Two cheers for nepotism at the New York Times.

Media criticism.
May 28 2010 5:59 PM

Two Cheers for the Sulzberger Dynasty

Why the nepotistic promotion of Times reporter A.G. Sulzberger is a good thing.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

You won't catch me snarking about the promotion of A.G. Sulzberger from a reporter slot on the New York Times' metro staff, where he's been laboring for a year, to chief of the paper's reopening Kansas City bureau.

Yes, it's obvious that A.G.'s upgrade has more to do with who his father is—New York Times Co. Chairman of the Board Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.—than with his journalistic skills. So when Columbia Journalism Review's Ryan Chittum tweeted "publisher's kid becomes a buro chief? after a year?" this afternoon, I appreciated his nepotism complaint. It's just not right that a 29-year-old reporter with one year of experience with the Times, a couple of years at the Oregonian, and couple more at the Providence Journal should be running a Times bureau unless he has greatness written all over him. Which he doesn't, if this dump of his Times pieces is any gauge.

But meritocracy doesn't always deliver the goods. A fine case can be made for rapid promotion of a family member in a family-controlled company if 1) the company's values are laudable and 2) the company has historically tapped its values directly from the family, which has been true of the New York Times Co. since paterfamilias Adolph S. Ochs purchased the Times in 1896. You don't have to be a Times lover to connect that which is good, has been good, and will continue to be good in the Times to the Ochs-Sulzberger family's nurturing of the paper.

For decades, the family has been seasoning its younger members with company jobs so that, should they decide to help lead it, they'll have a clue about publishing's fundamentals. A.G.'s grandfather, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., worked as a Times reporter, as did his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. Junior's performance as chairman may be an argument against family dynasties—or maybe his stewardship of the company would have been worse had he not been a Times reporter.

Newspaper dynasties don't automatically produce great journalism, of course. But even critics of the Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times (in its heyday) would credit the families behind those newspapers—the Ochs-Sulzbergers, the Meyer-Grahams, and the Chandlers—for their editorial successes. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co. owns Slate.)

That a fifth-generation member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family—one presumably schooled in the importance of Times-style journalism since he was in diapers—is more interested in reporting from Kansas City than in living off his Times Co. inheritance is all to the good. Just think, if more members of the Bancroft family had spent more time applying themselves to newspapering and less time counting their dividends, maybe their Wall Street Journal wouldn't have fallen to Rupert Murdoch's company. (The jury is still out on whether Murdoch will ruin the paper. I'm still betting that he will.) Likewise for the grasping members of the Chandler family, who frittered away control of their great newspaper company to the Tribune Co. and then sold out to Sam Zell's house of cards.

Both the Sulzberger and Graham families, which own controlling interests in their companies, have safeguarded quality journalism with the dynastic succession. At the Washington Post, family patriarch Eugene Meyer turned the paper over to his son-in-law Philip L. Graham in 1946. His wife, Katharine Graham, carried on after his 1963 suicide. She passed the Post publisher title to her son Donald in 1979, and  Donald made his niece Katharine Weymouth publisher in 2008.

If there was ever a greater beneficiary of nepotism and dynastic prerogative than Don Graham, I've yet to meet him. When Graham was named president and chief executive officer of the Washington Post Co. in 1991 at the age of 45, the Post reported that he'd worked at the paper as a "reporter, assistant city editor, advertising salesman, market researcher, budget analyst and night production manager," as well as the top editor in the sports section. Oh, and he also "did a stint as a Newsweek writer." I don't have to tell you whom Newsweek belongs to.

How many of these jobs could Graham have cadged by the age of 45 if he had been born to Joe and Jane Average of Keokuk, Iowa? I don't know. But given that somebody has to own the Post, the fact that its reigning patriarch has bruised his knuckles in practically every department of the newspaper is all to the good. Perhaps Weymouth wouldn't have made her "dinner party" and "happier stories" goofs if her Post résumé included the sort of reportorial experience young Sulzberger is getting.

In other words, let's see more of the kind of nepotism the Sulzbergers and the Grahams practice, not less. And don't pass judgment on A.G. Sulzberger until you read the Boston Phoenix's2006 profile of him.

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For the full scoop on the Sulzberger dynasty, see Joe Hagan's 2008 feature in New York magazine and don't miss the spiffy PDF of the Ochs-Sulzberger family tree. Aside to Ryan Chittum: Maybe the Kansas City gig isn't a promotion but a demotion. What will the kid have to do to win his way back to New York City? Share your speculations at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Don't forget my Twitter feed, which I plan to hand down to my children. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Sulzberger in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.