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Best Business Books 2005: Media

Mr. Argyris went well beyond his assignment — even producing recommendations for restructuring. He hoped to inspire media firms to become both self-examining and self-regulating, but there is little evidence that his damning diagnosis was ever acted upon — especially at the Times. Three decades later, the paper, even with different personnel, still exhibited many of the dysfunctional patterns he had identified. By the time the younger Sulzberger and Mr. Raines got together in 2001, little about the newspaper’s flawed fundamental culture had changed.

One reason for the organization’s inertia is that the management and staff — who see the New York Times as the gold standard of American journalism — have rarely brooked criticism. In the 1970s, for example, when the independent, privately organized National News Council was set up as a conduit for public and private feedback, the Times alone among the national media refused to cooperate with it. Within a decade, the council died. Similarly, as other news media appointed ombudsmen and public editors to handle reader and institutional complaints, the Times again demurred.

Another reason is that Times managers and editors have not, by and large, been innovators. Although some earlier studies of the Times emphasized its distinctive character and leadership role among U.S. media, few have hailed its management performance. The reason, once again, is hubris: People associated with the Times regard themselves as unique, standing on the commanding heights of American journalism with little to learn from others. Irreverent critics, however, have scored the Times for being sluggish in adapting to a changing newspaper market. For example, the paper was years behind others in creating special content sections and adopting color printing and other technical improvements. Even its much admired and celebrated content, often criticized for its liberal, metropolitan orientation, has until recently hewed to predictable formats and traditional newsgathering practices.

To understand the distinctive aspects of the paper as well as its role as an agenda setter for information — if not for style and presentation — there is benefit in reviewing earlier accounts by insiders (publishers, editors, and even some reporters) as well as more impartial outside assessments. The best of these are Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power (Ivy Books, 1969) and Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones’s The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times (Little Brown, 1999). Both confirm the slow-to-change nature of the newspaper famously known as “the Gray Lady,” especially in its corporate culture, leadership imperatives, and management style. Gay Talese explains how the paper became America’s preeminent news provider while playing a vital role in American life. Ms. Tifft and Mr. Jones remind us that the company is still led by America’s ruling journalistic family, the Sulzbergers, descendants of Adolph Ochs, who bought the then-failing Times in 1896 and made it a great newspaper. Their control is guaranteed by ownership of the firm’s entire Class B stock (all 850,000 shares) and 15 percent of its Class A stock (22.5 million of its 150 million shares). No elite station in American life has greater continuity than that of the publisher of the New York Times. Presidents of the U.S. come and go, Times publishers linger on. More recently, media critic Ken Auletta of the New Yorker tracked management issues at the Times and Howell Raines’s rise to power in Backstory: Inside the Business of News (Penguin Books, 2003). Mr. Auletta, like Mr. Mnookin, is critical of Mr. Raines’s abrasive and autocratic management style. Although Mr. Raines himself declined to be interviewed for Hard News, his voice was heard in a rambling, defensive jeremiad in the Atlantic Monthly in May 2004, about a year after his departure. There he complained about “attitudes of entitlement and smug complacency that pervade the paper.”

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