The Incumbents Battle On

In the room with the NYT and WSJ

Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, is seated next to Robert Thompson, the editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, whose business plan is now all about challenging the Times. (The night before Sulzberger had what seemed to be a polite, and nearly convivial, chat with Murdoch and his wife Wendi.) The Italian newspaper, La Republica, Bloomberg, and the FT, are also represented here.

There is no real reason for the largely internet-centric conferees to turn out for this panel—save for the prospect of Sulzberger-Thompson tension. Still, the technology guys need their press and remain quite in awe of the Times and the WSJ, and there’s only standing room.

Sulzberger himself is the curiosity—the weight of the paper on his shoulders, of its problematic fate in his hands, can seem train-wreck like.

Thompson is himself a compelling presence—a wraith-like, lurking figure, with his symbiotic relationship to Rupert Murdoch.

Sulzberger continues his robust defense of the Times in rather bold warrior fashion: “It is clear that we are moving to an era where digital revenues must sustain us, but print circulation is not going away.” He points out that the number of people who have received the Times for at least two years—its core—is now up to almost 840,000.

Thompson, too, has a largely positive report about the state of the WSJ—up 10% in circulation. Pay no attention to the $100 million a year it’s losing.

Neither man mentions advertising, which is the critical and in fact calamitous issue.

It’s a slogging hour of many efforts at optimism and good cheer, which no one buys. But there is a feeling of generosity in the audience. Of not kicking people when they’re down.

And Sulzberger comes off rather well. It is actually a new, more distinguished Arthur. The boy publisher is, shockingly, 60. He has a girlfriend too, cutting a figure at some of the conference events.

The essential theme of this conference is incumbents versus the upstarts. Of course the upstarts believe, with some obvious basis, that they are more powerful now than the incumbents—a name they use with great glee and haughtiness. But no irony about where they stand now.