On his second day in the post of Executive Editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller announced the appointment of Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson and assistant managing editor John Geddes to share the editorial slot on the Times masthead that was held by Gerald Boyd until his June ouster with boss and former executive editor Howell Raines.
The announcement was made at an 11:00 a.m. staff meeting at The Times’ West 43rd Street headquarters that was called yesterday by Mr. Keller.
Ms. Abramson will oversee news and Mr. Geddes will oversee operations.
Messrs. Keller and Geddes could not be reached for comment before deadline; Ms. Abramson was also unavailable.
No replacement for Ms. Abramson at the Washington bureau was named.
Sources applauded the appointment of 51-year-old Mr. Geddes–a much-liked figure, well-respected within the newsroom, whose calm, outgoing personality, they said, reflected that of his new boss, Mr. Keller.
In a statement released by The Times, Mr. Keller said, “In Jill and John, I will have two sidekicks who are superb journalists, genuine leaders, straight shooters, deeply committed to this paper and all it stands for.”
Mr. Geddes comes on after serving as deputy managing editor under Messrs. Raines and Boyd, and served in a de facto managing editor’s role under Raines predecessor Joe Lelyveld, who was brought in to run the paper while Mr. Sulzberger interviewed candidates and negotiated Mr. Keller’s takeover of the paper.
The appointment of 49-year-old Ms. Abramson marks a symbolic, final victory of the anti-Howellian forces. Under the previous regime, Ms. Abramson’s battles with Messrs. Raines and Boyd became legendary, as she fought with them over Washington coverage and resisted attempts to be replaced by chief correspondent Patrick Tyler.
The appointment also puts a woman in a powerful spot on the Times masthead, and could salve a Washington bureau still licking its wounds after battling with Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd during their tenure running the paper.
That dissatisfaction developed into a furious tirade when publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. met with the bureau staff on June 3 in Washington, D.C. in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, two days before he asked former executive editor Howell Raines to resign from the post.
The report of the Siegal committee, released July 30 (and, not coincidentally, on the first day of Mr. Keller’s reign), called Mr. Blair’s assignment to the Maryland sniper story in the fall of 2002 a “choke point of the first order” in the series of events that allowed him to continue fabricating stories for the paper–a moment when management should have listened to complaints from desk heads about Mr. Blair’s reporting more closely. Mr. Blair was assigned to the story by the national desk on the advice of Mr. Boyd, to beef up The Times’ competition with The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post on the story.
While a superb journalist, who co-authored Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas with Jane Mayer, sources speculated that Ms. Abramson’s transition to 43rd Street might not be as easy as one would hope. Ms. Abramson has never spent time in the New York office and is a stranger to most of the people she will now oversee.
“The decision to appoint a managing editor to oversee news operations reflects
the growing complexity of a company that now delivers its news in a variety
of formats,” a statement released by The Times said of the Abramson appointment. ”It also honors the work of the Siegal Committee, which
proposed greater attention to the management of the newsroom, including training and career development.”
The assignment of two masthead editors to fill the spot held by Mr. Boyd comes on the heels of Mr. Keller’s inaugural promise of “sweeping” changes, disseminated in a five-page memo introducing the Siegal report that was distributed to the staff of the paper yesterday: the appointment of a “public editor”–an ombudsman, essentially–to vet readers’ complaints and comment on the stories the paper’s been covering; the establishment of a masthead-level editorial position to deal with standards, and another to handle recruiting and career development.
The Times has traditionally resisted hiring an ombudsman for fear that it would erode self-confidence on the staff and publicize internal negotiations that were better kept out of the public eye-and, indeed, the appointment is slated to last for a one-year term only, after which the paper will evaluate the usefulness of having an ombudsman, Mr. Keller said.
Career development, previously thought of as an internal issue, was at the forefront of the Siegal committee report, as the Blair scandal was viewed as a failure of communication among editors about Mr. Blair’s personal history and a history of errors in his writing for the Times.
But perhaps more significant in this appointment is the Times’ emphasis on changing the internal culture of the paper.
“The shock to our system–to its morale and reputation–has created an important opportunity,” Mr. Keller wrote in his opening remarks. “Most important, it has created a consensus for change.”
That Mr. Keller should want–or be obliged–to introduce such changes to the new Times via a committee report only shows how much The Times may already have changed: it constitutes an institutional acknowledgement of what the staff has known for a long time, that The Times can be a pretty brutal place.
That Times culture predates, but met its apotheosis, many say, in the leadership of Messrs. Raines and Boyd, and it is difficult not to read some repudiation of Mr. Raines’ leadership into the report. The recommendations made by the committee in essence call for an un-Howellization of The Times : the delegation and devolvement of authority; the creation of a newsroom culture that “penalize[s] rudeness”; the setting of proper boundaries between workplace and home life.
(Mr. Raines famously asked the rhetorical question what someone was doing at The Times who wasn’t willing to make those kinds of sacrifices for his or her work, in his interview with Charlie Rose shortly after his expulsion.)
In fairness, many of these changes have been called for at The Times since long before Mr. Raines took over–but never so forcefully. This is a place where it can seem like a revolution when Mr. Keller, in his memo to staff, writes: “What we are out to do is raise our accountability for the management of our people, and acknowledge that it is inseparable from the making of our journalism.” (And this was his first day on the job.)
Also notably absent is any protracted discussion of the leadership of Mr. Sulzberger, the man who said he would never accept for the resignations of Messrs. Raines and Boyd, and then, well, asked for them.
Mr. Sulzberger told the journalists from outside The Times who independently reviewed the report that he was “stunned” at the level of anger and dissatisfaction he saw displayed at the newspaper-wide meeting at the Loews Astor Plaza; it was by the reviewers, with the “luxury of hindsight,” mistake that was “not hard to identify.”
Indeed, perhaps as a way of getting back to business the report is loaded down, full of insanely sensible advice: the screening of stringers and freelancers. The adaptation of a more rigorous way of tracking errors. A more tightly wound system of using anonymous sources. The “restoration” of dateline integrity, so, you know, Rick Bragg can’t send a 15-year-old to report a story out for him in Florida or Jayson Blair can’t look out Jessica Lynch’s porch from a Starbucks in Park Slope.
The report deals with race, with diversity at The New York Times , and perhaps, as a way of quieting down the matter, dispassionately so. While the outside members wrote that Mr. Blair’s case had “all the earmarks of social promotion,” it was “one of a collection of factors” in the case. Those on the inside commented that it was clear that while the paper had made great efforts to recruit a diverse staff, it hadn’t done a good job of recruiting people with experience–the kind of very un-Rainesian men and women who’d broken stories for the Detroit News for 15 years but were too obscure to attract the attentions of Times brass.
Mr. Keller, who as an op-ed columnist showed a certain sympathy for Mr. Sulzberger’s view of diversification as a tool for building a better newsroom, defended The Times ‘ efforts, and read the conclusions placed by the outsiders as a statement that the more partisan critics of The Times were dead wrong. It’s no coincidence that such a forward-looking document comes on Mr. Keller’s first day on the job. More than a conclusion to the Blair saga, the Siegal report represents a playbook handed out on the first day of training camp, showing everyone who might believe in the system just how the kinder, gentler, more efficiently run, racially diverse New York Times will run.
But for all that, it is still an epitaph written on the headstone of the Raines leadership–an epitaph written by The Times , and, therefore, crisp, efficient, bureaucratic, and–viewed in certain lights–harsh.
This is The Times getting back to business as an immense news operation, not the stage for a brash, seersuckered Southerner to make a cameo and spill out quotes from Bear Bryant.
Unlike The Times story following his Charlie Rose interview and the appointment of Bill Keller to the executive editor’s position, Mr. Raines got off easy. None of his run-ins with members of the national desk, with the Washington bureau, find their way in here.
Indeed, the outside members of the committee–former president and chief executive of The Associated Press Louis D. Boccardi; Joann Byrd, the former editorial page editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer; former Times columnist Roger Wilkins–while attacking the management structure and culture that allowed the Blair episode to happen, also proclaimed Mr. Raines an unfair scapegoat.
“No single person, no single mistake, no single policy is responsible for the embarrassment of plagiarism and fiction that stained the journalism of The New York Times in the spring of 2003,” they wrote.
And why not? It was the report Mr. Raines himself had commissioned in those stormy days after the Jayson Blair scandal broke, after he had defended himself and the paper in The Observer and The Washington Post, on camera on Newshour on PBS. It was after The Times ‘ own magnum opus, the front-page, above-the-fold, four-page story on Mr. Blair and his career at The Times , had inflamed a staff who felt Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd had gotten off the hook for their star system, ignoring the warnings from editors below.
And so in came the Siegal committee, headed by assistant managing editor Al Siegal, with its Times subjects and outside members. A profound mea culpa and a resolve to do better, a plan to implement change, could still be viewed by Messrs. Raines and Boyd as sufficient to maintain their rule of a newsroom where they had fostered and promoted so much bile in their year-and-a-half at the top of the masthead.
But they were wrong, and now they are part of The Times’ history. Now, Mr. Keller’s story begins.
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