Meet the youth brigade of The New York Times .
As Al Siegal and his investigative committee continue to hash out exactly how the 152-year-old institution allowed 27-year-old reporter Jayson Blair to invent datelines and events and imaginary vistas, 13 of the newspaper’s bright young things have been hammering away at a memo to Mr. Siegal and other members of the committee calling for changes in how the paper treats its young.
Among the early drafts of the memo being circulated, the group calls upon Times management to end favoritism in the newsroom, develop transparent procedures for filling open positions, and provide other amenities for young reporters eager for advancement.
“We figured it was better to speak collectively as one voice rather than individually,” said 27-year-old Washington-based reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, who’s helping draft the document.
With the notable exception of race, perhaps no theory of Mr. Blair’s decline and fall has been as popular as his youth and relative inexperience when it came to big stories, such as the D.C. sniper saga of last autumn. The young hotshot, it was thought, was allowed to flood The Times ‘ zone with bad information, thanks in no small part to a lack of oversight by a regime that prized its ability to pluck the young from outer space and make them into stars.
In a way, the youngsters’ complaints will not be news to the Siegal committee. In a committee memo widely released on May 22 as part of The Times ‘ continued self-flagellation before its reporters, Mr. Siegal presented a series of questions the committee would be asking.
“How widely do we communicate the availability of assignments? Do those (supervisors and managers) with knowledge get a chance to advise on a potential assignment? How do we track the aspirations of current staff members? How do we counsel them on realistic expectations and on what they can do to qualify? …. Is the system transparent? Does Staffer A know that Staffer B is preparing for a foreign assignment? Does Staffer A understand why Staffer B was chosen?”
To the authors of this memo, the questions are rhetorical because the answers are obvious.
This is The Times , which has long been run as a kind of sacred trust-and for a young reporter making his or her way through the labyrinth of promotions and desk assignments, a rabbi is needed.
That kind of mentorship is not altogether common: It’s hard to act as a writing coach and career counselor when you’ve got your own deadlines to make.
In talking with Off the Record, Metro reporter Lydia Polgreen, 27, one of the reporters planning to sign onto the memo’s final draft, went out of her way to describe her experience at The Times as “overwhelmingly positive,” though “not overwhelmingly friendly.”
“The culture of the place is to compete on a very high level,” Ms. Polgreen said. “Other papers employ writing coaches and mentoring programs, but here you’re expected to perform at a certain level. That’s just the expectation, and it’s a reasonable expectation.”
It is, perhaps, a far less militant version of Mr. Blair’s recent statement about The Times : “Was I too young? For a newspaper reporter’s job at a great newspaper, maybe not,” he told Off the Record last week. “Was I too young for a snake pit like that? Maybe.”
Demanding transparency on the part of The Times and an end to “backroom” dealings, the memo calls for the open posting of available positions and a listing of all the qualities that management seeks in the applicants (experience, languages spoken, a willingness to relocate).
Signers want The Times to increase the number of people in the newsroom devoted to career development and add journalism instruction outside the newsroom.
“I think these concerns are not at all unique to young reporters at The Times ,” 31-year-old reporter Shaila Dewan, who plans to sign the petition, said. “But there has been a call for input from all constituencies, and so we were trying, as one constituency, to give it.”
According to the memo, this would mean the creation of something tentatively titled the “registry of hopes and dreams,” to help management with a reminder of the long-term career goals of the paper’s young reporters.
Commenting on the situation, one young Times staffer said that Mr. Blair’s case was being co-opted by his former colleagues.
“Young people are trying to seize on this and better their circumstances by playing the ‘age card,’ in hopes of advancing their career even more,” the staffer said. “They’re making it seem like anything that comes against them in the future is the result of Jayson Blair.”
(Ms. Lee in response said the measure was meant to provide constructive points for the Siegal committee.)
The document originated at a lunch at Don Giovanni’s on May 16, two days after the raucous town-hall meeting in a midtown theater where executive editor Howell Raines flagellated himself before his subjects. Sitting down, 10 reporters picked over the wreckage from the grenades that had been furiously tossed at Mr. Raines, managing editor Gerald Boyd and publisher Arthur Sulzberger only 48 hours before. Common complaints included the arbitrariness of assignments, a top-down management style and the increasing displacement of women in the newsroom.
“It was more about thoughtfulness than it was about griping,” Ms. Lee said.
Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis, pointing to the Siegal memo said, “Certainly the newspaper is seeking to address issues of hiring, promotion and training” for all staffers, not just young ones.
“We are at a point where the organization is trying to reevaluate itself,” Ms. Lee said. “It has done so before, and will do so again.”
The New York Times has quietly ended its relationship with Sarah Khalil, who helped set up the paper’s Kuwait bureau for the war-and who is also the niece of Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress.
Mr. Chalabi, an international businessman and perhaps Iraq’s most famous émigré, is the odds-on favorite to serve as the next leader in a new Iraq and, even before the war, served as the inspiration for many neoconservative pundits’ arguments in favor of a Halliburton-friendly post-Saddam Iraq.
Ms. Khalil, who lives in Kuwait, could not be reached for comment.
In an e-mail exchange with Off the Record, chief Washington correspondent Patrick Tyler-currently reporting from Baghdad-explained that he hired Ms. Khalil, a former staffer with the AFP news agency in Cairo, in January, while setting up the Kuwait bureau for the war.
Mr. Tyler said he met Ms. Khalil, the wife of a Kuwaiti-based businessman and the mother of two small children, while working for The Washington Post in the 1980′s and hired her as an assistant “whose work was confined to Kuwait.” This, Mr. Tyler said, included arranging visas for war correspondents and directing supplies into war zones.
“The politics of postwar Iraq were not even on the horizon,” Mr. Tyler said. “I certainly didn’t expect to be covering them. Chalabi was not in the news or even in the region. When he came across the horizon after the war, Sarah and I had a discussion about Chalabi’s rising profile and the appearance of conflict.”
According to sources at The Times , editors and senior writers in The Times ‘ Washington bureau objected to Ms. Khalil’s presence and demanded that Mr. Tyler relieve her of her duties.
Mr. Tyler dismissed the idea that there was rancor in the exchange.
“The discussions with editors about Sarah Khalil also began after Chalabi came into the news in the postwar period,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and they related solely to a decent and amiable termination of the relationship and the recognition that we all wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict.”
Mr. Tyler said it was always the understanding that when things wound down in Kuwait, so would Ms. Khalil’s job with The Times .
“She was always extremely open and understanding about it,” Mr. Tyler said, “and was a very capable news assistant.”
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said Ms. Khalil’s last day with The Times was May 20. She said the paper “does not have a policy on employment of relatives of news figures.
“Circumstances vary infinitely,” Ms. Mathis said, “and judgments must also.”
Chris Porterfield will soon retire from his job as Time ‘s executive editor. His exit is not unexpected, but it is momentous nonetheless: Mr. Porterfield is one of the last people at the magazine to remember Henry Luce, the father of the Time pantheon, as a boss rather than as an abstract ideal.
Mr. Porterfield first met Mr. Luce in September 1963, just before he began a stint as a trainee in Time ‘s Washington bureau. Then a wayward graduate-school runaway with transcripts from the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University and Yale University in his permanent record, he appeared at a jacket-and-tie dinner in Washington to honor a visit from Mr. Luce, Time ‘s founder and notorious taskmaster, who was then approaching his defiant sunset.
Mr. Porterfield thought he might escape Mr. Luce’s notice and quietly observe him in action from afar, but Mr. Luce wouldn’t-couldn’t-let that happen. Alerted of Mr. Porterfield’s presence, the old man came up to him and rattled off question after question in machine-gun staccato about Mr. Porterfield’s biography, Mr. Porterfield said.
By now, Mr. Luce was the unofficial Republican Party king maker and anti-Communist scourge. But according to Mr. Porterfield, that’s not what made him scary. He was large and gruff and, because of some hearing loss, tended to bark, not talk.
“All that made him quite intimidating,” Mr. Porterfield remembered.
Beginning his career at what he remembers as a “stuffy and self-important magazine,” Mr. Porterfield has seen the publication morph from a weekly Chiang Kai-shek update into one that regularly fronts subjects like Yoga and bad carbs. At the same time, he’s seen the parent company merge not once, but twice: with Warner Communications and then AOL. No longer an island, Time Inc. is a print fiefdom in an unwieldy empire.
“Sometimes I wonder if Time Inc. could have survived as a free-standing company instead of being swallowed up,” Mr. Porterfield said. “I don’t think so. If it had not been part of this merger, God knows which media baron we’d be working for.”
This marks Mr. Porterfield’s second departure from the magazine. After serving in its belly from 1963 to 1974, he went to work as an executive producer for his friend and college roommate, Dick Cavett, on projects for CBS, ABC and a nightly PBS talk show. After booking “everyone in the world I was interested in listening to,” Mr. Porterfield returned to Time in 1980.
Mr. Porterfield said he’ll still be kicking around the magazine’s offices at 50th and Sixth as a contributor; still part of the place where he’s spent so much of his life.
“There’s something funny about the weekly schedule,” Mr. Porterfield said. “Somehow every Monday you think, ‘This week we’re going to get it right.’”
And now, a report from the Montclair bureau: Ken Kurson-the former Harper’s intern turned punk-rockin’, stock-pickin’ financial columnist and political ghostwriter, wants to become the next State Assembly member for the 34th District of New Jersey. A former Esquire columnist, Mr. Kurson worked as an editor at large for Money and co-authored Leadership , former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s Miramax-published book on management that became a best-seller following his post–Sept. 11 deification.
“The very things I love about this state are in jeopardy,” said Mr. Kurson, who’s running as a Republican. “We have a governor with a tin ear and no core beliefs. While cutting our arts budget of $18 million to zero, he added to the state payroll 698 new employees, who have a combined salary of $54 million. Our property taxes are so high that lifelong citizens must abandon their childhood homes. Our doctors have literally taken to the streets in protest, and our auto insurance rates are stratospheric.”
The 34th District includes not only the media hamlet of Montclair, but East Orange, West Paterson, Clifton and Glen Ridge-quite a territory for someone who admittedly has never run for anything, including student council.
“I’ve spent the last two-plus years watching one of the greatest leaders in history handle every kind of challenge, from massive attacks to detailed spreadsheet readings,” said Mr. Kurson, who currently toils as the deputy director of communications for the former Mayor’s consulting firm, Giuliani Partners. “I intend to be the next Assemblyman of the 34th District of New Jersey.”
Buster Olney, can you say “Boo-ya?” Well, you’d better learn. That’s because Mr. Olney, The New York Times ‘ chronicler of much of the Yankees’ mid- to late-1990′s championship run, is heading to ESPN. In an interview with Off the Record on May 27, Mr. Olney said his new gig would include appearing on television as well as writing for the Web site and ESPN the Magazine .
“I had other chances to leave The Times , but this is an incredible opportunity,” Mr. Olney told Off the Record.
Bernie Williams couldn’t have said it better!
While the deal at the Disney-owned network might have been sweet, Times sources said circumstances at The Times may have influenced Mr. Olney’s departure.
According to sources, Mr. Olney, 39, was increasingly unhappy with how the department was being run from above. They said he’d been distraught over the treatment of former sports editor Neil Amdur, and over the management decision to spike two columns by Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton on the Augusta National controversy. ( The Times covered the controversy vigorously and editorialized against Augusta’s policy on women.)
Asked how much internal Times politics played a role in his decision, Mr. Olney would only say: “I love the paper and had a great time at the paper. Neil was great to work for. [New sports editor] Tom Jolly is a great editor. I wouldn’t leave if this wasn’t a terrific opportunity.”
Put him in, Joe!