It has been almost a year since I was dismissed as executive editor of The New York Times, a casualty of the turmoil that followed the forced resignation of a troubled young reporter, Jayson Blair, who had fabricated or plagiarized facts and quotations in scores of news stories. I am not going to spend the rest of my life going over the details of the Blair scandal. My intention here is to perform a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years, by revealing the real struggle that was going on behind the scenes at the Times as the Blair scandal played out.
To do so requires me to put on the record both the revitalization strategy that my closest colleagues and I were pursuing at the Times and the underlying analysis of the paper's vulnerabilities that gave us a sense of urgency. This strategy had the support of our publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who throughout his career has pushed for a Times that guarded its traditions but also sought to make itself smarter, livelier, and more appealing to the geographically diverse and demanding national audience on which its future depends. We believed that the paper's long-term viability required significant improvements in the quality of its journalism—from the calcified front page our new leadership team had inherited on September 5, 2001, to the neglected, underfinanced "soft" sections at "the back of the book." A quiet but intense factional war was going on within the Times, between the senior editors who endorsed these improvements and traditionalists on the newsroom floor and among mid-level managers. The latter group wanted the paper to stay the way it was and took as an insult the animating idea behind our strategy: the idea that "the world's greatest newspaper" is not nearly as good as it could be and ought to be.
Despite the unfortunate ending of my career there, I remain devoted to the Times, because it is in every sense an irreplaceable American institution. The Times not only occupies a central place in our national civic life but also plays just as important a role as the ethical keystone of American journalism. It misses the point to say that the Times is an "elite" publication. It is the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world. And yet a harsh reality of our era is that if the Times ever ceased to exist, it would not be reinvented by any media company now in operation, in this country or in the world. A harsher reality is that its ability to prosper in the modern media marketplace is not at all assured. That is why Arthur Sulzberger has spent much of his twelve-year career as publisher trying to improve the quality of the Times's journalism—an effort that both of us saw as the best way to ensure The New York Times Company's future as a business.
I felt on the day I became executive editor and on the day I drove away from West Forty-third Street for the last time that the Times badly needs to raise the level of its journalism, and to do so quickly in order to survive and make the full transition to the digital age. Today the sad fact is that Arthur Sulzberger, who was my partner in the great enterprise of revitalizing the Times, and who remains my friend, may no longer be in a strong enough position internally to push all the reforms we felt were essential. Although there are signs that the front-to-back improvements we sought are beginning to move forward in a piecemeal fashion, for the time being Arthur and his top editors seem to be picking their way across a minefield, having seen the destructive power of a change-resistant newsroom. After months of deliberation and many invitations to write about the Times, I have chosen this forum to tell my former colleagues at the paper and its many devoted readers exactly where I think the paper needs to go. My views were shaped by a small group of strategists that Arthur had painstakingly assembled. That little round table is now broken, but there's no reason a new one can't be brought together to advance the goals we set. No one inside the Times can speak right now as candidly as I to the full extent of that strategic vision.
When the New York-born folklorist Carl Carmer wrote his classic study of my native state, Stars Fell on Alabama (1934), he said that the place that calls itself the heart of Dixie was so different from the rest of the United States that the only way he could begin to write about it was to conceive of it as a foreign country. The Times is its own country too, and it is essential to this task that I somehow convey what Times people call "our culture." First and foremost, it is a culture that requires mass allegiance to the idea that any change, no matter how beneficial on its surface, is to be treated as a potential danger. Oddly, this paper, which is a great engine of truth, has operated as long as anyone can remember on an internal personnel system I came to think of as management by mendacity. Great work gets the great praise it deserves, but routine work, too, is praised as excellent at the Times, and sloppy work is accepted as adequate. This skewed standard of verbal reward, coupled with the paper's sometimes mindless job guarantees to the main employees' union, the Newspaper Guild, has over the years created a huge obstacle to the development of a meritocratic workplace. Arthur often challenged the newsroom bosses to match the business side's diligence in using complicated contractual procedures to force incompetents off the staff, but generations of senior editors have found it an excruciating task to put out the paper while testifying at endless grievance hearings. On a newsroom floor with some 1,200 journalistic employees and an even larger, more militantly pro-Guild support staff, where the company is the daddy and the union is the mommy, no one is supposed to speak publicly about the attitudes of entitlement and smug complacency that pervade the paper. These attitudes undermine the staff's willingness to bring its talents fully to bear on the daily challenges of improving the Times. The paper's top editors have complained privately for years about the dysfunctional traits the Guild tries to program into newcomers. Some departments hastily and explicitly school impressionable reporters in shrugging off scoops by other news organizations, with the reassuring but dangerously outmoded Times maxim "It's not news until we say it's news." The debilitating corollary to this idea is that it's all right for the Times to get beaten on big stories, because when it gets around to doing them, it'll do them better.
In the only interview I have given on the Jayson Blair affair, I spoke on the Charlie Rose show of the resistance I had encountered as a "change agent" who was handpicked by the publisher to confront the newsroom's lethargy and complacency. A few days later, as he introduced my successor, Bill Keller, to the assembled staff, Arthur rebutted my comment by saying, "There's no complacency here—never has been, never will be." I can guarantee that no one in that newsroom, including Arthur himself, believed what he said. It was a ritual incantation meant to confirm the faith of everyone present in the Times's defining myth of effortless superiority. Arthur's politic words were a declaration that although Times people may talk and sometimes even joke among themselves about the paper's deeply rooted complacency, that characteristic must be vehemently denied when mentioned outside the tribal circle. More important, Arthur's words signaled that nothing dramatic would be done to upset the paper's cosseted world.
As everyone there also knew, Arthur had appointed me, in June of 2001, to be "our Patton," as he put it in my first annual evaluation, and from that day on I spoke openly about my mandate to "raise our competitive metabolism." That language was chosen precisely to address two problems that had dogged the Times for years: its indifference to competition and its chronic slowness in anticipating the news and marshaling its superior resources. These traits are well known within the journalistic profession, and are a matter of constant and often despairing talk among Times veterans. Our casual pose of being above the fray and too self-assured to care had become a Victorian affectation we could no longer afford. And yet our pulse seemed to be getting slower as the country's got faster. For example, my predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, warned me that I was inheriting a generation of national correspondents who resisted traveling to news events in their assigned regions. One of this lot was quoted to me by an editor as having said he didn't need to make reporting trips because he could learn more about what was going on in his territory by using the Internet.
As it happened, the events of September 11, 2001, raised the staff's competitive metabolism to a level beyond anything I could have expected. The newsroom's response was more than magnificent. It was inspirational. In the wake of 9/11 our reporters and editors continued to roll through a series of stories that amounted to a nearly two-year blizzard of news: the Afghan war, the search for Osama bin Laden, anthrax attacks, intelligence failures, corporate scandals, the war in Iraq. From day one the Times staff dominated almost every aspect of the World Trade Center story. It was a triumph built on institutional memory; the knowledge of how to blanket a big story is imprinted on Times DNA regardless of who the executive editor is. The story played to some of my personal strengths, such as a passion for the intellectual challenge of full-tilt coverage and a determination to make sure that readers get the most complete picture possible, informationally and analytically, on stories of historic scale. Meanwhile, the sheer visual beauty of our front pages, and the daily war and terrorism section, "A Nation Challenged," kept us all pumped up. But the feverish pace also underscored some of my weaknesses. One of these is to respond to great staff effort by demanding that the next day we do "more, better, faster," in the words of Martin Baron, the similarly inclined editor of The Boston Globe. After the monumental accomplishments of covering 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, I did not allow the staff enough breathing space before declaring, at the start of my second year as editor, that we were launching a year-long effort to upgrade the quality of our weaker sections.
As a result, I kept the staff outside its zone of comfort for more than nineteen months, continually ramping up the demands even as Arthur was responding to the advertising recession by freezing our budget to nearly pre-9/11 levels. When Jayson Blair's violations became public, I had no reservoir of good will on which to draw. I had underestimated the intensity of staff unrest—the "guerrilla war," to use the phrase of one of my most determined critics—that had turned the newsroom into a combat zone. Many of my colleagues became enraged when I spoke about the lethargy of the Times. It was a violation of newsroom omerta. I won't argue with those who say that my indifference to the approval of individual staff members was a disabling flaw. I revere journalists of talent and expertise, either instinctive or acquired, and I admire the Times for collecting a larger number of such people than any other paper. But I'm not a person who is easy to please or eager to please. The things that interested me about being executive editor were making great journalism, experiencing the adrenalized camaraderie of a gifted staff going flat out on momentous stories, and, as an overall goal, getting the Times off its glide path toward irrelevance.
About a decade ago several dozen Times editors convened for a retreat at Arrowwood, a sleek, soulless conference center in Westchester County. Arthur had brought along a management consultant named Doug Wesley and introduced him as our coach and facilitator. In his introductory seminar Wesley announced the lesson for the day: how to fire people. Then he divided us into smaller workshop groups. Most of us were department heads or deputies, frontline supervisors on the newsroom floor (I was the Washington editor at the time). The groups practiced termination interviews built around Wesley's main precepts. We were to sit directly facing the employee in a posture that indicated openness, receptivity—legs uncrossed, arms resting loosely on the arms of the chair. After saying to the person in a calm tone that he or she was being dismissed, and giving a brief, neutral explanation of the reason, we were to listen patiently while the employee vented freely. If he or she became angry, we were to say we understood the anger. At every turn we were to express personal sympathy but to offer no concessions. Once the soon-to-be-exiled worker realized the hopelessness of his or her situation, we were to collect the person's identification card, if that could be accomplished without a wrestling match.
After several hours of such role-playing we again gathered, so that Wesley could hear our comments and answer our questions. At the appropriate time I asked why we were being given this exercise, since at The New York Times we never fired anyone.
Wesley seemed surprised. What do you do with unproductive employees? he asked.
We just give them less work to do, I said, to a laughing burst of assent from the other editors in the group.
Wesley was puzzled, seeming to me at that moment like a new employee encountering the series of culture shocks that come with being hired at the Times. For people who have worked at other newspapers, the biggest shock upon coming to the Times is that the level of talent is not higher than it is. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the level of applied talent. Very few unintelligent people get hired at the Times. So what's shocking to the newcomer is the amount of coasting. Newspapers with slimmer resources and no union rules inhibiting dismissal somehow manage to closely monitor productivity. At the Times, as at Harvard, it is hard to get in and almost impossible to flunk out. All this was certainly a surprise to me, coming as I did from highly competitive, strictly supervised papers in Atlanta and St. Petersburg, as was the fact that the motivation and energy of the staff were so low. Hiring mistakes are rarely shown the door at the Times, and the paper can be stuck with them for years. After a probationary period of fourteen weeks would-be staff members get tenure for life. In one famous case a supervising editor missed the fourteen-week deadline for dismissing an unproductive newsroom staffer. The supervisor told the staffer that surely he did not want to stay, on account of a technicality, where he was unwanted. The employee disagreed, said he could live with that, and is still there a quarter century later.
Even highly motivated people can find themselves adjusting to a slower beat. Over time the enveloping attitude on the newsroom floor has become "We can do it slower, because by and by, someone on this great staff will do it better." The tendency toward mañana journalism can infect newcomers as if it were carried in the air ducts, like Legionnaires' disease. Thus the pernicious world view—"It's not news until we say it's news"—gets inculcated with amazing speed, even at the news-clerk level. In 1981 a tipster who wanted to blow the whistle on the alleged misconduct of Ronald Reagan's deputy director of central intelligence, Max Hugel, couldn't get past the Times's news clerks, so he took the scoop that led to Hugel's resignation to The Washington Post.
For the newcomer who happens to be a go-getter, this clock-punching atmosphere presents a tremendous opportunity to stand out, and the more aggressive editors keep their eyes peeled for reporters who are eager to prove themselves. That explains why David Halberstam became a premier war correspondent at twenty-eight. With a similar combination of talent and tirelessness, Dexter Filkins became a lead correspondent in the Afghan and Iraq wars after only a year at the Times. It took the always energetic Abe Rosenthal eleven years to work his way on to the foreign staff, but that is the exception, not the rule, and stemmed from the fact that the late Cy Sulzberger, the chief European correspondent at the time, and a member of the family that owned the Times, was a mannered Europhile who thought Abe too rough-hewn to be turned loose in the salons of Western Europe.
I was the lead reporter on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign after only two years at the paper. By 1981 I was a White House correspondent, and two years later I was the chief national political reporter, a role I filled through the 1984 Reagan landslide. By 1985 I was the deputy Washington editor, by 1987 the London bureau chief, and two years later the chief of the Washington bureau. In 1984 the Times nominated for a Pulitzer Prize my investigative reporting on the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, and in 1992 I won the Pulitzer for feature writing for a piece in the Sunday magazine about growing up in the fifties amidst the racism of Birmingham, Alabama.
You might think that a place where rewards can be had so quickly would be a thoroughgoing performance culture. But the strange fact encountered by any executive editor who seeks to effect change, as almost all of them have wanted to do, is that a large percentage of Times reporters and editors opt out of meritocratic competition within a couple of years of joining the paper—in some cases within a matter of months. Thus the Times culture, which appears so monolithic from the outside, actually consists of two distinct and parallel cultures, each fully cognizant of the other: the culture of achievement and the culture of complaint. In what amounts to a permanent version of a collegiate rush season, members of each culture woo newcomers with warm embraces and promises of protection. The two cultures are equally seductive. The Newspaper Guild serves as rush chairman of the culture of complaint, and with the Times hiring younger people these days, the Guild's safety net is particularly reassuring to new employees who may still be insecure about measuring up to Times standards. However, older reporters and copy editors whose careers are stalled and who are essentially running out the clock until retirement are the culture of complaint's chief stewards.
Over the years a number of prominent Times editors, bent on performance, have tried various stratagems to save talented journalists from the complainers' cult. As executive editor from 1977 to 1986, Abe Rosenthal used cash bonuses and quick promotions for people who burned to be on page one. Max Frankel during his executive editorship (1986-1994) installed, over furious Guild opposition, a system of bonuses, usually about $20,000, for the paper's best writers and photographers. Bill Kovach, for years an influential editor at the Times and later the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, at Harvard, dispensed blunt advice to prevent new reporters from adopting Guild-endorsed work habits. In my first months as a reporter on the paper, I broke a story out of Birmingham providing evidence that paid FBI informers in the Ku Klux Klan had perpetrated some of the acts of violence they attributed to others.
You haven't been on the paper long enough to adopt our bad habits, Bill told me, as I stood in a phone booth outside the Jefferson County Court House. Usually after we break a big story we sit back and let some other paper take it away from us. Go right back to your sources and keep reporting.
Kovach and some other editors, including David R. Jones, then the national editor, were pushing hard in those days because of the sting of the Times's Watergate defeat a half dozen years before. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of The Washington Post, had covered the burglary of the Democratic National Committee as a police story, and had scored many of the major scoops that eventually toppled the Nixon White House, while the Times had gotten a late start and bought into the private assurances of high officials that things were being blown out of proportion. As Max Frankel, the Washington bureau chief during Watergate, admitted with admirable candor in his autobiography, The Times of My Life and My Life at The Times, our paper was beaten because its response to the political story of the century was "sluggish." Getting outworked on that story haunted Abe Rosenthal, then the managing editor, for years.
One day in 1980 Abe was exhorting me to be aggressive in our presidential-campaign coverage. Then he said ruefully that maybe I shouldn't listen to his advice. Look at the record, he said. We got beat on Watergate, and what did we do? We all gave ourselves promotions. I became executive editor, Seymour Topping became managing editor, and Max became editorial-page editor.
In early 2001, Arthur Sulzberger strolled into my big, coffer-ceilinged office on the tenth floor—the floor that houses the editorial-page and op-ed staffs of the Times—and shut the door behind him. The tenth floor is the only one in the ninety-year-old building that retains the feeling of an old-fashioned newspaper headquarters. The library stacks and dark paneling, the vaulted ceilings, Gothic moldings, and stained-glass transoms, lend a studious, almost academic air to the place. Arthur was here in the most carefully preserved part of our building to play out the most sacred of Times rituals: the succession from one executive editor to another. He said without fanfare that the current executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, would retire, ahead of schedule, by the end of the following September. During the next two months, Arthur said, he intended to meet separately with Bill Keller, the managing editor, and with me, the editorial-page editor, to determine who should be the next executive editor. He would spend May reflecting on the decision, and in June he would announce one of us as the new executive editor.
Since I thought the paper was becoming duller, slower, and more uneven in quality with every passing day, I suggested that the transition happen sooner. Arthur laughed and said I had no idea how hard it had been to get Joe to fix a retirement date at all.
I knew Arthur well enough not to push him. The timetable reflected his disciplined faith in process, a faith based in large part on his view that his father and predecessor as publisher, Arthur O. (Punch) Sulzberger Sr., had, for all his virtues, managed the paper in a rather relaxed way. Arthur's insistence on always having at least two candidates for an important job sprang from watching Punch make major personnel decisions. Arthur felt that Walter Mattson, the top business manager at the Times for many years, had timed his retirement, in 1992, so that Punch would have no choice but to appoint Mattson's protégé, Lance Primis, as president. Primis was ill-prepared for the job, and was fired in 1996. Although the outcome was much happier, Arthur also felt that his father had had no real choice but to pick Max Frankel as executive editor in 1986, since Abe Rosenthal had carefully avoided training a successor. In anticipation of this latest turnover in the top spot, Arthur had urged Joe Lelyveld to groom at least one potential successor to run against me. The winnowing process began in 1997, when the managing editor's job became open. For a while Gerald Boyd, an assistant managing editor who in 1993 became the first black person listed on the editorial masthead of the Times, was courted for the job. After a series of discussions and country weekends with Gerald, Joe picked Bill Keller, then the foreign editor, to be the managing editor and, by clear implication, the other candidate for the executive-editor sweepstakes. Gerald felt that he had been misled by the familial atmosphere. The night that Joe told Gerald he was out of the running, as they sat having dinner at a local restaurant, Joe had to physically restrain Gerald to keep him from walking out. Joe re-enacted for me the scene in which he clung to Gerald's arm and said in a dramatic tone, "I need you." Finally Gerald relented and took his seat.
Such moments pass for drama in the great gossip machine that is The New York Times, but the real dramas are rarely played out in such public places. Critical decisions turn on more private moments and more subtle moves and countermoves. Close students of Times history know that in 1976 both Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel sat down to write memos on what they would do as executive editor. Max, by his own account, dashed his off. Abe retreated to a Caribbean island, where he devoted a week to writing a memo that has entered Times legend as a masterly analysis of the Times's weaknesses and an aggressive strategic plan for fixing them and guiding the paper's future.
In anticipation of such an exercise I had been studying the paper's journalistic soft spots, audience demographics, and circulation-and-advertising-revenue troubles intensively since it became clear, in the early 1990s, that I might have a chance at the top job. So my first question to Arthur that wintry day was whether he would require memos from Bill and me about our visions for the paper. Arthur said there was no need for that; he knew us well already, and would learn the rest of what he needed to know for his decision over a couple of dinners with each of us.
The first of my two dinners with Arthur was at a quiet table in front of an indoor waterfall at Aquavit, the Scandinavian restaurant on West Fifty-fourth Street. I had decided that my central theme would be that a visionary publisher (as I believed Arthur was) could not afford a passive or rigidly traditionalist executive editor. I started with a qualification: of course every executive editor's threshold task was to be a steward of the paper's integrity and reputation. But the first executive editor appointed at the start of the twenty-first century would face a challenge unlike that of any of his predecessors. That challenge was to extend New York Times-quality journalism across the Internet, television, and book-publishing platforms while at the same time making the daily and Sunday papers into truly national newspapers—good enough to greatly expand our circulation reach within the quality-print audience. At the moment, whether we liked it or not, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal were better than the Times at editing for a national audience that was, for example, interested in both foreign policy and the Super Bowl, both Medicare funding and the constantly shifting American youth culture. Even the Financial Times, a relative newcomer to the United States, was finding its national voice. That meant, in a nutshell, that the new editor had to wake and shake the newsroom.
Arthur and most members of his corporate leadership team understood that the modern New York Times had to conceive of itself not simply as a newspaper—that is, printed words carried on dead pine trees—but as a carefully assembled packet of information that was agnostic about how it traveled. Indeed, the fact that print newspapers were proving more long-lived than most futurists had predicted offered us a grace period in which to prepare for our digital future, whatever its shape. We were already behind in this task. If we continued to dither, the Times's economic lifespan—and most certainly its aspirations to be a national and perhaps an international publication—would be cut short whenever print newspapers died.
If memory serves, Arthur was working his way through his customary Grey Goose martini as we surveyed the landscape for change. I was sticking to white wine, wanting to be sharp for the moment when Arthur would be mellow enough to listen to something he might not want to hear.
Up until now you have been given passive cooperation in regard to television and the Internet, I said, knowing Arthur's memory would reach back to the countless meetings about broadcast and digital projects that had elicited little more than feigned interest and reflexive murmurs of assent from officials of the newsroom. You should not make me executive editor unless you want the newsroom to shift gears to an active and aggressive mode.
I was, of course, reminding him of what he already knew, whether or not he cared to admit it. The top editors at the time had given lip service to our new future-oriented divisions, New York Times Digital and New York Times Television, but they regarded every cent spent there as a loss for the print paper. Money is the oxygen of journalism, and every time Arthur turned away, a heavy foot was back on the breathing tube between the print newsroom and the Web site, which depended on the newsroom for content. This combination of counterfeit cooperation and penny-pinching would lead us to an entirely predictable outcome. When the day came—as it inevitably would—that Internet revenues were important to the Times's survival, whether in two years or ten years or twenty years, our Web site would not be good enough to attract elite subscribers or quality advertisers.
But this would be only half the battle. Arthur's next executive editor also needed to understand the anomaly inherent in this period of Times history. The paper's eyes and efforts had to be fixed on the future, yet all that strategic planning would be for naught if we did not quickly stop the decline of our trademark products, the daily and Sunday newspapers. That meant stripping away the New York parochialism—an editing perspective that made our national edition a matter more of cosmetics than of substance. Further, it meant aiming our papers at a national audience that was catholic in its interests and worldly in its tastes.
This put on the table something that Arthur and I had long discussed. A managerial reformation would have to take place in the Times newsroom if our paper was to meet the information needs and expectations of the country's smartest, most affluent readers. Already The Wall Street Journal's new Weekend Journal section—a compendium of culture, lifestyle, health, and travel stories designed to appeal especially to professional women—was threatening our hold on that vital readership group.
One of Arthur's strengths is the ability to hear bad news or implicit criticism without becoming defensive. The paper's uneven quality, I told him, was due to its current system of what I called "silo management"—putting too many journalistic decisions into the hands of a restricted group of editors. That system had emerged in our newsroom over the previous decade, keeping scores of the Times's most talented journalists from participating in the daily report.
We both knew that the question of improving the paper's quality—and thus its marketability—was not an academic one. The Times as a corporation would die without the revenues it receives from display advertising, and the trend lines were alarming. As for circulation, it had peaked at 1.2 million daily and 1.8 million for the Sunday edition in the early 1990s. Now the paper had been stalled for several years at 1.1 million daily, and the Sunday edition had slipped as low as 1.6 million in 1998. Since then the Times has promoted heavily to get the paper back to nearly 1.7 million. The newsroom continued to blame the circulation department for stagnant readership figures, but the fact was that the department had improved significantly in recent years. The Times was holding on financially as well as it was because of the astute work of two talented managers: Russell Lewis, who is retiring as corporate CEO at the end of this year, and Janet L. Robinson, the senior vice-president of the newspaper division, who will succeed Lewis as CEO. It was long-standing custom in the newsroom to blame our lack of growth on the business side. My analysis led me to a different conclusion, which could not be mentioned to my senior editorial colleagues without triggering a heresy trial: our business side had harvested all the growth it could from the paper we were giving it to peddle to subscribers and advertisers. If we were going to get more readers and make more money, the daily and Sunday New York Times simply had to get better—a lot better.
The demographic reality was that our readers—and the millions of educated, affluent people who ought to read the Times but do not—had grown smarter, more sophisticated, and broader in their range of curiosities and interests than the Times had. The Sunday paper had a declining circulation because for the previous four years its front page, and key sections, including Arts & Leisure, had gone from predictable to dull to stultifying. One of our dirty little in-house secrets was that even we, who were paid to read it, often couldn't hack the Sunday paper. As for the daily paper, we had to face the fact that entire sections were essentially unmanaged, their staffs unsupervised and unchallenged creatively by anyone outside their own departments.
These unenticing papers were the product of a laissez-faire editorial world in which only the two residents of Silo No. 1, the executive editor and the managing editor, and the people in Silo No. 2, the individual desk editors covering foreign, national, local, cultural, sports, and lifestyle news, had any authority over the content of the paper. Those in between—a high-ranking group of about a half dozen that included deputy and assistant managing editors who were all listed on the masthead and whose compensation packages could run as high as half a million dollars a year—had been frozen out of the creative process and any meaningful managerial responsibilities. They were paid to oversee the various desks and departments, but the reality of the system was that the desk and department editors felt free to ignore their ideas and suggestions. An even larger group of senior and associate managing editors had been shelved in what one of them called "trompe l'oeil jobs," which carried grand titles, good salaries, and little authority.
The silo system was no accident. It had grown out of my predecessor's distaste for the managerial styles of the paper's previous executive editors. Abe Rosenthal was "a maniac for the Times," as he called himself in our first conversation. That meant that he was a tireless perfectionist and that he and a squad of handpicked senior editors had a finger in everything. Max Frankel was more inclined to delegate to a larger group of close associates, but he had refined tastes and a rapacious curiosity about every aspect of American society. In their different ways, both Abe and Max had demonstrated that a newspaper as comprehensive as the Times had to be the product of many minds and also had to reflect the guiding sensibility of an engaged, activist executive editor.
When you talk about the Times's superior resources, you are really talking about its storehouse of brainpower—layers of seasoned correspondents and editors whose teamwork produced an additive journalism that got better at each level. Abe and Max operated through clusters of senior editors (about six for Abe, about ten for Max) described above. Max called his group the Ex Com (short for "executive committee"). Newsroom wags called Abe's team "the Wallendas," after the aerial acrobats, because they tumbled frantically into action the moment that Abe gave the word. But they were an essential link between the executive editor and the desk editors, and they bore the main intellectual responsibility for shaping the daily report. This system was designed to encourage the paper's most experienced journalists to provide general guidance on the daily report and to spot significant holes in the paper's overall coverage while also planning medium- and long-range strategy. The essence of the executive editor's job is to see over the horizon and, to the greatest possible degree, deploy resources according to where the top editor thinks the news is going, rather than merely reacting to what has already occurred.
Desk editors sometimes chafed under this system, I know—as Washington editor, I was one of them for four years. But the system worked insofar as it leveraged the Times's advantage of having superior numbers of really smart people. Desk editors had to do a good job of independently putting together their daily sections or the whole system would collapse. They and their reporters make journalism in the same way that field-grade officers and line troops win battles. But desk editors caught in the cut and thrust of daily competition need someone to hold them accountable for their performance every day and to plan strategies that look beyond today's deadlines.
The layered, iterative system that had worked so well for the Times ceased to exist when Joe Lelyveld and his first managing editor, Gene Roberts, publicly stripped the assistant managing editors ("the masthead," in Times parlance) of their responsibilities. In Silo No. 1 the two top editors sometimes involved themselves in the minutiae of the daily report to such a degree that the executive editor came to be known, behind his back, as the "executive copy editor." They alone had the authority to plan broader strategy for the desk editors. By and large, however, the desk editors operated independently, in their own silo, and this meant that the quality of the daily paper varied greatly from desk to desk. Energetic desk editors produced energetic reports. Lazy or unimaginative desk editors produced lazy and unimaginative reports, giving the paper a very uneven quality overall.
At dinner with Arthur, I emphasized the fundamental need for an executive editor who drove the paper to move quickly and comprehensively on major stories, rather than one who simply presided over the desk editors and assembled what they turned in every day. I wasn't prepared to tell him that someone else couldn't do the job, but I knew damn well that I could, and every experience I had had since joining the Birmingham Post-Herald, in 1964, had prepared me for this position. Target selection and execution are the essence of strategic editing. I recalled walking through my father's manufacturing plant, where furnishings for retail stores were made, and recognizing his ability to assemble a finished interior out of random stacks of lumber and barrels of varnish. He knew the job of every worker there. He had started out at fourteen chopping crossties, and had become a skilled cabinetmaker and then an executive whose showcases could be found at Saks and Lord & Taylor. He loved fine woodworking the way I loved newspapers. I knew early on in my life that I would never experience the feelings my father did if I accepted his invitation to enter the family business. It wasn't in my blood. I had found my own calling in making daily newspapers out of the chaos of daily existence. My greatest joy in newspapering came from the quarter of a century that I worked at the Times with the most talented staff in the business. My greatest frustration was that the Times was seldom as good as it could have been, given its advantages in money and prestige over other papers. I wanted more than anything to see a New York Times that lived up to its legend.
Needless to say, as Arthur and I talked over arctic char and baked cod in that starkly modern restaurant, neither of us could have imagined that in a little more than two years a young, relatively unknown reporter named Jayson Blair would figure prominently in the derailment of the managerial reformation for which we were laying the tracks. That's the real import of the Blair saga—not the loss of my job or that of my managing editor, Gerald Boyd, as painful as these events have been for both of us. As Arthur later told the Siegal Committee, which I had appointed just before my resignation to investigate how Jayson Blair's tainted stories had slipped through the Times's multi-layered editing system, he had named me executive editor because he thought the newsroom needed change. Arthur and I shared the belief that business as usual—including the attitude that the Times didn't have to descend to the foul rag-and-bone shop of daily competition with other news organizations—was dangerous business.