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.
Lessons From Year One
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.
An Agenda For Year Two
In late 2002 and early 2003 our masthead editors and I finally had a chance to catch our breath. In memos and meetings we outlined an action plan based in large part on the critique that Arthur and I had discussed at Aquavit. We summed up our goals for 2002-2003 as a campaign to "make every section of the paper as good every day as our best sections are on our best days." We analyzed the paper front to back, asking ourselves which were our weakest and most unappealing sections. Then we set priorities based on the level of decay, the importance of each section to the paper, and our demographically driven strategy of trying to attract new readers.
As noted, for reasons of prestige and circulation, it is impossible for the Times to be a truly great newspaper without a business section that's a must-read on Wall Street. Our business editor, Glenn Kramon, had been given orders by the previous administration to edit his report for the "general reader," with a heavy emphasis on mutual funds and other small-investor news. A gaping hole in that strategy is that we were essentially conceding to The Wall Street Journal the hottest running business story of the late-1990s boom—mergers and acquisitions. Even more disconcerting, the business section of the paper on Sunday—when we had a free-fire zone because the Journal and other business publications didn't appear on weekends—was being put out with bits and pieces left over from the daily business report. In other words, our weakest business reports were being reserved for those days when we had our largest readership and no competition.
Once we changed the rules of engagement under which Glenn was operating, he delivered amazing results. His section was one of the first to observe that the AOL Time Warner executive shakeup of April of 2002 marked a resurgence by Time Warner's old guard and the beginning of the end for the chairman, Steve Case. The Enron meltdown and the associated Arthur Anderson accounting scandal were the first major business stories in living memory on which the Times business section was either in the lead or in the hunt from the outset. Thanks to Kurt Eichenwald's sources among the Enron prosecutors and defense lawyers, his stories could not be matched. Glenn's revitalized business report was a finalist for a 2003 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting, and although I never second-guess the Pulitzer committee, I have to admit I thought we were going to win.
Nothing was more pressing than culture. When I asked Arthur Gelb, who had supervised the paper's culture section during its heyday, for an assessment of what the section needed, he was scathing. Coverage of high culture was invariably late, he said, and even the New York Post was beating us on the Broadway beats we had once owned. Sunday Arts & Leisure, our showcase section, had been turned over to a mid-level editor who had been licensed to ignore suggestions from anyone, including his nominal superior, the culture editor. He was a former rock critic who had undergone a highbrow conversion that left him interested only in the most arcane corners of classical music. The rest of the section was catch as catch can. The timing of its lead profiles made embarrassingly clear week after week that the Times was acquiescing to the schedule demands of actors, directors, and producers with new movies, stage plays, or TV shows to plug.
When the opportunity presented itself, I moved to upgrade our culture coverage with the appointment of Steven Erlanger, an experienced foreign correspondent and former writing instructor at Harvard whom I knew to be a man of wide-ranging interest in the arts. Steve quickly stole Jodi Kantor, a young media editor from Slate, and put her in charge of Arts & Leisure. The impact was immediate. Both had a natural feel for topicality and demographic targeting. Steve intuitively understood the inner workings of high-culture institutions like the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet. Arts & Leisure readers definitely knew there was a new sheriff in town when Jodi beat New York's hip publications to the punch with a lead story on the rock group White Stripes.
Culture offered another illustration of the interconnectedness of quality journalism and financial success. The advertising department was overjoyed with the new energy of Arts & Leisure. Following Times protocol, its sales reps had suffered in silence while the buyers of lucrative Sunday movie ads—the movie studios whose advertising business is vital to the Times—complained about the blandness of the section. Contrary to widely held beliefs in the newsroom, such advertisers rarely complained about a bad review. (If they did, they were quickly slapped down.) What really upset them was the chronically weak editorial content of Arts & Leisure, which meant their ads were not being seen by the engaged audience they wanted to reach.
(I can't resist mentioning that an exception to the no-complaint rule was Harvey Weinstein, of Miramax, whose histrionic cries of pain were endlessly amusing. He once accused me of breaking the heart of his brother Bob—not generally believed in the business to be possessed of that organ—by refusing to run a maudlin feature on their father, a failed salesman of ersatz diamonds. I directed Harvey to Vanity Fair, which turned the piece into an entertaining—and possibly true—shades-of-Willy Loman story.)
We learned several lessons from the changes to the back of the book. One was that the best way to revive a section was to appoint a new editor and then to give that person broad creative authority within clear guidelines as to what we needed. Another thing we learned was that many of the people who worked for or wrote about the Times did not know the difference between micro-managing and macro-managing. Micro-managing would be dictating a story line to a given desk—something we did only when the desk was having trouble conceptualizing its report or coping with a major running story. Macro-managing, on the other hand, means getting involved in what, for the most part, only masthead editors and a few seasoned editors and correspondents have the time to do. That is to observe the news from 30,000 feet, as it were, and to critique the report in a way that communicates constructively to the editors and reporters down in the trenches. Most effective editors in chief have a gift for seeing the entire battlefield from above, and the radar to understand what is coming over the horizon. That is the kind of editorial leadership I promised Arthur we would create.
The Science section, the Book Review, and the Travel section were next on the priority list. All were edited by able people who had been in place too long. A couple of these editors—Chip McGrath, of the Book Review, and Cory Dean, our Science editor, who had written the definitive book on coastal erosion in the United States and was eager for reassignment as our senior environmental reporter—were gifted writers who wanted to get their bylines back into print. We had installed a new Sports editor and charged him with making us competitive with Sports Illustrated and USA Today, and with quietly searching for more-provocative columnists. The Week in Review, another franchise section that had once been a journalistic trendsetter, had over the years become decrepit in style and content. We had installed a new editor as a first step toward a major overhaul.
These moves would allow us to make other needed changes as part of the transition process. Given our readers' interest in books and the importance of the Times's best-seller list, the most urgent change involved one of the most puzzling policies I'd seen in my twenty-five years at the Times—the instruction to Chip McGrath not to run lead reviews on the cover of the Sunday Book Review. In that ultra-important display space we had begun running drawings and index boxes rather than formative essays by major writers, which had been the custom under earlier Book Review editors. Frankly, I wouldn't have believed the explanation for this policy if Arthur and I hadn't heard it articulated over lunch by Joe Lelyveld. According to Joe, the Book Review ought not to exert an outsize influence in the publishing world. To devote the cover to a review of a particular book every Sunday would give the impression that the Times was anointing it the most significant book of that week. I bit my tongue, but I believed that this cover policy succeeded in diminishing the appeal and significance of the Book Review, one of the Times's signature sections. Properly exerting influence is, of course, exactly what the Book Review ought to be doing.
Too Much Work, Too Little Money
A few months ago, when Arthur and I met for drinks, I told him that my biggest regret—outside my lack of vigilance in the Blair case—was not pushing him harder to rescind his decision to freeze our newsroom budget just north of $180 million as the economy soured in 2002. It was an amiable chat over several martinis at a quiet Greenwich Village bar, but when I voiced my regret, Arthur responded that it wouldn't have made any difference: he would not have budged. That's too bad. One of the main things I learned when the Times sent me to a four-week crash course in management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business is that you don't choke off resources to your core product when the economy is in a down cycle. I am pretty sure that Arthur was taught the same thing when he took a similar course at the Harvard Business School. Arthur viewed the editorial-budget freeze as a necessary step to keep Wall Street analysts happy, but there were other costs he could have cut—for example, by imposing across-the-board budget reductions of a few percent in each of the business and production departments. Politically, that would have helped me, because I had made a calculated decision to keep the pressure on the staff to put out a better newspaper even though Arthur was holding back on giving the newsroom the new hires it needed. I could, however, hire for attrition. One person quits—sometimes in response to stepped-up metabolism—and another can be hired. We never tried to stop a resignation or a retirement if we thought we could hire a more talented replacement. This was not a new tactic at the Times. Indeed, it was the traditional way for our most aggressive editors to create job openings that could not be challenged by the Guild. Inevitably, removing underperformers created newsroom grumbling. But I felt that if we could all stand being rode hard and put up wet until the end of 2003, an entire new cast of editors would be in charge at the lagging departments, and we could all begin to get some rest. This was another of those risk-reward calculations that went the wrong way when we hit the Blair flap.
As well as I know Arthur and as fond as I am of Punch, it took me a long time to figure out that they share the superfrugality one finds in families with multigenerational wealth. In putting together The New York Times Company, Punch and his charming sidekick, the late Sydney Gruson, spent too much time bottom fishing for small, cheap papers instead of ponying up to buy the larger quality papers like The Des Moines Register, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the Baltimore Sun when they came on the market. The acquisition of papers like those would have meant that The New York Times Company, instead of just owning the best single newspaper in the country, would have owned the nation's premier newspaper chain. As it is, it's a long drop from The Boston Globe to the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger. Missed opportunities in cable television, including an invitation from Ted Turner to invest in CNN, make up another heartbreaking list.
So I had to tip my hat to Arthur when he broke the family pattern of timidity on critical acquisitions and persuaded Donald Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, to sell to the Times the Post's half interest in the International Herald Tribune. One reason we were trying so hard to improve both the section-by-section quality of the Times and the work habits of our staff was to fulfill a long-range plan formulated by the management team that Arthur had assembled around him over the previous ten years. That plan envisioned the Times as not just a strong national newspaper but, eventually, the centerpiece of a truly global news organization. With the acquisition of the IHT—which could only advance that global plan—it seemed to me that Arthur was blending the stabilizing caution of his father with the ambitious reach of his grandfather. (By the way, the room on the fifteenth floor of the Times Building in which we met to plot the takeover of the IHT had in the 1930s been a secret bedchamber where Arthur Hays Sulzberger had assignations with his mistress, the Hollywood star Madeleine Carroll.)
Once the deal was done, we called an old friend, Walter Wells, a former Times editor who had also been managing editor of the IHT, out of retirement to calm the paper's Paris staff during the change of ownership that took place on January 1, 2003. We set Tom Bodkin, an assistant managing editor and design director, to work on a secret project to draw up a new page-one flag for an international edition of The New York Times and were planning—with what I would put at a 90 percent level of certainty—to announce its birth in November of 2003.
Those plans were shelved after my departure, although the Times recently announced that it is expanding the International Herald Tribune while keeping the IHT flag. The stalling of our plans to remake the Times into a global newspaper has been a bitter disappointment to me, as I'm sure it has been to Arthur. The delay will be sold as a matter of fiscal prudence, but it really marks a failure of nerve in regard to investing in the international English-language paper for which we felt the world was ready. The risk that the Times has missed its moment for becoming a transatlantic paper was underscored in February, when a group of British journalists revealed plans to raise $29 million to launch a newspaper. It is intended to fill the market slot that should already have been occupied by an international edition of The New York Times.
A surprising and unpleasant side effect of the Jayson Blair scandal was that it destroyed the relationship between me and one of my mentors, Arthur Gelb. After publication of a 14,000-word, front-page story on May 11 of last year that tried to explain how Jayson's many fabrications and acts of plagiarism got into the paper, this old friend telephoned me in my office in a state of near hysteria. He furiously denounced me for authorizing so exhaustive and revelatory an account, decrying as vast overkill our use of four full inside pages for the story, which also included a companion piece that listed and spelled out every instance of falsification our reporters had found as they tracked portions of Jayson's mendacious journey. Gelb angrily dismissed my contention that it was impossible to spend too much space setting the record straight for our readers. He quoted a high official at CBS as saying, after reading the Times's lengthy story, that if 60 Minutes had disclosed that much information about its tobacco scandal, the program would not have survived.
Like most people who've known Arthur Gelb for a long time, I was familiar with his tirades, but I had never heard him so unhinged. In retrospect I shouldn't have been surprised that he favored what the Nixon White House used to call "the modified, limited hangout route." Part of Gelb's charm is his pragmatism. He was famous for insincere praise of Times staff members and had made it a main tool of his management style. He prided himself on being the ultimate newsroom situationalist. In the series of New York Times "irregular verbs" invented by the waggish foreign correspondent David Binder, "to Gelb" meant "to cling steadfastly to ever-changing principles."
Gelb was probably right that a more modest, more circumspect correction would also have better served my personal interests. But even though I had learned some useful bureaucratic tricks from him over the years, I was guided in matters of ethics by other experiences and other role models. I had come to believe that in the case of our coverage of Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist accused by the Clinton Administration of spying for China, neither the Editors' Note published by the news department on September 26, 2000, nor the editorial that I wrote two days later had sufficiently explained to our readers how the Times had erred in its reporting and commentary.
My education in journalistic ethics had been shaped by bosses who believed in total honesty with readers when it came to correcting mistakes. I had seen an editorial hero of the civil-rights era, Eugene C. Patterson, demand that news of his own DUI arrest be run on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times, on the grounds that its readers needed to know that the paper could be as hard on its own people as it was on others caught in embarrassing circumstances. As a newcomer to the Times I had seen Abe Rosenthal order an equivocating copy editor to run a correction because, as he put it, "in this business there's only one thing to do when you're wrong, and that is to get right as quickly as you can." Ben Bradlee's Washington Post had published an investigative account by its ombudsman after an entirely made-up central character and other fabrications by a reporter named Janet Cooke forced it to return a Pulitzer. During the Iran-contra hearings Max Frankel ordered the Times to run a front-page correction of a story that had misrepresented Oliver North's testimony. Max was widely criticized for overplaying the paper's mea culpa, but I felt then, as I do now, that he set a standard of transparency every Times executive editor ought to follow.
At any rate, there was never any doubt in my mind about what to do after I first found out—on April 30, while on a week's vacation—that Jayson Blair had been plausibly accused of plagiarism by the San Antonio Express-News. The Express charged that he had borrowed heavily from a story it had run about a local woman whose son was killed in Iraq, lifting not only quotations but also its reporter's vivid description of the woman's living room. The following day Gerald Boyd called to say that further checking by our national editor, Jim Roberts, indicated other problems with the San Antonio story. It appeared that Jayson had never made the trip on which his reporting was based. When Jim asked Jayson why he could not produce a receipt for a hotel, Jayson said that he had slept in a car he had rented. But the car-rental agency he named had been closed at the time in question. When it became obvious that he had not been to San Antonio, we published an Editors' Note and an article on May 2 that detailed the problems with Jayson's "San Antonio" piece, suggested the possibility of deceptions in other stories, and announced his resignation from the paper. Jayson had sent word through Lena Williams, the Newspaper Guild's Unit Chair, that he would no longer talk to anyone at the Times, because he was upset that his integrity was being questioned. Lena was fearful that Jayson might kill himself, and Gerald assured me he had taken steps to see that Jayson was not alone after his dismissal.
Jim Roberts's research also established the likelihood of inaccuracies, plagiarism, piped quotes, and faked datelines in many other Blair stories. In my absence Gerald had formed a committee of several mid-level editors to begin investigating everything Jayson had filed in recent months and to go back earlier if necessary. The committee was to start immediately. I approved Gerald's aggressive approach to finding out the truth, but after a day's reflection I felt that the makeup of the investigative committee was not appropriate. Everyone Gerald had tapped for the committee was a person of unquestioned integrity, but most had supervised Jayson in one way or another. Overnight I decided that we were putting them in an impossible conflict-of-interest situation that might inadvertently hurt their credibility and the credibility of the paper. On Friday, May 2, now back from vacation, I appointed a strong reporting team of seven to operate under three respected editors: Al Siegal, the assistant managing editor who was our resident expert on Times standards (and who later headed up the eponymous Siegal Committee that I authorized to fully investigate the Blair affair); Glenn Kramon, the business editor, who was one of our strongest supervisors on complicated projects; and Lorne Manly, the media editor responsible for stories about newspapers, including our own. I urged them to work as fast as possible, but not to sacrifice accuracy for speed. I also told Al that he should put whatever they learned in the paper according to normal editorial standards and without showing the story to Gerald or me. It was up to him to call on me if the team found something that in his judgment could not be published without the executive editor's risking an abrogation of responsibility by failing to review it.
At one point when Gerald and I were meeting with several masthead editors about the Blair problem, someone used the term "damage control." I told the group that we were not in the damage-control business. "Full disclosure" would be our approach, I said. I wouldn't change that decision today even though the story as published started the unraveling that cost Gerald and me our jobs.
I made the decision for full disclosure shortly after having read, earlier that day, the entire personnel file on Jayson Blair, who had been hired as an intern in 1998 and then promoted to the full-time staff early in 2001, before I became executive editor. There, for the first time, I learned that Jayson had a history of being warned by supervising editors about mistakes that required printed corrections. Oddly, Jayson's rate of corrections over five years averaged out within the normal range. I learned during the course of my inquiry that editors overseeing new employees become alarmed when five percent of a reporter's stories provoke corrections. This sounds like a high number, but it should be remembered that corrections are often the result of production or editing errors that have little to do with the substantive reporting of a story. In fact, some of our most respected veteran reporters actually had higher correction rates. It was in that reading of the file on May 2 that I first saw a memo (dated April 1, 2002) from Jon Landman warning, "We have to stop Jayson from writing for The Times. Right now." For a warning of such gravity, it had had limited circulation, never reaching me or anyone else on the masthead. It was addressed to William Schmidt, our associate managing editor for personnel, with a copy to Nancy Sharkey, one of his assistants, who had been involved with monitoring Jayson's performance since his internship. Bill Schmidt later told me in Gerald's presence that he was sure he had reported to Gerald orally when he got Jon's warning. Gerald did not dispute that statement. If that warning took place, it is to my direct knowledge the only time that anyone at masthead level was told about Jayson's accuracy problems. (Ultimately, the Siegal Committee reported that Gerald had been copied on an earlier Landman warning memo, sent in February of 2002.) Because I did not want to inhibit our reporting team's inquiry, I never asked Jon Landman why he didn't copy his memo to me or other masthead editors. Later he was quoted as saying that he believed that his views on Jayson were well known, since he had opposed my predecessor's decision to include Jayson among the interns promoted to staff reporting jobs in 2001. I have no reason to question Jon's account, but I do feel that had I been in the bureaucratic loop on the memo, the Jayson Blair story would have ended there.
That said, I have repeatedly taken full responsibility for the failure to catch Jayson Blair. I had been in the job for twenty months, and I should have somehow found the time to ascertain whether our ramshackle personnel system was up to the task. It is a fact but not an excuse that I had been focusing my attention instead on the news, on our strategic plan, and on finding and installing new department heads. No one forced me to assume, wrongly, that matters of signal import would be brought to me as a matter of standard operating procedure. In fact, there was no standard operating procedure, and that, too, became my responsibility on the day I took over.
Furthermore, if as a matter of daily routine I had been reading and reacting to the newspaper's published corrections as closely and quickly as I should have, I would have noticed Jayson's pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts and made inquiries that would probably have compelled me to start paying attention to a potentially serious problem. One of my close friends on the paper, Mike Oreskes, an assistant managing editor, said a couple of weeks into the crisis that I was an odd kind of manager—"a control freak who doesn't like details."
During a tumultuous meeting of the entire Times staff, which was held at the Loew's Astor Plaza Theater, in Times Square, on May 14, three days after our front-page reconstruction of the Blair affair, I told the assembled reporters and editors that race had probably played a role in my approving the suggestion (by Gerald Boyd and Jim Roberts) that Jayson be added to the team covering the Washington, D.C., sniper story. The fact that Jayson was black and had been hired under a program designed in part to bring more young minority reporters into the paper had created a racial climate unlike any I had ever seen at the Times. Minority staffers feared a white backlash against affirmative-action hiring designed to increase the modest presence of blacks, Latinos, and Asians on our staff. Many whites in the newsroom were openly denouncing a purported "double standard" in our personnel practices. I tried to put into context my own background. "Where I come from, when it comes to principles on race, you have to pick a ditch to die in. And let it come rough or smooth, you'll find me in the trenches for justice. Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my own heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."
But many news accounts have failed to make an important explanatory point. Whatever slack I was cutting Jayson had nothing to do with his accuracy problems. I thought I was giving this apparently talented and engaging young man a second chance based on a different problem that had been brought to my attention around the end of 2002. That was when Gerald had informed me that Jayson had told him that he had gone to the Times's Employee Assistance Program and requested treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Under a long-standing Times policy, the EAP itself cannot reveal the nature of an employee's problems, whether physical, psychological, or chemical in origin. Managers are simply informed that the employee is on leave, and when the EAP returns that employee to work, the presumption is that he or she is fit for duty.
As a manager in Washington and New York, I had dealt with the cases of two brilliant writers who went on leave for treatment of alcoholism. In both cases the writers had done Pulitzer-level work after their treatment. I believed strongly that people should not be penalized for seeking help from the EAP. Since that department was forbidden to give managers detailed information, I was relying on my experience with the previous two cases when Jayson Blair returned to work. I had learned something about how to spot the warning signs of relapse and also about those signs of energy, productivity, and sociability that indicated a recovery was in progress. I passed Jayson's desk often after his return, and I saw in him a level of vitality and social engagement that I took to be evidence of recovery. These positive signs, I thought, warranted giving him a spot on the team covering the D.C. sniper story.
Nowadays I think of Jayson Blair as an accident that ended my newspaper career in the same unpredictable way that a heart attack or a plane crash might have. After months of consideration, the one thing I wish I had done differently pertains to how we produced the editorial team's exhaustive report to our readers on Jayson's misdeeds. My initial impulse had been to call a distinguished former staff member out of retirement to write an independent report. I approached one such individual, who could not do it for personal reasons and whose privacy I respect. I wish I had then asked Max Frankel, Bill Kovach, or John Lee, a former assistant managing editor, to return to the Times temporarily to conduct the inquiry and write the report. Such a person would have had a depth of managerial experience and institutional knowledge that was understandably missing from our team of seven mid-career reporters.
On the Sunday morning that their story appeared, I met John McPhee, the New Yorker writer, for a shad-fishing trip on the upper Delaware River. It was a foggy day. The steep riverbanks were painted in the first pale greens of spring. As we floated along in a McKenzie River drift boat, bald eagles flushed from the shoreline timber and flapped away downstream. I read the story in sections as the day unfolded, and I knew at that point that I was unlikely to survive. The article did not pursue the one area of reporting that might have worked in my favor—how and why critical information about Jayson never reached me.
After the story ran, I talked to each of the seven reporters one on one and asked them to tell me anything I might find helpful. One told me, prophetically, that I had "lost the newsroom" and would have a hard time getting it back. But the political wounds inflicted by the fallout from the Blair story were not the most surprising development for me.
The biggest surprise was Arthur Sulzberger. I had not realized how rattled he was, and frankly I don't think I worked hard enough to stiffen his spine for the survival battle we could have won. His statement to me at the outset that he was going to be "heavily involved" in planning our public-relations strategy should have been a tip-off. I had long noticed in business situations that when Arthur was worried, he tended to yell Hi-ho, Silver! and gallop into the middle of things, and also to form committees. In this case he formed an emergency committee that met almost daily and settled on an approach of "not feeding the story" with interviews on television and in other publications. It may not have been the best strategy, but its only chance of working was for us to be disciplined and patient in hunkering down and taking a beating.
Arthur Gelb, in the midst of one of his denunciations of my full-disclosure policy, said that the publisher got turned because "the cousins"—a group of Sulzberger family future stockholders, some of whom supposedly harbored doubts about or envy toward Arthur—were becoming restive. Gelb said they couldn't abide hearing Jay Leno and David Letterman telling jokes about the Times, and were worried about the dinner-party chatter they were hearing in Manhattan. But I think Arthur Sulzberger's response was more intuitively personal than that. My dismissal came a day after he went to Washington for an ill-timed brown-bag lunch at the Washington bureau. When I asked him how it had gone, he said, "Brutal" without elaborating. My guess is that it revived traumatic memories of his having once let himself get "beaten up," as he put it to me, at one of our editorial retreats back in 1992. At that time Arthur had opened the floor to criticism of Max Frankel, who was accused of being insensitive to and intellectually dismissive of his staff. But when Arthur sided with Max's critics, the assembled editors suddenly rounded on him and lectured him on his responsibilities as a fledgling publisher. In any event, had I known we weren't going to stay the course, I would not have recommended to Arthur that we hold the big meeting on May 14 to let the staff vent about the story we had published the previous Sunday.
On the morning of that meeting Arthur asked me how I felt. "Calm," I said. "Completely calm." He looked at me with genuine alarm.
Later, hoping to reassure him, I said that I had been thinking about his question, and I had a more complete answer. We were walking toward the theater at that point. "I feel interested," I said, adding that this was one of the most fascinating experiences I'd ever had.
I don't think that helped him. The New York Times is an environment that causes fear to fester in people, but I had long before given up my fear about anything that might happen to me inside the Times. I had also accepted that, for better or worse, the primal code of honor that had been drilled into me in childhood and by my early heroes and mentors in journalism might one day lead to a situation in which I'd be fired by one newspaper or another. I'm sorry it had to be the best one I ever worked for. In hindsight I'm a little surprised that I weathered more than eight years as editorial-page editor without being canned. Arthur had been a rock during those years, turning aside complaints from President Bill Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on down. In the Blair case Arthur had a decision to make, and I accept that he made it according to his best judgment. Still, it pains me to think that I didn't do enough to buck him up.
Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, Arthur is his own man, and a different man from his father. Punch in his prime would never have thrown over one of his executive editors under the pressure of employees who didn't like the editor personally or who disagreed with a legitimate strategy for reinvigorating the Times's journalism. The difference between Punch and Arthur is the difference between the Marine Corps, where Punch had his formative experience, and Outward Bound, where Arthur had his. Both systems are about getting to the top of the mountain, and both father and son want to get there, and both know that the Times's staff sometimes has to be kicked and pulled on a hard climb. But Arthur wants it to be touchy-feely along the way. I knew that going in, and I didn't bother to check his emotional temperature often enough.
The May 14th meeting with the Times staff was a disaster. It provided a forum for the culture of complaint, just as Bill Safire had predicted it would. Always stalwart in a crisis, Bill had urged me not to have the meeting. He said that the worst of the pounding was over, and that such a meeting would only give dedicated enemies of our overall strategy a chance to replay a game that they were losing. I told Bill that Arthur and I had decided independently that we had to do it, and that at any rate the die was cast and could not be called back to hand. What I needed now, I told him in a playful tone, was some of that high-priced survival advice he used to give Nixon. I already gave you that, he said with a laugh, but you're going to have the meeting anyway.
A Good Day To Die
I never asked Arthur about the thought process that led to his dismissing me, or about what the decisive moments or influences were. The relationship between a publisher and his top editor is like a marriage. Once the essential bond is broken on one side or the other, the marriage is over. Anything else is just details.
When we met on the afternoon of June 4, he was more emotional than I. Once again we were in Arthur Hays Sulzberger's old trysting place. "You've given your life to this paper," Arthur said. He reached out and grasped my arm, and seemed almost overcome for a moment. I knew him well enough to see that his agony was genuine but his mind was made up. The language was all familiar Times-speak, some of it debatable, much of it true. Arthur believed that if I stayed there would be "too much blood on the floor." As we both knew, he had decided weeks earlier that we needed to placate large segments of the staff by promising to ease up on "more, better, faster." In that regard, he said, the Times was asking me to do something I was not cut out for. "You're an activist," he said. I certainly wasn't going to argue with that, although I would have put it differently: If you're a fast-ball pitcher, you have to throw heat in the big games. If you can't win with your strength, you're not destined to win.
The previous couple of weeks had been costly for me in a way I had not anticipated. I had begun to feel disdain for some people I had held in great affection for many years. I'm sure that will pass in time. I intend for it to. At sixty-one, I'm young enough to invent an entirely new chapter in my life rather than perpetually re-reading the old ones. I do not miss the daily grind of newspapering or the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing. Since I was twelve or so, my strongest interest has been in literature, and I'll be turning in that direction during the extra years I've secured by getting fired. I had twenty-five great years at the Times—and one bad month. And in the relatively short time available to me as executive editor I got to show the one thing I had always wanted to show—that a paper that was being driven like an elderly Buick had the horsepower to run at Grand Prix speed.
I find myself thinking often of Arthur's remark that a century and a half is an advanced age for a business. Yet most people at the Times, like many of its readers, unthinkingly regard it as a permanent fixture of American life. Nothing, however, guarantees its future. Corporations are transient. The East India Company, a global power in the eighteenth century, exists today only in the history books. The Times's only guarantee of its future lies in expanding its commercial and journalistic reach. I am today and will remain a hard-liner on the notion that the paper must grow in quality and in size, and that if it is to do so, those who believe in the culture of achievement and in putting the readers first must prevail.
At the moment, the signs are mixed. Plans to revamp the back of the book are moving forward on some fronts. This piecemeal effort needs to become holistic. On the business side, the construction of a new Times office tower, on Eighth Avenue and Forty-first Street, has been delayed as its developer seeks financing. If and when it's built, the space for the broadcast and digital activities central to the Times's future will be inadequate. On the journalistic side, Arthur and the newsroom have allocated additional resources to the International Herald Tribune, but plans to re-flag the IHT as an International New York Times seem to be on indefinite hold. There's even grousing by some in the newsroom that buying the IHT was a mistake and that Arthur overpaid for it. Neither is true. But buying it and not revamping it right away would emphatically be a mistake.
The Siegal Committee, whose members were selected by its chairman, released its report on July 30, 2003. The report shows an institution in denial. The committee had broadened its inquiry beyond Jayson Blair to include questions of newsroom management and communication, but its conclusions were a hymn to the old status quo, drafted by the very people who most strongly resisted the idea of a more vigorous and inclusive way of producing the paper. The three outside members who wrote the section dealing with Jayson Blair's perfidious passage through the Times dodged the question of why information about his errors was not widely shared and also failed to come to grips with troubled race relations in the newsroom in the wake of Jayson's betrayal of the paper and the departure of Gerald Boyd as managing editor. The entire report reflected the persistence of a trait that Turner Catledge and most of us who followed him tried to overcome: the newsroom's autonomic resistance to change.
I go back in memory to a moment in the game of historical quotation that Arthur and I often played. He was big on Churchill, Ike, and John Wayne. I tended toward Civil War generals, Bear Bryant, and the fatalistic and unfailingly liberating battle cry of the Cheyenne dog soldiers—"It is a good day to die." As our dinner at Aquavit was ending, I summed up by telling Arthur that I believed, as William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in his memoirs, that the place from which to lead was tête d'armée. Arthur observed that the head of the army was also a good place to get shot.