Do you ever wonder if the Murders’ Row of New York Times lions, namely, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Arthur Ochs ``Punch’’ Sulzberger Sr. , Anne O'Hare McCormick, James ``Scotty’’ Reston, Meyer "Mike" Berger, A.M.`` Abe’’ Rosenthal, R.W. ``Johnny’’ Apple Jr. , and Red Smith are tossing and turning in their graves right now wondering what has become of their sacred institution?
In this digital age of fewer subscribers to their print edition, plummeting advertising revenue, and editors racing to adapt to readers mad dash to the Internet, has the Times lost its moorings while sinking to the level of Timeslite or Timestrash?
Daniel R. Schwarz, a Fredrick J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Wise Presidential Fellow at Cornell University tries to answer this in his new book: ``EndTimes’?: Crisis and Turmoil at The New York Times, 1999-2009.’’
Schwarz spent seven long years talking, emailing, and traveling the country interviewing a galaxy of past and present senior editors at the Times in an attempt to unravel how such a world-class newspaper lost its footing in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, including letting its reporting being influenced and badly manipulated by White House operatives during the Iraqi War, most notably with Judith Miller (some say recklessly) giving credence to questionable sources confirming Saddam Hussein had indeed been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
By the time the dust had settled after one of the gloomiest eras of the Gray Lady (2001-2003), Blair, executive editor Howell Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd, national correspondent Rick Bragg (Judith Miller with one foot out the door, she resigned in 2005) had been jettisoned; and it was up to Bill Keller, a former managing editor (who was once passed over for executive editor) to restore the Times damaged credibility, while reviving the morale of the newsroom, which had sunk to historic lows during the stormy Raines years.
If the Raines regime (known to be bombastic, dictatorial, megalomaniac, misogynistic, promoting favorites over more qualified journalists), was ``Stalinesque’’ as one Times’ staffer described it–Keller ushered in the counter-reformation in which the new executive editor made a ``serious and sometimes effective effort to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. ‘’
It was under Keller that the Times for the first time in its history hired a public editor who would be charged with taking a sharper look at the Times news coverage and questioning editors directly if the paper wasn’t giving a fair and balanced line of attack to a particular story. Daniel Okrent was named to the newly created position in October 2003; and in June, 2010, Arthur S. Brisbane became the fourth public editor appointed by The Times.
Allan M. Siegel, hired as the new standards editor by Keller to resolve any ethical and conflict of interest issues, was yet another concession to concerned readers that the paper was indeed living up to the highest journalistic standards and restoring its reputation as the ``newspaper of record.’’
Keller even started a question-and-answer forum (Talk to the Newsroom) in April, 2006, which was followed by a succession of editors taking turns fielding questions from readers during the entire week.
Under Keller, Schwarz writes, more emphasis was placed on listening carefully to different viewpoints, instilling a strong sense of community and working together among its staff, while relying on a diverse network of editors to help him better manage the newsroom. Despite the sense of ``calm’’ and ``equilibrium’’ Keller undoubtedly brought to the newsroom after the ``Raines of Terror’’, some staffers nonetheless consider Keller a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.
Two years into his editorship in 2005, metro columnist Clyde Haberman told Schwarz: ``What I haven't figured out about Keller is how much of some of the changes that taken place...is a true vision he'd had all along, and how much he had to be reactive to his immediate processor Raines.''
Whatever the final verdict on Raines successor (Keller experienced his share of hiccups), he undoubtedly brought sweeping changes to the content of the paper, including placing more emphasis on scrupulous analysis and investigative journalism, while working with the online side of the paper, stressing more graphics and digital journalism, such as the 2006 Election Guide in which dazzling maps showing safe and contested Democratic and Republican seats were colorfully displayed.
Still, by the time Keller passed the baton to Jill Abramson in September 2011, the Times was left in a state of ``perpetual crisis’’, though in areas completely outside of Keller’s area of control, namely loss of advertising revenue from its print editions and not enough ad revenue from its digital side to make up the difference. Beginning in March, 2011, the Times placed a pay wall on its website in which it charges online visitors between $15 and $35 a month (after 20 free articles) for access to its content.
Readers hoping to learn more of the back stories, sharp elbows, and power grabs of the mighty and most powerful editors inside the Times’ newsroom, certainly won’t be disappointed by ``EndTimes.’’ But the reader should bear in mind that the main thrust of the book is the daunting economic challenges the Times is facing as it devotes more and more effort to its website. Schwarz traces the beginning of the Times financial despair back to 2005, when its third-quarter 2005 SEC filing showed a significant loss in operating profit due predominantly to higher wages and benefits, outside printing expenses, and higher newsprint expenses, among other factors.
In his interviews with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Schwarz believes the publisher of the Times has some ``Pollyanna moments’’; tone deaf to the financial straits of the paper, believing things aren’t as bad as they appear. In his 2005 interview, Schwarz says Sulzberger boasted of rising ad revenue on the website and the increased number of page views, while skirting the issue of whether that was enough to compensate for rising costs and lost revenue. Schwarz describes Sulzberger as ``controversial, proactive, prickly, defensive, and self-confident to the point where a listener wonders if he is a tad delusional.’’
Sulzberger or ``Arthur’’ as he is known around the newsroom, wanted to make a profound impact on the direction of the paper when hiring his first editor back in 2001. He wanted a strong personality, someone akin to Abe Rosenthal who was hired by his father, Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger, Sr. It was under Rosenthal, many argue, when the Times cemented its strong liberal voice.
His choice of Raines over Keller was badly flawed even according to some staff members; more damaging still was that Sulzberger seems to have been out of touch with the level of animosity that staffers felt toward Raines, including Judith Miller, well before the train wreck occurred.
Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman told Schwarz: ``With Howell there was no reformation. It was all bullshit. It was all gas; he transformed nothing, through he talked about it a lot.'
Will Sulzberger ever be replaced despite his family controlling Class B voting stock?
Probably not, Schwarz makes clear, since he seems to have the support of the 13 member board of directors. But if the declining stock prices continue apace, the only possible successor might be his cousin, Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times Company and president and chief operating officer of the Times Regional Media Group. But even Golden would be a long shot since he turned 62 in 2011.
After devoting a good chunk of material to the financial obstacles facing the Times, Schwarz pretty much goes down his personal shopping list of likes and mostly dislikes of different sections of the paper.
• Schwarz doesn’t seem to have taken to the lifetime appointments of its op-ed columnists. Tom Friedman, according to the author, is still turning out old material, has a tendency to repeat himself and has run his course (despite his three Pulitzers) as the Times’ Foreign Affairs columnist.
• Schwarz has reached his tipping point with Maureen Dowd and her half-truths, rhetorical bullying, distortions and name calling. ``Sometimes I think Dowd should read and think more’’ Schwarz writes, ``and watch fewer movies.’’
• The Arts section has succumbed to TimesTrash by sprinkling its section with more sexually provocative stories, bordering at times on pornographic subjects, posing as ``cultural criticism.’’ Ditto for the Sunday Magazine, which has resorted to its share of ``tasteless moments.’’
• The Times Book Review section has resorted to shameless self promotion, such as in 2005 when publishing a list of 100 books, it included six books by Times’ staff writers.
• Throughout the book, Schwarz peppers his criticism with terms like Timeslite (meaning TimesFluff) or TimesTrash –taking the Times to task when it diverts its coverage from important national and international coverage in favor of celebrity gossip, sensational murders or innocuous tales of Manhattan’s superrich.
• Fluff sections, lacking any redeeming literary value such as the Sunday ``T’’ Magazine, Escape, ThursdayStyles, and SundayStyles, (obvious advertising magnets but chasing away core readers) are heavily attacked by the author-whose opinions, by the way, are shared by several retired Times’ editors he interviewed.
• The Times’ Sports section under Keller and carried out by Sports editor Tom Jolly (through 2010) has much improved from its coverage from three and four decades ago, particularly the way it has left the box scores and breaking news stories to the Internet; while focusing more of its attention on feature stories and in depth analysis on some of the larger issues: such as performance enhancing drugs, recruiting methods by colleges and delicate pop psychology problems affecting professional athletes.
Taken together, Schwarz criticism of the Times shouldn’t be confused with a personal vendetta or waging a war against a institution which is easy to criticize since it is constantly being held up to the glaring light by friend and foe alike. Rather, the reader will quickly come to appreciate Schwarz, like many of us news junkies, is a long time passionate Times reader, who is seeing the newspaper he mostly closely identifies with skimp on its news coverage at times; other times give into advertising pressures and feed its readers a little too much fluff at the expense of quality and hard driven news.
Personally, although presenting an informative financial account of the Times spanning a decade, I get the feeling Mr. Schwarz is having a hard time letting go of the past.
It is clear the Times, and that includes Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Abramson, the new executive editor, are doing everything within their power to keep the Times relevant, maintaining its long storied tradition of journalistic excellence, while still meeting its financial obligations and preparing for the time in the unforeseeable future when it will segue into a standalone digital operation without a print edition. We all hope that is still very far into the future, but the Times wants to prepared when that day does arrive.
We all long for the old days, but as Abraham Lincoln said in his second annual address: (December 1, 1862): ``As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.’’
March 7, 2012