules of the road: Read especially carefully the part at right called Ten Reasons To Work at The New York Times Company. One reason: “You Are Valued,” which ends: “And to cap it off, the Company maintains a rich retirement program that helps you build a prosperous financial future.”) Then there was Jim Clemmer and his “Put the Moose on the Table” philosophy that led Arthur to bring the infamous stuffed moose to the town meeting that finished off Howell Raines.

Enter guru No. 4.

A Nepal trek is very Arthur, since he’s a rock climber and Outward Bound tripper.

But to learn leadership? Shouldn’t a 60-year-old corporate chairman already know whether he’s a leader or not? Shouldn’t that have been decided by age 35 or so?

And a trek now? In mid-crisis?

We put out a great newspaper every day. But outside the newsroom, at the corporate level, we’re sailing on a ghost ship.

McNeil has a point. Under Sulzberger’s leadership over the last few years, the paper has seen its circulation fall, ad revenues plummet, profits all but evaporate and the stock price tank.

Yet despite the financial pressure, the Times gave outgoing CEO Janet L. Robinson a $23 million exit package and a contract that didn’t actually require her to do any work. And as McNeil states, Sulzberger hasn’t named a replacement, choosing instead to take on that mantle himself as if he can do any better.

Then there are the contract negotiations with the Newspaper Guild of New York that have become so bitter that the Guild took the unprecedented  steps of not only posting an open letter to Sulzberger on the web, but also of asking Guild members to sign a petition objecting to the terms offered by the paper. That petition now has 592 signers, so it is clear that McNeil isn’t the only disgruntled employee, not by a long shot.

With his family controlling some 90% of the voting stock , Sulzberger is probably in no immediate danger of losing his job–just the family fortune.

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