Michael Golden steps up to WAN-IFRA Presidency

Despite growing up in an internationally acclaimed newspaper family, Michael Golden thought he wanted to be a teacher. It turned out that teaching didn’t quite quench his thirst – that newspaper DNA was undeniable. Today, some 40 years into his news media career, the vice chairman of the board of The New York Times Company starts a new chapter as President of WAN-IFRA, stepping up from First Vice President to succeed Tomas Brunegård.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | June 8, 2017

As a member of the Sulzberger family, Golden has world-class ink in his veins. His great-grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs, bought The New York Times in 1896. His mother, Ruth, was the publisher of The Chattanooga [Tennessee] Times for nearly 30 years. His uncle, Arthur O. Sulzberger, was publisher of The New York Times, and current Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. is Golden’s cousin.

Following his bachelor’s degree, Golden earned a master’s in education and later a master’s in journalism and an M.B.A. He has held numerous executive posts at The New York Times Company, including publisher of the International Herald Tribune, executive vice president and publisher at Tennis magazine, and executive vice president and general manager of the Women’s Publishing Division.

He recently stepped down from his executive position at the Times, but is still active on the board. “That was partly a natural thing to do. I’m 67 years old. I’ve had a long career, and a great career in an extraordinary company, and we’re doing a transition in family management. And in the next generation of management we’ve identified Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, as deputy publisher. So this is both a natural retirement and a generational transition in family involvement in the management at the company,” said Golden.

We spoke with Golden by phone before the Congress to find out what he sees ahead for WAN-IFRA, the Times, and the industry. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WAN-IFRA: Looking back over your 40-year career, what would you say was the highlight?

Michael Golden: There were some great moments when I became publisher of the International Herald Tribune [since renamed The New York Times International Edition] at the end of 2003. To be actively engaged day-to-day in international news media was very exciting, and it was an exciting time for the International Herald Tribune.

“Another highlight is the success that we have had with our digital subscription plan, at a time when all the pundits were saying this could not work, would not work.”
– Michael Golden, Vice Chairman of the Board of The New York Times Co. and incoming WAN-IFRA President

In addition, we integrated digital into every part of the company, into the newsrooms, into advertising, into circulation – as a fundamental part as opposed to something on the side.

Also looking back, are there any things you wish you had done differently?

I think the New York Times has a long and great history and has become a very deliberative organization. I think that’s common in businesses that are long standing and have a real tradition and a real continuity. And there were regrets that we’d not gone faster, that we hadn’t taken more risks, sooner, and just moved more quickly with the things that we thought we needed to do – because the instincts generally had been correct.

But there were some mistakes. The first time we launched a digital subscription plan was in about 2006 for Times Extra. It consisted of our great columnists – Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, and so on. The theory was right, but we hadn’t done the work to be able to smoothly deliver it, so we had a lot of reader frustration. People said, “I’m entitled to this, but I can’t get it.” We’ve not executed the consumer experience as well as we could have, at times.

What legacy would you like to leave for the industry?

What I was able to help the New York Times do, and what I’d like to help WAN-IFRA do, is to reverse some of the current trends that are going on in the world. Media freedom is going the wrong direction in many parts of the world. Building on the tradition of WAN-IFRA to increase the dialogue about that, bring awareness to it, and underscore the importance of the role that media plays in informing citizens and making society work better. Whether you come at it from a democracy point of view, or from an economic development point of view, there’s a lot of synergy that fosters economic development – faith in courts, transparency, rule of law. The things that citizens want when they’re informed about it.

What does it mean to you be elected President of WAN-IFRA?

It’s an honor and I take it as a vote of confidence. It is the opportunity to build on what we’ve done, and to enhance the respect and the appreciation that consumers have for what the independent media does for them. And to help the people operating independent media adjust their business models and prosper.

What do you think is WAN-IFRA’s most critical mission within the next two to three years?

“The biggest challenge for news media companies is becoming digital businesses.”
– Michael Golden, Vice Chairman of the Board of The New York Times Co. and incoming WAN-IFRA President

[The transition] is most advanced in the U.S. and in western Europe. But I think for the parts of the world where print is thriving and still very strong, this is a moment in time, not destiny. I think media throughout the world is going to follow that pattern.

Consumers are changing to digital consumption of information. I think that’s going to continue, and I think the task for WAN-IFRA is to help companies throughout the world understand what are the more successful strategies, what’s the learning, and help them come to this world without suffering all the difficulties that the media in the U.S. and western Europe have faced.

How would you characterize the health of the industry right now? And that of The New York Times?

It’s hugely varied. On one hand, The New York Times is benefiting from its scale, the long-appreciated respect for its journalism, and a simply unbelievable news cycle right now. When there are so many questions about the role of government and the way government is performing, and they have such direct impact, that’s when what we do becomes more important to people.

The New York Times is in a good position to capture that. We’ve seen just phenomenal growth in our subscription plan as the consumers respond to that.

At the other end of the spectrum, I saw a list of newspapers that have ceased publication in the last five years, just in the U.S. – a surprisingly long list. So the stress on the media varies widely, to the point where it’s just hard to characterize the health of the industry. The main trend is the dramatic reduction in the Western world in print advertising, as advertisers have many more choices and fundamentally different ways to reach consumers.

As always, the industry examines The Times’ every strategic move. What does the 2020 report, which was released publicly, say about NYT’s confidence in its ambitions, but also about its concern regarding a sustainable business model?

“The core thing in the 2020 report that I see is that – while advertising is very important, a key part of our business model – reader revenue is the core of the business.”
– Michael Golden, Vice Chairman of the Board of The New York Times Co. and incoming WAN-IFRA President

And putting readers first is a challenge. That’s because advertising is based on big decisions that occur periodically, and they have a large monetary impact that we believe we can affect, so they get a lot of attention. Consumer issues are much smaller. An individual consumer starting or stopping a subscription is hardly noticeable.

So it’s kind of natural that the focus has been on advertising. I don’t want to downplay its importance, but as we see, particularly in digital, the competition for advertising is almost unlimited. It’s enormous.

The corollary of the the 2020 report is to seriously examine what we do just because we’ve always done it – traditions, and the focus on the creation of the printed paper versus the creation of the digital experience. Are the newspaper companies, the media companies, adopting the new and different ways to reach consumers and to have relationships with them as fast as the advertisers are? If we’re not, we’re slipping backwards.

You can’t keep the advertising without the consumers, and you can’t keep the consumer revenue without the consumers. Are we focused enough on what they want? That’s the core challenge.

You could say that it’s important for the rest of the industry that The New York Times seems, as you said, deliberate and assertive, and confident. It’s a benchmark. That means a lot of responsibility, of course, for the Times, doesn’t it?

The Times is a great brand. And it got to be that brand by committing to its journalism. And that has made it an advertising success. But we have not allowed our commercial interests to influence our journalism. That sounds purer than it is – we have expanded the range of what we write about. Time was, we didn’t have a home section, we didn’t have a style section, we didn’t have an arts section, a living section.

“So we’ve changed as consumer needs have changed, and some of that has been incumbent with advertising needs.”
– Michael Golden, Vice Chairman of the Board of The New York Times Co. and incoming WAN-IFRA President

But even if a company is a good advertiser, no one’s going to go into the newsroom and say, “Don’t write this.” If the government is an advertiser, no one’s going to say, “Don’t write that story.” The readers know that. They’ve come to trust that journalism. And it gets quoted around the world, and that builds the brand. We constantly rededicate ourselves to understanding that and putting that first.

With the scale of the issues, and the scale of the Times, it has given us this wonderful moment. There’s something about being in the biggest market in the world, and in some ways being the biggest player in it, that has given us a singular opportunity, which we’ve been successful in capturing. And that’s become the beacon that you point out.

The number of companies that want to come talk to us and find out what we’re doing is constantly growing. And we’re eager to share our experience, knowing some of it is applicable and some of it’s not.

The Times is not the only paper with a digital subscription strategy, of course, but you were one of the first major ones.

There are plenty of other publishers around the world – in Germany, for instance, Axel Springer – who are fundamentally committed to that relationship with the reader, to demonstrating the value of the journalism and standing up for it.

We announced that we were going to have a digital subscription plan almost two years before it started, because we weren’t ready, we didn’t have the technology in place, we didn’t have the mechanisms in place to support it. So a lot of hard work went into making that a success, and we studied all the business models that were out there. We were not the first, not by a long shot, to have a paid digital subscription plan. The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times were well ahead of us. We learned from that experience and we chose what we thought was the right path, and constantly and regularly developed that. And I think that process is extensible.

What information do we have about what our consumers are doing with us? When they are buying the newspaper, we don’t have much insight into how they use it and why they bought it. With digital, that’s different. There’s this firehose of information coming at us, and we grapple with how to sort through it.

It’s the Times’ view that setting large-scale numbers, such as unique visitors per month, as the goal is not the best path to success. Because you’re fighting Facebook, you’re fighting Google, you’re fighting every big site. And there is no way the New York Times can be the biggest site.

The real challenge is understanding and managing the one-on-one relationships. The focus is on engaged users, because they can become subscribers. Visitors who come once a month or twice a month are just not going to become subscribers, period.

While many news media organizations are making their loyal audiences a top priority, a brand like the NYT can still grow its audience significantly, particularly globally. What are some of the ways the Times plans to expand its audience?

We have a group of people dedicated to that. And we understand that the way we address the U.S. audience isn’t necessarily the best way to address an international audience, not in the subscription offer or in the way we talk with them. So we’re pricing in local currency in a number of places. We’re experimenting with the way we present our news regionally, and later nationally. We’re engaged in an effort in Australia right now to see how can we better appeal to that audience.

“We’ve done a lot of work differentiating the delivery, to give different readers in different parts of the world – and different individuals in the same part of the world – a different experience.
– Michael Golden, Vice Chairman of the Board of The New York Times Co. and incoming WAN-IFRA President

When you go to Facebook, you see something fundamentally different than anyone else sees when they go to Facebook. When you go to The New York Times, until quite recently, you saw the same thing everybody saw. And we don’t think that’s the key to success.

We know there are different interests. We analyse the data and see that different stories play more strongly in different parts of the world, and we want to be able to use that. So we’re consciously developing that global audience and understanding better and better why they come to the Times, what they’re looking for and how we deliver that, and how we make them understand we are addressing them.

For example, I use Pandora Radio, and about six months ago there was an alert on my cellphone from Pandora saying they had created a music channel. It was based on the songs that I had given a thumbs-up. And I thought, “Wow, they’ve done that for me. They’re interested in their relationship with me.” That creates a different emphasis, and that’s what we need to do with our consumers: let them understand we’re interested in our relationship with you and we can we do to make it better. We also have to explain to you the value of being a subscriber, and why that’s better than getting news from a whole variety of sources, how that adds value to your model.

From your experience with the company’s regional newspapers, what do you see as the greatest challenge today for regional and local news organisations, particularly in the U.S.?

The regional and local news business is a fast-changing field, but I think there remains an opportunity for local publishers to create that relationship with readers, to be an important guide to people and help them sort out their lives. A lot of that is reporting, but it’s reporting of a different nature. It’s less about what the school board decided, and more about what is happening in the school.

The attraction of Facebook is that it’s about me and my friends. I can go and see what people are doing and get information that I value – but it’s not doing a great job of interpreting the world, and in fact it’s having a bit of a crisis moment about that.

So that’s the opportunity: to understand what touches people’s lives on a local level, and address that. These newspapers have still got resources. They still have great distribution, they have brands. But what they need to do is changing – and that gets back to that point of the moment we’re in, and the way the world is changing.

(Photographs by Gordon Steiger, WAN-IFRA)

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