Newspaper Prince Shelby Coffey Fills Arledge Air Pocket at ABC

Shelby Coffey III left his Upper West Side apartment on the morning of June 8 and, accompanied by his wife Mary Lee, headed to 47 West 66th Street for his first big day on the job as executive vice president of ABC News. What he would be doing once he got there, he didn’t really know.

Mr. Coffey’s first stop was at the fifth-floor office of his new boss, ABC News president David Westin, who just a week before had been given control of the network’s news operation, with the reluctant exit of ABC News chairman Roone Arledge to an office upstairs. Mr. Coffey stood by Mr. Westin’s side at the 9:45 A.M. news meeting, and again at the 11 A.M. gathering of producers from World News Tonight . Then Mr. Westin took him on a tour of ABC’s headquarters, and Mr. Coffey got to say hello to his new colleagues Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters.

Mr. Coffey has already chalked up an impressive career–what with top editorial postings at The Washington Post , U.S. News & World Report , the Dallas Times-Herald and the Los Angeles Times etched into his résumé–but he now finds himself in a high-pressure job with loosely defined duties. The network says he will be responsible for “new business development, ABC News productions, cable program development [and] ABC News on-line activities.” And even Mr. Coffey seems at a loss to be more specific.

“At this point, the first day on the job, I don’t think I should say ABC News needs to do this, this and this,” Mr. Coffey said. “I’m looking at the best ways to be of help to David and the organization.”

Mr. Coffey starts his job at ABC with almost no television experience. He worked at The Washington Post for 17 years, first as a sportswriter, then as editor of the paper’s style section and finally as an assistant managing editor for news. He left the paper for a turn as editor of U.S. News & World Report , followed by a short stint as the editor of the Dallas Times-Herald before heading to the Los Angeles Times , where he was editor in chief from 1989 to 1997. Mr. Westin, an attorney who has only recently begun to learn the ropes of the news business, recruited Mr. Coffey to shore up his scant journalism credentials.

The question is: Does Shelby Coffey have what it takes to be David Westin’s shepherd?

The key to Mr. Coffey’s future at ABC would seem to lie somewhere in his past. It was back when he was editing The Washington Post ‘s style section in the late 70′s that Mr. Coffey first hit his stride. He hired the paper’s erudite crank of a TV critic, Tom Shales, and mentored a young Sally Quinn. Mr. Coffey became known for quoting Aristophanes and inspiring his writers with a high sense of purpose. “He’s the best editor I ever had,” Ms. Quinn said. “He has a combination of fantastic news judgment, a real literary sensibility and an understanding of what’s popular. From a print journalist’s point of view, he has more integrity than anyone I know.”

But even early on at The Post , Mr. Coffey became known for a kind of earnest corporatespeak that earned him the derogatory nickname “the man in the empty suit.” He left the paper in 1986 to take the helm of Mortimer Zuckerman’s U.S. News & World Report . For all his well-honed diplomatic skills, that job didn’t go too well. Mr. Zuckerman named himself editor in chief of the magazine just a few months after Mr. Coffey arrived, and within nine months, Mr. Coffey had resigned. Still, he managed to exit with his game face on. Before leaving, he told a meeting of his staff, “I was proud as a lion to lead you, and I’ll miss you, and I’ll always remember these as the glory days.”

Mr. Coffey took the editor’s job at the Times Mirror Company-owned Dallas Times-Herald , a post he held for less than a year before heading to the Los Angeles Times , Times Mirror’s flagship newspaper. At the Times , colleagues say, Mr. Coffey continued his slow morph into a careful corporate operator. He prodded his writers to try to empathize with their subjects in a way some felt was unseemly. “He told us that we oughta keep in mind what the subject of the story would think of the coverage, and if it was going to upset them, then we should reconsider it,” said a former Times reporter.

Mr. Coffey’s critics at the Times say that his cautiousness resulted in his toning down several tough investigative pieces. Staff members complain that Mr. Coffey “defanged” a tough profile of the Dow Jones Company and sat on an inflammatory story about Jerry Weintraub, a movie producer and friend of President George Bush, even though the reporters felt they had the goods. “He was consistently a force for the softening of stories, not the strengthening of them,” said one former Times reporter. “It was all in the name of fairness, but from our perspective, he seemed to be more concerned with not offending the rich and powerful.” Indeed, Mr. Coffey established himself as the print journalist with a television executive’s social connections; he counts among his friends Walt Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner and ABC anchorwoman Diane Sawyer.

“There’s always a tension between editors and reporters, and a top editor usually gets the hottest of the hot potatoes,” Mr. Coffey said. “I’m sure I did look at ways in which a particular story should be reported … I don’t hesitate to say, ‘This is the way we go.’”

Mr. Coffey is remembered at the Times primarily for heading a major redesign of the paper and winning five Pulitzer prizes. But he is also remembered as an editor in chief who essentially plotzed when a recession in the early 90′s forced him to make hard decisions about what bureaus to cut back. Colleagues say Mr. Coffey inspired the anger of his staff by being “cautious to a fault.” He eventually left the Times , his friends say, because of fears that Mark Willes, the cereal company executive who was hired by Times Mirror to make its newspapers profitable or else (see New York Newsday ), would demean the paper. Mr. Coffey has maintained a carefully diplomatic stance on Mr. Willes since leaving. “We parted on friendly terms,” he said, reverting to his public relations mode. “I was just interested in having a new professional chapter in my life.”

Perhaps now is not the best time for Mr. Coffey to be making the jump to television. ABC’s news operation is currently in turmoil. Disney, ABC’s owner, has been on a tear lately, demanding stiff cutbacks in the news division; eight on-air correspondents have recently left the network. And Mr. Arledge’s move will likely prompt a round of executive departures as well. To top it all off, Dick Wald, the network’s 67-year-old “ethics czar,” is expected to retire soon, leaving Mr. Coffey as the sole line of defense between Mr. Westin and the tough-spot news calls that can quickly imperil a network executive.

“If Shelby Coffey knows what he’s doing, that would be a surprise,” said one exasperated veteran ABC News producer. “There are a lot of people at ABC who don’t know what we’re doing.”

Then there is the sticky question of leadership. Even after Mr. Arledge ceded control to Mr. Westin, ABC staff members were left confused about who is actually in charge. An ABC press release announcing Mr. Westin’s promotion noted that Mr. Arledge “will continue as chairman and be consulted on all major decisions.” Messrs. Westin and Coffey will have to summon all their powers of political acuity to not just fill Mr. Arledge’s shoes, but to avoid tripping over them.

“There’s a lot for me to learn,” Mr. Coffey said.

No sooner had Lillian Ross’ tell-all book about her years with William Shawn hit the bookstores than a mysterious unsigned parody started to make the rounds in the offices of The New Yorker . It soon found a home on the 16th-floor bulletin board where staff members advertise their used goods and summer shares. Entitled “Memoirs of a Sub-Mistress,” the document gives few clues about its origin; it was written on a typewriter by someone with a particularly droll tone and no shortage of scorn for Ms. Ross and her book. Here but Not Here , which details Ms. Ross’ lengthy love affair with the late New Yorker editor, has come under attack from those who accuse Ms. Ross of self-aggrandizement at the expense of Mr. Shawn’s widow and children. The parody of the book purports to be written by Shawn’s “real” mistress. Here are a few choice excerpts.

“The second time I slept with Mr. Shawn, he asked me to call him Bill,” the piece begins. “I have decided to come forward and tell the story of our romance not merely to make money. I want the world to know that it was me Mr. Shawn loved, and not Miss Ross.

“Mr. Shawn presided over The New Yorker as if it were a hospice. Everything was done to keep the writers calm and to hide their true condition of mediocrity from them. A few exceptional writers, of course (Vlad Nabokov, Jerry Salinger, me) offered Mr. Shawn some relief from his depleting daily rounds of kindly prevarication.…

“We made each other happy. He loved me for my charm and attractiveness and increasing literary importance. I loved him for himself–weird shy little man that he was.

“My story is not unusual,” the piece concludes. “All over the world women are being seduced by their bosses and set up in little apartments like the one Mr. Shawn set me up in, 10 blocks down from Miss Ross’. But I need to express myself and I trust that my literary gifts (and the pictures I took of Mr. Shawn in drag) will see me through and make my publisher’s dreams of avarice come true.”

Suspicion initially fell on New Yorker editors Roger Angell and Henry Finder, occasional authors of interoffice parodies. But both men denied involvement, and the trail went cold.

So who wrote “Memoirs of a Sub-Mistress?” Off the Record has learned the real identity of the parodist: It’s long-time New Yorker scribe Janet Malcolm, who sent the piece to friends at the magazine from her home in Massachusetts. “I wrote a parody,” Ms. Malcolm told Off the Record. Was it entitled “Memoirs of a Sub-Mistress?” “That’s the one,” she said. Ms. Malcolm didn’t want to elaborate.

Faxed a copy of the piece, Ms. Ross said she was disappointed to learn that the “sub-mistress” did not exist. “Are you sure it was written by Janet Malcolm?” Ms. Ross asked. “I was so looking forward to having a drink with this woman.” Asked if she was perturbed to be so mocked by a colleague, Ms. Ross said, “She’s Janet Malcolm and I’m Lillian Ross. What else can I say?”

The floor plan for the new Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square was recently posted in the lobby of the old Condé Nast building at 350 Madison Avenue, resolving the initial questions of who goes where: The New Yorker gets the top floor, Self and Gourmet the bottom, and Vanity Fair , Vogue and Bride’s are interspersed in the middle. Now that they know their placement on Condé Nast’s architectural equivalent of a masthead, the company’s employees have turned their attention to another pressing matter: the fate of Margit and Helmut.

Margit and Helmut Larsen are German immigrants who have run the newsstand in the lobby of 350 Madison Avenue for the last 15 years. From the post near the elevator bank, the Larsens have come to know many of the company’s employees by name. “They’re an institution,” said GQ editor Art Cooper. But despite their years of service, a Condé Nast source reports, the Larsens were dismayed to learn recently that they may not be invited to operate the newsstand in the new Condé Nast building. “When the map [of 4 Times Square] was posted, Margit was really mad because there was no newsstand,” said a friend of the couple. “Her face was red and she was saying, ‘No one will give us an answer!’”

Over the years, the Larsens have developed close ties with many of the higher-ups at Condé Nast. The couple prepares the daily ration of newspapers and magazines for Advance Publications chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr., and are said to be as familiar with masthead rank as the maître d’ at Michael’s; their preferred customers maintain private accounts which, of course, are billed to Condé Nast. GQ staff members report that they have fact-checked the words to German lieder using Mr. Larsen as a source. And Vogue invited the Larsens to the magazine’s Christmas party last year. (A very agitated Vogue P.R. person specified that it wasn’t editor Anna Wintour herself who did the inviting, and that she doesn’t actually know them.)

But the Larsens are perhaps best known for their sometimes alarming attacks on patrons who unknowingly commit the high crime of perusal without intent to buy. Getting yelled at for flipping through the Larsens’ newsstand is “a right of passage at Condé Nast,” said one Vogue staff member. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said he once saw a hapless patron pick up a magazine without paying for it. “It was too horrible,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it.”

Still, the Larsens have many boosters. “They’re far better than the people who preceded them,” Mr. Cooper said. “When my wife was editor in chief of Mademoiselle , she violated the ‘you read it, you buy it rule,’ and the guy came over and poured a bottle of grapefruit juice over her head.” Indeed, Mr. Carter said he’d be “very distressed” if the Larsens weren’t invited to 4 Times Square. “They’re part of the soul of the whole building,” he said.

Ms. Larsen refused to comment, but a Condé Nast spokesman confirmed that the couple’s fate was up in the air. The newsstand at 4 Times Square will be operated by the building owners and managers, the Durst Organization, and the Larsens will have to compete with other vendors for the job. “Margit and Helmut will definitely be given consideration by the Dursts,” said the spokesman. Douglas Durst said the decision would be “strictly financial.” “We would not normally consider them,” he added, “but Condé Nast has asked us to and we will.” Mr. Durst anticipates a decision within the year.

You can reach Off the Record by e–mail at wstjohn@observer.com.