The New York Times Company held its annual meeting this morning, a ritual that appeared to function in large part in order to allow shareholders (I am a small one) to vent their frustration, in sometimes caustic terms, at the company’s management. One shareholder pressed the company’s chairman, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., about Roger Cohen’s opinion columns presenting a rosy view of Iran and portraying Israel as a menace. When the shareholder asked why the Cohen columns hadn’t been balanced by those offering an alternative point of view, Sulzberger replied that he would raise the issue with the editorial page editor. Another shareholder offered some suggestions on how the newspaper could cut costs, noting that the restaurant critic did not need to fly to Texas to review a “pork restaurant” that most of the paper’s readers would never eat at, and that the fashion critic could have interviewed Oscar de la Renta here in New York rather than flying to de la Renta’s vacation home in the Dominican Republic. A third shareholder mentioned the Times‘s plan to give non-union employees a 5% pay cut in exchange for 10 days off, and expressed hope that the executive management would take 10 days off, implying that the company would be better off without them.
Sulzberger and the company’s CEO, Janet Robinson, did their best to defend their performance, saying the company’s results — the dividend has been suspended, and the share price has plummeted over the last five years to the $5 range from about $45 — must be compared with other foundering newspaper companies. They named Lee, McClatchy, and Tribune. This is a game the Times‘s business reporters wouldn’t let any executives they cover get away with. Neither Sulzberger nor Robinson mentioned other news and information companies that have outperformed the New York Times, such as the Washington Post Company, Pearson PLC (parent of the Financial Times), or Dow Jones, whose owning family sold at the top of the market to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Sulzberger did flash some of his famous wit, replying to one shareholder who inquired whether the company’s corporate jet had yet been sold, “If you’d like to, make a bid.” He isn’t yet prepared to hang the same for-sale sign on his company’s flagship news organization, at least publicly. But give it some time. The jet is on the market. The plush auditorium in which the meeting was held has already been sold, along with the rest of the Times‘s fancy new Manhattan headquarters, in which the newspaper is now a tenant rather than owner. As for the paper, to the winning bidder falls the right to spike Roger Cohen’s next column.