Room 9 Revolts Against Rudolph Giuliani

The Wall Street Journal’s corporate parent, Dow Jones & Company, has been skewered in the press in recent years for mismanagement of its technology-driven market data unit. But its technical problems don’t stop with the old Telerate division. In the past two weeks-on Jan. 8 and Jan. 15-the computer editing system for the national edition of the newspaper crashed on deadline, jeopardizing the first editions of the next day’s papers. Why? In part because a supposedly state-of-the-art production system, five years in the making, is still not completely rolled out.

The crashes, which both occurred after 5 P.M., required some quick thinking. All the national edition’s copy editors and most of the news desk had to head two floors up to the 11th-floor offices of the overseas copy desk, which had just finished closing The Wall Street Journal Europe and The Asian Wall Street Journal . It was quite a sight. Scores of frenzied-looking editors, clutching their style books and pencils, waited for the chronically slow elevators. They then had to transfer the copy from one computer server to another that still worked, losing any semblance of what had been already edited.

A memo that managing editor Paul Steiger dispatched after the first near catastrophe does a fine job of setting the scene. “There was an eerie calm on 11 as editors coded copy without the benefit of their usual user keys, circumvented access privilege problems and relied on their memory to edit the bottoms of stories for which the tops were invisible,” he wrote. But there was no mention of when the new computer system would be completely operational.

A Dow Jones spokesman said nearly all reporters and many editors are already on the new system and that the copy editors will be completely integrated by September. He chalked up the delays to constant improvements in the design. “It’s software,” he said, “it’s never finished.”

The current system, from a now-defunct company called Composition Systems Inc., is more than 15 years old, according to sources at the paper. “Sometimes it looks like they’re patching this together with Scotch tape,” said one editor who made the vertical trek. “It’s a big problem getting parts. It’s like getting a fender for a Studebaker.”

Dow Jones executives knew the problems when they sent out highly complicated requests for proposals for a new proprietary computer system. In 1993, the company hired Electronic Data Systems-which had no experience with the newspaper industry-and the system was scheduled to arrive in 1995. The company is still waiting for a full roll-out, while the current system grows creakier and creakier.

“It’s indicative of Dow Jones’ lack of technical understanding,” said a former computer-systems consultant to the company. “It starts at [chairman] Peter Kann and works its way down to editors and writers.”

The reporters who cover City Hall are as competitive with one another as any other form of the journalistic species, jealously guarding their scoops from their ravenous brethren. But the Darwinian struggle to be first and best came to a brief halt recently as the reporters of Room 9 pooled their resources to fight a common enemy: Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the heavy-handed ways of his press office.

On Jan. 13, the day before the Mayor was set to deliver his State of the City speech to an adoring crowd, he decided to play nice for a change. So the Mayor’s lackeys called City Hall reporters for the three main city dailies and Newsday , and handed out presents, hoping for an extra day of coverage.

The New York Post was told about the Mayor’s planned crackdown on deadbeat dads. The Daily News received a story about the Mayor’s attempt to wrest control of Kennedy and La Guardia airports from the Port Authority. The New York Times got a tip on the introduction of merit-based promotions in the beleaguered children’s services bureaucracy. And Newsday was shoveled a scintillating story about getting the Metropolitan Opera involved with the city’s schools.

The recipients of these tidbits were not too pleased. “These were not leaks; these were drips,” said one Room 9 denizen. Most of the good stuff-extending the school year and rescinding open admissions at the City University of New York, for example-Mr. Giuliani kept tucked away for the speech itself.

So the journalists circumvented the press office’s ham-fisted attempts at story control by playing a round of “You tell me your leak, I’ll tell you mine.” Robert Polner, one of Newsday’s City Hall reporters, started the sharing when he asked David Seifman, the Post’s bureau chief, if he’d be game to let everyone partake of his gift. “Sure, I’m in,” said Mr. Seifman, according to one witness. The Daily News came aboard after Mike Finnegan conferred with City Hall bureau chief Doug Feiden. And Times newcomer Dan Barry joined in the fun, too. “That was the great rebellion of Room 9,” said one of the insurgents.

On Jan. 21, the editorial employees who toil for Life will find out just how many of their jobs will be axed under the regime of new managing editor Isolde Motley. And according to sources within Time Inc., by the time the company finishes following Newspaper Guild rules for firing employees, only 28 people will be left on the monthly’s editorial masthead. That will represent nearly a 40 percent cut from the 46-person staff that former managing editor Jay Lovinger employed.

The Guild held an informational meeting on Jan. 16 for its members to outline the cutback procedures. Volunteers for the severance packages will have two weeks to come forward. Then, the layoffs begin. Life staff members will get a severance package of three weeks for every year worked plus a notice package (on most positions) that provides an extra payment based on length of service, said Larry Nesbitt, the shop steward at Life .

Already, four of the top people on the masthead not covered by Guild regulations have been ejected. David Friend, the assistant managing editor and director of photography, decided to walk after learning the photo desk will become subservient to the art director in the new regime. Tom Bentkowski, the director of design, chief of reporters June Omura Goldberg, and Barbara Baker Burrows, the picture editor for special projects, were all fired.

Unlike at most magazines where the photo editor reports to the art director, Life has historically given more power to the photo director. Under Ms. Motley, the Time Inc. development editor who was the founding editor of Martha Stewart Living and This Old House , that is about to change, Time Inc. sources said, although photography will remain a key aspect of Life . Ms. Motley, who was named to the job last November but took over earlier this month, has not yet shared her vision of the magazine with her new employees. But that hasn’t kept Time Inc. apparatchiks from sharing their predictions. “She is more interested in good news,” said one Life editor. “I wouldn’t characterize something so simply,” Ms. Motley said. “The magazine has always been about emotions and I think it will continue to be so.”

Fears of a major overhaul would seem to be unfounded. According to one top editor at the company, Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine “felt reinventing Life once again would be too problematic.”

These changes come at an odd time: Last year was Life ‘s most profitable since it was reborn as a monthly in 1978, bringing in more than $6.5 million. But that’s not enough at Time Inc., where double-digit profit increases are demanded each and every year. Corporate executives would like to see that profit number hit $10 million, the better to withstand any falloff in advertising.

When it comes to Anglophilia, the New York Post faces little competition in the New York newspaper world. But it was the Daily News that lost its sense of journalistic balance, not to mention its mind, swooning over the Spice Girls. Perhaps the News ‘ sponsorship of a Spice Girls contest, in which the winning family of four got to meet the girls in all their prefab glory, had something to do with the overkill.

Earlier this month, the News began running front-page teasers for the contest, before they were overtaken by reams of copy about the Spice Girls’ new movie and album and fashions and bathroom habits. Even though the Spice Girls marketing juggernaut was coming to New York for only one day, the News decided on Jan. 13 that the Spice Girls’ arrival was equivalent to the Rolling Stones’ playing three sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden. So page 3 was given over to a story about the latest British invasion, complete with a chart comparing the two bands.

Later that week, the News ran a half-page of pictures of the stars (and their kids) who came to see the Spice Girls. And on Jan. 19, five days after the band came to town, the entertainment section devoted two-plus pages to interviews with the band.

But it was Jan. 15’s embarrassment of Spice Girl riches that proved to be the nadir: A box on the front page proclaimed “Spice Girl Mania”; page 6 held two stories about preteens gushing over their favorite symbol of “Girl Power”; and in the most shameless plug of all, a “Spice Girls Special” inside the News ‘ regular “Thersday” section. Almost every column inch of the seven-page section was handed over to minutiae about the Spice Girls. There was the list of 10 essentials for every little girl’s Spice Girls wardrobe. (No. 1? Six-inch high platform sneakers. No. 5? A leather tube top and anything spandex.) There was even a quiz. The toughest question: Which Spice Girl overcame a case of teenage acne? Answer: Victoria, who also goes by the name Posh Spice.

Daily News executives said the all-out coverage of the Spice Girls had nothing whatsoever to do with the promotion. Sources at the News speculated there may be a simpler reason for the obsession: The daughter of editor in chief Debby Krenek just loves the Spice Girls. And when the paper decides to get behind a cause in the Krenek era-be it The Lion King , transit fares or now Ragtime -“we throw everything behind it,” said one reporter.