The mortality rate for a family business is staggering. Seventy percent of them will fail or be sold before the founders’ children come of age. Just 10 percent remain active, and in family hands when the third generation is old enough to work for a living. The chances are close to zero that a family business will be around to provide employment for a fifth generation.
Somehow, the descendants of newspaperman Arthur Ochs beat the odds.
Ochs founded The New York Times in 1896. This week, his great-great-grandson, Arthur Gregg “A.G.” Sulzberger was named Deputy Publisher; he will soon follow his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. into the office where the buck stops at America’s newspaper of record.
Sulzberger, Jr. became Publisher in 1992, a time when most of his fellow Lords of Journalism had not even considered the possibility that emerging technologies and changing consumer tastes would require them to rethink their mid-20th century business models. Family-owned media companies were dropping like flies, but the Ochs folks appear to have some kind of sustainability gene that the rest of us can only dream about.
A.G. was one of three extremely credible Ochs’ heirs to throw a hat into the Aspiring Publisher ring.
Sam Dolnick worked as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press before moving to the Times newsroom. In 2012, he won the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting for his expose of rape and murder inside New Jersey’s privatized halfway houses.
Following a stint in the fun-and-glory job of deputy sports editor, Dolnick took on the Sisyphean task of figuring out how to win the hearts and eyeballs of readers looking for news on their digital device. His portfolio today includes podcasting, virtual reality, and other forms of 21st-century storytelling for which the Times is greatly admired.
David Perpich earned praise within the company and in the industry for his work as senior vice president for product, a fancy title for the Herculean task of monetizing content in an era when people think that information is a free gift from Mark Zuckerberg.
A.G. made friends and earned credibility among Times’ readers and newsroom colleagues as a reporter, national correspondent and assistant Metro editor. His rise to the Publisher’s office began in earnest when he was named associate editor for digital strategy.
Titles like that are a dime a dozen in the news business, but in 2014, Sulzberger actually produced a gutsy, influential and widely praised strategy for keeping the Times independent, and profitable. Sulzberger’s “Innovation Report” seems to have tipped the family’s collective judgment in his favor when it came time to vote for which of the 30-somethings would get the job with the highest profile and the highest pressure.
If this were a story told by George R.R. Martin, it would be called A Crowd of Cousins and everybody would end up dead. But Sulzberger, Dolnick and Perpich are said to be friends who will play well with one another and work as a team to maintain the Times as a place where their children will aspire to work. It’s an impressive contrast to the legions of families where cousins spend very little time together, and wouldn’t like each other if they did.