In his final year at Duke, David Perpich ’99 wasn’t keen on writing an economics thesis. He told his father that he had a better idea: working as part owner of Devil’s Delivery Service in Durham. “So,” Joseph G. Perpich fired back, “you want to deliver food instead of writing a senior thesis?”

“I said, ‘Don’t think about it that way,’ ” David Perpich recalls. “ ‘Think about the experience of learning about what it is to do something entrepreneurial.’ ”

The pitch, like many to come, proved persuasive. “Really, at the end of the day, I’ve always been highly motivated,” says Perpich, who in January began overseeing a new standalone products group at The New York Times. “But sometimes it’s taken me in twists and turns that maybe are not traditional paths.” That penchant for unconventional choices, he says, “has been part of my success.”

Since Duke, Perpich’s career has embraced two failed Internet start-ups, a still-thriving deejay academy, Harvard Business School, and a consulting gig. Those choices have led to a place that seems to suit him, by both heritage and inclination—and helped him reimagine the landscape of newspaper journalism.

In just over a decade at The Times, Perpich has done as much as anyone to position the company bought in 1896 by his great-great-grandfather, Adolph S. Ochs—and still controlled by a family trust—for its digital future. It was the forty-three-year-old Perpich who masterminded the launch of a metered paywall and other new subscription products—The Times’ salvation as advertising continues to decline. Mark Thompson, chief executive officer and president of The New York Times Company from 2012 until September, credits him as “one of the co-architects” of a strategy, distinctive in the embattled industry, that has created a “virtuous circle” of digital subscription growth and journalistic investment.

The numbers help tell the story: The Times, not long ago financially floundering and in debt, now counts more than 7 million total subscribers, a figure it aims to grow to 10 million by 2025. Just over 6 million of the current subscriptions are digital. The company reached its 2020 digital revenue goal, of $800 million, a year early. And it is plowing profits back into its newsroom, which boasts an all-time-high of 1,750 journalists. Around the country, other newspapers—wracked, well before COVID-19, by plummeting advertising and subscription revenues and mostly lacking The Times’ resources and ambitions—have been trying to implement paywalls, too, with varying results.

“He’s a digital innovator,” A.G. Sulzberger, The Times’ publisher, says of Perpich, his first cousin. “He’s a great strategic mind who’s proven able to bring those strategies to life. One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years: Even when you think David might be wrong in the moment, he very well might be right a few years from now.”

On January 30, a standing-room-only crowd of about sixty people, most from New Products and Ventures, crams into a room in The Times’ sleek, Renzo Piano-designed headquarters in midtown Manhattan to meet the new boss. To some, he is a familiar face: Their bailiwick includes the NYT Cooking and Crossword (now Games) apps, which Perpich originally helped to create.

Perpich’s standalone products group is designed to subsume this one, as well as The Times’ “entrepreneurs in residence” program and Wirecutter, the online product-recommendation site he has shepherded, as president and general manager, since 2017. Its headquarters will be Long Island City, Queens, where Wirecutter already is based—far enough away from the “mother ship,” Thompson says, to have the freedom “to make decisions, to make mistakes, without us crushing them.” 

Meredith Kopit Levien, now CEO and president, and formerly the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, planned the reorganization and tapped Perpich for the position. “I have long thought that David was a great underutilized force of strategic insight and big thinking and ambition for the company,” she says. Plus, “people like to work with him.”

A slight, slender presence in dark-framed glasses and his standard attire of a shirt, pullover sweater, jeans, and gray sneakers, Perpich mentions that, according to LinkedIn, today marks his tenth anniversary at The Times. The “through line” of his résumé, he says, with a dash of business-school jargon, has been a “passion for empowering talented people to come together to build something—and oftentimes things that didn’t exist before—in ways that blow readers away and really drive value to the company.”

Another passion, he says to this largely female group, is work-life balance, “showing up for my family and my kids.” Those dark circles under his eyes, he later explains, are the result of sleep-deprived nights tending to a three-year-old son with a cold. Perpich is trying to fend off a cold of his own by periodically sipping warm water. Speaking quickly and quietly, he says that he is a “big music fan” who once helped run a school for deejays. Product developers and deejays, he says, have a similar focus: “understanding your audience and [putting] different things together and mixing them to figure out what is great.”

Perpich sometimes uses a metaphor for The Times known as “the Perpichian daisy,” with news at its center and other, service-oriented content as petals. “What The New York Times is about is so much more than just news,” he tells the group. Historically, the newspaper pointed out sales, recommended books and movies, offered recipes and parenting advice. That was “the brand promise of The Times,” Perpich says. Some past functions, “like helping people find jobs,” he concedes, “are never coming back.” But his new charge—and theirs—will be “unlocking that brand promise” once again.

That task was complicated in mid-March, when Perpich and his team dispersed to their respective homes in response to New York’s COVID-19 lockdown. They continue to work remotely, meeting via Zoom and messaging on Slack. Speaking by phone in October from his Manhattan apartment, Perpich says he was well prepared for the transition by his stint at Wirecutter, where two-thirds of the 150 or so employees never came into the office.

These last few months have been a time of both retrenchment and innovation. Parenting content being developed for a prospective paid app was instead folded back into the main news report. With most people not venturing far from home, a potential travel product was scrapped, but an entrepreneur-in-residence continues to work on a product for kids. Meanwhile, demand for Cooking and Games content has expanded. And, in March, the company purchased a subscription-based, read-aloud audio app, Audm, which Perpich’s team helps support. As of the third quarter of 2020, the three paid apps—primarily Cooking and Games—accounted for 1.3 million of The Times’ digital subscriptions.

“So much of the past six months has really been focused on responding to this moment,” Perpich says. With people “trapped inside” by the pandemic, he says, “they were turning to Cooking to cook more, they were turning to Games and playing more games, they were turning to Wirecutter to figure out what gear they needed to work from home more effectively. In all of those ways, all of these products have grown bigger in terms of the role they’ve played for readers and for the business.” 

His full name is David Sulzberger Perpich. But he tends not to advertise his link to the powerful Ochs-Sulzberger clan. Along with his intellectual curiosity, collaborative nature, and leadership skills, Perpich’s friends and colleagues repeatedly cite his humility. “He is someone who, like the whole family, is very humble, very reserved, and very dedicated,” says Ben Tishler ’99, a three-time Emmy Award-winning producer, director, and writer who was one of Perpich’s frat brothers and roommates.

In October 2016, Perpich lost a cordial competition against two cousins, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and Sam Dolnick, to become The Times’ deputy publisher and, eventually, publisher. In January 2018, A.G., as he’s known inside the building, succeeded his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., referred to as “AOS.” When his father retires as board chairman on Dec. 31, A.G. will add that title, completing what The Times calls “a generational shift.”

Perpich was given the chance to run Wirecutter, which he had helped The Times acquire for $30 million. He tripled staff size and revenues, which come mostly from affiliate sales, while fine-tuning the site’s mission. In 2019, he was elected to The Times Company’s board of directors. “He’s not the most talkative person in the room—that’s not his style,” says A.G. Sulzberger. “But he’s one of the people in the room [who], when he talks, everyone listens.”

The family connection is through Perpich’s mother, Cathy J. Sulzberger. After former Times publisher and board chairman Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger married Carol Fox Fuhrman, his second wife, in 1956, he adopted Cathy, her daughter from an earlier marriage.

Perpich’s Croatian-born paternal grandfather was a coal miner in Hibbing, Minnesota. His father, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, works for a behavioral health-services firm on the problem of opioid misuse. His three paternal uncles were all dentists who went into Minnesota politics. The most prominent was Rudy Perpich, a Democratic governor in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s whose quirks earned him the nickname “Governor Goofy.”

“My parents like to joke that they met working [in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office] on a venereal-disease bill together,” Perpich says. (His father worked for Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and his mother for New York Republican Senator Jacob Javits.) The eldest of three children (one of his two sisters, Sarah Perpich ’02, followed him to Duke), he was named after a notable District of Columbia federal appeals-court judge, David L. Bazelon, for whom his father had clerked.

Raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in a house filled with newspapers, Perpich says he felt no pressure to enter the family business. “I was mostly shielded from thinking about what it actually was and what it meant,” he says. “My grandparents were unassuming about it. My grandfather could not have been more down to earth or more modest.” To David and the other, younger grandchildren, Punch Sulzberger (who died in 2012) was “Poppop,” a perfect playmate, jokester, and lover of gadgets who taught them how to catch frogs, fish, and tap smoke rings out of dinner glasses. Still, when the adult Perpich expressed interest in The Times, “I could tell that he appreciated it.”

Other newspaper dynasties have dissolved in the face of family feuds or financial pressures. But, even amid economic challenges that led, from 2009 to 2013, to the suspension of their dividend checks, the Ochs-Sulzberger cousins have soldiered on.

Perpich with members of the New Products and Ventures team

Each year, the family holds both a reunion and a family assembly. The reunion is social and welcoming to children, while the more business-oriented assembly, at The Times’ headquarters, is reserved for those eighteen and older, Perpich says. It includes a day of briefings on the state of The Times and a second day focused on family governance. Perpich and his sister Abby are among the seven descendants of Adolph S. Ochs, all fifth-generation, currently working at The Times. But the point of the assembly is to remind the dozens of other cousins that they, too, have a stake.

“The family reunion,” Perpich explains, “is about family glue.” The two-day assembly capitalizes on those bonds. “The Friday of the family assembly is about strengthening that glue to The Times itself,” Perpich says, “and Saturday is about how does the family work together to support that connection to The Times.

It was Perpich’s aunt, Cynthia Fox Sulzberger ’86, who convinced him to check out Duke. A student at the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, Perpich says he was looking for both academic excellence and “school spirit.” A visit to Durham hooked him, and he says, “I do not think I could have picked a better school for me.”

Perpich initially considered a medical career, but an internship in Duke University Hospital’s general surgery ward dissuaded him. Instead, he became intrigued by economics and business. He pledged the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, where he met Tishler, who remembers Perpich sporting sideburns and driving a teal car. Tishler calls his friend “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and one of the most clear-eyed thinkers.”

Kara Barnett ’00, now executive director of American Ballet Theatre, says that at Duke she was struck by Perpich’s “insatiable intellectual curiosity” about music, technology, and world affairs. As they forged careers in the arts and became classmates at Harvard Business School, he was “a mentor and cheerleader and confidante,” she says. “He sees opportunity around every corner.”

Tishler, along with Aaron Perlmutter ’99, introduced Perpich to his future wife, Nilam Patel, a pharmaceutical executive. The fix-up represented the return of a favor: Perpich had introduced Tishler to his second cousin Margot Golden. “Then Margot and I got married,” Tishler says, “and Dave and I technically became cousins.”

At Perpich’s 2013 wedding, at the Atlanta History Center, Tishler delivered the best-man toast. “Dave was funny in his phobias,” Tishler recalls. “He used to be a really hilarious hypochondriac, and Nilam at the time worked in medical sales, so we joked that it was a perfect fit.” It was a “HinJew” wedding, Perpich says, featuring both a rabbi and a Hindu priest. Wearing an Indian outfit and a yarmulke, he rode a horse up a hill to the festivities and danced with guests before the bride arrived. Afterward, he and Patel, now forty-eight, quickly started a family, which now includes a six-year-old daughter, Priya, and a three-year-old son, Nathan.

Anthony D’Avella bonded with Perpich over sneakers. They met in a Harvard Business School orientation program for students from “nontraditional” backgrounds, a designation that included entrepreneurs. At a student event in downtown Boston, the two men were barred at the door.

“I think I was wearing red Pumas, he was wearing shell top Adidas,” D’Avella says. “And we weren’t allowed into the club because they didn’t allow people in that wore sneakers.” Sharing a cab back to change, they vented their mutual frustration: “We can’t believe they wouldn’t let us in with nice kicks.”

Soon after, on a weekend train ride to New York, they discovered common interests in digital media and music. Perpich was talking about “what The Times was doing from a news perspective,” recalls D’Avella, founder of Runyon Design, a product-design firm that would later consult for Wirecutter. “We shared rich conversations at a very interesting time of evolution. We’ve been friends ever since.”

By the time Perpich opted for business school, he had a Times career in his sights.

Before that, he had worked on a sports start-up, Sportscapsule, that offered tools for editing video clips and posting them online—“the right idea,” he says, “but poorly timed.” Wanting to “get closer to music,” he also helped start Artist Funding Strategies, which allowed fans to invest in their favorite bands’ upcoming albums—“like a Kickstarter before there was a Kickstarter.”

His first entrepreneurial success was Scratch DJ Academy, in collaboration with Rob Principe ’95. Perpich was vice president of operations, running the New York school, overseeing the opening of schools in Los Angeles and Miami, and building a national deejay booking business. He helped develop the parent company, over three years, into a $2.5 million business. But much as he loved hanging out with other “music nerds,” he knew he didn’t want to work there forever.

“All along this way,” Perpich says, “I had not really considered The Times, partially because I really had this entrepreneurial streak, and I wanted to go build something, partially because I was drawn to music, and partially because I wanted to go and prove that I could do something beyond The Times, and that I was making a conscious decision to go there—and not kind of defaulting into it.”

The biggest factor in changing his course was the crisis in the newspaper industry, which threatened the family business. “I think the Internet made The Times way more interesting for me,” Perpich says, “because there were really challenging problems to solve that in a print-alone world were not there.”

As business-school graduation approached, in 2007, he did what was customary when members of the Ochs-Sulzberger lineage wanted to join The Times: He contacted a relative. As he recalls, he told either AOS (his uncle and then the publisher) or Michael Golden, his cousin and then-vice chairman, that he had summer plans to ride the Trans-Mongolian Railroad across Asia. But perhaps, he suggested, he could intern at the company that fall.

He got his shot at, an online information business the company had bought in 2005. (It was sold in 2012, at a loss.) Perpich enjoyed the experience enough to consider bowing out of a position he’d lined up at Booz & Company. But Janet L. Robinson, then The Times Company’s president and CEO, advised him to take the consulting gig. “It’s the right career step,” she said.

But Perpich never stopped thinking about The Times. In November 2008, he sent Golden a detailed e-mail urging The Times to adopt a metered digital paywall similar to the one used by the Financial Times. “I truly believe this is the model of the future and I think The Times could pull off some version of this,” he wrote, underlining those words.

Perpich downplays the impact of his advice. But, in 2010, he says he got a call from Martin Nisenholtz, then senior vice president for digital operations: “He said, ‘We’re going to launch this paywall thing—maybe it’s time to come back.’ ” 

From 2005 to 2007, The Times had experimented with charging for digital content with TimesSelect, which put its opinion journalism behind a paywall. But subscriptions plateaued, Times columnists complained about smaller readership, and “it wasn’t considered to have been a success,” Perpich says.

When the paywall idea resurfaced, it had the support of the company’s leadership, but “not everybody felt that we should be doing this,” Perpich says. “Frankly, with a lot of the things that I’ve done here at The Times, I’ve often felt like I’m swimming upstream. The paywall was one of those things.” It defied the “conventional wisdom” of the time, says A.G. Sulzberger, and was a “brave bet” by his father, then the publisher.

“To me,” says Perpich, “what was totally intuitive was The New York Times is something that people have an emotional connection to. And they pay for it in print. My mantra was the meter model allows it to be free, until it’s not. There is a way to do this that’s pretty low risk, where the majority of people will never even have to consider paying.”

As designed by Perpich and his team, the paywall, launched in 2011, allowed readers free access to a few stories each month, varying over time from twenty to as low as five or fewer. The wall, for a while, was deliberately “leaky,” allowing readers to bypass their story quota by using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. (A registration requirement has since tightened access.) Digital subscriptions were free for full print subscribers and priced competitively with weekend print subscriptions—a way of introducing digital without encouraging existing subscribers to flee the profitable print edition. “We were experimenting,” Perpich says. Nevertheless, the paywall was “pretty much a success from day one.”

The concept, Sulzberger explains, was to “get the loyal readers who already value The New York Times to help support the journalism they depend on, while also introducing [the journalism to] a new generation of readers. It was as elegant a solution as you could imagine.”

Perpich “pushed the paywall at a time of real skepticism in the industry¬–and ridicule,” says Clifford J. Levy, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who is The Times’ metro editor and an associate managing editor. “The digital know-it-alls ridiculed The Times, [saying that] this paywall will not work, that this is the last dying gasp of The New York Times. And [Perpich] was right.”

With both revenues and newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers in steep decline (the latter slid 47 percent between 2008 and 2018), most regional and metro dailies have since followed The Times’ lead, or tried to. The metered paywall, says Sulzberger, is “as imitated as any business innovation in the journalism industry of the last twenty years.”

From the paywall, Perpich moved to creating a series of apps for Times content—petals on the daisy. In each case, he assembled interdepartmental teams, bulldozing the traditional divides between business and editorial—a new model for The Times that Sulzberger says also is being imitated across the industry.

“Transformational” is how Levy describes working with Perpich on the now-defunct NYT Now app, an early attempt to re-imagine The Times’s content for mobile devices. Perpich helped allay chronic newsroom suspicion of business-side incursions by being, Levy says, “one of the smartest non-journalists about journalism that I’ve ever met.”

Sam Sifton, The Times’ food editor and founding editor of NYT Cooking, describes the app as “a lunatic experiment” to “take a bunch of dead-article assets, which live in our morgue—our recipes—and bring them back to life with the preposterous notion that there would be a huge audience for that, and that there would be revenue in it as well.”

Sifton came to the project as “a dyed-in-the-wool newsroom stereotype,” with no business experience. Jargon such as, “ ‘we were iterating in the cooking space,’ ” was “hilarious to me,” he says. Perpich was “very patient” with him, while also allowing him creative freedom.

“David was able to work with engineers, with designers, with newsroom journalists, with product people, with business development executives, with marketing folks, and understand each of those stakeholders’ point of view and move us forward together,” Sifton says. “His ability to lead a large and complex team of people who work in different disciplines is phenomenal.”

The competition for the publisher’s position “hung over all of us for a while,” Perpich recalls. “But somewhere in 2014 is when I remember the real conversations starting.” During the process, he read Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones’ 1999 book, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times, an intimate chronicle of past family rifts and succession battles. (For more than a decade, Tifft ’73, who died in 2010, taught at the Sanford School’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy as the Patterson Professor of the practice of journalism.) “There were definitely times when he was stressed,” says his friend D’Avella, “and there were other times he was excited.”

Perpich shrugs off any disappointment at the outcome. He says he was “not at all surprised to see A.G. get that role, and very thankful he did, both back then and now.” Among Sulzberger’s strengths, he says, are his skill as a “long-term thinker” and his ability to represent the institution in public settings.

When Sulzberger’s promotion to deputy publisher was announced, in October 2016, the three cousins, by prearrangement, went out for drinks together. The next day, the two runners-up told the paper’s Page One meeting that A.G. had been the best choice. By all accounts, they remain close. “They all like each other—love each other is not too strong a word,” says Thompson. “They collaborate effectively together.”

D’Avella says: “What was made clear by all three of the cousins was, ‘Hey, we’re all going to be in this together, wherever it happens to net out….’ That’s just the way they are: They’re family first.”

In Tishler’s view, “David could have and, in my estimation as his friend, should have gone to work at The Times a lot earlier. I think he wanted to both earn his stripes and do his own thing. And when the paper needed him, he came in, and obviously thrived, and did it in a very Dave, humble, under-the-radar, get-the-job-done kind of way.

“But the impact of what he’s done I don’t think can be overstated in any way,” Tishler says. “The people who know, know.”

A former reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Klein has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and many other publications. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor