OFF THE GRID

The Times Is Up for Grabs and the Race to Get It Is On

May 12, 09 | 8:00 AM   byMichael Wolff
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At some point I really will have to stop talking about the New York Times. The people truly interested in this subject are limited to a smaller and smaller circle. And yet, for us, the Times is—as well as a dying way of life—an irresistible soap opera.

As the countdown begins—Fortune reports that David Geffen and Google have looked at buying a stake in the Times at its current depressed price—there are two avid buyers and then a more reserved one. The avids are Carlos Slim and Rupert Murdoch. The doubtful, but willing-to-be-convinced, buyer is Michael Bloomberg.

The Sulzberger family will have to choose one of these rich men to bail them out—there are a lot of Sulzbergers, the family fortune has all but disappeared, and few of them have jobs. They’ll choose the rich man who mollifies or tricks or seduces them better than the others.

The buyer’s game will be to allow Arthur Sulzberger to think that a partnership is possible, that one of these rich men will underwrite the paper and let Arthur run it.


(Arthur Sulzberger, AP Photo)

So far Carlos Slim is, rather astoundingly, the one who is most successfully positioning himself as Arthur’s buddy. Last week Arthur took up his pen (he ought to lie down the next time he gets that urge) to lionize Slim as a man for all seasons. Slim’s game is to bit-by-bit secure, or indenture, increments of the company that, in not so many months, can give him control—all the while assuring Arthur that he is still running the paper. Until, of course, the day he isn’t.

But Murdoch, who spoke incessantly of his interest in the Times during my interviews with him last year, is hardly a naïf. He’s not about to let Slim slip in unannounced. The anti-Slim campaign began yesterday. Murdoch, who since his acquisition of the Wall Street Journal has mostly lost interest in the New York Post, was back using its business page to stir up trouble (he doesn’t want to be seen using the Journals pages for his own agenda). The Post outlined Slim’s obvious takeover—trading debt for enough equity to pounce.

Although Murdoch prefers not to besmirch fellow billionaires, the next step in his anti-Slim campaign will surely be to get into the English-language press all the rumors—as low down as rumors get—that now surround Slim in Spanish. Bad press, Murdoch figures, will run Slim out of town.

At that point Murdoch has to either offer a king’s ransom to the Sulzbergers, which, given News Corp.’s share price, he can’t afford, or convince Arthur that they can work together. I’ve heard Murdoch’s plan. To the suggestion that Arthur would, in this plan, become Murdoch’s puppet, Murdoch imitated pulling the strings of a marionette.

Arthur, while nobody’s genius, will certainly realize, Bloomberg’s close aides hope, that Murdoch is a wolf in a sheep’s suit, and beg the mayor to intercede. Bloomberg’s inner circle of ambitious people planning their future careers would like the Times, but the mayor himself is going to have to be cajoled. He’s interested but is thinking life is too short to battle for the paper and then to have to run it. Still, if Arthur really begs him. If Michael Bloomberg is the only man who can save the New York Times, and if everybody knows that it, and if it isn’t too much money…well, hmmm…the savior of the New York Times sounds pretty good.

But please, join in, all scenarios welcome: Who gets the Times?

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.

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