annals of communications
The New Yorker - April 18, 1994
room at the top
Joseph Lelyveld ascends to the Times' editorship. It was the naming of the new No. 2--and what it said about the future--that kept everyone guessing.
When the Politburo wanted to signal a change in the leadership of the Soviet Union, reporters knew because the Soviet state radio suddenly switched from its regular programming to sombre classical music. When the College of Cardinals chooses a new Pope, reporters know because the Vatican releases puffs of white smoke. When the Times is about to shift editors, reporters know because a memo printed on stark white paper is posted on the third-floor bulletin board. Such a memo was posted Thursday afternoon. The memo was scheduled to be released this week, but the Times speeded up the announcement after learning that a reporter was pursuing the story. Signed by the Times' publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., it announced that the paper's executive editor, Max Frankel, who turned sixty-four on April 3rd, will step aside on July 1st. The memo named the current managing editor, Joseph Lelyveld, who is fifty-seven, as Frankel's successor, and it named as Lelyveld's replacement Eugene L. Roberts, Jr., a former national editor at the Times, who is sixty-one and who left in 1972 to become the executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer--a job he gave up in 1990.
The decision was provoked by Frankel, who told Sulzberger in March of 1993 that he wanted to accelerate his retirement. "I have one more career in me," Sulzberger recalls Frankel's saying. Frankel wanted to write a memoir. His wife, Joyce Purnick, would undergo treatment for breast cancer in the early fall. (She successfully com-pleted her treatments two weeks ago.) Having lost his first wife to cancer, Frankel would be getting something that the editorship did not provide: time.
Sulzberger offered Frankel's job to Lelyveld in January. They both have weekend homes in the New Paltz area, and the Sulzbergers invited the Lelyvelds over for coffee. "We went for a walk in the woods, and he popped the question," Lelyveld recalls. "It was a very touching moment."
Lelyveld knew that when he was elevated the Times would have to choose a new managing editor. He made a list of half a dozen editors at the paper, he recalls, and felt out a couple. Both the editorial-page editor, Howell Raines, and an assistant managing editor, Jack Rosenthal, said they liked what they were doing and did not wish to be considered. Lelyveld says he was looking "for somebody strong who complements you in an interesting way, not just a duplicative way."
Many editors and reporters at the Times thought that Lelyveld and Frankel were too much alike. What they were looking for was a managing editor to counter-balance the brilliant but forbidding Lelyveld--someone who could be not just a sounding board for Lelyveld but an ear for the staff, as Arthur Gelb was in his capacity as deputy managing editor under A. M. Rosenthal, back in the late seventies and early eighties. What people at the Times worried about was that two values--equal opportunity and maintenance of the Times' rigorous standards--would collide. Many worried that the assistant managing editor Gerald Boyd, who is forty-three and is black, might have been Lelyveld's first choice. Boyd has never been a foreign correspondent and just last year became responsible for supervising the paper's foreign desk, among other areas. "Gerald is first-rate. But you can't rush his advancement," one senior editor says. Others have questions about Boyd, and say that he has a brusque manner much like that of Lelyveld. And there is one additional consideration in the naming of the next managing editor: whoever it is will logically be considered a candidate to be-come executive editor. "You can't make him the first black managing editor of the Times and then not make him executive editor when Joe retires," a well-connected figure at the paper says of Boyd. "It would be a slap in the face. Yet to make the appointment today would add to the perception that we are too politically correct."
The Times columnist Anna Quindlen, who is forty-one, and who is close to Sulzberger, was thought to be another leading contender. She would be a more popular choice than Boyd in the newsroom, but her appointment, like Boyd's, might be thought of as one made for reasons of political correctness, since her resume is also short on foreign experience, and on editing experience. Quindlen is an accomplished novelist and would be reluctant to pursue an editing post. And in any case Sulzberger is reluctant to lose her column. For these reasons, evidently, he and Lelyveld felt they had to look elsewhere. There was one other reason. "He wants a managing editor who will not handcuff his choice of the next executive editor," someone familiar with Sulzberger's thinking says. So Lelyveld and Sulzberger chose the Chernenko option. They did what the Politburo did after the death of General Secretary Yuri Andropov, in 1984: it appointed a caretaker, Konstantin Chernenko, rather than risk choosing the younger Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Chernenko option at the Times eliminated anyone younger than Lelyveld, leaving only two obvious choices: Jack Rosenthal, fifty-eight, who was the editor of the editorial page and now edits the Sunday magazine; and David R. Jones, sixty-one, also an assistant managing editor, who was the national editor from 1972 to 1987, and who would probably enjoy less internal acclaim than Rosenthal. The Chernenko option offered Lelyveld and Sulzberger two other choices: they could reach into the lower ranks of editors, or they could reach outside the paper to someone like Roberts.
"GENE ROBERTS was Joe's idea," Sulzberger says, explaining that Lelyveld mentioned Roberts to him in March. Lelyveld worked for Roberts when he was the national editor of the paper, and kept in touch with him over the years. They had dinner in March when Roberts, who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, was in town as a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes. "I have a problem I could use your counsel on," Lelyveld recalls saying about picking his successor. Lelyveld called him a few days later. "He gave me wise counsel," Lelyveld says.
Roberts said, "What would really do it for you is if you could find someone who would be there two or three years and allow you to focus on who you want for the role."
"It's what Arthur Gelb did for Max," Lelyveld said, recalling how Gelb served as managing editor until the end of 1989. "I would not have been ready to be managing editor for Max right away." Then Lelyveld took a deep breath and said, "How about you?" Roberts asked, "Are you kidding?"
Lelyveld wasn't. They continued talking, and Lelyveld flew to Washington to talk some more. "I fell in love with the idea," Lelyveld says. "Gene is a complete newspaperman in a way few Times people are. We're going into new things over the next several years. New technology. New printing plants. Later deadlines. We will have the capacity to publish more sections. Gene's a past-master of the kinds of issues we have to face. He reinvented the Inquirer. He's been marinated in these kinds of things as long as he's been an editor." Sulzberger was enthusiastic for another reason as well. "I was so pleased that Joe was thinking in the broadest possible way," he says. "This was the biggest decision he faced, and he approached this choice ina very exciting way. It was a bold idea."
Three days before the announcements were made, Sulzberger would not speak of the pending management changes. But in an interview in his eleventh-floor office he did speak enthusiastically of Frankel's legacy. "I can list a dozen things, some of which I will be grateful for for the rest of my life," said Sulzberger, who is twenty-one years younger than Frankel. "He trained me in what it means to be a publisher. I came in as a new kid. It wasn't easy for him." He spoke of Frankel's "calm," the "rebirth of sports and metropolitan coverage," the fact that the New York Times has now eclipsed the Los Angeles Times as the nation's largest-circulation seven-day-a-week newspaper. (The Wall Street Journal and USA Today publish just five days a week.) "But the heart of Max's legacy," he went on, "is that in the worst economic situation newspapers have faced since the Great Depression he kept the newsroom of the Times intact and practiced great journalism. Look how many newspapers didn't do that. He opened up the newsroom and said to the business side, 'Look at and study our numbers.' And the fact is that we bought it. He held it all together. He had a terrible [financial] hand to play." The year after Frankel arrived, the stock market crashed, and the Times' advertising base began to erode. In 1987, the paper carried 123,237,300 lines of advertising; in 1993, it carried 77,786,600 lines.
Adam Moss, the editorial director of the Times Magazine, observed, "Editorially, Max did the hardest thing. He changed the definition of news so that news is context, and not just what happened yesterday." Frankel calls it "analytical writing." To reward good writers, Frankel did what Ben Bradlee did as editor of the Washington Post: he encouraged star reporters to have a voice. And so readers of the Times have been treated to the panache and the prose of Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, and Michael Kelly, in Washington; Frank Rich and Francis X. Clines, in New York; Bill Keller, in South Africa; and Alessandra Stanley and Michael Specter, in Moscow. To Frankel's and Lelyveld's credit, the institution has bent to accommodate and retain talent, as it refused to bend in the sixties and seventies to keep Gay Talese, David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas, Gloria Emerson, and Richard Reeves.
More individualistic voices are not always a blessing for a national institution like the Times, however. Liberation from old formulas invites excesses. Take Douglas Jehl's April 5th piece. Jehl described a day in which President Clinton took "a cavalcade of aides with him to witness both baseball's opening day and college basketball's last one." The reader was treated to vivacious prose, a hallmark of the Frankel-Lelyveld era, but also to yet another display of the reporter as theatre critic, with smart-alecky asides about Clinton's athletic prowess and how the Clintons had begun the day with a chaotic Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Currently, the editorial page, under Howell Raines, is more vividly written than it has been in years. But, while the editorials are livelier, they are in the fiery, populist voice of Raines. At a January congressional retreat in Virginia, members of Congress complained about Raines, rather than about the Times, in assailing the paper's editorials. If the paper's editorials are closely identified with a single individual, the advantage is that the paper speaks with a clear voice. The danger is that this voice may carry less institutional authority than a more magisterial and anonymous editorial page once did.
"AUTHORITY" is an important word for the Times and for its next editor. The opinionated prose that the paper now offers both in its news columns and on its editorial page has probably lessened its authority with some readers, as one senior staff member who is an unabashed liberal concedes: "The Times is politically correct. It bends over backward to make sure it does not offend the black population. The gay population is treated with less severity than others. It's not so much political correctness. The Times is very much a liberal newspaper. That makes it feel more partisan to a reader." Bill Kovach, who is the curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and former Washington bureau chief of the Times, says that the Times remains a great newspaper, but he worries that too much editorialization has crept into its news columns. "It has shaken a lot of its readers," he says. "That's bound to happen any time you change."
There are internal challenges for the next editor--challenges that matter more to those who work at the Times than to its readers. Can Lelyveld create a more humane work environment? Can Roberts, who agreed to serve for just three years, introduce more "serious fun," as Lelyveld oddly put it in his Thursday memo to the staff? Can Lelyveld put in place a bench of talented editors, so that when the next executive editor is chosen the publisher will have a candidate who is as generally respected as Lelyveld is?
Bill Kovach thinks that the Lelyveld-Roberts combination will be superb for those who work at the Times. "Gene is the best choice," he says. "Gene is the most approachable, accessible person you can talk to. The best advice I ever got from an editor was from Gene. He said, 'If someone wants to talk to you, just listen. You let them talk long enough and they'll see the solution themselves.' He's a listener."
The challenge that matters more to the readers of the Times is whether the next editor can maintain the paper's authority as the world's preeminent source of news. In the putative world of five hundred--or five thousand--channels, where viewers can program for themselves, where instant information subverts weekly newsmagazines, where databases or facts can be summoned to the screen without the newspaper package in which they originally appeared, it will be important to have at least one unassailable source of common information.
The editorial challenge for the Times, according to Kovach, is to hold on to its authority and reliability "in an age of increasing fragmentation, subjectivity, and confusion about the place of public-interest journalism in a commercial marketplace." He says, "We're only getting into a world of a hundred and fifty to three hundred different voices, and can see the trouble this has already caused. None of us quite know where to put our feet down. It's almost like vertigo. The competition distorts the news process. In the end, there will be a more acute need in a fragmented country for some institution that speaks with the same voice every day and provides a sense of cohesiveness to the people of the country."
At a time when journalism stoops to compete, the appointments of Lelyveld and Roberts send a reassuring signal about news standards. Meanwhile, the departure of Frankel will go smoothly. He does not leave his job reluctantly, as his predecessor did. He was not averse to appointing a strong deputy, Lelyveld, and entrusting him with power. "This is a real testimonial to the kind of guy Max is," Anna Quindlen says. "Max didn't bring a poisonous ego to this job. He did what he came to do. So now he can leave." (c)