Ilearned of Arthur's decision to appoint me executive editor on a cool, misty Monday afternoon in May of 2001. He was grimacing with pain as he greeted me at the front door of his Central Park West apartment. He explained that he was home from work because he was down in the back. Leaning heavily on a cane, he shuffled along in old boat shoes, leading me through the familiar living room and out onto a narrow balcony overlooking the park, which spread before us in its crisp spring foliage. The balcony was barely large enough to hold two chairs from the dining room. I thought of what fun the tabloids would have if we were wiped out in one of New York's periodic balcony collapses.
There are two ways to do this, Arthur said—the fast way and the slow way. He preferred the former. I'd like you to be the next executive editor of the Times, he said.
I accepted, and quickly resisted Arthur's suggestion that I keep Bill Keller on as managing editor. I respected Bill but felt that the staff would interpret his staying in place as a signal that I planned to preserve the status quo. Another factor was that there was no personal chemistry between Bill and me. I also wanted to see, as Arthur himself needed to, what Gerald Boyd could do in a high-demand situation. But the overriding factor was that I knew that executive editors quickly lose the political capital that comes with an inauguration, and I wanted to give the newsroom a shot of energy from day one and then roll through a section-by-section revitalization.
As a student of Times history, Arthur understood the need for early momentum. As a student of that same history, I realized that I would be the last executive editor who knew personally everyone who had held that title. I met Turner Catledge near the end of his life, in 1978 (the title of executive editor had been created for him in 1964), and I came to consider his memoir, My Life and The Times, essential reading for anyone who sought to understand the resistance to change at the paper. I worked alongside James B. "Scotty" Reston in Washington, and came to know him well as an avuncular figure who was as tough as goat guts in his analysis of staff weaknesses. When a correspondent who had clerked for Scotty and later boasted of their closeness left the paper to protest a reassignment, Scotty dropped by my office. I was then the Washington editor, and I assumed he was going to chide me for not giving the fellow the prestige beat he thought he deserved. Instead Scotty blew out a cloud of pipe smoke and said, He never had it, did he? At its highest levels the Times operates by that kind of brutal managerial shorthand; nevertheless, established, clubbable underachievers are usually given sinecures rather than being encouraged to leave.
I was hired by Abe Rosenthal, and appointed to run the Washington bureau by Max Frankel. They were both impatient men who were bracingly difficult to satisfy, and who had in common few traits other than a reverence for talent and a determination to rapidly advance the people who had it. I learned a great deal from both of them—not only about how strongly the Times valued its reputation for integrity but also about the need to push constantly for modernization and acceleration of the news report.
The grand theme of change to bring the Times to its full potential is braided through the paper's history; every publisher and executive editor since Catledge has embraced it, or at least paid lip service to it. Such change is always and quite properly defined as being in accord with the traditional Times standards of taste, honesty, and accuracy. Yet it is striking that for more than sixty years the view of the Times as an inalterable citadel of stodginess has had its strongest hold on the public and on the rank-and-file reporters and editors, rather than on the paper's leadership.
At the same time, the temptation to preside over rather than challenge the staff can be very strong, because little risk is involved. The staff is so good that even when the paper is running at a relaxed pace, it will seldom slip below a tolerable level of quality; an executive editor can usually get passing marks from his publisher by simply going with the flow. In this regard the Times is like a big canoe. If you sit calmly in the bottom and don't rock it, the canoe will carry you safely down the river.
The changes implemented by previous Times regimes have been at once straightforward and elusive. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Punch's father, who had married into the publisher's job and held it with distinction from 1935 until 1961, wanted one united and interconnected paper rather than a collection of fiefdoms that conducted a nightly contest over whether, say, the Washington bureau or New York, the editor in chief or the anonymous midnight power brokers in the bullpen, would control the content and style of the paper. One of the most important alliances in Times history was that forged between Sulzberger and Turner Catledge. By 1945 Catledge had become a powerless and frustrated assistant managing editor, trapped between turf-conscious desk heads and the nightside autocrats. Catledge wrote later of his fear that "the paper's continued preeminence" would be destroyed by its warring newsroom "dukedoms," its "smug" insistence on tradition as the overriding article of faith, and its "unnecessary stodginess in the way the news was reported and written." When confronted with such arguments by Catledge, the paper's elegant and laid-back managing editor, Edwin L. "Dressy" James, replied, "Why change? We're doing all right, aren't we?" The system that suited James was, amazingly, one in which he was forbidden to play any role in planning the Sunday paper or in making up the front page.
During World War II, Sulzberger invited Catledge to tour United States military installations in the Pacific with him. On that trip they discussed their joint conviction that once the war ended, Times readers would no longer accept the hidebound news judgment and acres of gray prose that the paper had offered in the 1920s and 1930s. Sulzberger wanted to replace James with Catledge, but felt it would be too disruptive within the Sulzberger-Ochs ownership family, because James had been a favorite of the previous publisher, Adolph Ochs. In 1951, when James had weakened enough to be shunted aside, Sulzberger appointed Catledge to the newly created position of executive managing editor. The enhanced title signaled that Catledge would be the first top editor in Times history with the explicit authority to plan news stories on the dayside and to instruct the nightside editors on how to play them. On his way up the editorial ladder Catledge warred with David Joseph, a change-averse city editor who was given to hiring three reporters to do the work of one, and kept most of them sitting around the city room waiting for a story whose magnitude was worthy of a major Times deployment. Catledge also bristled at the paper's lifetime-employment policies. "No one was ever fired at the Times," Catledge complained in his memoir. "God was our personnel director."
In the face of staff opposition, Catledge insisted that a modern newspaper must have "a dual appeal," telling readers both what they need to know and what they would enjoy knowing. "First, it should be necessary to people who wanted to be well informed," he wrote. "It already was that. Second, it should be a paper people wanted to read, for pleasure as well as out of necessity." Too often, Catledge added, Times readers were forced to pick up the paper and say, "I'm going to read you, you son of a bitch, if it kills me!"
There was a perfect congruence between Catledge's postwar assessment and the lessons we were learning from demographic surveys of our post-millennium audience. Catledge and Sulzberger had grasped intuitively the emergence of a more sophisticated postwar readership, which expected newspapers not only to provide the news of the day but also to bring intellectual pleasure through good writing, good graphics, and well-crafted social-interest stories that illuminated modern life. In a sense the entire history of the Times after World War II can be seen as a struggle to keep up with an audience that was getting smarter and more broad-gauged in its interests, and that was doing so more rapidly than was the newsroom on West Forty-third Street.
Like most newspaper journalists of my generation, I was allergic for most of my career to the business side of newspapering. During a journalism seminar in the mid-1990s I was asked by a young reporter how much longer the American newspaper as we knew it would last. I replied that I didn't know—that all I needed was a dozen or so years, which was how long I had until retirement. It was ironic, then, that many of the strategic discussions that Arthur and I had at our dinners centered on the challenge of strengthening the Times as a business enterprise—a goal we agreed would be best achieved by making the paper's journalism more broadly and consistently excellent.
My flippancy about the business side had abated over the years as I watched, with increasing alarm, chain ownership wring higher profits out of local newspapers by cutting the newsroom budgets on which sound journalism depends. The Times's image as a bastion of quality had become even more important as tabloid television, Britain's declining newspaper values, and the unsourced ranting of Internet bloggers polluted the journalistic mainstream of the United States.
The reforms Arthur and I talked about were based on the presumption that the economic future of the Times would be in peril if the paper kept playing the same tunes in its journalism and its business investments. Like most other employees, I had long taken the paper as an immutable fixture of American life. As we celebrated the Times's 150th birthday, in 2001, Arthur pointed out that a century and a half was an unusually advanced age, even for successful businesses. Very few make it past fifty years.
Since the mid-1970s I had been going to conferences at which futurists such as jolly old Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, predicted that the American newspaper would soon be dead. Now, like Groucho's doctors, the futurists all seem to be dead themselves. The print paper is still the economic engine of The New York Times Company, and even of some more-diversified media companies. The Times exceeded $1 billion in annual print-advertising revenues in 1998. But ad sales peaked at $1.3 billion in 2000 and have now settled back into the $1.1 billion range. If those ad revenues were to drop much below that mark, the Times as a business would be severely strapped. Such a situation could lead to a forced sale once the voting stock controlled by the seventy-eight-year-old Punch, who is now the chairman emeritus, and his three older sisters is inherited by a group of nieces, nephews, and cousins (and their spouses) now numbering about sixty.
That specter was in the air when Arthur invited the Viacom president and broadcasting buccaneer Mel Karmazin to address one of our annual meetings of the business and editorial staffs. After hearing a quick explanation of our financial structure, Karmazin was asked what he would do if he owned The New York Times. Without missing a beat he said, "Sell it." Karmazin was speaking as a moneyman. He saw a prestige brand that seemed to be at or near its peak value and to be facing an uncertain future.
Karmazin did not know the half of it. The Times has staked its future on being a national newspaper, but the basic daily circulation figure—slightly more than a million papers in a nation of 290 million—is distressing. A Times marketing survey in the 1990s showed that there were more than 40 million "like-minded nonreaders" in the country—a group defined as people who ought to read the Times but don't. A later survey increased that group's projected number to more than 80 million. Whichever figure you accept, the lesson is that the Times is leaving millions of copies and millions of dollars on the table every year. The research also demonstrated that the identity of potential Times readers was no longer determined by geography—this was a truly national audience, defined by a few specific characteristics relating to education, income, profession, and intellectual or avocational interests. In short, the Times was going after the smartest and most affluent people in the United States and finding, at best, only a fortieth of them.
My plan was to look closely at the categories into which Times readers broke down and to examine how well we were meeting their information needs. As it happens, at the time roughly one third of the Times's circulation was in New York City proper, one third in the tri-state (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) megalopolis, and one third in the rest of the country. As observed above, our metro and national editions were essentially the same once you got past such things as bumping a picture of Mayor Michael Bloomberg off the front page for the national press run. Our problem was that we were offering one-size-fits-all journalism to very different audiences.
Moreover, I did not accept the conventional wisdom that we had reached the limits of our circulation growth in the New York area. The reason we weren't increasing our base, I believed, was that we were ignoring the economic and social realities of many of our local readers' lives—and missing out on incremental circulation gains among our hometown audience. New York is a money town. People work like hell in several clearly defined sectors of the economy: finance, corporate management, real estate, broadcasting, publishing, entertainment, fashion and apparel, pharmaceuticals, and health care. I was confident that we could sell tens of thousands more papers on Wall Street and in places like Greenwich, Connecticut, if our financial coverage was vital enough to make brokers, bankers, or investors feel nervous about skipping the Times. We had surrendered a lot of territory to The Wall Street Journal by deciding that the Journal was the unassailable "first read" for inhabitants of the business world and that it was pointless to mount a serious challenge to its hegemony. While we were backing away from the fight, the Financial Times and The Economist had crossed the Atlantic to show that it did not matter if you were read first or read fifth, so long as you were an indispensable read.
Another telling lapse in our local-circulation outlook was the failure to recognize that—more than at any time since the days of Emma Lazarus—we are a city of immigrants. The death of the R&B singer Aaliyah in a plane crash in the Bahamas in the summer of 2001 was a huge event in places she had lived, Brooklyn and Detroit, with thousands of black and Latino mourners weeping in the streets. Yet the Times had perfunctorily covered her death, because one of our music critics had declared her a minor musician. So what? She was an icon in minority communities. Our lack of penetration in these communities proceeded from the most basic of journalistic reasons: we weren't a reliable source for the information they wanted and needed as their demographic profile changed. Indeed, even as the New York Times Foundation dispenses Ivy League scholarships to second- and third-generation Russians, Puerto Ricans, and Chinese, the paper still acts as if their homes are not Times households.
We had to raise the level of our game in New York City, but our biggest gains were to be made as a national newspaper, appealing to readers in the forty-seven states beyond our regional base. That's where the greatest number of like-minded nonreaders were. The Times Company had already made a huge financial bet on a national strategy by building a coast-to-coast network of printing plants and the circulation infrastructure to support them. But our newsroom thinking hadn't caught up with our business thinking. We have good home delivery in Atlanta, for example, but on the morning after the Falcons played in the first NFL tie game in five years, in Pittsburgh, the sports section we delivered to readers in Atlanta carried a lead story about the Giants winning a meaningless game in Minnesota. The Falcons game, which was the talk of ESPN and a lead feature in USA Today, was covered by the Times with a story buried deep inside.
To become a "must read" we had to think about who our readers were. We knew we were producing a paper for intelligent people, but we needed to be more intelligent about who those people were and what they wanted and needed to know. To make those determinations we had to look at the quality of their minds and the nature of their lives. I posited a New York Times audience with a Renaissance-like breadth of interests. Serious journalism did not have to be restricted to traditional somber subjects. A reader who hungered for every last detail about the New York Philharmonic would be willing to cross the genre divide to read a story about the role of the downtown nightclub CBGB in the evolution of popular music—provided the article was written at the same level of sophistication.
We had to be as good on popular culture as we were on high culture, as good on, say, the sexualization of childhood in America as we were on the future of the Social Security trust fund. We knew that curiosity is the essence of journalism, but we weren't giving our readers credit for the range of their curiosity. The loftiness of the Times is an asset when it comes to standing up to popular opinion or the bullying of government. But when you set out to assemble and connect with the most demanding readers in the world, it is not acceptable to serve them eat-your-peas journalism and insist that they swallow it as a duty of citizenship.
If you want to reach members of this quality audience who are between the ages of twenty and forty, you have to penetrate the worlds of style and popular culture. If the Times's journalism continues to show contempt for the vernacular of those worlds, the paper will continue to lose subscribers. To explore every aspect of American and global experience does not mean pandering. It does mean that the serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears are a sociological and economic phenomenon that is, as a reflection of contemporary American culture, worthy of serious reporting. It means being astute enough about American society to understand that the deadly rap wars have nothing to do with what Snoop Dogg said about Suge Knight. The real story behind the rap wars is one of huge corporations like Sony and EMI trying to save a multibillion-dollar industry in economic collapse. The rap shootings may not be "a Times story" by the traditional definition, but the fact that international media companies are dependent for product on performers and moguls who carry guns and like to whack one another is a story as relevant today as the whiskey wars of Prohibition were in their time.
Another major conclusion I had reached about the paper was that hard news, as important as it was to us, could not drive circulation growth on the scale that was needed. We have had and must always have the best foreign-news reporting in the United States, but in the journalistic competition of the future that was just table stakes. Readers expected that of us in the same way they expected the Yankees to show up in pinstripes and go to the World Series every year. The Times has been slow to accept the fact that it faces multiple competitors at every point of the quality scale in print, digital, and broadcast journalism. When Entertainment Weekly magazine publishes, as it did in 2001, a more learned article on Tolkien's influence on directors of mythic films than can be found in our Sunday Arts & Leisure section, that shouts out the fact that the Times is back on its heels.
Our coverage of culture, entertainment, style, and travel was in fact a shambles—underfunded, unimaginative, and devoid of any unifying editorial sensibility. The back of the book was a place where, I believed, my literary background, my early experience in Atlanta as a film and theater critic, my lifelong interest in the visual arts, could make a difference. Improving these sections, I had concluded, would be an important way to lure national readers who wanted to use the Times to experience the New York-ness of New York—which is to say a point of view that could not be found in their local papers. With the exception of the Sunday magazine, the departments that produced these sections were suffering from more than a decade of hands-off management. In his day Max Frankel had bet heavily that Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times architecture critic, could be an energizing culture editor. That turned out not to be the case. Since then the daily culture section had drifted, and its editors had been told to make the happiness of the New York-based critics their top priority. The result was that the Times had not had a dominating national voice in any area of cultural coverage since Frank Rich retired as theater critic, in the early 1990s.
The hyperkinetic Arthur Gelb, the paper's culture czar for thirty years and its managing editor in the late 1980s, was thought by many in the newsroom to be over the top. And yet his insistence that the Times must offer "the best"—the best music critic, the best food writer, the best wine writer, the best bridge columnist—had given the paper's back of the book a primacy that had dwindled steadily over the past ten to fifteen years. One important mission I did not get around to was finding the kind of critics capable of becoming trademark names in every field of aesthetic or consumer interest—everything from wines to Broadway. The New Yorker, one of our competitors for national readership, had spotted the Times's decline and had staked a claim on a lot of the cultural-criticism territory that was once ours. In the journalism of ideas, literature, and the academy—another traditional Times stronghold—we were ceding leadership to The New York Review of Books and to magazines like this one.
To catch a terrorist you have to think like a terrorist. To catch and hold a newspaper reader you have to think about what makes a reader buy a paper as a matter of necessity. It's a question of conditioning. The Wall Street Journal has conditioned bankers and brokers and others in the business world to think that it contains information essential to making money. The Washington Post has conditioned readers inside the Beltway to think of it as a must read on national politics and the inner workings of the federal government. USA Today has made serious inroads persuading fans of professional and major college sports that it is the paper of record for competitive athletics.
But unlike the Journal, the Times does not have the luxury of being a niche publication. Unlike The Washington Post, the Times does not have the luxury of thinking of itself as the local paper for a one-industry town. The far more challenging key to growth for the Times—in print circulation and in profitable visibility on television and the Internet—lies in becoming a must read in every interest area. But that is especially hard to do when in recent years the Times has conditioned, say, the businessman or the sports fan or the literature professor that the sections of special interest to him or her can for the most part safely be missed.
Ispent the summer of 2001, the months between the announcement of my appointment and its official beginning, studying the newsroom at the Times. The effects of silo management and official neglect were more pervasive than I feared. I instituted a daily meeting of the masthead editors and found that after years of being ignored, some people who had once been aswirl with adventurous ideas were now suffering a creative atrophy. Because the desk editors had been inadequately supervised for so long, the more aggressive of them had learned to use bad temper as a tool for bullying their colleagues in battles for turf and personnel. Others were resorting to the demeaning managerial tactic of trying to win popularity with their staffs by demonizing "them"—the senior editors in New York who sometimes bounced stories back as unsatisfactory. On one extraordinary evening a desk editor had a managerial meltdown in response to normal deadline demands from the news desk and wept in front of the staff that was looking to this person for leadership. We had only a few writers who understood the architecture of the "lede-all story," the comprehensive article in the right-hand column that had been a distinctive and glorious feature of Times journalism since World War II. Political reporters had been discouraged from writing analytical stories on the grounds that readers did not have time for them. The story editors and line editors on the copy desks, who made up the backbone of the Times when I joined the paper, were in despair and disarray, as a result of unrealistically heavy workloads and being shifted from desk to desk with no time to do homework. Meanwhile, reporters with normal or even light workloads were resisting assignments that required the fast turnarounds and mobility that had long been defining skills of top correspondents. Another disturbing development, for which I was unprepared, was that a small enclave of neoconservative editors was making accusations of "political correctness" in order to block stories or slant them against minorities and traditional social-welfare programs.
On my first day as executive editor I put a copy of my college classmate Charles Gaines's 1972 novel Stay Hungry in plain sight on my desk. The title announces the novel's theme—stay hungry for what life can bring. Its application to every newspaper's daily challenges was obvious. It also had a private resonance, reminding me of how my father had once chided me and my well-uniformed YMCA baseball teammates for ridiculing a ragtag team from the Alabama countryside. Remember this, he said before the game: a hungry ballplayer can beat you.
In retrospect, I underestimated the difficulties of inculcating in others my passion for breaking stories that other news organizations had to follow, or that were so inherently interesting that no engaged reader was likely to pass them up. We wanted to accustom readers to expect those kinds of stories in the Times. Newsroom dissidents complained that we were turning them into ambulance chasers—which was of course the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted the Times to be in the business of offering stories that were not obvious to the pack. But the idea of staying hungry probably insulted more people than it inspired.
These debates over reportorial hunger would become a leitmotif of my editorship, but only after the first six months. On my sixth day as executive editor the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rendered temporarily moot any concerns I had about the energy level of the newsroom. The Times was fortunate that coverage of these tragic and epic events, and of the subsequent anthrax scare and Afghan war, fell mainly to our two strongest departments—foreign and metro—and to a couple of others that we were able to shore up in time to be effective.
To my mind, the signal accomplishment of Joe Lelyveld as executive editor was strengthening and enlarging the metropolitan staff, whose editor, Jon Landman, was also the best organizer among our desk heads. The foreign staff, as always, was full of talent. Although we had a novice editor there in Roger Cohen, he was a gifted veteran reporter and among the two or three best foreign-policy thinkers on the paper. We worked closely with him on pre-positioning his reporters for the Afghan war. Having directed our Gulf War coverage from Washington in 1991, I was determined not to let the Pentagon seal us off from the battlefield as effectively as Dick Cheney, then the Secretary of Defense, and Colin Powell, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had sealed us off from Operation Desert Storm. To bolster our Afghanistan-infiltration team I borrowed a page from Bear Bryant, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama, and began searching the metro bench for "hungry ballplayers" who were restless for their moment to shine. One such bench warmer I found was David Rohde, who had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the war in Bosnia for The Christian Science Monitor, but who since joining the Times had languished on the city staff because he had somehow gotten crosswise with his bosses.
The summer homework paid off in an unexpected way. At a brown-bag lunch with the Times photographers I learned of their outrage that the paper had often used wire-service photos on wars and other major foreign events. That's where the top prizes in photojournalism were won, they argued, pointing out that the Detroit Free Press had earned a Pulitzer because it had flown its own photographer over to Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall rather than relying on the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, as the Times had done. As it happened, R. W. Apple, the veteran Washington correspondent and food writer, had brought me a souvenir chip of concrete from the wall. During those peaceful days of summer I told the photographers that on my first morning as executive editor I would put that fragment of the Berlin Wall on my desk to remind me that they would go to the next war. It came sooner than any of us expected, and the Times's brilliant staff photographs from the Afghan war and Ground Zero captured Pulitzers for both news and feature photography—two of the record seven Pulitzers the paper won in 2002, five of which were for 9/11 and war coverage.
For as long as I'm alive I'll be proud of the impact the Times photographers had on our profession. Eddie Adams, the reigning guru of American news-photo workshops, said that the Times had reinvented newspaper photojournalism. Critics at Artforum magazine cited the Times's dramatic treatment of photographs as one of the most significant developments of 2001 in the visual arts.
The papers we produced were hailed for their visual power, but it was the written content that accounted for the extent of our Pulitzer sweep. While going at a dead run to cover the fast-breaking news of the post-9/11 period, Jon Landman and a group of his editors and reporters invented the "Portraits of Grief" series. Those thumbnail sketches of every person who had died in the World Trade Center disaster became, in effect, a national shrine, and were a strong ingredient of the special daily section "A Nation Challenged," which we published for the last quarter of 2001. That special section helped the Times win the Pulitzer Board's highest honor: the award for public service.
I've never worked with greater pride or been more eager to get to the office each day than in those frantic months between 9/11 and the end of the Afghan war. It was during that tumultuous period that we took the first steps toward installing a more broad-based management and editing system in place of the silos. In putting out "A Nation Challenged" we sometimes gathered as many as twenty-five people—not just text editors but also designers and artists, layout and photo editors, long treated as second-class citizens—around the big table where we selected and organized stories and photographs. In thirty-nine years of newspapering I've never seen so large a staff rise to so high a level of effort and intensity for so long a time. A few days into the 9/11 story I sent out a memo urging all members of the staff to get some rest and spend time with their families, noting that a story of this magnitude was a marathon, not a sprint. The fact is, though, that the Times staff ran like sprinters for months on end. It was the most inspirational performance I've ever seen. Nothing that has happened since can dim the luster of those memories. I wouldn't trade those first six months for another decade as executive editor.
In that first year I also learned, perhaps not well enough, about the competing demands on an executive editor. Inside the paper you must meet the expectations of the publisher and give direction to the masthead by being a cold-eyed critic of the daily news report. But in public you have to be a constant cheerleader for the whole staff, many of whom think of themselves as an oppressed minority, even though some of them are among the country's best-paid journalists.
That Times people tend to have a love-hate relationship with their employer is no secret inside the paper or within New York's chattering classes. To some degree this is true of newsrooms everywhere, but at the Times the feeling of ambivalence seems chronic, even feverish. Times people glory in their association with the institution, yet they despise their dependence on the money, security, cachet, and illusion of power that make leaving almost impossible. Like the French, New Englanders, Southerners, Idaho survivalists, or Mormon polygamists, they take a perverse pride in their idiosyncrasies and tend to make iconic "characters" of those who embody the tribal pathology in its purest form.
These newsroom characters are regarded less as role models than as holy fools whose wisdom, no matter how wacky, is still magical and oracular. For example, some of the weakest writers on the paper are opinion leaders on questions of style and copy editing. Great value is placed on the act of "speaking truth to power," with little regard for the substance or factuality of what is spoken. The newsroom characters pride themselves on their flair for gossip, a predilection that has been greatly enhanced by e-mail. (Their avidity for it is undiminished by the universal institutional awareness that on any given personnel or organizational question at the Times, at most half a dozen people in the entire building know what's really going on.) As a group, they tend to be politically liberal in regard to the government's domestic policies, conservative in regard to the location of their desks, rebellious in regard to the Times stylebook, and anarchic in regard to the paper's management.
Every executive editor has been frustrated by the Times grapevine, and Arthur sometimes comes across as Wile E. Coyote, so elaborate and endlessly hopeful are his schemes to thwart the gossip network. Max Frankel once pointed out what I regard as the defining characteristic of this aspect of the Times newsroom. No matter how much most people on the newsroom floor love working at the Times, their professional loyalties do not flow to the institution, much less to its news executives. As in the medieval guilds, their loyalties tend to flow outward toward their peers on one or another publication, no matter how debased that publication's principles or how craven its ownership. That is why every executive editor who has tried to shake the dust of tradition from the Times finds himself assaulted in other publications with blind quotations attributed to "senior Times employees," who are usually not within a mile of knowing what's actually going on. It is a mystery to me how so many of these reports, which are often untrue, can be so readily believed at the Times, whose newsroom is supposedly the most sophisticated and journalistically exacting in the country, and how no thought seems to be given to the quality of the source (for instance, the New York Post) or to the often well-known foibles and envious natures of media writers at publications that habitually stick it to the Times.
It was particularly annoying to read stories about me and the paper in which anonymous editors complained about "top-down management." In some cases these were people responding petulantly to an unfamiliar level of accountability. In others I detected the discomfort of editors who missed the old system in which they were allowed to turn in a daily story schedule that showed only a firm grasp of the obvious. Many media writers also developed a caricature of me that hardened through endless repetition. I was an "autocrat" whose saving grace, such as it was, came from the vague quality of being "larger than life."
For my part, I had always thought of the Times itself as larger than life, a place that nurtured its swashbucklers and sheltered its nerds and geeks with an indulgent tolerance. Like many newcomers, I was at first taken aback by the awkwardness, timidity, insecurity, and social envy of many Times people, who in my reckoning had every right to be proud of their attainments. I had admired from afar the elegant individualism of old lions such as Scotty Reston, Harrison Salisbury, Tom Wicker, Seymour Topping, Drew Middleton, Clifton Daniel, Sydney Gruson, and Punch Sulzberger himself. Once inside, I quickly adapted to the new reality that anyone likely to become a force on the paper, no matter how unpolished, was going to be smart and tough. And why bother to work for the Times if you didn't want to be a force in shaping its journalism? I learned to swim with sharks, and I don't mind saying that I liked it. I had long since accommodated myself to the reality that the day of Times men and women known for a sense of style as sharp as their intellects was past.
Most galling for me to read was that I was playing favorites in handing out assignments—when we were in fact dismantling an old-boy network of at least a century's standing. The ingrained management habit of favoring seniority and networking skills over talent had its roots in a kind of Skull and Bones system in which people who came to the Times at an early age and advanced to high positions made sure that the guys with whom they had been clerks and cub reporters were taken care of. The increasing numbers of Times people who came in mid-career had no graduating-class loyalties, however, and I believed that over the long haul the culture of complaint could not defeat what we were trying to build—an open assignment process based purely on a correspondent's talent, performance record on big stories, and willingness to work diligently under adverse conditions.
I knew that I was taking a pounding in the press and on the office grapevine, but I also knew, from observing my predecessors, that changes of the sort we planned would inevitably encounter resistance, and therefore had to be made in the morning of an editorship, rather than in its twilight. I also realized that I had to go directly to the staff to sell my central strategic rationale: that the newspaper had to improve itself greatly from front to back in order to ensure its long-term survival. I was working my way through a series of breakfasts and lunches at which ten or twenty reporters and copy editors at a time could get an unfiltered version of my vision for the Times and question me in any way they liked.
I've since heard that some of them were afraid to speak up, and I wish I had been more sensitive to that. I've been involved in the combat of ideas for so long that it's hard for me to understand that people can be put off when, as the British say, one "fights one's corner hard." Moreover, even my friends and family have warned me about "the look"—an apparently warlike expression that comes over my face when I am thinking intently about something. One of my closest friends on the paper said that at such times I look like "an angry hawk." That's certainly a failing on my part, and doesn't accurately reflect the fact that I love conversation and contrary ideas, and am drawn to people with a quick sense of humor.
In any event, as we unveiled plans for year two, I knew I had the support of my publisher and I thought I had the luxury of time. For better or worse, I didn't care what Times people said so long as they broke stories, and in that regard virtually every reader and professional journalist I heard from agreed that the Times was firing on all cylinders. Was I in too much of a hurry and overly reliant on my competitive instincts? Yes. Did I pay too little attention to the oldest cliché of Times management—that when an executive editor sneezes, everyone else gets pneumonia? Absolutely.