Contents | May 2004
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"When the Front Page Meets the Big Screen" (March 2004)
Hollywood is not a reliable moral arbiter of anything, so it's not surprising that when it holds a mirror up to journalism, Shattered Glass is the result. By Mark Bowden
"On Plagiarism" (April 2002)
In the wake of recent scandals some distinctions are in order.
By Richard A. Posner
"News and the Whole Truth" (August 1952)
"Too much of our news is one-dimensional, when truth has three dimensions (or maybe more); and in some fields the vast and increasing complexity of the news makes it continually more difficult—especially for us Washington reporters—to tell the public what really happened."
By Elmer Davis
"Journalism and Morality" (June 1926)
"Not defensively, but that the record may be straight, let me say that I did very little faking, although there was no special prejudice against it, so long as the fake wasn't libelous." A reporter looks back at his days as a yellow journalist.
"Newspaper Morals" (March 1914)
"I know of no subject, save perhaps baseball, on which the average American newspaper, even in the larger cities, discourses with unfailing sense and understanding." By H.L. Mencken
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2004
t has been almost a year since I was dismissed as executive editor of The New York Times, a casualty of the turmoil that followed the forced resignation of a troubled young reporter, Jayson Blair, who had fabricated or plagiarized facts and quotations in scores of news stories. I am not going to spend the rest of my life going over the details of the Blair scandal. My intention here is to perform a final service for the newspaper that I worked for and loved for twenty-five years, by revealing the real struggle that was going on behind the scenes at the Times as the Blair scandal played out.
A year after the Jayson Blair scandal, the deposed executive editor of The New York Times answers his critics, acknowledges his mistakes, deconstructs the events that ended his tumultuous tenure, and provides a no-holds-barred assessment of what he sees as a great newspaper in crisis
by Howell Raines
To do so requires me to put on the record both the revitalization strategy that my closest colleagues and I were pursuing at the Times and the underlying analysis of the paper's vulnerabilities that gave us a sense of urgency. This strategy had the support of our publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who throughout his career has pushed for a Times that guarded its traditions but also sought to make itself smarter, livelier, and more appealing to the geographically diverse and demanding national audience on which its future depends. We believed that the paper's long-term viability required significant improvements in the quality of its journalism—from the calcified front page our new leadership team had inherited on September 5, 2001, to the neglected, underfinanced "soft" sections at "the back of the book." A quiet but intense factional war was going on within the Times, between the senior editors who endorsed these improvements and traditionalists on the newsroom floor and among mid-level managers. The latter group wanted the paper to stay the way it was and took as an insult the animating idea behind our strategy: the idea that "the world's greatest newspaper" is not nearly as good as it could be and ought to be.
Despite the unfortunate ending of my career there, I remain devoted to the Times, because it is in every sense an irreplaceable American institution. The Times not only occupies a central place in our national civic life but also plays just as important a role as the ethical keystone of American journalism. It misses the point to say that the Times is an "elite" publication. It is the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world. And yet a harsh reality of our era is that if the Times ever ceased to exist, it would not be reinvented by any media company now in operation, in this country or in the world. A harsher reality is that its ability to prosper in the modern media marketplace is not at all assured. That is why Arthur Sulzberger has spent much of his twelve-year career as publisher trying to improve the quality of the Times's journalism—an effort that both of us saw as the best way to ensure The New York Times Company's future as a business.
I felt on the day I became executive editor and on the day I drove away from West Forty-third Street for the last time that the Times badly needs to raise the level of its journalism, and to do so quickly in order to survive and make the full transition to the digital age. Today the sad fact is that Arthur Sulzberger, who was my partner in the great enterprise of revitalizing the Times, and who remains my friend, may no longer be in a strong enough position internally to push all the reforms we felt were essential. Although there are signs that the front-to-back improvements we sought are beginning to move forward in a piecemeal fashion, for the time being Arthur and his top editors seem to be picking their way across a minefield, having seen the destructive power of a change-resistant newsroom. After months of deliberation and many invitations to write about the Times, I have chosen this forum to tell my former colleagues at the paper and its many devoted readers exactly where I think the paper needs to go. My views were shaped by a small group of strategists that Arthur had painstakingly assembled. That little round table is now broken, but there's no reason a new one can't be brought together to advance the goals we set. No one inside the Times can speak right now as candidly as I to the full extent of that strategic vision.
Folkways And Mores
hen the New York-born folklorist Carl Carmer wrote his classic study of my native state, Stars Fell on Alabama (1934), he said that the place that calls itself the heart of Dixie was so different from the rest of the United States that the only way he could begin to write about it was to conceive of it as a foreign country. The Times is its own country too, and it is essential to this task that I somehow convey what Times people call "our culture." First and foremost, it is a culture that requires mass allegiance to the idea that any change, no matter how beneficial on its surface, is to be treated as a potential danger. Oddly, this paper, which is a great engine of truth, has operated as long as anyone can remember on an internal personnel system I came to think of as management by mendacity. Great work gets the great praise it deserves, but routine work, too, is praised as excellent at the Times, and sloppy work is accepted as adequate. This skewed standard of verbal reward, coupled with the paper's sometimes mindless job guarantees to the main employees' union, the Newspaper Guild, has over the years created a huge obstacle to the development of a meritocratic workplace. Arthur often challenged the newsroom bosses to match the business side's diligence in using complicated contractual procedures to force incompetents off the staff, but generations of senior editors have found it an excruciating task to put out the paper while testifying at endless grievance hearings. On a newsroom floor with some 1,200 journalistic employees and an even larger, more militantly pro-Guild support staff, where the company is the daddy and the union is the mommy, no one is supposed to speak publicly about the attitudes of entitlement and smug complacency that pervade the paper. These attitudes undermine the staff's willingness to bring its talents fully to bear on the daily challenges of improving the Times. The paper's top editors have complained privately for years about the dysfunctional traits the Guild tries to program into newcomers. Some departments hastily and explicitly school impressionable reporters in shrugging off scoops by other news organizations, with the reassuring but dangerously outmoded Times maxim "It's not news until we say it's news." The debilitating corollary to this idea is that it's all right for the Times to get beaten on big stories, because when it gets around to doing them, it'll do them better.
In the only interview I have given on the Jayson Blair affair, I spoke on the Charlie Rose show of the resistance I had encountered as a "change agent" who was handpicked by the publisher to confront the newsroom's lethargy and complacency. A few days later, as he introduced my successor, Bill Keller, to the assembled staff, Arthur rebutted my comment by saying, "There's no complacency here—never has been, never will be." I can guarantee that no one in that newsroom, including Arthur himself, believed what he said. It was a ritual incantation meant to confirm the faith of everyone present in the Times's defining myth of effortless superiority. Arthur's politic words were a declaration that although Times people may talk and sometimes even joke among themselves about the paper's deeply rooted complacency, that characteristic must be vehemently denied when mentioned outside the tribal circle. More important, Arthur's words signaled that nothing dramatic would be done to upset the paper's cosseted world.
As everyone there also knew, Arthur had appointed me, in June of 2001, to be "our Patton," as he put it in my first annual evaluation, and from that day on I spoke openly about my mandate to "raise our competitive metabolism." That language was chosen precisely to address two problems that had dogged the Times for years: its indifference to competition and its chronic slowness in anticipating the news and marshaling its superior resources. These traits are well known within the journalistic profession, and are a matter of constant and often despairing talk among Times veterans. Our casual pose of being above the fray and too self-assured to care had become a Victorian affectation we could no longer afford. And yet our pulse seemed to be getting slower as the country's got faster. For example, my predecessor, Joseph Lelyveld, warned me that I was inheriting a generation of national correspondents who resisted traveling to news events in their assigned regions. One of this lot was quoted to me by an editor as having said he didn't need to make reporting trips because he could learn more about what was going on in his territory by using the Internet.
As it happened, the events of September 11, 2001, raised the staff's competitive metabolism to a level beyond anything I could have expected. The newsroom's response was more than magnificent. It was inspirational. In the wake of 9/11 our reporters and editors continued to roll through a series of stories that amounted to a nearly two-year blizzard of news: the Afghan war, the search for Osama bin Laden, anthrax attacks, intelligence failures, corporate scandals, the war in Iraq. From day one the Times staff dominated almost every aspect of the World Trade Center story. It was a triumph built on institutional memory; the knowledge of how to blanket a big story is imprinted on Times DNA regardless of who the executive editor is. The story played to some of my personal strengths, such as a passion for the intellectual challenge of full-tilt coverage and a determination to make sure that readers get the most complete picture possible, informationally and analytically, on stories of historic scale. Meanwhile, the sheer visual beauty of our front pages, and the daily war and terrorism section, "A Nation Challenged," kept us all pumped up. But the feverish pace also underscored some of my weaknesses. One of these is to respond to great staff effort by demanding that the next day we do "more, better, faster," in the words of Martin Baron, the similarly inclined editor of The Boston Globe. After the monumental accomplishments of covering 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, I did not allow the staff enough breathing space before declaring, at the start of my second year as editor, that we were launching a year-long effort to upgrade the quality of our weaker sections.
As a result, I kept the staff outside its zone of comfort for more than nineteen months, continually ramping up the demands even as Arthur was responding to the advertising recession by freezing our budget to nearly pre-9/11 levels. When Jayson Blair's violations became public, I had no reservoir of good will on which to draw. I had underestimated the intensity of staff unrest—the "guerrilla war," to use the phrase of one of my most determined critics—that had turned the newsroom into a combat zone. Many of my colleagues became enraged when I spoke about the lethargy of the Times. It was a violation of newsroom omerta. I won't argue with those who say that my indifference to the approval of individual staff members was a disabling flaw. I revere journalists of talent and expertise, either instinctive or acquired, and I admire the Times for collecting a larger number of such people than any other paper. But I'm not a person who is easy to please or eager to please. The things that interested me about being executive editor were making great journalism, experiencing the adrenalized camaraderie of a gifted staff going flat out on momentous stories, and, as an overall goal, getting the Times off its glide path toward irrelevance.
The Two Cultures
bout a decade ago several dozen Times editors convened for a retreat at Arrowwood, a sleek, soulless conference center in Westchester County. Arthur had brought along a management consultant named Doug Wesley and introduced him as our coach and facilitator. In his introductory seminar Wesley announced the lesson for the day: how to fire people. Then he divided us into smaller workshop groups. Most of us were department heads or deputies, frontline supervisors on the newsroom floor (I was the Washington editor at the time). The groups practiced termination interviews built around Wesley's main precepts. We were to sit directly facing the employee in a posture that indicated openness, receptivity—legs uncrossed, arms resting loosely on the arms of the chair. After saying to the person in a calm tone that he or she was being dismissed, and giving a brief, neutral explanation of the reason, we were to listen patiently while the employee vented freely. If he or she became angry, we were to say we understood the anger. At every turn we were to express personal sympathy but to offer no concessions. Once the soon-to-be-exiled worker realized the hopelessness of his or her situation, we were to collect the person's identification card, if that could be accomplished without a wrestling match.
After several hours of such role-playing we again gathered, so that Wesley could hear our comments and answer our questions. At the appropriate time I asked why we were being given this exercise, since at The New York Times we never fired anyone.
Wesley seemed surprised. What do you do with unproductive employees? he asked.
We just give them less work to do, I said, to a laughing burst of assent from the other editors in the group.
Wesley was puzzled, seeming to me at that moment like a new employee encountering the series of culture shocks that come with being hired at the Times. For people who have worked at other newspapers, the biggest shock upon coming to the Times is that the level of talent is not higher than it is. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the level of applied talent. Very few unintelligent people get hired at the Times. So what's shocking to the newcomer is the amount of coasting. Newspapers with slimmer resources and no union rules inhibiting dismissal somehow manage to closely monitor productivity. At the Times, as at Harvard, it is hard to get in and almost impossible to flunk out. All this was certainly a surprise to me, coming as I did from highly competitive, strictly supervised papers in Atlanta and St. Petersburg, as was the fact that the motivation and energy of the staff were so low. Hiring mistakes are rarely shown the door at the Times, and the paper can be stuck with them for years. After a probationary period of fourteen weeks would-be staff members get tenure for life. In one famous case a supervising editor missed the fourteen-week deadline for dismissing an unproductive newsroom staffer. The supervisor told the staffer that surely he did not want to stay, on account of a technicality, where he was unwanted. The employee disagreed, said he could live with that, and is still there a quarter century later.
Even highly motivated people can find themselves adjusting to a slower beat. Over time the enveloping attitude on the newsroom floor has become "We can do it slower, because by and by, someone on this great staff will do it better." The tendency toward mañana journalism can infect newcomers as if it were carried in the air ducts, like Legionnaires' disease. Thus the pernicious world view—"It's not news until we say it's news"—gets inculcated with amazing speed, even at the news-clerk level. In 1981 a tipster who wanted to blow the whistle on the alleged misconduct of Ronald Reagan's deputy director of central intelligence, Max Hugel, couldn't get past the Times's news clerks, so he took the scoop that led to Hugel's resignation to The Washington Post.
For the newcomer who happens to be a go-getter, this clock-punching atmosphere presents a tremendous opportunity to stand out, and the more aggressive editors keep their eyes peeled for reporters who are eager to prove themselves. That explains why David Halberstam became a premier war correspondent at twenty-eight. With a similar combination of talent and tirelessness, Dexter Filkins became a lead correspondent in the Afghan and Iraq wars after only a year at the Times. It took the always energetic Abe Rosenthal eleven years to work his way on to the foreign staff, but that is the exception, not the rule, and stemmed from the fact that the late Cy Sulzberger, the chief European correspondent at the time, and a member of the family that owned the Times, was a mannered Europhile who thought Abe too rough-hewn to be turned loose in the salons of Western Europe.
I was the lead reporter on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign after only two years at the paper. By 1981 I was a White House correspondent, and two years later I was the chief national political reporter, a role I filled through the 1984 Reagan landslide. By 1985 I was the deputy Washington editor, by 1987 the London bureau chief, and two years later the chief of the Washington bureau. In 1984 the Times nominated for a Pulitzer Prize my investigative reporting on the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, and in 1992 I won the Pulitzer for feature writing for a piece in the Sunday magazine about growing up in the fifties amidst the racism of Birmingham, Alabama.
You might think that a place where rewards can be had so quickly would be a thoroughgoing performance culture. But the strange fact encountered by any executive editor who seeks to effect change, as almost all of them have wanted to do, is that a large percentage of Times reporters and editors opt out of meritocratic competition within a couple of years of joining the paper—in some cases within a matter of months. Thus the Times culture, which appears so monolithic from the outside, actually consists of two distinct and parallel cultures, each fully cognizant of the other: the culture of achievement and the culture of complaint. In what amounts to a permanent version of a collegiate rush season, members of each culture woo newcomers with warm embraces and promises of protection. The two cultures are equally seductive. The Newspaper Guild serves as rush chairman of the culture of complaint, and with the Times hiring younger people these days, the Guild's safety net is particularly reassuring to new employees who may still be insecure about measuring up to Times standards. However, older reporters and copy editors whose careers are stalled and who are essentially running out the clock until retirement are the culture of complaint's chief stewards.
Over the years a number of prominent Times editors, bent on performance, have tried various stratagems to save talented journalists from the complainers' cult. As executive editor from 1977 to 1986, Abe Rosenthal used cash bonuses and quick promotions for people who burned to be on page one. Max Frankel during his executive editorship (1986-1994) installed, over furious Guild opposition, a system of bonuses, usually about $20,000, for the paper's best writers and photographers. Bill Kovach, for years an influential editor at the Times and later the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, at Harvard, dispensed blunt advice to prevent new reporters from adopting Guild-endorsed work habits. In my first months as a reporter on the paper, I broke a story out of Birmingham providing evidence that paid FBI informers in the Ku Klux Klan had perpetrated some of the acts of violence they attributed to others.
You haven't been on the paper long enough to adopt our bad habits, Bill told me, as I stood in a phone booth outside the Jefferson County Court House. Usually after we break a big story we sit back and let some other paper take it away from us. Go right back to your sources and keep reporting.
Kovach and some other editors, including David R. Jones, then the national editor, were pushing hard in those days because of the sting of the Times's Watergate defeat a half dozen years before. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of The Washington Post, had covered the burglary of the Democratic National Committee as a police story, and had scored many of the major scoops that eventually toppled the Nixon White House, while the Times had gotten a late start and bought into the private assurances of high officials that things were being blown out of proportion. As Max Frankel, the Washington bureau chief during Watergate, admitted with admirable candor in his autobiography, The Times of My Life and My Life at The Times, our paper was beaten because its response to the political story of the century was "sluggish." Getting outworked on that story haunted Abe Rosenthal, then the managing editor, for years.
One day in 1980 Abe was exhorting me to be aggressive in our presidential-campaign coverage. Then he said ruefully that maybe I shouldn't listen to his advice. Look at the record, he said. We got beat on Watergate, and what did we do? We all gave ourselves promotions. I became executive editor, Seymour Topping became managing editor, and Max became editorial-page editor.
My Dinners With Arthur
n early 2001, Arthur Sulzberger strolled into my big, coffer-ceilinged office on the tenth floor—the floor that houses the editorial-page and op-ed staffs of the Times—and shut the door behind him. The tenth floor is the only one in the ninety-year-old building that retains the feeling of an old-fashioned newspaper headquarters. The library stacks and dark paneling, the vaulted ceilings, Gothic moldings, and stained-glass transoms, lend a studious, almost academic air to the place. Arthur was here in the most carefully preserved part of our building to play out the most sacred of Times rituals: the succession from one executive editor to another. He said without fanfare that the current executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, would retire, ahead of schedule, by the end of the following September. During the next two months, Arthur said, he intended to meet separately with Bill Keller, the managing editor, and with me, the editorial-page editor, to determine who should be the next executive editor. He would spend May reflecting on the decision, and in June he would announce one of us as the new executive editor.
Since I thought the paper was becoming duller, slower, and more uneven in quality with every passing day, I suggested that the transition happen sooner. Arthur laughed and said I had no idea how hard it had been to get Joe to fix a retirement date at all.
I knew Arthur well enough not to push him. The timetable reflected his disciplined faith in process, a faith based in large part on his view that his father and predecessor as publisher, Arthur O. (Punch) Sulzberger Sr., had, for all his virtues, managed the paper in a rather relaxed way. Arthur's insistence on always having at least two candidates for an important job sprang from watching Punch make major personnel decisions. Arthur felt that Walter Mattson, the top business manager at the Times for many years, had timed his retirement, in 1992, so that Punch would have no choice but to appoint Mattson's protégé, Lance Primis, as president. Primis was ill-prepared for the job, and was fired in 1996. Although the outcome was much happier, Arthur also felt that his father had had no real choice but to pick Max Frankel as executive editor in 1986, since Abe Rosenthal had carefully avoided training a successor. In anticipation of this latest turnover in the top spot, Arthur had urged Joe Lelyveld to groom at least one potential successor to run against me. The winnowing process began in 1997, when the managing editor's job became open. For a while Gerald Boyd, an assistant managing editor who in 1993 became the first black person listed on the editorial masthead of the Times, was courted for the job. After a series of discussions and country weekends with Gerald, Joe picked Bill Keller, then the foreign editor, to be the managing editor and, by clear implication, the other candidate for the executive-editor sweepstakes. Gerald felt that he had been misled by the familial atmosphere. The night that Joe told Gerald he was out of the running, as they sat having dinner at a local restaurant, Joe had to physically restrain Gerald to keep him from walking out. Joe re-enacted for me the scene in which he clung to Gerald's arm and said in a dramatic tone, "I need you." Finally Gerald relented and took his seat.
Such moments pass for drama in the great gossip machine that is The New York Times, but the real dramas are rarely played out in such public places. Critical decisions turn on more private moments and more subtle moves and countermoves. Close students of Times history know that in 1976 both Abe Rosenthal and Max Frankel sat down to write memos on what they would do as executive editor. Max, by his own account, dashed his off. Abe retreated to a Caribbean island, where he devoted a week to writing a memo that has entered Times legend as a masterly analysis of the Times's weaknesses and an aggressive strategic plan for fixing them and guiding the paper's future.
In anticipation of such an exercise I had been studying the paper's journalistic soft spots, audience demographics, and circulation-and-advertising-revenue troubles intensively since it became clear, in the early 1990s, that I might have a chance at the top job. So my first question to Arthur that wintry day was whether he would require memos from Bill and me about our visions for the paper. Arthur said there was no need for that; he knew us well already, and would learn the rest of what he needed to know for his decision over a couple of dinners with each of us.
The first of my two dinners with Arthur was at a quiet table in front of an indoor waterfall at Aquavit, the Scandinavian restaurant on West Fifty-fourth Street. I had decided that my central theme would be that a visionary publisher (as I believed Arthur was) could not afford a passive or rigidly traditionalist executive editor. I started with a qualification: of course every executive editor's threshold task was to be a steward of the paper's integrity and reputation. But the first executive editor appointed at the start of the twenty-first century would face a challenge unlike that of any of his predecessors. That challenge was to extend New York Times-quality journalism across the Internet, television, and book-publishing platforms while at the same time making the daily and Sunday papers into truly national newspapers—good enough to greatly expand our circulation reach within the quality-print audience. At the moment, whether we liked it or not, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal were better than the Times at editing for a national audience that was, for example, interested in both foreign policy and the Super Bowl, both Medicare funding and the constantly shifting American youth culture. Even the Financial Times, a relative newcomer to the United States, was finding its national voice. That meant, in a nutshell, that the new editor had to wake and shake the newsroom.
Arthur and most members of his corporate leadership team understood that the modern New York Times had to conceive of itself not simply as a newspaper—that is, printed words carried on dead pine trees—but as a carefully assembled packet of information that was agnostic about how it traveled. Indeed, the fact that print newspapers were proving more long-lived than most futurists had predicted offered us a grace period in which to prepare for our digital future, whatever its shape. We were already behind in this task. If we continued to dither, the Times's economic lifespan—and most certainly its aspirations to be a national and perhaps an international publication—would be cut short whenever print newspapers died.
If memory serves, Arthur was working his way through his customary Grey Goose martini as we surveyed the landscape for change. I was sticking to white wine, wanting to be sharp for the moment when Arthur would be mellow enough to listen to something he might not want to hear.
Up until now you have been given passive cooperation in regard to television and the Internet, I said, knowing Arthur's memory would reach back to the countless meetings about broadcast and digital projects that had elicited little more than feigned interest and reflexive murmurs of assent from officials of the newsroom. You should not make me executive editor unless you want the newsroom to shift gears to an active and aggressive mode.
I was, of course, reminding him of what he already knew, whether or not he cared to admit it. The top editors at the time had given lip service to our new future-oriented divisions, New York Times Digital and New York Times Television, but they regarded every cent spent there as a loss for the print paper. Money is the oxygen of journalism, and every time Arthur turned away, a heavy foot was back on the breathing tube between the print newsroom and the Web site, which depended on the newsroom for content. This combination of counterfeit cooperation and penny-pinching would lead us to an entirely predictable outcome. When the day came—as it inevitably would—that Internet revenues were important to the Times's survival, whether in two years or ten years or twenty years, our Web site would not be good enough to attract elite subscribers or quality advertisers.
But this would be only half the battle. Arthur's next executive editor also needed to understand the anomaly inherent in this period of Times history. The paper's eyes and efforts had to be fixed on the future, yet all that strategic planning would be for naught if we did not quickly stop the decline of our trademark products, the daily and Sunday newspapers. That meant stripping away the New York parochialism—an editing perspective that made our national edition a matter more of cosmetics than of substance. Further, it meant aiming our papers at a national audience that was catholic in its interests and worldly in its tastes.
This put on the table something that Arthur and I had long discussed. A managerial reformation would have to take place in the Times newsroom if our paper was to meet the information needs and expectations of the country's smartest, most affluent readers. Already The Wall Street Journal's new Weekend Journal section—a compendium of culture, lifestyle, health, and travel stories designed to appeal especially to professional women—was threatening our hold on that vital readership group.
One of Arthur's strengths is the ability to hear bad news or implicit criticism without becoming defensive. The paper's uneven quality, I told him, was due to its current system of what I called "silo management"—putting too many journalistic decisions into the hands of a restricted group of editors. That system had emerged in our newsroom over the previous decade, keeping scores of the Times's most talented journalists from participating in the daily report.
We both knew that the question of improving the paper's quality—and thus its marketability—was not an academic one. The Times as a corporation would die without the revenues it receives from display advertising, and the trend lines were alarming. As for circulation, it had peaked at 1.2 million daily and 1.8 million for the Sunday edition in the early 1990s. Now the paper had been stalled for several years at 1.1 million daily, and the Sunday edition had slipped as low as 1.6 million in 1998. Since then the Times has promoted heavily to get the paper back to nearly 1.7 million. The newsroom continued to blame the circulation department for stagnant readership figures, but the fact was that the department had improved significantly in recent years. The Times was holding on financially as well as it was because of the astute work of two talented managers: Russell Lewis, who is retiring as corporate CEO at the end of this year, and Janet L. Robinson, the senior vice-president of the newspaper division, who will succeed Lewis as CEO. It was long-standing custom in the newsroom to blame our lack of growth on the business side. My analysis led me to a different conclusion, which could not be mentioned to my senior editorial colleagues without triggering a heresy trial: our business side had harvested all the growth it could from the paper we were giving it to peddle to subscribers and advertisers. If we were going to get more readers and make more money, the daily and Sunday New York Times simply had to get better—a lot better.
The demographic reality was that our readers—and the millions of educated, affluent people who ought to read the Times but do not—had grown smarter, more sophisticated, and broader in their range of curiosities and interests than the Times had. The Sunday paper had a declining circulation because for the previous four years its front page, and key sections, including Arts & Leisure, had gone from predictable to dull to stultifying. One of our dirty little in-house secrets was that even we, who were paid to read it, often couldn't hack the Sunday paper. As for the daily paper, we had to face the fact that entire sections were essentially unmanaged, their staffs unsupervised and unchallenged creatively by anyone outside their own departments.
These unenticing papers were the product of a laissez-faire editorial world in which only the two residents of Silo No. 1, the executive editor and the managing editor, and the people in Silo No. 2, the individual desk editors covering foreign, national, local, cultural, sports, and lifestyle news, had any authority over the content of the paper. Those in between—a high-ranking group of about a half dozen that included deputy and assistant managing editors who were all listed on the masthead and whose compensation packages could run as high as half a million dollars a year—had been frozen out of the creative process and any meaningful managerial responsibilities. They were paid to oversee the various desks and departments, but the reality of the system was that the desk and department editors felt free to ignore their ideas and suggestions. An even larger group of senior and associate managing editors had been shelved in what one of them called "trompe l'oeil jobs," which carried grand titles, good salaries, and little authority.
The silo system was no accident. It had grown out of my predecessor's distaste for the managerial styles of the paper's previous executive editors. Abe Rosenthal was "a maniac for the Times," as he called himself in our first conversation. That meant that he was a tireless perfectionist and that he and a squad of handpicked senior editors had a finger in everything. Max Frankel was more inclined to delegate to a larger group of close associates, but he had refined tastes and a rapacious curiosity about every aspect of American society. In their different ways, both Abe and Max had demonstrated that a newspaper as comprehensive as the Times had to be the product of many minds and also had to reflect the guiding sensibility of an engaged, activist executive editor.
When you talk about the Times's superior resources, you are really talking about its storehouse of brainpower—layers of seasoned correspondents and editors whose teamwork produced an additive journalism that got better at each level. Abe and Max operated through clusters of senior editors (about six for Abe, about ten for Max) described above. Max called his group the Ex Com (short for "executive committee"). Newsroom wags called Abe's team "the Wallendas," after the aerial acrobats, because they tumbled frantically into action the moment that Abe gave the word. But they were an essential link between the executive editor and the desk editors, and they bore the main intellectual responsibility for shaping the daily report. This system was designed to encourage the paper's most experienced journalists to provide general guidance on the daily report and to spot significant holes in the paper's overall coverage while also planning medium- and long-range strategy. The essence of the executive editor's job is to see over the horizon and, to the greatest possible degree, deploy resources according to where the top editor thinks the news is going, rather than merely reacting to what has already occurred.
Desk editors sometimes chafed under this system, I know—as Washington editor, I was one of them for four years. But the system worked insofar as it leveraged the Times's advantage of having superior numbers of really smart people. Desk editors had to do a good job of independently putting together their daily sections or the whole system would collapse. They and their reporters make journalism in the same way that field-grade officers and line troops win battles. But desk editors caught in the cut and thrust of daily competition need someone to hold them accountable for their performance every day and to plan strategies that look beyond today's deadlines.
The layered, iterative system that had worked so well for the Times ceased to exist when Joe Lelyveld and his first managing editor, Gene Roberts, publicly stripped the assistant managing editors ("the masthead," in Times parlance) of their responsibilities. In Silo No. 1 the two top editors sometimes involved themselves in the minutiae of the daily report to such a degree that the executive editor came to be known, behind his back, as the "executive copy editor." They alone had the authority to plan broader strategy for the desk editors. By and large, however, the desk editors operated independently, in their own silo, and this meant that the quality of the daily paper varied greatly from desk to desk. Energetic desk editors produced energetic reports. Lazy or unimaginative desk editors produced lazy and unimaginative reports, giving the paper a very uneven quality overall.
At dinner with Arthur, I emphasized the fundamental need for an executive editor who drove the paper to move quickly and comprehensively on major stories, rather than one who simply presided over the desk editors and assembled what they turned in every day. I wasn't prepared to tell him that someone else couldn't do the job, but I knew damn well that I could, and every experience I had had since joining the Birmingham Post-Herald, in 1964, had prepared me for this position. Target selection and execution are the essence of strategic editing. I recalled walking through my father's manufacturing plant, where furnishings for retail stores were made, and recognizing his ability to assemble a finished interior out of random stacks of lumber and barrels of varnish. He knew the job of every worker there. He had started out at fourteen chopping crossties, and had become a skilled cabinetmaker and then an executive whose showcases could be found at Saks and Lord & Taylor. He loved fine woodworking the way I loved newspapers. I knew early on in my life that I would never experience the feelings my father did if I accepted his invitation to enter the family business. It wasn't in my blood. I had found my own calling in making daily newspapers out of the chaos of daily existence. My greatest joy in newspapering came from the quarter of a century that I worked at the Times with the most talented staff in the business. My greatest frustration was that the Times was seldom as good as it could have been, given its advantages in money and prestige over other papers. I wanted more than anything to see a New York Times that lived up to its legend.
Needless to say, as Arthur and I talked over arctic char and baked cod in that starkly modern restaurant, neither of us could have imagined that in a little more than two years a young, relatively unknown reporter named Jayson Blair would figure prominently in the derailment of the managerial reformation for which we were laying the tracks. That's the real import of the Blair saga—not the loss of my job or that of my managing editor, Gerald Boyd, as painful as these events have been for both of us. As Arthur later told the Siegal Committee, which I had appointed just before my resignation to investigate how Jayson Blair's tainted stories had slipped through the Times's multi-layered editing system, he had named me executive editor because he thought the newsroom needed change. Arthur and I shared the belief that business as usual—including the attitude that the Times didn't have to descend to the foul rag-and-bone shop of daily competition with other news organizations—was dangerous business.
The Lessons Of Turner Catledge
learned 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.
The New Demographics
ike 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.
Lessons From Year One
spent 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
n 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
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.
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
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.
Howell Raines worked for The New York Times for twenty-five years. He is the author of three books, including the best-selling memoir Fly Fishing Through the Mid-life Crisis and My Soul is Rested, an oral history of the civil-rights movement. He won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1992.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2004; My Times; Volume 293, No. 4; 49-81.