Murdoch In Over His Head? New York Times Publisher Seems to Think So

I'm not the only one who thinks Rupert Murdoch doesn't get the web. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of The New York Times (NYT), shares that opinion.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers on Saturday, Sulzberger was asked whether he's concerned that Google is turning itself into a competitor for the Times and other papers. Sulzberger said he is not. "I'm not that other guy who rails against Google," he said, in a clear allusion to Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp. (NWS), who went so far as to orchestrate a whole PR campaign against the search giant. "I want to work with, and we are working with, all these companies. To start picking on these companies strikes me as not getting the ecosystem we're living in." Sulzberger noted that he has in the past compared shaking a rhetorical fist at Google, which drives a huge volume of traffic to news sites, to "railing against oxygen."

Zing!

Sulzberger got in another, somewhat less pointed, dig at Murdoch when asked about "Project Amsterdam," the Journal's imminent launch of a New York City metro section. Murdoch recently said the Journal is doing so to take advantage of the fact that the Times "has essentially stopped covering the city the way it once did."

"The New York Times has been in existence since 1851, and it has seen a lot of competition," Sulzberger said. "We don't shy away from competition." One example, he said, was Newsday's launch of a New York edition in 1983. That event, he said, was "one of the greatest things that happened to the metro desk of the New York Times" because it reminded the paper that it has "a core market to protect."

By extending its mandate to New York City news at a time when so much else is in flux, the Journal may be making it more difficult to succeed at its other, more basic goals, Sulzberger suggested. "The challenge The New York Times has is to translate its brand promise into the digital arena," he said. "The challenge the Journal's taking on -- and mazel tov to them, as we say in journalism, is to change its brand promise while transferring it into the digital arena."

"Mazel tov" is Yiddish for "good luck."

Later, Sulzberger, an avid outdoorsman, drew on his experience of white-water rafting to answer a question about the Times's plan to adopt a pay model for its website in 2011. The key to making the plan succeed, he said, is flexibility.

"The one thing you learn when you're rafting a river is that as you come to a corner, a challenging part of a river or a turn, don't get too far ahead of where you think you're going to go. If you are convinced that you've got to move right and the river is taking you left, you're going to be in a lot of trouble.

"That's the hard part of this critical period we're in. You can't look out two or three or five years and say that's where you're going to be and build your entire organization around that. But I'm confident that this is the right thing for The New York Times to do today."

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