You hear a lot about “stewardship” these days — and you’re sure to hear more. Stewardship is an old mode of thought that is being refitted for unprecedented circumstances. In the past, stewards took care of things on behalf of powerful employers, better known as magnates; stewards constituted, in turn, a very small clutch of employees. Just as there weren’t many magnates, there weren’t many stewards. From now on, though, we’re all going to be stewards, and we’ll be taking care of things on behalf of unborn generations. We don’t really know how this works.
One thing that stands out in Mark Bowden’s Vanity Fair profile of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, the current ruler of the grand duchy known as The New York Times, is that Mr Sulzberger is an honorable steward, a man who has done everything that he can think of to make sure that the newspaper that he inherited is passed on to readers of the future. As Mr Bowden’s parallel sketch of the parlous state of the newspaper industry in general and the Times in particular makes clear, however, this essentially conservative mission may well be wrong-headed, even disastrous, endangering the very thing that Mr Sulzberger wants to protect.
To their credit, the Sulzbergers have long treated the Times less as a business than as a public trust, and Arthur is steeped in that tradition, rooted in it, trained by it, captive to it. Ever the dutiful son, he has made it his life’s mission to maintain the excellence he inherited—to duplicate his father’s achievement. He is a careful steward, when what the Times needs today is some wild-eyed genius of an entrepreneur.
Glimmering beneath the sparkle of Mr Bowden’s stern but compassionate prose is the sorrow of a young man — nearing sixty, Mr Sulzberger still seems to be young, almost inappropriately so — who is neither a journalist nor a businessman, but only a well-intentioned citizen, trying to steer an institution through rapids that require a cracking expertise in one field or the other (probably business). At only one point does Mr Bowden advance a possible solution.
In fairness, no one has the answer for newspapers. Some, such as former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, Alan D. Mutter, a former newspaperman and Silicon Valley C.E.O., and Peter Osnos, of PublicAffairs, all of whom have experience as executives, are pushing some form of micro-payment. If the Times, in partnership with the big search-engine companies, got paid a few pennies for every person who clicks on a link to its content, it might replace the old business model for advertising. The price of accessing a single item would be so small that it would hardly be worth the trouble to hunt up a pirated version. Some have suggested that all of the major news providers should band together and withhold their content from the Internet until such a pricing agreement can be put in place. It seems clear that drastic action is required. One top editor at another newspaper put it this way: “Ask yourself this—if the Internet existed and newspapers didn’t, would there be any reason to invent newspapers? No. That tells you all you need to know.”
Let us hope that people close to Mr Sulzberger make sure that the urgency of this paragraph is made clear to him, and that he finds the courage to delegate leadership to the best wild-eyed genius, not just to the one who hits it off best with him.
The Week at Portico: ¶ Kate Lindsey sang at the Museum last Friday, accompanied by Ken Noda. Kathleen was too tired to go — although not too tired to join me afterward at Caffè Grazie for dinner. She missed a good one! ¶ I wrestled with John Wray’s Lowboy for days before realizing that I’d been misled by the sheaf of careless reviews that this somewhat mixed book has generated, but James Wood came to the rescue, and helped me to clear away the common reading. It happens from time to time that I read a “hot” book and like it well enough, but come away thinking that it can’t be very good, because it doesn’t measure up to the run of reviews. Instead of feeling out-of-it and curmudgeonly, I must remember that most reviews are dashed off by harried Grub Streeters, and quite likely to mischaracterize unusual, but compelling, books such as Mr Wray’s. ¶ Somehow, I don’t fall into the trap where movies are concerned; I believe that I don’t expect very much from movie critics, with whom, in any case, I expect to disagree. I may be wildly wrong about Un baiser, s’il vous plaît, but I certainly enjoyed thinking (and writing) about it. ¶ Joseph O’Neill kicks off this week’s Book Review with an appreciation of Samuel Beckett’s youthful letters. It’s hard, though, to think of Beckett as ever having been youthful.