The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism hosted an event for friends and supporters featuring special guest Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of the board of The New York Times Company and former publisher of the New York Times. The event was held in Madison, Wisconsin, at the home of Betty and Corkey Custer on November 14. Credit: Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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View a Flickr gallery of photos from the event by Center reporter Emily Hamer.

During his 25 years as publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. had to make some tough decisions. But one choice that was always clear was publishing stories that “hold power to account” — even when it meant losing millions of dollars in revenue, Sulzberger told a group of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism supporters.

“The mission precedes everything — including the profits,” Sulzberger said to more than 30 Watchdog Club members and supporters gathered at the Madison home of Betty and Corkey Custer, who hosted the Nov. 14 event.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism hosted a private event for friends and supporters of the Center featuring special guest Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of the board of The New York Times Company and former publisher of The New York Times. The event was held in Madison, Wisconsin, at the home of Betty and Corkey Custer on Nov. 14, 2018. Credit: Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

One of those stories was the investigation of sexual assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, which The New York Times broke in October 2017.

Before the scandal, Weinstein’s company spent millions on advertising with The New York Times. Despite that, Sulzberger, said keeping the Weinstein story under wraps was never even considered.

“That was not even the beginning of an issue,” said Sulzberger, who retired as publisher in 2017 but remains chairman of The New York Times Co. board of directors. “We were going to break that story.”

Sulzberger made a similar choice when publishing an investigation of corruption in Chinese leadership. He said the Chinese ambassador came to visit him in his office and told him that if the news organization published the story, China would “forever” block The New York Times from the country.

“We had just made a major, major investment in a Chinese language website based in Beijing. We had hired all these reporters. It was a multi-million dollar investment,” Sulzberger said. “And of course, we ran the story. And we’ve been blocked ever since.”

Above all else, it’s The New York Times’ job to report the truth and hold the powerful accountable — something that has been challenging with Donald Trump as president, Sulzberger said.

Betty and Corkey Custer talk with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., at their home in Madison, Wisconsin. Corkey Custer opened the evening with comments about the importance of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. “The role of the Center, not only in reporting on some of the most important stories that face us, but helping to train a new generation of reporters in every medium … is literally essential to our continuing to have a functioning democracy.” Credit: Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

“We know the president is very antagonistic to the press,” Sulzberger said, noting the president’s frequent labeling of The Times as “failing” and the ousting — later reversed through a lawsuit — of CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House.

Sulzberger also pointed to Trump’s use of the term “fake news,” calling it a form of propaganda to undermine the credibility of the press. “Fake news” is actually a Russian term used as a way of “infiltrating … the American psychology.”

He said such antagonism “is very damaging” to journalism, makes reporting more dangerous and is “detrimental to democracy and to the very essence of an informed electorate.”

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., shows off a wall of signed photos of every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt, located in The New York Times boardroom. Sulzberger was giving a tour to Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism board members, staff and former interns on Jan. 22, 2015. Credit: Andy Hall / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In meetings with Trump, Sulzberger said he told the president the newspaper planned to hold him accountable for his actions. After Trump became president, he met with staff at The New York Times office. In the boardroom, The Times has signed pictures of every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt.

Sulzberger showed Trump former President Richard Nixon’s picture, on which Nixon wrote: “To the New York Times: Some read it and like it. Some read it and don’t like it. But everybody reads it.”

Sulzberger said he told Trump: “That’s the last president that took on a free press. Think how it ended for him.”

Although it is a challenging time for journalism, Sulzberger said overall, The New York Times is “on remarkably good footing.”

Karen Lincoln Michel, Madison Magazine publisher and editor, and WCIJ board president, introduces Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., at the gathering. Sulzberger has been a longtime mentor for Lincoln Michel. “I am so grateful to you, Arthur, for all that you do, and I know that you’re doing this not only for our connection, but because you believe in the power of journalism and investigative reporting and what that means to our democracy,” Michel said when introducing Sulzberger. Credit: Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

As print advertising revenue declined, The Times decided to “embrace digital,” and in 2011, Sulzberger decided to begin charging for online access.

Now, he said, two-thirds of the revenue comes from subscriptions and there are more journalists, more foreign bureaus and more national bureaus than ever before.

Looking to journalism in the future, Sulzberger said he thinks large national newspapers will be fine. His “greatest single concern” is how local news outlets will fare.

“Without local journalism, how do we know who to vote for for mayor, for city council, or for the state legislatures?” Sulzberger said. “We really aren’t going to have that kind of scrutiny that we must have to keep democracy free and open.”

Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., poses with Karen Lincoln Michel and student journalists from the Simpson Street Free Press at the Madison gathering. Credit: Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Executive Director Andy Hall said he hopes the Center can continue to help fill that gap. The Center is seeking to double its annual budget so it can continue fostering an informed citizenry and strengthening democracy here in Wisconsin, he said.

“We have a lot of work to do as we produce these investigations and train the next generation of investigative journalists who will shine a light into dark places — for decades to come,” Hall said.

During his visit to Wisconsin, Sulzberger also spoke with former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser, a Center board member, at two events in Milwaukee — a luncheon with about 30 business leaders and a reception hosted by the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University with about 30 students, faculty members and residents.

“I have great faith in our country and I think we’re going to find our way through this period,” Sulzberger told the business leaders.

Sulzberger visited Wisconsin in support of the Center because of a mentorship that began two decades ago of Karen Lincoln Michel, who now is board president of the Center, and publisher and editor of Madison Magazine. The trip was sponsored by David Meissner, a former board member of Journal Communications in Milwaukee and a new member of the Center’s Watchdog Club.

Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser, left, speaks with former New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., at a Nov. 15, 2018 reception hosted by the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. Credit: Andy Hall / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Emily Hamer

Emily Hamer is a recent graduate of UW–Madison with degrees in journalism and philosophy. She has formerly worked as an intern for University Communications and WisPolitics, and as an editor at The Badger Herald newspaper.