New York Times Sees the End of ‘A Nation Challenged’

Knock on wood: If the news cycle and the relative stateside calm continue as is, The New York Times ‘ A Nation Challenged section is likely to end on Jan. 1, staffers at the newspaper believe.

Executive editor Howell Raines has not made any formal declaration about the fate of A Nation Challenged, but Times staffers have been wondering how long the paper will continue to publish the stand-alone terrorism-and-war-news section, which began running daily on Sept. 18.

Now, with the war in Afghanistan beginning to wind down and New York City life edging toward normalcy, the belief inside the paper is that barring unforeseen developments, the section will wrap up by the year’s end.

“That is definitely the scuttlebutt,” said one Times staffer.

While there is still plenty of news related to Afghanistan, the investigation of the attacks and the New York City recovery effort, it’s believed that such coverage can now be dispersed among the traditional news sections of the paper–foreign, national and metro. Several Times staffers noted that A Nation Challenged has been shrinking in recent weeks, now at eight pages per day–down from two months ago, when the section was typically around 12 pages.

Some staffers rank reader fatigue as the leading reason to discontinue the section. “A lot of people have complained that it’s too much; enough already,” said one Times staffer. There are other issues, too, including how the A Nation Challenged section has impacted other parts of the paper–like forcing the sports section to run upside-down on the back of the Metro section. In a recent interview with C-Span, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. referred to the rejiggering of the paper by saying, “We decided to take it from A Nation Challenged to A Reader Challenged.”

Of course, another concern is cost. Printing a daily, almost always advertising-free section isn’t cheap. Said one Times reporter: “Money … hasn’t been much of a consideration, but at some point you have to consider it.” Indeed, the additional costs of A Nation Challenged have come at a time when advertising in virtually every publication is plummeting. The Times recently announced that advertising revenue at the paper was down 21 percent this past November compared to the same month last year, and year-to-date ads were down 14 percent.

Back in October, Mr. Raines told Off the Record that neither Mr. Sulzberger nor Times president Janet Robinson had talked to him about the cost of the paper’s coverage. “I knew when I walked into the building–or ran into the building–on the morning of Sept. 11 that there was no question that the space would be opened up for every bit of quality journalism we could produce,” Mr. Raines said.

Still, when Mr. Sulzberger talked about the section on C-Span, he said, “That’s a significant commitment of resources at a time of somewhat difficult economic conditions.”

When it wraps its run, Mr. Sulzberger can rest assured that A Nation Challenged was money well-spent. Full of top-shelf reporting and photography, the section–and in particular, the thumbnail Portraits of Grief bios of Sept. 11 victims–became a sober morning ritual for many New Yorkers. Writing in London’s Guardian, Harold Evans referred to A Nation Challenged as “a daily act of communion in which the whole city joins.” The section is almost a lock for a Pulitzer (or a few Pulitzers) and has elicited praise from the most unlikely quarters. Appearing on Charlie Rose on Dec. 10, Rupert Murdoch said: “I will say this about The New York Times : … in this crisis, they have just pulled on all their huge resources and done a fantastically good job.”

A separate question is the future of the Portraits of Grief. The page had already profiled more than 1,500 of the World Trade Center victims by mid-December, and may soon be coming to an end in its daily form. Though the official count of victims now hovers just above 3,000, a certain percentage of victims’ families–one editor estimated as many as 20 percent–did not, for various reasons, want to cooperate with The Times . The paper has vowed to profile every victim it can, but come Jan. 1, some staffers believe there won’t be enough bios available to sustain at least one full page per day (approximately 15). Instead, these staffers said, the portraits may run in smaller bunches as they come in, or they may run as a full page on an irregular schedule.

Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman said that no final decision had been made on Portraits of Grief–and, in the end, it’s up to Mr. Raines. Said a spokesperson for Mr. Raines: “There will come a time–we don’t know when–when we’ve done most people, and others will not come in fast enough to sustain a daily page.”

–Gabriel Snyder

There are more changes in The Times ‘ feature departments. On Wednesday, Dec. 12, John Rockwell, the editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, announced to his staff that he would be stepping down as editor and returning to writing. Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Rockwell said he’d made the announcement, in part, to head off rumors that he was giving up the job. “I did that because the rumor was beginning to percolate through the third floor [the newsroom at The Times ].” He added that he didn’t want his staff to find out that way.

But the announcement leaves the section in a bit of a bind, because no replacement has been named for Mr. Rockwell. In fact, according to Mr. Rockwell, the paper hasn’t begun its search, and he’s going to continue as editor for the foreseeable future. “The whole thing is messy,” he said.

The root cause of the upheaval, Mr. Rockwell said, is that Howell Raines wants to change The Times ‘ cultural coverage.

“I found out Howell Raines wanted to take this section in a new direction–which, I might add, is perfectly within his rights as executive editor,” he said. “Howell wants to take it more in a populist direction, more popular culture.”

Mr. Raines was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson for the executive editor said: “We’re committed to maintaining high-quality and comprehensive arts coverage of both the high arts and popular culture.”

The culture department editor, John Darnton, had no comment on the matter: “I don’t comment on personnel matters until they’re announced,” he said.

Mr. Rockwell was appointed Arts & Leisure editor in 1998 after a stint as the founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival, and he said in an interview that his expertise and tastes tended towards the finer arts and not pop culture. The changes that Mr. Raines will make in the culture department haven’t been fully articulated, Mr. Rockwell said, since the paper has been so focused on covering the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. “He’s begun making noises around the paper about how he’ll change things, and I think we’ll see more of that unfold in 2002.”

–G.S.

For some time, rumors swirled that Martin Peretz–the owner, chairman and editor in chief of The New Republic –was looking to sell a portion of his magazine. The deal Mr. Peretz was said to be offering was one in which someone would buy part of TNR and absorb some of its annual losses– speculated to be in the low seven figures–while Mr. Peretz maintained editorial control.

Now come reports that Mr. Peretz has found two investors to take up his offer: Michael Steinhardt, a former hedge-fund manager and prominent donor to the Democratic Party, and Roger Hertog, a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, a supply-side economics think tank, who is also the vice chairman of mutual-fund manager Alliance Capital Management.

Neither Mr. Peretz, Mr. Steinhardt nor Mr. Hertog returned calls for comment, but two sources close to The New Republic say that the three are working to finalize the deal, in which each of the three men would own one-third of the magazine. Stephanie Sandberg, publisher of TNR , told Off the Record, “There’s a strategic partnership pending. They’re working on it, and when it happens, they’ll be happy to talk about it.”

Still, the potential deal is already raising eyebrows. One reason is the background of the prospective co-owners. While The New Republic has become more conservative over the years since Michael Kinsley edited it in the late 1980’s, it is still putatively left-of-center. Mr. Hertog, though, has impeccable conservative credentials, and both he and Mr. Steinhardt are investors in The New York Sun , which is being billed as an upscale conservative daily for New York City.

What’s more, some people close to TNR are skeptical that the three men would be able to run the magazine as a true partnership if one partner–Mr. Peretz–has his mitts on the editorial product more than the other two. “The official story is, Marty is not giving up control,” said one source.

And indeed, Mr. Peretz’s most recent hand-picked TNR editor, Peter Beinart, said that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Without commenting on any pending investments, Mr. Beinart said, “I can say I love editing the magazine and expect to be doing it in the future.”

Still, at least one person noted that Mr. Peretz should know better than others what happens when one person owns a magazine and another is supposed to have complete editorial control. In 1974, Mr. Peretz bought a cash-strapped TNR from Gilbert Harrison, who had owned and edited it since the 1950’s. The deal called for Mr. Harrison to continue as editor in chief for at least four years. But less than a year later, in early 1975, Mr. Harrison was out in what Newsweek at the time called “a little insurrection.” A staffer told the magazine: “How could it last? The new guy wanted to exert his influence and the old guy wanted to keep his autonomy.” Mr. Peretz said at the time, “Two people running a magazine doesn’t work.”

Meanwhile, as the TNR staff waits to find out who its new bosses are–and how they’ll manage things between them–layoffs hit the magazine during the second week of December. Ms. Sandberg said that eight people lost their jobs, including several who worked on The New Republic’ s Web site and in the ad sales and circulation departments. The editorial side of the magazine escaped layoffs, but that was only because, Mr. Beinart confirmed, the editorial staff agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut in lieu of layoffs.

–G.S.

Many of us have heard the standard horror stories about women’s magazines whispered at dinner parties and over drinks. Now get ready to read one: Kate White, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan , is coming out with a murder mystery due in May from Warner Books. Ms. White declined to talk about the name of the book or its main character, but she did acknowledge that it takes place at a women’s magazine.

“They say, ‘Write what you know,'” Ms. White said. “It wasn’t any more complicated than that.”

Ms. White, author of the nonfiction self-improvement guide Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do : 9 Secrets of Women Who Get Everything They Want , said she’d harbored a desire to write a mystery since her 20’s. In 1998, while in her last days as the head of Redbook , she began giving form to her dream–writing a few chapters before she took over for Bonnie Fuller as editor of Cosmopolitan . She worked on the book here and there, and when Ms. White and her agent approached Warner Books with a portion of the novel, the company said they wanted it to be part of a series. After working late at night and in the early mornings on weekends, she turned in the book last spring. The sequel’s due in September 2002.

“Some people will be able to recognize stuff,” Ms. White said of its relation to real life. “Some lines are just too good to be true.”

But is it reality? Ms. White acknowledged that “some psycho-sparring” occurs in her workplace, but added: “I’ve never met anyone I thought was capable of murder.”

Meanwhile, Bonnie Fuller’s own book proposal–a self-help info-manual entitled From Geek to Oh My Goddess! –is currently circulating among book editors. Ms. Fuller, who was deposed at Glamour this past summer, hired literary agent Michael Carlisle, who began shopping the book in early December. A book editor familiar with the proposal said the tome would draw on the formula at Ms. Fuller’s previous magazines: “A younger woman’s Bridget Jones ” were the book editor’s words.

–Sridhar Pappu and Gabriel Snyder

In the Sept. 10 edition of this column, we detailed a budding fight between Dow Jones–the parent company of The Wall Street Journal –and its union, Local 1096, over birth-control pills. In an internal memo, the union went after the company for not responding to a request to provide prescription birth-control pills as part of its health plan. The union cited both a federal court ruling and a 2000 decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as its basis.

Of course, both the union and Dow Jones had other things to think about after Sept. 11. The company’s offices at the World Financial Center remain uninhabitable, and The Wall Street Journal continues to publish with its reporters scattered in offices across the city and in New Jersey.

But according to Dawn Kopecki, chairwoman of the union’s health-care committee, the birth-control issue is being brought back. Ms. Kopecki said that both sides decided to put off the issue until November, but when the company didn’t respond to its requests for a status check, the union decided to move forward. Last week, it retained the legal services of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a possible case for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“If we had heard anything–a phone call, an e-mail, anything,” Ms. Kopecki said, “we wouldn’t have gone forward. But we didn’t. They had four months before Sept. 11 to make a decision, but they continued to put it off. We don’t think the impact of the World Trade Center disaster has anything to do with this. They’re delaying because the company’s in cost-cutting mode now.”

Steve Goldstein, a vice president with Dow Jones, said the company’s still trying to catch up from the relocation. “Now that that’s been settled,” Mr. Goldstein said, “we’ll continue to look at this. But no decision’s been reached.”

–S.P.