Sulzberger Jr. Vows to Right Times’ Course

112105 article classics Sulzberger Jr. Vows to Right Times CourseThe New York Times’ former executive editor Howell Raines has gone fishing–and so has the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. But Mr. Raines is looking for trout, and Mr. Sulzberger, his recent boss, needs a new executive editor.

“He caught a 21-inch rainbow trout and he told me that was a good thing,” said Mr. Sulzberger in a June 10 interview. “I don’t fish so I don’t know.”

But Mr. Sulzberger has begun searching for The Times’ next big fish from around the country. The greatest newsroom in America is being run by Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of the paper, who in a short time has restored the front page of The New York Times to looking like–well, it did before: news, news, news, and a lot of dignity. But Mr. Lelyveld will only be in place for a matter of weeks or months, until Mr. Sulzberger finds his long-term replacement.

“The target for when I have the next executive editor and managing editor in place is when I have them,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “I’m not going to announce them before I have them. There is no target. Joe is in place. The newsroom is working. I will deal with the issues that come up and the good news is that it gives time for me and my colleagues to find the right executive editor and the right managing editor to move forward. There’s no need to dawdle on this, but we’re going to take the time we need.”

There are the names, but they are conventional-wisdom names: former Times managing editor and current Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller, who was passed over for the job when Mr. Raines was chosen; Boston Globe editor Marty Baron; former Timesman and current Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet.

Mr. Sulzberger, for his part, said he’d pick someone who was, first, “a great journalist;” and second, “someone who can manage a complex newsroom,” now providing content for the local and national editions of The Times, a Web site, a cable television channel and The International Herald Tribune.

That, he admitted, will take a strong hand.

“Leadership is what I’m looking for,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “Leadership means not just telling people what to do, but empowering people to tell you what they need. The best leaders are the ones who know how to listen and then provide those tools. It’s leadership.”

“And Howell was a great leader,” he added. “Joe is and was a great leader. But times change, needs change.”

They certainly do, and quickly. When the Blair incident blew open, newsroom speculation and published reports suggested that the Sulzberger family had been divided and instructed Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to get rid of Mr. Raines or walk the plank himself. Reports painted a portrait of Mr. Sulzberger as the susceptible publisher whose family, which owns 16 percent of the company stock but holds 70 percent of the shareholder votes, had to rein him in from his brilliant, intemperate friend Howell.

“I’ve read a lot of poor journalism on this subject. Let me be crystal clear,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “The board of directors of the New York Times Company, whom I report to, was in complete support of these actions when we were trying to deal with the Jayson Blair issue, through the aftermath of the Jayson Blair issue, up to Howell and Gerald’s retirement. I never once felt pressure from them to make a decision or a call. The same is absolutely true of the family. The trustees … were entirely supportive of what we were doing and what we were trying to do. Up to and including Howell and Gerald leaving. If somebody told you differently, they don’t know the facts.”

Mr. Raines, who left the third-floor newsroom of The Times on June 5 with his straw hat in his hand and his new wife, Krystyna Stachowiak, on his arm, went straight to his country house in Pennsylvania without even stopping off at his Greenwich Village townhouse, according to a Newsweek report.

“You know he has a lot to think about, like I have had a lot to think about over the past few weeks,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “It has been a very difficult time for me, for my newsroom; we all need some time to clear our heads and step back from this for awhile.”

For Mr. Raines, destiny seemed to come calling five weeks ago in the person of Jayson Blair, an appealing, smart and aggressive reporter who seemed to hold just the kind of promise Mr. Raines and his friend and boss Arthur Sulzberger Jr. held out for America in the pages of their version of The Times–until that promise was broken, and Mr. Blair was revealed as a fraud. At that point, Mr. Raines began to ooze blood into The Times’ shark pool, and that was that. June 5, Mr. Raines and his trusted deputy, managing editor Gerald Boyd, tendered their resignations to Mr. Sulzberger. The blow was direct, quick and stunning, in the way the guillotine is said to be. One day Mr. Raines was the embattled editor of the world’s most important newspaper; the next, he was fishing in Pennsylvania.

“You know he has a lot to think about, like I have had a lot to think about over the past few weeks,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “It has been a very difficult time for me, for my newsroom; we all need some time to clear our heads and step back from this for awhile.”

But one thing Mr. Sulzberger does not have is time, and there is no stepping back. The interim leadership of former executive editor Joe Lelyveld is already making its mark, and may be doing more to set the terms for Mr. Raines’ permanent successor than many now speculate. And while Mr. Lelyveld is restoring order at The Times, his own exit 21 months ago was not without acrimony, and his return has given new life to feudal rifts at the paper that were suppressed under Mr. Raines’ powerful leadership.

Meanwhile, the aftertaste of a kind of mutiny is still on the breath of Mr. Raines’ detractors, and Times sources have told The Observer that Raines loyalists feel they are finding themselves vulnerable.

To restore his credibility as a leader at The Times, Mr. Sulzberger has to show that the paper’s 21-month affair with Mr. Raines was not a joyride. He will have to proceed along the course he marked out for himself when he took the reins, and first saw potential for change in an organization whose tremendous historical weight sometimes makes it seem impossible to budge. He will have to place Mr. Raines’ successor decisively, successfully and reassert himself as the real arbiter of The Times’ future.

“It’s been a tough time for my stewardship,” Mr. Sulzberger said.

But he retains his signature self-assurance.

“Does it affect my authority?” he asked, then responded to himself: “No.”

“I’m the publisher of this paper and we’re going to learn from this experience, fix what went wrong and we’re going to go forward,” he said firmly. “And that’s just what’s going to happen.”

Sources within The Times told The Observer that the Times leadership is working to find the next executive editor quickly–“Arthur wants the thing done,” a Times staffer said. Asked by The Observer when a permanent editor would be hired, Mr. Sulzberger would not set himself a target date.

Mr. Lelyveld–not quite the cuddly avatar of open communication that revisionists made him in retrospect during the bumpy Raines era—has made it clear who’s in charge.

“Joe’s very confident,” said business and financial editor Glenn Kramon. “It feels like he never left, like those 21 months just disappeared. And he looks better.”

Mr. Lelyveld has reaffirmed his interim status by telling masthead editors that hirings that had already been agreed upon should continue as planned.

But on Tuesday, June 10, he held an enterprise-reporting meeting to re-examine the kind of long-term projects that, sources said, fell away under Mr. Raines’ mandate of spending vast resources to cover the biggest news story of the moment. He also has gone to work reaching to Times constituencies alienated under Mr. Raines. He began calling on bureaus, especially the roiling Washington bureau, to assess what could have happened, how the historically irritable adjunct of the paper managed to become a maelstrom powerful enough to reverse the publisher’s confidence in his most trusted general.

“What you have is a very steady hand at the rudder,” one senior Times reporter said of The Times under Mr. Lelyveld.

To many, Mr. Lelyveld’s paper already looks more focused, more sober.

Not to Mr. Sulzberger.

Asked about the front page since Mr. Raines’ departure, and whether it heralded a new regime at The Times, he bristled.

“Now we’re going to parse the Bible?” he said incredulously. “Trust me, you’re going to find what you look for.”

The product, he said, was the same great product it was under Mr. Raines’ leadership.