The Ugly Truth About the Continuing Meltdown at The New York Times

If You Care About the Newspaper Of Record, Prepare to Get Your Outrage on

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Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Credit: Scott Gries
Janet Robinson
Janet Robinson Credit: NYT

In this week's New York magazine, contributing editor Joe Hagan's got an epic piece titled "A New York Times Whodunit" and subtitled "Who slew Times CEO Janet Robinson? Was it Arthur Sulzberger's new lady friend? The advertising market? The frustrated web guru? Or the ambitious Sulzberger cousin?" (If you're a print subscriber, you also get to see the story teased on the cover with this line: "The Times' $24 Million Divorce.") A little advice for those of you needing to catch up on your media gossip after the long Memorial Day weekend: Click over and devour it right now! It's a must-read.

In chronicling the backstory behind last December's surprise ouster (er, "retirement") of Robinson, who had been CEO of The New York Times Company since 2004, Hagan serves up a dishy narrative that 's richly detailed (he spoke to more than 30 insiders over the course of months of reporting), absurd, inadvertently funny and -- if you care anything at all about America's newspaper of record and the future of journalism -- completely maddening.

Really, Aaron Sorkin needs to option it right now and turn it into an Oscar-winning screenplay.

Hagan's tale is well stocked with family intrigue, internecine corporate battles, frayed alliances, betrayals and even romance (both office-platonic and literal), but the big picture here is that under Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who has been chairman of The New York Times Company since 1997, the once wide-ranging company has "shrunk dramatically" both in ambition and in market cap (from $7 billion at its peak to roughly $1 billion today). "Despite the shrinkage," Hagan writes, "the company has retained essentially the same top-heavy management, which it has kept well compensated." Even on the way out, as Hagan outlines in regard to Robinson's golden parachute:

[H]er exit package amounted to almost $24 million, nearly half the company's profits in 2011.... About $11 million of Robinson's exit package was from her pension and retirement plan. Another roughly $7 million consisted of her yearly compensation and awards, and stock options she was entitled to after her years at the Times. But she also received a $4.5 million consulting contract, a kind of gratuitous bonus that didn't look or smell right to anyone who was toiling on Eighth Avenue and worrying over pensions in danger of being frozen in ongoing labor negotiations.

I've been obsessed with the compensation structure at the shrinking Times for awhile now, but Hagan's stark accounting -- especially that part about "nearly half the company's profits in 2011" -- still made my jaw drop.

Full disclosure: I used to be on staff at New York, and have very occasionally freelanced for it in the years since, but my relationship with the magazine today is purely reader/fan. Also, Joe Hagan and I were technically colleagues at the short-lived media website circa 2000-2001 (he was a reporter, I was a columnist), though we never worked on anything together.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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