Sulzberger Jr. Vows to Right Times ‘ Course

The 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 Times man 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 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 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.

“You’re referring to the newspaper that won seven Pulitzer prizes? That one?” he said. “Call me crazy. Look, every editor has great moments and every editor has moments where they will go back and say, ‘I wish I had done that differently.’ But the quality of The New York Times , and the quality of the news report that was going to our readers starting from Labor Day 2001,” when Mr. Raines took over, “that was a helluva newspaper under Joe, and will be under the next executive editor-whoever that will be.”

Whoever that is will have a huge agenda ahead of them. The Siegal commission will present its recommendations this summer; Mr. Sulzberger himself appears to have learned something about management in the last several weeks that Mr. Raines could not learn through years of coaching.

“Clearly there were areas where we needed to staff. It was a much broader series of issues that people have written about and reported on about engaging the staff. About decision-making, and about being too hierarchical; not enough bubbling up from below; how personnel decisions were made; all of those things that bubbled up or more than bubbled up from the staff at our staff meeting back at the movie theater. Those were the real issues.”

“It was never Jayson Blair,” he continued. “Jayson Blair as an issue went away. It was not a tipping point. It was more what one would call a cultural issue.”

Mr. Sulzberger said resolving these issues was the important bit. His signature initiatives in the newsroom, with or without Mr. Raines will be a part of the paper’s future again.

“That’s strategy,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “Things that are strategic don’t change in changes with people.”

Assessing the scene, Jonathan Landman, the paper’s metropolitan editor who became a kind of heroic whistleblower, the voice of Times ian reason during the Blair episode, described the atmosphere as “much better.”

Not, perhaps, for everyone. According to more than one Times source, Mr. Raines’ departure has only opened the door to more conflict.

“People perceived as henchmen of Howell are being circled in for the kill,” one Times source said. “People perceived as weak, particularly editors who are perceived as weak are being undercut by their underlings. People moved out by Howell are trying to get back into the picture.”

Mr. Sulzberger, the publisher, does not see this.

“No. That’s just simply not true,” he said. “It’s not true for any number of reasons. First of all, we’re out of the ‘camps’ business here. All right? This is a newspaper that is getting back to doing what it does, producing the best news report it possibly can. There’s no interest on my part or interest of anyone I know to try and figure out who was where on this issue.

“So, it’s just not true.”

Whatever the truth, Mr. Lelyveld is not going away. Though his arrangement with the paper is to remain as executive editor until a new one is found, he has told people in the news room that he will act as a consultant to the next steward of the 152-year-old paper.

A Times spokesperson said Mr. Lelyveld was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Sulzberger is making his choice under harsh scrutiny.

When Mr. Sulzberger tapped Mr. Raines to become the editorial-page editor in 1993, Mr. Raines had earned a reputation as a whip-wielder at the helm of the Washington bureau. Those problems will sound familiar.

According to Susan Tifft, co-author of The Trust : The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times , there was a “recognition on Arthur’s part that Howell has some management flaws, including promoting a star system and being autocratic.”

But, for Mr. Sulzberger, Mr. Raines was worth the risk.

“God, 1992, right?” Mr. Sulzberger said, remembering. “Well, the reason I approached him was … [he] was interested in being a columnist, and I didn’t want to lose him because I thought he had the drive to take the page, which was very good…but, he would take it to the next level, and quite frankly, I thought he did. I think he did a great job as editorial page editor.”

Mr. Raines in many ways was a kindred spirit to Mr. Sulzberger, Ms. Tifft said, a witness to the great moments of the 1960′s, who believed in the idea of monumental, earth-rattling change, which-by the way-was exactly what many felt the New York Times itself needed internally. Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Raines became kindred, even fused.

“One of the reasons he became editorial page editor,” Ms. Tifft said, “was that Arthur wanted someone who could get noticed. He recognized lyrical writing and felt comfortable in [Mr. Raines'] ability to engage the big moral question of the day.”

And he did. Mr. Raines attacked Bill Clinton in the aftermath the wake of the Lewinsky and Tripp scandals, Kenneth Starr and the blue dress, and received Mr. Sulzberger’s support.

But there were still problems.

“As anybody who comes in to manage a new group of people, myself included, we all have a learning curve, and Howell had one as well,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “I think the management of that page in his fourth year was dramatically different than the management of that page in the first.”

It was during Mr. Raines’ tenure on the editorial page that Mr. Sulzberger thought Mr. Raines’ management problems had been resolved.

“He had to learn new ways of managing, and new ways to engage, and I think he did that, otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen him as executive editor-or even considered him for the news room,” Mr. Sulzberger said.

So, Mr. Sulzberger, who worked for and bristled beneath the last sputtering years of A.M. Rosenthal’s tenure as executive editor of The Times and had spent his tenure calming the jumpy newsroom from its lingering fear, chose a man who worshipped Mr. Rosenthal’s single-minded approach, thinking perhaps, as Ms. Tifft suggested that “he was getting the best of Abe, without the worst of Abe.”

It’s an idea Mr. Sulzberger dismissed.

” Time out ,” he said. “Let’s face it, I worked for Abe basically for a year. That was at the tail end of his career. To say I didn’t like the way Abe managed the newsroom would be unfair. He was a remarkable editor. What he did-he and my father, and Walt Mattson on the business side-this paper is around because of the things those guys did. I’m not here to bash Abe. On the contrary. I think The Times owes a great debt to Abe.”

But he said there were similarities between Mr. Rosenthal’s tenure and Mr. Raines’.

“Howell and Abe were both different people,” he said. But: “They were both great journalists- are both great journalists. Both driven. I like that. Both passionate. I like that.”

And they both had a firm grip.

Instead of choosing a counterweight as managing editor, Mr. Raines chose the bristling Mr. Boyd. The desk heads complained that Mr. Raines isolated them, treated them like clerks during the heady post-911 period and the war in Iraq. And veteran Times reporters complained that they were not listened to, but chased away.

Then came the Jayson Blair affair.

“I’m not going to give you a ‘tick-tock’ on this,” said Mr. Sulzberger, questioned about who decided that Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd would go. “The truth is, they were sensing this early because they were there and we were working from a couple of weeks in the building on dealing with the issues that came up. And when they came to it-I’ve used the phrase in the past that this was a meeting of the minds-that they were not going to be able to turn this around.”

According to sources at the paper, in recent weeks family members had begun calling the news room, gauging its temperature and questioning Mr. Sulzberger’s leadership. According to numerous sources at The Times , senior vice president of newspaper operations Janet Robinson, on her way abroad for International Herald Tribune business was called back on Tuesday, June 3. Sources also said Mr. Sulzberger received pressure from his father, Arthur Sulzberger and cousin Michael Golden to remove Mr. Raines.

If in fact, Mr. Raines willingly stepped aside, he didn’t show his hand. According to several Times sources Mr. Raines, even late Wednesday afternoon on June 4 gave no indication that he was someone in the final hours of his power. One Times source said Mr. Raines had said that same afternoon that he had “turned the corner.”

And he had, even if he didn’t know it. So had The Times . The paper will be watched in minute detail, on newsstands, in newsprint, on the web, and internationally through the Herald Tribune . The trial of Howell Raines is now over. The long, historic test of young Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has begun.

“Fresh insight,” one Times source concluded in an idiom that almost sounds like Mr. Sulzberger’s, “wit and grace in writing. Howell’s demise doesn’t mean an end to that. It means you don’t do it like an asshole.”

Would that bring the publisher and his beleaguered newspaper, redemption?

“Redeem myself?” Mr. Sulzberger asked. “We’re at the point of redemption? What comes before redemption? I don’t even know the answer for that,” he said. “What I need to do now, and what I hope I am doing, is helping this organization finding out what went wrong and fixing it. Finding the next executive editor and managing editor for The New York Times and continuing to produce the best possible news report we can.

“Now, you can call it what you want,” said Mr. Sulzberger. “That’s my mission, that’s my responsibility, and that’s what the folks at The New York Times expect from me, and that’s what they’re going to get.”