The strange stasis that has defined the interim leadership of former executive editor Joseph Lelyveld at The New York Times is almost at an end. And according to Times sources, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has hinted to desk heads at the newspaper that it’ll happen before the month of July is halfway through.
Lessthana month after Mr. Lelyveld took over, Times staffers have prepped themselves for a whimpering end to what began with a phone call from a reporter at the San Antonio Express News in April and turned into a fireball of yelling, backbiting and resignations, and is still smoldering in lingering internal divisions.
The week of June 22, Mr. Sulzberger suggested to the editors that he was bringing it to an end. That’s when he met with the paper’s department heads (at their request) in what was by all accounts a spirited encounter. Mr. Sulzberger, sources said, asked the group what kind of leadership qualities they would want in their next boss before informing them that a decision wouldn’t come before July 4, and possibly another week beyond that.
On June 5, when Mr. Lelyveld sauntered back from a retirement spent attacking Sidney Blumenthal in The New York Review of Books to take the helm of the most powerful institution of journalism in the world, the gesture had all the cadences of Coach Red Holzman returning to the Garden in 1978 to fix the Knicks.
Here was the demanding but highly respected former leader, seizing control of a newsroom gone bitter and disenchanted under the rule of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. And he was doing it under the auspices of Mr. Sulzberger, the man who declined to offer the job to Mr. Lelyveld’s protégé, Bill Keller, in the first place.
The imminence of the decision has only fanned the flames of speculation, with the newsroom chatter focusing on fantasy lineups for the new masthead, with Bill Keller dominating the whispering frequency. Some sample permutations? Bill Keller as executive editor, Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson as managing editor, Andrew Rosenthal as Washington bureau chief. Bill Keller as executive editor, John Geddes as managing editor, Andrew Rosenthal as editor of The Times ‘ student abroad, The International Herald Tribune . (On Monday June 30, following published speculation in The Washingtonian that she’d be plucked for the managing editor’s job, Ms. Abramson told members of her staff that she and Mr. Sulzberger had yet to discuss it.)
Mr. Keller, the former managing editor under Mr. Lelyveld, lost out to Mr. Raines for the grand prize in 2001, then settled for a job splitting time between working for Adam Moss at The Times Magazine and David Shipley on the paper’s Op-Ed page. Like Mr. Raines, Mr. Keller comes to the newsroom after a stint (albeit a very different one) on the 10th floor, but there are real signature differences.
“In some ways, he would have the same sort of problems Howell did coming from the editorial page,” said Susan E. Tifft, co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times . “The difference being, of course, his past success in the newsroom [and] his range of experience, both reporting overseas and in an administrative position.”
Mr. Keller certainly seems primed. Indeed, in his most recent op-ed, entitled “Mr. Diversity,” about the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, he wrote like someone ready to take the helm and make clear his stand on what had become a central issue in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair episode: race and The Times .
“My own views on this subject are not entirely theoretical,” Mr. Keller wrote. “I’m a trustee of a liberal-arts college that tries to attract black and Latino scholars using a standard much like the one at the Michigan Law School. I also work for a newspaper that makes an effort to hire and promote talented minority journalists. The paper does this not for the sake of doing good (for that it has a charitable foundation) nor to defend a principle (for that it has an editorial page), but mainly because we can better comprehend a disparate world and explain it to a disparate audience if our reporting and editing staff does not consist entirely of Ivy League white guys.”
While not an earth-rattling defense of affirmative action, Mr. Keller’s words struck a chord with many at The Times because it was less aligned with the Howellian view of affirmative action-as a method of righting the past wrongs of Birmingham and Jackson and Atlanta-than with that of Mr. Sulzberger, who’s held up diversity as an effective management policy.
“We just want to make sure there are blacks in key editorial positions at The New York Times ,” said Lena Williams, a Times sportswriter and the paper’s representative to the Newspaper Guild. “There are two open positions on the masthead. Will one of them go to a black? I don’t know. But I don’t think we would be disappointed if, as an organization, we put black people in place to get back on the masthead. That’s what they did with Gerald.”
But before Mr. Keller-who declined to comment for this story-can execute a plan for diversity, he has to, um, get the job. While most have all but handed Mr. Keller the whip, one Times source said that the announcement may yet surprise even insiders, and that Mr. Sulzberger had “cast a wider net” within the paper than some seemed to realize.
Speaking to the seemingly dozens of scenarios born since Mr. Raines’ resignation, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman said: “I truly know nothing. It’s all a lot of people making stuff up. I don’t know; you don’t know. Everybody’s making stuff up.”
A Times spokesperson declined to comment.
As summertime theater, the tumult at The Times couldn’t be surpassed. It was the daily serial of an institution as it is lived on the inside, with all of its reverberations all over the country and the world. Its closure comes just in time for the fall’s biggest stories: the Supreme Court case presentations. The uptick of the Democratic Presidential campaigns. The potential for prolonged daily carnage in Iraq.
The new team, said Ms. Tifft in what sounded like an appropriately military tone, “will have to hit the ground running.”
In his last piece for The New York Times Magazine , staff writer Barry Bearak produced a 8,112-word epic about the plight of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s purge by international forces.
Lately, though, Mr. Bearak has been floating a three-page book proposal about his current 43rd Street employer and the tumult that led to, and followed, the ouster of its leader, former executive editor Howell Raines.
“That institution needs to be periodically examined, explained, exposed,” Mr. Bearak wrote in the proposal. “A critical-a fascinating-new chapter has just occurred in the newspaper’s history. It’s again time for a dedicated writer to take a long, hard look.”
According to publishing sources, a representative for Mr. Bearak had asked for a figure in the range of $1 million, before dropping the asking price to $750,000.
However, when reached for comment, Mr. Bearak said there would be no Kingdom and the Power II: The Wrath of Jayson .
“A few weeks ago, interest was expressed in my writing a book about The New York Times ,” Mr. Bearak said. “I responded to that interest by drafting some of my thoughts. It was understood at the time that I had not decided on whether I’d do the book. I’ve since decided against it.”
Asked about the asking price, Mr. Bearak said: “I have never, never discussed specific amounts. Money was not the deciding issue for me.”
However, two authors who did find publishers for books on The Times were chronic, piercing howler William McGowan ( Gray Lady Down: How the New York Times Lost Touch with America , Encounter Books) and Newsweek scribe Seth Mnookin, who recently signed a deal with Random House.
Mr. Mnookin said he would continue to contribute to the magazine and told Off the Record: “I would love to come back when I’m done-and, I think, they would love to have me back when I’m done.”
After recent events, one wouldn’t blame Jann Wenner if he sent three notaries, a handwriting expert and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to the home of Us Weekly executive editor Janice Min.
Indeed, even more shocking than former Us editor in chief Bonnie Fuller’s June 26 flight from her wacky caption-and-fashion picture book to American Media was the fact that Ms. Fuller never signed the much-ogled three-year, seven-figure contract she agreed to earlier this year.
Now, as of this writing, according to a Wenner source, the attorney for Ms. Min-who served as Ms. Fuller’s deputy and is, according to sources, Mr. Wenner’s chosen replacement-is in possession of the contract, awaiting Ms. Min’s signature so she can direct her troops on their next Ashton-Demi-Bruce “family” photo outing.
Ms. Min-who cut a trip to Europe short upon learning the news of Ms. Fuller’s resignation-was out of the office and unavailable at press time. Wenner Media spokesman Stu Zakim declined to comment about the situation, but told Off the Record: “We hope to get the situation resolved as soon as possible.”
Allen, we hardly knew ya!
The New York Times has quietly cut bait on its experiment with sports columnist Allen Barra, who was brought in just this March to write a weekly column called “Against the Grain,” in the hope of giving the Sunday Sports section an anchor column similar to culture czar Frank Rich’s in Arts and Leisure.
It was a seemingly harmless hire-and yet, during former executive editor Howell Raines’ months in office, perhaps no appointment roused the ire of an entire department more than the hiring of the former Wall Street Journal and Observer sports columnist. A Birmingham, Ala., native who described Mr. Raines as “so cool” in a March interview with Off the Record, Mr. Barra, according to several sources, became a lightning rod for a group still smarting over the decision by the Raines regime to kill off two columns disagreeing with the paper’s editorial-board stance on the Augusta National Golf Club in December 2002.
Further, sources said, Mr. Barra’s statistically driven pieces were not appreciated by a department still without writers on three major beats-New York Giants football, the Olympics and the N.B.A.-or the non-Strat-O-Matic-playing public.
The decision, sources said, was based on the editors’ satisfaction with Mr. Barra’s work. But some wondered: Had Mr. Raines not left The Times newsroom June 5, would Mr. Barra still be crunching O.B.P. and VORP on Sundays?
“If Howell was still here, maybe Barra would be,” one Times source said. “Without him, there was one less roadblock.”
Mr. Barra and Times sports editor Tom Jolly did not return calls seeking comment, and a Times spokesperson declined to comment. In the meantime, Mr. Barra has resumed writing for The Journal in an occasional column called “In the Fray.”
“We’re happy to have him,” said Barbara D. Phillips, The Journal ‘s deputy Leisure & Arts features editor, “but his column won’t appear on a regular basis. He’s a freelancer.”
When Time in its July 7 “Special” issue fronted a cover package on “The Amazing Adventures of Ben Franklin” featuring a story on his, um “Seven Great Virtues” by graying dreamboat Walter Isaacson, all nepotistic synapses seemed to snap into place: the former managing editor of the magazine writing on the star of his new biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life , which recently showed up at a bookstore near you. (Off the Record recently went to the Barnes & Noble in Park Slope in hopes of a Potter-like midnight release party, only to be turned away by a confused security guard.) When reached, though, Time managing editor Jim Kelly-who hosted the book party for Mr. Isaacson at his apartment on the Upper West Side on Monday, June 30-said he wasn’t using the magazine to shill for his onetime partner in crime. The decision to use Mr. Franklin as its cover subject, Mr. Kelly said, came when Mr. Isaacson’s book was still scheduled for release in September, before Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, moved the date forward.
“Last year we did Lewis and Clark,” Mr. Kelly said. “Readers loved it and it did well on the newsstand and we said, ‘Let’s do a ‘Making of America’ again.’ I picked Ben Franklin because he’s an interesting guy and a good subject for an issue that’s going to be on the stands July 4. I picked him not knowing when Walter’s book was coming out. This is a second in a series.”