“Trying to assess the true importance of the Internet now is like asking the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk if they were aware of the potential of American Airlines Advantage Miles,” New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. (A ’74) told a crowded Cabot Auditorium yesterday.
Sulzberger is trying to steer his print-based industry through the digital age, and he shared some of his experiences and strategies in a speech that kicked off the First Annual Tufts Leadership Forum.
University President Lawrence Bacow introduced Sulzberger and noted that the goal of the forum is to encourage students “to take on an active role as engaged citizens.”
Sulzberger, a 1974 alum who also serves as chairman of the New York Times Company, opened his speech by talking about college life in Boston during the Vietnam War era.
During this period, he said that Beantown was full of active students vying to be heard.
“We protested and fought for what we believed was right,” Sulzberger said.
This free-thinking mindset he developed on the Hill served as a springboard for his future endeavors, and he said that such open-mindedness is necessary for emerging leaders.
Sulzberger said that the most challenging development has come with the digital age, explaining his point with a quote from Bran Ferren, a former Walt Disney Imagineering executive: “Society evolves like a species. It’s not smooth and linear.”
The Times has taken several measures to square its content with emerging markets. Its management, for example, is now examining its readership through a research and development department.
According to Sulzberger, 18 percent of full-time students read the print edition of the Times while 14 percent read the online version. Though the consumption of news by students has decreased over the years, Sulzberger said that their diffusion of information has gone up as they converse more and share articles using the Internet.
The department has also determined that current students are more concerned about global issues than past generations.
Sulzberger said that students today are much more like their grandparents than their parents, noting that the Millennium Generation and the so-called Greatest Generation that faced World War II share a sense of optimism and innovation in eras of rapid change and development. As a result, young adults today want to be active in the news process.
“People want to be heard and involved in the news,” he said, explaining that his company is trying to adapt to this need by increasing its presence on the Internet and giving readers more opportunities to interact with each other.
Specifically, he said that the Times has started 40 blogs, opened up articles for comments and started over 1,000 specially-themed Topics pages on subjects ranging from “Myanmar to Madonna.”
For Sulzberger, innovation requires a multilateral approach, and one key component is a strong philosophical foundation. At the Times, he said that this foundation has given the management the strength to publish sensitive news such as the Pentagon Papers and information about warrantless wiretapping.
Another requirement is keeping in mind that some fundamental principles will not change with time. People have always wanted information, for example, and the Internet only facilitates that exchange.
Experimenting with and incorporating outside help in the Times’ coverage is also important for Sulzberger, who said that good leaders cannot be afraid to try new things.
“If you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough,” he said.
Before accepting questions, he emphasized that while innovative thinking will help leaders in the future, they must also keep in mind that simple things like sharing and cooperation will also lead to success.
Sulzberger said that this basic principle is often ignored by companies.
“It’s amazing how many are bad at it,” he said.
In answering one audience member’s inquiry in the question and answer session that followed his address, Sulzberger said that the media did not do a sufficient job of keeping an eye on the Bush Administration after Sept. 11.
While there have been improvements lately, he said that it has been difficult to cover the administration closely, because some information cannot be revealed for national security reasons. In deciding what to publish, he said that journalists often have to rely on their own judgment.
When asked if he would encourage student journalists in the room to get involved in the news industry, Sulzberger said he absolutely would.
Despite the challenged posed by emerging online outlets, he said that print journalism will be around for the foreseeable future and that new technology has made his industry a more exciting one.
While this answer inspired optimism, Sulzberger did not leave Cabot before delivering a parting blow to the audience by saying that the New York Times did not plan on extending a job offer to comedian Stephen Colbert.
The popular host of “The Colbert Report” wrote a column for famed Times writer Maureen Dowd on Sunday. Responding to a question, Sulzberger said that although he enjoyed the submission, Colbert does not have a future at the Times.
“I’m not offering him a job,” he said with a laugh.
Bacow spoke again at the end of Sulzberger’s address – which was sponsored by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, as well as a number of other offices, institutes and schools- and said that he enjoyed his advice.
“One sign of a leader is [the skill of] looking over the horizon,” Bacow told Sulzberger. “It was a treat to look over the news horizon with you.”