As Bill Keller ascends to the No. 2 editing position at The New York Times , the newly colorful paper of record is starting to get even tougher on conflicts of interest, particularly when it comes to the activities of one’s spouse. And the first to feel the sting is Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub.
Mr. Weinraub, after meetings on Sept. 15 with Mr. Keller, executive editor Joe Lelyveld and cultural editor John Darnton, will no longer cover the box-office roundups that have become staples of media coverage, Times sources told Off the Record. In their place, Mr. Weinraub will train his eye on other cultural outlets, such as the theater, and expand his beat to Western locales outside California. Mr. Weinraub, however, will continue to pen the Hollywood personality and trend stories he’s been writing.
Mr. Weinraub’s sin: He’s married to Amy Pascal, the president of Columbia Pictures, one of Sony Corporation’s Hollywood outposts. This state of affairs is nothing new, as Ms. Pascal and Mr. Weinraub have been linked romantically for several years. When Ms. Pascal moved from Turner Pictures to Columbia last December, Mr. Weinraub recused himself from covering any stories to do with Sony; James Sterngold handles those.
But sources said there was much grumbling among Times editors about the arrangement. Although no one could point to any story in which Mr. Weinraub went easy on Sony, the perception problem nagged. These sentiments came to a head at a management retreat held Sept. 4-6 in Tarrytown, N.Y. The 75 attendees were split into smaller groups to discuss everything from the design of the newsroom to requisites for double bylines. But in the group led by Monday business section editor Felicity Barringer, which included sports editor Neil Amdur as well as foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal, issues of integrity and conflicts of interest quickly became the most heated topic of all.
“The issues are so hard, they have become so much more complicated than they used to be,” said one editor who attended the get-together.
What happens when a reporter covering a controversial court case is approached by a book publisher and asked if he or she can get access to one of the principals? Or if a sportswriter is asked to be a ghostwriter for an athlete?
And then there’s the ticklish dilemma of modern-day relationships. “In the era of two-career couples, this is a real big problem,” said one senior Times editor. A number of examples came up as case studies in the group, sources said. Mr. Weinraub’s situation seemed to attract the most attention, perhaps because it was the most visible in the demimonde of the entertainment industry.
Some present were stalwart defenders of the faith, saying all conflicts-both real and perceived-must be avoided. Others thought that was overdoing virtue and argued that reality is what counts, not appearances.
While The Times has always been one of the more diligent newspapers in dealing with conflicts of interest, sources said it is a priority for Mr. Keller, who takes over from Gene Roberts as managing editor later this month. “I do get the feeling that Bill is more of a hard-liner on it,” said one attending editor, although it’s unlikely any hard or fast rules will be set down.
Mr. Lelyveld, a longtime friend of Mr. Weinraub (he attended Mr. Weinraub’s wedding), had no problems with the Hollywood situation. “There’s feeling on the part of Lelyveld and others in management that Bernie’s done a good job on the beat,” said one Times editor. “It took a while to find someone, so they’re reluctant to disturb it.” In fact, the Los Angeles Business Journal published a laudatory article on Mr. Weinraub on Sept. 15. The headline: “Weinraub gets under Hollywood’s skin, and defenses.” Mr. Roberts also had no complaints.
But faced with the vocal clamoring of some on staff and Mr. Keller’s leanings, Mr. Lelyveld decided to make a move.
Mr. Weinraub and Mr. Darnton declined to comment. Mr. Keller and Mr. Lelyveld could not be reached for comment.
The retreat, however, was not all gnashing of teeth (although the Thursday-night dinner of the masthead descended, as usual, into recriminations). The attendees who spoke to Off the Record expressed astonishment that the event was so productive, given The Times’ checkered history with retreats. Some chalked up the difference to the topics: For the first time, issues stretched past the managerial and into content and policy. And the mood was celebratory. The paper was about to go to six sections on most weekdays, get color on days beside Sunday and bid a mostly fond farewell to Mr. Roberts. Mr. Lelyveld, not one known for his public displays of emotion, spoke at length, extemporaneously and from the heart, about how good he thought the paper had become. He said he was most proud of the remakes of the metro, business and magazine sections of the paper.
When Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a fund-raiser of dubious distinction, set up his own lobbying and public relations firm, the National Review became one of his first clients. But William F. Buckley’s conservative magazine has handed the smooth-operating Mississippi native his walking papers, deciding it didn’t need Mr. Barbour’s costly P.R. expertise.
“A lot of that stuff we can do here,” said Ed Capano, the magazine’s publisher. “We weren’t making much of an impact, and it wasn’t worth the money we were paying.” Rumors around National Review offices put that figure at $50,000, but Mr. Capano said the number was significantly less. (“He gave us a little break,” said Mr. Capano.)
Mr. Barbour and his staff at Policy Impact Communications Inc. scatter-faxed advance copies of National Review stories to select people up on Capitol Hill. But the magazine’s main reason for hiring Mr. Barbour was to court advertisers at dinners where he would exhibit his considerable charm.
“We felt this made a lot of sense,” said Mr. Capano. “We get a lot of advertising out of Washington. With Haley’s name, maybe we could attract some more advertisers.”
The result? “Not much,” said Mr. Capano.
Mr. Barbour attended just two dinners in May and June, and advertisers have not flocked to the magazine. Ad pages so far in 1997, through the Sept. 15 issue, are down nearly 17 percent from the same period last year, to 278.8 pages from 335. The magazine world is having one of its best years ever, but political magazines are not sharing in the bounty. Mr. Barbour, whose masterful spinning powers were on display earlier this summer when he defended his foreign fund-raising schemes in front of a Senate committee, could not snap the National Review out of its advertising malaise.
Despite the lackluster results, Mr. Capano said, Mr. Barbour remains a good friend of the magazine. In fact, Mr. Barbour sailed as a guest on National Review ‘s annual cruise, where lucky readers willing to pony up the money get to hobnob with top editors of the magazine and assorted political types like columnist Robert Novak, family-values pontificator Gary Bauer and right-wing economist Milton Friedman. The event, which took place last month in the waters off Alaska, drew about 475 people.
Civilization , adrift without an editor in chief since Capital Publishing L.P. bought the magazine in January, has finally found its new leader.
Nelson Aldrich Jr., already the editor of Capital’s The American Benefactor , will add the Library of Congress-affiliated magazine to his portfolio. But Mr. Aldrich will have help, thanks to an editorial gimmick now very much in vogue. Each of the bimonthly’s issues will have a guest editor, and Mr. Aldrich is about to approach Martin Scorsese, Nelson Mandela and Oprah Winfrey for their views on the meaning and mysteries of civilization. Also on the wish list are Vaclav Havel and Ralph Lauren, said W. Randall Jones, the chief executive of Capital, which also owns Worth . “We’re trying to focus the magazine through the unique lens of some of the most fascinating people on the globe,” he said. “It will be the voice box of the most extraordinary minds on the planet today.” Mr. Jones added that he is not sure how much the celebrities will get for their journalistic efforts. “Certainly a honorarium,” he said.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Aldrich resorted to the Star Search method of editing as they try to make the Washington, D.C.-based magazine a viable business. While the 250,000-circulation magazine has been lauded editorially, even winning a National Magazine Award for general excellence in 1996, it had had a tough time getting advertising. That’s the main reason its former owners decided to kill it last Christmas after founding editor Stephen Smith departed for the National Journal .
Capital then picked up the magazine at a fire sale. “I thought we were lacking very little other than more promotional support and a handle that the media community could understand,” said Mr. Jones. “[The new approach] means every issue is an event, and I think it will garner interest from advertisers.” The magazine is also planning a $500,000 ad campaign to raise the publication’s profile.
The New Yorker has received the most buzz for bringing in guest editors such as Roseanne to help out, although executives there quickly get testy if anyone assumes that the outsiders actually are running the show. Glenda Bailey, the editor of Marie Claire , has no such qualms. She’s given Gwyneth Paltrow the run of the place for the magazine’s January issue.
The New Yorker’ s Mark Danner angrily yanked his opus about NATO enlargement from the magazine’s special April 28-May 5 issue on Europe rather than let it be cut to a mere 10,000 words. But the 13,000-word essay, “Marooned in the Cold War: America, the Alliance, and the Quest for a Vanished World,” will not disappear into scrapheap of writing history. World Policy Journal , a quarterly publication from the New School for Social Research, has decided to run it-in full-in its fall issue.
“We think it is the major issue in foreign policy right now,” said editor James Chace, who is also the Henry R. Luce Professor in freedom of inquiry and expression at Bard College.
Mr. Danner, however, will not receive New Yorker -level compensation for his work. The World Policy Journal doesn’t have much of a budget, and will pay him about $1,000.
Mr. Danner doesn’t mind. He gets his work published after all.
The troubles at The New Yorker began after Mr. Danner turned in a 16,000-word essay that lamented the pitiable lack of debate over NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe, a decision that would extend American military protection to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, possibly unsettling Russia. According to sources close to the magazine, editor Tina Brown loved the piece, but asked that it be cut to about 13,000 words. Mr. Danner complied. Then, other editors decided to cut the essay to 10,000 words, stripping it of the rhetoric that made it more than just a long, wonkish Op-Ed piece. After an angry phone call with Ms. Brown and exchange of some nasty letters, Mr. Danner pulled the piece, sources added. Mr. Danner has not had an article appear in the magazine since.
But the cold war appears to be over. Mr. Danner is completing an article for Ms. Brown about Haiti and the legacy of the Duvalier family.
Wasserstein, Perella & Company, the new owner of American Lawyer Media L.P., has struck out in its first attempt to hire an editorial director for its flagship magazine, The American Lawyer , and its 12 affiliated publications.
Stephen Adler, the deputy page 1 editor and investigative projects editor at The Wall Street Journal , turned down the offer to assume the editorial duties of departed founder Stephen Brill. “I’m staying at The Wall Street Journal ,” said Mr. Adler when reached by Off the Record.
Mr. Adler worked at The American Lawyer in the 1980’s and wrote a feature in 1983 on investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, now one of the magazine’s new owners. Mr. Wasserstein is considering approaching writers like Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker and Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times , said a source with knowledge of Mr. Wasserstein’s thinking. Randall Weisenberger, managing director at Wasserstein Perella, declined to talk about the search.
Wasserstein Perella will also have to find a replacement for Karen Dillon, the editor and publisher of The American Lawyer . She is heading to Boston to become deputy editor of Inc. , a magazine for people who own or toil in small businesses. Ms. Dillon had told Mr. Brill of her plans to leave before the company was put up for sale by Time Warner, but opted to stay on through the transition. Depending on whom Wasserstein Perella chooses, the candidate may combine Mr. Brill’s and Ms. Dillon’s responsibilities. Barbara Johnson, the president and chief operating officer of American Lawyer Media, has been asked to stay on by the new owners.
Wasserstein Perella, through its United States Equity Partners investment fund, bought the company for about $60 million. The firm plans to purchase other legal and business-related publications; spin off newsletters, conferences and legal-book imprints; and attract national advertisers such as luxury auto makers and cellular phone makers.
Meanwhile, Steven Brill will no longer be able to put off prospective employees for the media magazine he’s been working on. He’s decided to give Content the green light.
“Oh, it’s a go,” Mr. Brill told Off the Record.
The responses to direct-mail packages sent out at the beginning of September are coming in ahead of expectations, so Mr. Brill expects a launch next April or May. Mr. Brill mailed out 230,000 solicitations, hoping for a 3.5 percent (8,050) response-a number considered more than decent in the world of new magazines. So far, the percent of response is shaping up to be two to three times that.
One letter did miserably. It was sent to 5,000 elite lawyers and mentioned Mr. Brill more than any of the other letters. “It’s almost like someone didn’t mail it,” said Mr. Brill, whose in-your-face approach to magazines and employment techniques has made him a controversial character.
Mr. Brill plans to make Content a glossy mainstream magazine, charging $14.95 for 10 issues to start. A sample cover in the mailing features stories about how TV networks are loath to make corrections, how Fortune got so good, and which five financial pundits are never right. Many industry experts, however, wonder where the advertising and reader base for a large-circulation magazine about the media are going to come from. (Mr. Brill expects the magazine to ultimately reach the 700,000-circulation level.) “It’s not just about an industry,” Mr. Brill responded. “It’s a consumer guide for the information age.”
Mr. Brill may also have trouble finding the 45 members of the editorial staff he plans to build. Journalists intent on protecting their viability within the system may not be too happy to work for a magazine that vows to hold the media accountable, root out its abuses and hold them up to the cold, cruel light of day.
Mr. Brill said he’s not worried. He said Content will also applaud those who do things right. “I think there are a lot of journalists who feel frustrated and embarrassed about being journalists and see the magazine as a way to improve journalism.”