New York Times struggles — silently

May 13, 2009

The New York Times spits out thousands of words a day through its newspapers. If it would only start coughing a few more up about Hollywood mogul David Geffen, who wants a piece of it, if not more. If the Times doesn’t tell its story soon, everybody else will.

So far it has made no comment. That might not be such a slick move. Speculation over the Times’s future has grown during the past few years as its finances worsen because of advertising revenue declines, more than a billion dollars in debt that it has to pay off and the nearly annnual assaults on the company’s management by shareholders and others who think they know how to do the job better.

The latest news frenzy came when Fortune writer Richard Siklos said that Geffen wanted to buy a nearly 20 percent stake owned by one-time dissident shareholder Harbinger Capital Partners, but was rebuffed. Nearly every news outlet got the story (though most of us paid less attention to a report that a Harbinger-nominated director tried to get Google to buy the Times — and failed), while the Financial Times said that Geffen wants to buy the whole company.

That would be next to impossible, as would any friendly or hostile move at taking control, because the Ochs-Sulzberger family under nearly every circumstance doesn’t have to cave. That hasn’t stopped the frenzy, of course, because the Times’s flagging fortunes have led some to conclude that the Sulzbergers will get sick of seeing themselves growing poor and demand an exit of some kind.

Now, two days after the reports of Geffen’s interest surfaced, the speculation is in full force. Why Geffen? What does he want? What will the Times do?

The Times’s answer? It sent out a press release about a feature on nytimes.com that allows you to see the news appear in chronological order as the Times adds items to its site. Cool? Yes. Is it what everybody wants to hear from the Times right now? No.

People want a public utterance of some kind from Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

The problem is that the Times does not seem to know how to handle this latest assault on its noble mission to provide the best journalism in the land, even at the expense of shareholder value. The Times has refused to comment through its executives or spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. In this refusal, it has lost control of the message it wants to deliver.

There could be many reasons that the Times doesn’t want to talk about Geffen or what will happen to the company. It could be that it doesn’t want to risk shareholder lawsuits for one reason or another, or that its lawyers say it’s a bad idea, or that it has some other way to save itself from Slim, Geffen and other rich people who say they are friends.

It could be that the Times is paralyzed by shock and fear and has no idea what to do. And that’s not the message that it wants to deliver right now.

The buzz, redolent with schadenfreude and a desire among its competitors and peers to witness a New York Times-sized car crash, is why it might be best to start telling the public what’s going on. It wouldn’t hurt Geffen to talk some more. He has nothing to lose. Increasingly, it doesn’t seem like the Times has anything to lose either.

Keep an eye on:

  • In a new web campaign, Microsoft is continuing its attacks on Apple products as overpriced (Adweek)
  • Bankrupt Charter Communications is suing DirecTV Group for “false” advertising that it said could give customers the impression Charter is liquidating and that its cable TV services (Reuters)
  • Sony Music Entertainment is suing smaller rival EMI Music and one of its executives after he allegedly broke his promise to join Sony on a new $3 million contract (Reuters)

(Photo: Reuters)

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