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‘He doesn’t like bullies’: The story of the 37-year-old who took over the New York Times and is taking on Trump

Arthur Gregg (A.G.) Sulzberger was named publisher of the New York Times last year. (Handout/The New York Times)
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The new reporter was sharp, humble and eager to learn. Arthur had snazzier shoes than his colleagues at the Oregonian, but this was the only hint that he was a Sulzberger, the family that has owned and published the New York Times since 1896.

He was 25 years old at the time he arrived in Portland in 2006, and Arthur Gregg Sulzberger fit right in even as his name stood out. Within months, he was aggressively reporting on the blustering and embattled sheriff of Multnomah County, who fought back publicly against the coverage.

In 2008, after Sulzberger had written more than 60 stories focused on the activities and missteps at the sheriff’s office, its leader resigned.

“The sheriff tried to paint him as a pretty-boy son of the Times publisher, and his attacks on Arthur did get kind of personal,” said former Oregonian reporter Anna Griffin. “And Arthur was absolutely unflappable. . . . He’s not somebody who backs down. He doesn’t like bullies. He does not like people who abuse power.”

Ten years later, Sulzberger, who turns 38 next week, is grappling with another adversary, this time at a much higher level and with much higher stakes. On Sunday, Sulzberger, now seven months into his tenure as publisher of the Times, released a polite but stern statement responding to President Trump’s characterization of their July 20 meeting at the White House.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger wrote, warning that Trump’s use of “enemy of the people” to describe journalists is “contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Both the specificity and forcefulness of Sulzberger’s message is born of his days as a reporter working a beat and watchdogging the powerful, even though he came from power himself, says ProPublica editor in chief Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of the Oregonian.

“It’s the thinking of somebody who was — before they were a titan of journalism — on the street as a reporter,” said Engelberg, who recalls Sulzberger as a “gracious, unswaggering” presence at the Oregonian. “When he says ‘this is dangerous,’ he’s thinking specifically about reporters on the street with notebooks in their hands trying to gather information.”

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The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname, according to interviews with present and former colleagues and bosses.

He is engaged to be married to Molly Messick, a producer at Gimlet Media, and became a father in May.

“A.G. is a very steady, levelheaded, focused, measured and calm man — the opposite of Donald Trump in every way,” said former Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who led the paper while Sulzberger was an editor on the Metro desk.

Sulzberger, who uses "A.G." on the Times masthead but is widely known as "Arthur," was born to journalists in Washington, D.C., in August 1980. His father, future Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., was a reporter in the paper's Washington bureau, and his mother, Gail Gregg, was a reporter at the Congressional Quarterly. His birth was announced at the bottom of Page 4 of the Metropolitan section of the Times, but he wouldn't work there as a reporter until nearly three decades later.

Sulzberger, who declined through a Times spokesperson to comment for this article, went to high school at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, whose founder Felix Adler wanted graduates to change the world by focusing on “moral ideals.” At Brown University, Sulzberger majored in political science and, in his senior year, took an advanced feature writing class taught by journalist Tracy Breton, who worked at the Providence Journal. Sulzberger excelled in the course but initially was ambivalent about devoting his life to journalism; Breton urged him to apply for a two-year internship at the Providence Journal, where he impressed his co-workers and recognized his calling.

“He was a young man who desperately wanted to make his way in journalism based on his own merit,” says Breton, who recalls that Sulzberger missed senior-week festivities so he could improve and resubmit an assignment. “He’s never a guy who wants to do ‘B’ work; he always wants to do ‘A’ work.”

Sulzberger started in the Wakefield, R.I., bureau of the Journal, covering a wide range of stories, from the fishing industry to town-council meetings. The small bureau, located in a strip mall, smelled like garlic because of the pasta restaurant next door.

“He had good judgment,” says his former deskmate Katie Mulvaney, who now covers courts for the Journal. “He was humble. He was a decent guy. Very decent. He got interesting details that made his stories richer.”

He fell in love with his next job, in Oregon, where his outdoorsmanship flourished and he was a reliable three-point shooter on the Oregonian’s basketball team. When it came time to move to the family newspaper, he was hesitant.

“I think it was a very hard decision for him,” says Breton, his professor. “I think he also felt like he was needed back in New York, and he had paid his dues, but I don’t think he ever assumed the [publisher] job was going to be his.”

He joined the Times in 2009, reporting for the Metro section. He later worked out of Kansas City, covering the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses. In 2013, after returning to New York to be an editor on the Metro desk, Abramson tapped him to lead the team that produced a private, 97-page “innovation report” about how the Times needed to become a digital-first company.

The report ushered in a period of major upheaval at the Times. Long-standing editing positions were eliminated, including the public editor’s and a stand-alone copy-editing department.

“Look, it was a controversial document at the time,” Sulzberger told New Yorker editor David Remnick in December, weeks before he became publisher. One of its conclusions “was that, if we didn’t move fast, we were at risk of being left behind. I know that there were people who were unhappy with that notion.”

In 1963, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger named his son publisher of the Times, he declared that “the Times is a family enterprise.” It has remained so, despite acute economic pressures that have forced other newspaper families to sell.

In 2016, Sulzberger and his cousins Sam Dolnick and David Perpich (both senior leaders at the New York Times Co.) were each considered for the role of deputy publisher; A.G. won the job in October 2016, which made him the likely successor to his father. There were reports of family tensions, but Times executives said that this round of succession planning was professional and well-managed, with each of the candidates getting a fair shake.

About six months ago, the paper gave up the 16th floor of its Midtown headquarters — where Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had his office — in an effort to streamline the offices and cut costs. The publisher's office is now on the sixth floor, and Sulzberger keeps it pretty basic: a desk, couch, conference table and a standing table, much like the one in his father's old office, where he reads the paper or other documents.

Times employees who have worked with Sulzberger describe him as serious — and less likely than his father to crack a joke — and not afraid to admit that he is still learning on the job.

“He is probably the most accessible publisher I have ever worked for,” says Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House. “He’s engaged and he’s around. He is easy to talk to and approachable.”

Trump requested the July 20 meeting, the purpose of which was initially mysterious to people at the Times.

“We were trying to figure out if there was a particular story that irritated him, and we didn’t know what it was,” Dolnick said. As it turned out, Trump did not seem to have a specific agenda for the meeting, which was attended by Sulzberger, editorial-page editor James Bennet and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The meeting was supposed to be off the record, but when the president violated this arrangement by tweeting about it, Sulzberger “pushed back hard with the president and made clear his account of the meeting was inaccurate,” says Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times.

“We were surprised of course when the president tweeted about it,” Baquet said, referring to the meeting. “I was secretly happy because it gave us an opportunity to make an important point. . . . I think [his response] illustrated a sense of purpose and a sense of mission and a focus and a clarity” that the Sulzberger family has cultivated for generations.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr. praised his son’s statement. He “understands at his core the part of his responsibility to enable us to speak truth to power,” he said in an email.

The White House declined to comment on Sulzberger’s meeting with Trump. Despite his dismissive barbs about “fake news” and “the failing New York Times,” the president maintains an obsessive affection for his hometown paper. While he was growing up in Queens, the Times was delivered daily to the Trump family household. It was the Times, in 1976, that wrote the first big news story on Donald J. Trump, referring to his “dazzling white teeth” and comparing his appearance to Robert Redford.

After he became a successful businessman, Trump looked at the paper every morning at his Midtown office tower. Early in his campaign for president, in 2015, Trump called campaign aide Sam Nunberg into his office and showed him two op-eds, on opposing pages, that were scathing in their criticism of his campaign.

“I told him, ‘I don’t think it’s good,’ ” Nunberg recalled Monday. “He said: ‘Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of my office. I’m on both sides of the New York Times!’ ”

The president has always described the Times “as the crown jewel, and he really sees it that way,” Nunberg said. “He cares what they report.”

In that sense, Trump and Sulzberger are the same.

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the location of Sulzberger’s high school. This version has been corrected.

Marc Fisher contributed to this article.