Alison in the Middle


On October 30, The New York Times named deputy foreign editor Alison Smale as the new managing editor of the International Herald Tribune, setting off a torrent of gossip. No candidate for the job could have been more European than Smale, a former AP bureau chief in Eastern Europe who speaks French and German and is married to a Russian pianist and composer. In addition to her editorial role, she is expected to usher in as yet undisclosed changes to the IHT that have been hotly debated at the Times in recent weeks. In an interview, Smale said she is “thrilled” and looks forward to putting out “a truly worldwide paper” with executive editor Walter Wells.

The news of Smale’s departure sent shock waves through the Times‘ network of foreign correspondents. According to numerous sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Smale was the glue that held the foreign desk together, a competent administrator and smart, aggressive line editor with a great bedside manner. Says former Times correspondent Doug Frantz, now a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, “Alison is a terrific editor who has a wonderful way with copy and reporters—a rare combination at any newspaper and almost unique at the Times.”

By contrast, Times foreign editor Roger Cohen is widely disliked by his staff. Cohen is a prolific foreign correspondent with global curiosity, charm, and a formidable intellectual range, but his insulting management style has alienated some correspondents to the point that they avoid him altogether. While Cohen has dominated decision making, Smale has been caught in the middle, sources say, soothing correspondents and enforcing last-minute changes. Because she held too much responsibility and too little power, she needed to get out from under him. According to one scenario, Cohen would be in another job by year-end and Smale would be foreign editor. That turned out to be a pipe dream.

Cohen and Smale, both 48, present a unified front. Says Cohen of Smale, “I’m delighted for her. She’s extremely capable and has been a tower of strength here. Her departure will be a loss for us, but a big gain for the Trib.” Asked why she is leaving the foreign desk, Smale said, “I was not at all unhappy there. I’ve enjoyed rising to the challenge of the extraordinary stories we publish, and I’ve enjoyed facing that challenge with Roger. He’s an extremely intelligent guy who conceptualizes well and was a stellar correspondent himself.” She added, “I don’t feel as though I was caught in the middle any more than any deputy is.”

Smale had managed reporters in the Balkans and worked at the Times foreign desk since 1998, when she joined as weekend editor. But when Cohen was named deputy editor in August 2001, his managerial experience was limited to small foreign bureaus. On September 11, just after former executive editor Howell Raines took over and promoted former foreign editor Andy Rosenthal, Cohen rose to the top. Under pressure from Raines’s harsh masthead and an exploding world, he ran a staff of about 50 and supervised coverage that won a Pulitzer the next year. Says Smale, “I can think of few people who would have risen to the challenge as coolly as he did.”

Foreign correspondents are a special breed: self-reliant, obsessive risk-takers who generate their own stories and travel at the drop of a hat. The job is “dangerous and lonely and difficult and exhilarating,” says one. But because they put themselves on the line, they expect editors to be supportive. And whereas Smale was all that, Cohen is described by colleagues as “arrogant,” “aloof,” “condescending,” and “supercilious,” with a “hair-trigger temper.” He is said to have demoralized everyone down to support staff.

Some complain that Cohen has made “arbitrary” decisions, “moving reporters around like pawns,” and not always taking into account personal circumstances or conditions on the ground. One source says the editor’s micromanaging tends to “make the journalism slower and wears on you psychologically. . . . He gives you an unsettling feeling about your work.” When complaints surfaced about Cohen’s managing style, Raines is said to have responded, “The foreign desk is running like a Porsche.”

Fast-forward to summer 2003. Raines’s star system has crashed, and Times executive editor Bill Keller is trying to rebuild a meritocracy, making personnel changes in a cluster, like chess moves. Thus, the recent promotions of Jill Abramson, Jonathan Landman, Adam Moss, and Glenn Kramon required that Keller be ready to name a new D.C. bureau chief as well as metro, magazine, and business editors (only the business job remains open). But it seems that after entertaining candidates for foreign editor, Keller decided to keep Cohen in place.

Sources say that first, Keller had to address the Tyler issue. Veteran Times reporter Patrick Tyler was a buddy of Raines, but when Raines’s attempt to install Tyler as D.C. bureau chief met with stiff resistance, Tyler was sent to write lead-alls on Iraq. In deciding where he would go next, sources say, the Keller masthead wanted to be magnanimous and give him a “soft landing.” Hence, the September announcement that Tyler will succeed London bureau chief Warren Hoge, who will now cover the UN.

Meanwhile, Keller had to think about staffing the IHT. There is no shortage of Times managers who would like to work in Paris, in part because the quality of life is better there. However, insiders don’t see the move as a one-way ticket for Smale, but rather as added polish before she returns to her inevitable destiny. Asked how long she will stay in Paris, Smale said, “I am committed for as long as it makes sense for the Times, [the IHT], and my family. I’m not going to go there and leave in a year.”

Sources say that after Keller surveyed the foreign staff last summer, Cohen was told he had to work on his management skills. The jobs in London and Paris were filled. Now, as the leaves turn brown, insiders assert that Cohen’s job is secure, that he has pledged to be nicer, and that he is succeeding. Lingering complaints are chalked up to a shrinking news hole.

Cohen says he is “immensely proud” of the quality of the Times foreign report, adding, “We are a very much functioning desk with a bunch of very motivated correspondents and I speak to them on a regular basis.” From the war on Afghanistan to the intifada to the war on Iraq, he says, “we were in an intense news cycle at a driven newspaper. Yes, a lot of demands were placed on correspondents and sometimes of a last-minute nature . . . but that’s the nature of the beast. Perhaps at times, a little more advance warning would have been possible.” While acknowledging that his management skills needed work, he adds, “I don’t think I run an unhappy ship.”

However, detractors believe Cohen is incapable of changing his stripes. With Smale leaving at year-end, they say, Keller must move fast. “Something ought to happen,” one source warns, “or that place will blow.”

In response to a detailed e-mail, a Times spokesperson declined to comment.