The Last Great Newspaper.

I Find Karma (
Tue, 23 Sep 1997 14:50:46 -0700 (PDT)

The New York Times in color, oh my. Rohit must be rolling in his
grave, and he's not even dead yet.

The following snobbery reeks of Rohit:
> But the Times is no ordinary newspaper. It's a bastion of traditional
> news values, whose slightest twist or turn can cause outcries of
> betrayal among loyal readers.

The following line is kind of funny:
> changes in the Times, one woman was appalled. "I don't read the paper,"
> she said, "but it can't change!" Says Sulzberger: "Even our nonreaders
> are loyal to us."

Ob3%RuleCiting (a drop in which Rohit was one of the 4%!):
> Good journalism has been good business too. Though the Times'
> circulation has dipped 4% in the past five years (a drop company
> officials attribute largely to price increases), the paper's strategy of
> marketing itself as a premium product for an elite audience has worked.

PRESS SEPTEMBER 29, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 13




Two days after Princess Diana's death, Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor
of the New York Times, sat in his office comparing two front pages from
the Sunday paper. One had a typically Times-worthy story at the top of
the right-hand column--about a new study documenting the number of
illegal Mexican workers in the U.S. In the later edition, Diana's death
had supplanted it as the lead story. The paper was fast on its feet with
the late-breaking news: trucks heading out to the Hamptons, weekend
hangout of the media elite, were even turned back so the old edition
could be replaced.

Yet the paper had time to get in only a relatively brief story and a
photo. The headline, moreover, was a discreet single line across three
columns (DIANA KILLED IN A CAR ACCIDENT IN PARIS), a far cry from the
banners that ran in most other big-city newspapers. Granted more time,
would the Times have given the story bigger play? Lelyveld, a pale,
reserved man who seems to personify the good, gray image of the Times,
flashes a half-smile. "Actually," he says, "I might have given it less."

Provocative words for a man whose newspaper was outdone by the
Washington Post and others in exploring the events and crosscurrents
surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But that, in a
nutshell, is what makes the New York Times both the most invaluable and,
at times, the most infuriating newspaper in the country. On the one
hand, it's a rock of restrained, sober-minded news judgment in a media
world that flies into paroxysms of excess every time an O.J. Simpson or
JonBenet Ramsey comes along. Yet that same sobriety can make the paper
seem stuffy and arthritic, more comfortable explicating the terms of a
treaty on land mines than grappling with the latest pop-culture
eruption. The Times is easily the best, most important newspaper in the
country, authoritative and unfailingly serious. Yet in some fundamental
way, it is also out of the mainstream--snooty, austere and loathe to go
near gossip, even when it concerns the performance of such major figures
as President Clinton and New York City's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

So it was a big deal, to the Times at least, when its 1.1 million
subscribers (the third highest of any paper in the country, behind the
Wall Street Journal and USA Today) were greeted last Monday, for the
first time ever, with color photos in the daily paper. It's part of the
most radical face-lift the Times has attempted in two decades. Besides
adding color (which will creep from the "soft" sections onto the front
page sometime in October), the Times has expanded from four to six
sections on most weekdays, giving sports and arts their own daily
freestanding sections for the first time. Deadlines have been moved back
to get in later news and sports scores; revamped home and food sections
have been introduced; and even more new sections are on the way, Times
executives promise, at a rate of one every six months: consumer
technology, health and fitness and the family are among the topics first
in line.

In the newspaper world, these changes are hardly revolutionary. Most
papers switched to color years ago, and many already have six or more
sections every day. But the Times is no ordinary newspaper. It's a
bastion of traditional news values, whose slightest twist or turn can
cause outcries of betrayal among loyal readers. The last upheaval came
in the 1970s, when the Times introduced several new feature sections,
such as living and home, and traditionalists moaned that the paper had
been contaminated with trivia on artichokes and Biedermeier furniture.

The new revamp is unlikely to raise the same outcry. Last week's color
photographs--like a food-section collage of colored pastas arranged into
a map of Italy--were eye-catching but decorous. Stories in the new
sections included such entertaining fare as a look at cookbook recipes
that don't work and a design review of TV talk-show sets. But make no
mistake: this is still your father's New York Times. The lead story in
Monday's arts section was about a dead opera singer--Maria Callas--while
an architecture review of a new Holocaust museum in New York City
carried no picture at all of the building.

The paper's guiding credo might have come from Gene Kelly in Singin' in
the Rain: Dignity, always dignity. An early color version of the
business section was reportedly sent back by top editors, who found its
turquoise-and-orange charts too reminiscent of USA Today. Color in the
Times will be "sophisticated," says Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper's
boyishly exuberant publisher. He likes to recall a focus-group session
the paper did several years ago in Connecticut. Shown some proposed
changes in the Times, one woman was appalled. "I don't read the paper,"
she said, "but it can't change!" Says Sulzberger: "Even our nonreaders
are loyal to us."

They have good reason to be. Even if you don't read the New York Times,
you read it--via the TV newscasts and local newspapers that get their
cues on the day's important news from the Times' front page. A Times
morning-after analysis of a presidential debate can set the agenda for
days of campaign coverage and punditry. Its decision to feature, say, a
murder in Texas on Page One can prompt hordes of reporters to hop a
plane south. Its critics can make or break a Broadway play or turn an
obscure foreign film into tomorrow's hot ticket. The Times has the
largest editorial staff, spends more money on newsgathering and has won
more Pulitzer Prizes (74) than any other paper in the country. It may
get out-hustled on a story now and then, especially when its august
editors find the subject too tawdry or sensational. But for the
comprehensiveness and astuteness of its journalism, top to bottom, no
other paper comes close.

The Times looks even better when cast against the generally sorry state
of American newspapers. While most other big-city papers have downsized
in recent years, or gone downmarket to woo readers away from TV or the
tabloids, the Times has stayed serious, and steadily expanded. It has
hired top people from rival papers and tried to improve weak sections
like sports and business. Its traditionally staid, often awkward writing
has been enlivened by a few distinctive voices, like political reporter
Maureen Dowd and Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg. Yet readers can no
longer find Dowd's biting prose on Page One; in 1995 the paper's editors
moved her to a column on the op-ed page. The Times continues to
struggle with local coverage that sometimes lags behind New York's
feisty tabloids and the weekly New York Observer. And it still has its
nose in the air about stories that smack of gossip, like the reported
marital problems of Mayor Giuliani.

Yet, for all that, it stands alone. Twenty years ago, one could have had
a reasonable debate in journalistic circles over which is the best
newspaper in America--the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall
Street Journal all had their moments. But no more. "In the time I've
been watching the paper or associated with it, I don't think they've
ever had a stronger group of editors," says Bill Kovach, a former Times
Washington bureau chief who heads the Nieman journalism fellowships at
Harvard. "If you look at the sophistication and background and knowledge
of their reporters, it's almost breathtaking." Even the reporters, a
usually grumbly crew, sound like they are, well, proud to be
there. "Papers have their golden age," says Alessandra Stanley, Moscow
co-bureau chief. "I think the Times is in that now."

Good journalism has been good business too. Though the Times'
circulation has dipped 4% in the past five years (a drop company
officials attribute largely to price increases), the paper's strategy of
marketing itself as a premium product for an elite audience has worked.
Advertising and circulation revenues are growing steadily, and earnings
for the New York Times Co. (which owns 22 other newspapers, including
the Boston Globe, as well as magazines and TV stations) increased 22% in
1996 over the previous year. The heavily promoted revamp of the
Times--made possible by a newly opened $350 million printing plant in
College Point, Queens--is expected to provide another boost: giving
advertisers more opportunity for color ads in the daily paper and, Times
executives hope, attracting new subscribers in the New York City area,
where the paper still reaches only about 10% of its potential market.

While heartening for the newspaper business, the Times' success has a
downside. More than one-third of the paper's readers are outside the New
York metropolitan area, and most of those readers get the paper at home,
through delivery agreements the Times has reached with 45 local
papers. While this has given readers in such cities as Chicago and
Denver access to the Times' comprehensive national and international
coverage, it may also be giving local papers an excuse to narrow their
horizons. "It's an indication to what degree newspapers have got out of
national and foreign news," says Gene Roberts, the former editor of the
Philadelphia Inquirer who returned to the Times three years ago as
managing editor.

Inside the paper, the Times' very dominance may help foster a certain
arrogance and complacency. The Times has been slow to jump on some major
stories, notably the campaign-finance scandals in Washington (where the
Washington Post's Bob Woodward has had some big scoops). Concedes
Lelyveld: "We were too slow off the mark." Its big, serioso reporting
projects are sometimes lumbering: a seven-part series in March of 1996
on middle-class people who had been downsized out of a job was vivid and
affecting but late; it came out just as economic statistics were
highlighting job growth, not downsizing.

Times writing can still be fusty and stilted, with a prim overreliance
on the adjective clear. ("Term limits have been successful at bringing
new faces into politics. Less clear is whether they're making any
practical difference.") And when the paper tries to get hip, the
results can be just clumsy. A self-consciously trendy Sunday styles
section, launched in 1992, was an embarrassing flop. (It will be
relaunched later this year, with a stress on service pieces and

Yet the weaknesses arise from the paper's strengths. No group of
journalists can be handed the kind of power the Times' reporters have
without feeling just a little bit of the weight on their backs. "If you
work here and look around at the rest of the profession," says Howell
Raines, who runs the paper's feisty editorial page, "you realize that if
this place disappeared, it would not be reinvented. That imparts a
sense of stewardship." The upside of this sense of mission is that it
makes the paper careful in its judgments, scrupulous about corrections,
conscious that its words can instantly become conventional wisdom. The
drawback is that it can discourage innovative journalism.

"Going to work at the Times," says Peter Kaplan, editor of the Observer
and a former Times reporter, "is like getting into a Sherman tank. You
can't go more than 10 m.p.h. You can't see anything. But you know you
have this enormous power." Says another former Times reporter: "Everyone
feels the burden to maintain the standards, to be serious, to not
embarrass themselves. People feel overwhelmed by the institution."

The institution is not as intimidating as it once was. The Times' most
important editor of modern times, A.M. Rosenthal, ran the paper from
1969 to 1986 and did much to strip the place of cobwebs, break down its
seniority system and open the way to more stylish writing. In later
years, however, his reign became autocratic and oppressive--creating a
now legendary "climate of fear" that the newspaper is still trying to
shake off. Rosenthal's successor as executive editor, Max Frankel, tried
diligently to lighten the mood and loosen up the front page, with more
life-style and culture stories.

But much of the credit for "humanizing" the Times in recent years goes
to Sulzberger Jr., the latest descendant of Adolph S. Ochs (who bought
the financially ailing daily in 1896) to head the paper. "Young Arthur,"
46, who became publisher in 1992 (when his father, known as "Punch,"
relinquished the job), initiated "sensitivity sessions" for editors,
encouraged more dialogue between the business and editorial sides, and
brought a hands-on enthusiasm to the paper. On the Sunday night before
the debut of color, he joined editors in the newsroom, watching as the
first color photos were chosen, then went to the paper's Edison, N.J.,
plant, where he stayed until 2 a.m. as computer glitches caused delays
on a tense opening night.

Though Sulzberger presides, the man most responsible for the Times'
editorial product is Lelyveld, who became executive editor in 1994 after
a stellar career as a Times overseas correspondent, Pulitzer
prizewinning author (for his book on South Africa, Move Your Shadow),
foreign editor and managing editor. Raised in New York City, the son of
a prominent Reform rabbi, Lelyveld, 60, has edited the paper with a
cautious hand, keeping the front page loaded with foreign news and sober
analyses of issues like welfare reform, while backing off a bit from
Frankel's penchant for sprightly life-style stories. "We want to sell
newspapers; we're not above that," he says. "But at the end of the day,
if a boring but significant conference about nuclear nonproliferation or
global warming produces an agreement that the editors of this paper feel
truly changes things, then we will lead the paper with it."

Lelyveld is admittedly skittish about stories that delve into the
private lives of public people and has moved carefully on one closely
watched Times project: a so-called gossip column. The proposed
column--which would cover social events and other news about
celebrities--has drawn opposition internally and appears to be on
hold. Closer to his heart is a new ideas page, which will cover
"intellectual controversy of all kinds," from literary debates to
medical ethics and could expand into its own section. Lelyveld's tough
standards have served the paper well on some key occasions. Unlike other
editors, he refused to give front-page play to the story when Richard
Jewell was fingered prematurely as a prime suspect in the Atlanta
Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

Lelyveld puts off some staff members with his remote and rather prickly
demeanor. Some complain that he is stingy with praise; others who work
closely with him say he agonizes over personnel matters in private,
while demanding much of those to whom he delegates responsibility. When
a section editor asked him for advice at one editorial meeting, Lelyveld
reportedly replied, "If I need to answer that question for you, I don't
need you."

One of Lelyveld's major tasks has been to deal with the perennial Times
issue of editorial succession. When an obvious candidate for the No. 2
slot of managing editor wasn't apparent three years ago, he hired
Roberts, three years away from retirement. Then, early this year, he
named Bill Keller, 48, a former foreign correspondent who won a Pulitzer
for his coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to replace Roberts
this month. Though criticized in some quarters as having too similar a
background to Lelyveld (and causing a stir internally because of his
messy personal life: around the time of the promotion he had left his
wife and adopted son for a British journalist who was pregnant with his
child), Keller has received a good initial reception in the
newsroom. His chief competition to succeed Lelyveld when he retires in
five years is Raines, 54. A gregarious Southerner who has brought new
punch to the paper's often bland editorial page, Raines could bring some
welcome flair and aggressiveness to the paper's journalism.

Whoever runs the Times next may have to do it within a drastically
changed company. One question is who will take over when Punch
Sulzberger, 71, retires as CEO. Though his son is heir-apparent, there
is speculation that other family members may challenge young Arthur for
the title or at least insist that the jobs of ceo and publisher
(combined under Punch) be separated. Meanwhile, the company--flush with
cash after selling off several sports and leisure magazines--is shopping
for a substantial acquisition or two in the next year. If the Times
Co. were to purchase a major media company, it could dramatically
transform a family-run enterprise that still gets 90% of its revenues
from newspapers (50% from the Times alone). To date, the paper has been
slow to expand into TV and the Internet, though it has a promising
alliance with MSNBC, which runs a segment on its Brian Williams nightly
newscast previewing a story from the next day's Times.

"The question is how far do we want to deviate from the profile of the
company," says Times Co. president Russell Lewis. "We're making a very
studied judgment of where we want to be." With its elite audience and
Old World style, the Times has been able to remain largely aloof from
the rough-and-tumble competition for readers and viewers brought on by
the information explosion. If it ever hops into the hurly-burly new
world, it will find that maintaining the balance between journalistic
standards and marketplace pressures will get tougher, not easier. And
readers of the Times could wake up one morning to find a lot more than
colored pasta on their breakfast table.


Okay, this has GOT to converge. I've decided it's got to converge,
therefore, it's got to converge. I hate logs. Nothing personal, it's
just in this case, they're making my life soooo complicated.
-- Rajit Manohar