Fear and Favor at 'The New York Times'

Reviving the Good Gray Lady

The staff said Raines was tyrannical, inaccessible, sometimes nasty. Well, the Times has lived through autocratic editors before—and still managed to flourish. Under Raines, however, things got so bad that a laundry list of gifted reporters and editors fled for other pastures. One of them, Kevin Sack, won a Pulitzer Prize for the Los Angeles Times this year.

Some of these mutant practices may simply have been peculiar to Raines's bruising management style, but some of them had been creeping in at the Times for years as journalism itself has mutated. The Times is far less awash in these sins than lots of other papers, but the Times is not supposed to be "other papers." It considers itself the paper of example.

The situation is hardly irreparable, but it will take heavy lifting by the publisher and his new leadership team to turn things around. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has already swallowed hard and made one very tough decision—removing those at the top who missed or ignored the warning signs. His words and actions of late would also indicate he realizes that he too missed something, for he chose these men to lead the paper and didn't act himself—until now—on the warning signs. In his first corrective steps, he has done the right and necessary things. One such move was to bring Raines's respected predecessor, Joe Lelyveld, out of retirement to calm and run the newsroom as interim executive editor until a permanent new chief is named. The publisher's actions have been recognized and applauded by wise heads in the journalism community, which should encourage him through the rest of this stressful journey.

The press is now doing kremlinology and poking at tea leaves to unearth the inside details of how the paper came to the decision that the editors had to resign. I myself know little about these details, but I think it can be assumed that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. consulted his father, Arthur Sr. (the publisher emeritus), and others in the Sulzberger family. I make this assumption because this is a family that takes its stewardship of the Times seriously and cares about its future—and its legacy.

It is to be hoped that this augurs a push now to open up the paper and its culture, both inside by listening to the staff and their fresh ideas, and outside by connecting better with its national community of readers. This would be a good thing, not just for the Times but as an example for all news organizations who want to keep standards high—and who themselves have probably slipped from time to time and picked themselves up and even gotten better.

Research assistance: Zoë Alsop, Michael Anstendig, Naomi Lindt, and Brittany Schaeffer

Related Stories:

"The News No One Dares to Cover" by Sydney H. Schanberg

"Press Clips: Dictators Don't Belong in the Newsroom" by Cynthia Cotts

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