In the latest round of musical cubicles between the country’s biggest newspaper rivals, former Washington Post New York bureau chief Michael Powell has been hired by the New York Times Metro desk to, as he put it, “write broadly” about the city of his birth. Powell, whose recent work has addressed such improbabilities as wild parrots in Brooklyn and Rudy Giuliani in the White House, accepted the job Friday, but has not yet pinned down a start date at W. 43rd Street.
“I love the Post,” Powell said. “Usually it’s easy to leave a place, because you feel like, ‘This is bothering me.’ This was not a case like that at all. This was simply a great, cool chance to work for a terrific paper.”
Powell declined to discuss the timing of the talks leading to the decision, but the Post announced two weeks ago that he would be stepping down as New York bureau chief in order to return to the Style section as a political writer for the 2008 campaign, “after a distinguished turn in National anchoring us in New York and New England for the entire post 9-11 period.” Former Post Tokyo bureau chief Anthony Faiola is taking his place in the New York bureau. The Post didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The move will be a professional homecoming of sorts for Powell, 49, a Park Slope resident who worked alongside many current Times staffers at New York Newsday. Among others, Times investigative reporters (and National Book award finalists) Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, science editor Barbara Strauch, cops reporter William Rashbaum, and social welfare reporter Nina Bernstein were all colleagues of Powell’s when he was New York Newsday‘s city hall bureau chief.
When a cereal baron bought Newsday‘s parent company in 1995 and decided to shutter the urban extension of the Long Island paper for the sake of the company’s stock price, Powell wrote an obit for his newsroom that seemed to take a gentle jab at his future employer.
“If journalism is the first draft of history,” he wrote, “then New York Newsday was often the first draft for the other city newspapers.”
But in recent years, Powell said he’s been impressed by the way the Times‘ coverage of the city has developed under Metro editor Joe Sexton.
“Joe Sexton is a big part of the reason I want to go work there,” he said. “When he covered Brooklyn for them, he had a lot of voice and there was a lot of attitude in his stuff. He’s a born-and-bred New Yorker.”
The admiration was mutual. “He’s a huge talent,” Sexton said of his most recent hire. “We look forward to him doing anything and everything in NYC and beyond.”
Sexton famously won hearts inside the Metro universe and beyond when he raised this voice—and threw in some profanity—against soon-to-be-canned editor Howell Raines during the town hall-style staff meeting after the Jayson Blair scandal. But Powell seemed more taken by the kind of writing that has happened under Sexton’s watch.
“When you look at the Times, it’s certainly clear that there is a lot more voice there than 10 or 15 years ago,” Powell said, pointing to Times rich-beat reporter Eric Konigsberg’s recent piece about affluent Upper East Side tots getting chauffeured to nursery school at the 92nd Street Y. “I thought it was a fun piece. It was a Tom Wolfean slice of New York, right there.”
Powell clearly relishes biting into this slice himself from time to time, as his recent Post piece on the battle over a proposed Upper East Side condo tower shows.
“And the burghers of this oldest of old-money neighborhoods are as revolutionaries to the barricades,” he writes with staff writer Robin Shulman. “It’s one of those marvelous New York moments when outrage trumps self-awareness, laying bare egos and ids more often artfully concealed from public view.”
The piece is packed with choice lines, like the one explaining why the Upper East Side can’t take too much updating too fast: “A grande dame of a neighborhood must be led oh so delicately to her facelift.”
Will he be able to keep writing like that for the Times?
“It’s always a great freedom to write about any place from the outside,” said the Upper West Side native and Bronx High School of Science alumnus. “The challenge for me at the Times will be to write with that same sense of freedom and authority. When you are writing for an out-of-town audience, the stakes are different.”
Powell emphasized that he did not have a beat at the Times, and would simply be doing broad, general assignment pieces much like Ellen Barry, the New York-based reporter whom the Times poached from the L.A. Times earlier this winter. That said, he wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t ruling out covering politics, especially with four New Yorkers potentially running for president in 2008. And he admits to hoping to write for the Times magazine one day.
“Huge papers like these are like these cruise ships,” he said. “If all goes well, you can keep opening doors.”