New York Times Publisher Sulzberger Has a Symbolism Problem

Arthur Sulzberger, I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

Optics.

Yes, I know it's a woefully overused business cliche these days, but clearly it's something you haven't put nearly enough thought into. Otherwise, how could you have gotten caught accepting nearly $6 million in total compensation for 2009 -- a year during which your newspaper eliminated 100 jobs from the newsroom and imposed unpaid furloughs on all who remained?

Sure, you can spin that number in all kinds of ways that make it sound less outrageous. You can point out that the bonus granted you by the Times Co.'s (NYT) compensation committee reflected real progress you and your executive team made in areas like cost-cutting your way to profitability and developing a digital pay model, and that it was intended to offset your 5% salary cut and the loss of the cash dividend from your stock holdings.

But when your one of your peers like Washington Post Co. (WPO) chairman Donald Graham declines any bonus and walks away from 2009 with less than $500,000 in total compensation, your payout, however it's justified, is bound to make you look a little greedy -- and, even worse, out of touch. No wonder guild employees at the Boston Globe, which suffered acutely from the Times Co.'s budget slashing last year, felt compelled to issue a formal protest, while staffers at the Times are reportedly "furious." (It should be noted that the savings from the Boston Media Group were not factored into executive compensation, so Sulzberger did not personally benefit from them.)

Let's face it, Arthur: You have a little bit of a problem with symbolism. Remember that time you playfully brought a stuffed moose with you into a town hall meeting, further enraging an auditorium full of employees already pissed off about Jayson Blair? Or the time you printed up "Free Judy" buttons, commemorating your misguided support of reporter Judith Miller? Or what about that time you compared the newspaper business to the Titanic?

You've got to get savvier about this stuff, Arthur. You may not give much thought to symbols, but your competitors sure do. Rupert Murdoch's use of them can be a little heavy-handed -- calling you an effeminate lady-man in The Wall Street Journal was a classy touch -- but what his approach lacks in subtlety it makes up for in persistence. Don't expect the New York Post to retire its Pinch-O-Meter anytime soon.

I'm not saying you ought to play Murdoch's game. In fact, please don't. Just try to be a little more conscious of the signals you're sending. Your employees will thank you.

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