When the Queen Mary 2 met Manhattan for the first time this past April, The New York Times was prepared. Photographer Vincent Laforet snapped an astonishing photograph of the moment-of that sunlit immensity gliding up the Hudson, framed by the buildings of West 44th Street. Readers picked up the next morning’s Metro section and marveled.
They still build ocean liners, even in the jet age. They still print newspapers, too.
A year ago, the Times-as-liner metaphor seemed irresistible: a massive, unsteerable city unto itself, shuddering from violent collisions. Captain Howell Raines had been keelhauled by mutineers, after slaloming the vessel into the icebergs of Jayson Blair and the Augusta National. The whole ship was listing, threatening to drag publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to a young watery doom, like John Jacob Astor or Leo DiCaprio.
But most big ships don’t founder. They chug right along, through the worst the North Atlantic can throw at them. That’s why they’re so big.
So ahoy, The Times! By springtime, 2004 still looked like heavy weather. The Los Angeles Times had swamped the New York paper at the Pulitzers and was raiding it for staff. The Washington Post was buffeting it with superior reporting from Iraq. The sharks of the media-criticism business were circling, asking pointed questions about Judith Miller’s shaky exclusives on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Now, though, the West Coast Times is shedding staff, under cost-cutting orders from its masters at the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this month, it announced it was giving up on its national edition. Meanwhile, Post editor Leonard Downie was lamenting his paper’s eroding circulation and suggesting it was time to start making stories shorter and less challenging.
And Ms. Miller, Mr. Sulzberger’s old reporting colleague, has gone from compromised reporter to First Amendment martyr, as she faces jail for her refusal to give up her confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame leak.
Even The Times’ critics have “updated their portfolio of complaints” since the Blair era, said Seth Mnookin, Newsweek’s Blair-beat reporter and author of Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media. Now, Mr. Mnookin said, he hears Times foes from the left trot out Ms. Miller’s W.M.D. coverage, while foes from the right condemn the paper’s pre-election splash about missing explosives in Al Qaqaa.
In short, the paper is back to its good old preeminence. Its culture desk has laid on new staff as it implements its long-awaited overhaul. Its ancient 43rd Street headquarters has found a buyer, and its Renzo Piano tower is on the way.
Neither Mr. Sulzberger nor executive editor Bill Keller was available to discuss the newspaper’s present and future course.
But, the sting of the past has clearly faded. By this fall, Mr. Sulzberger was enough at ease to submit to a luncheon roast at the Plaza, sponsored by the Center for Communication. Digesting huge slabs of chicken breast and steamed baby squash, the audience sat through correspondingly mild remarks about the publisher’s achievements and travails.
The exception came when former Times reporter Steven Rattner took the podium and pulled out a stuffed moose, in tribute to the prop Mr. Sulzberger had brought to the paper’s disastrous town-hall staff meeting of May 2003.
An amplified voice from offstage did the stuffed animal’s talking. With Mr. Rattner playing the foil, the moose cut straight to the Sulzberger bashing. Before long, the moose got specific: “Howell Raines,” it sneered. “We know how that turned out.”
The crowd hooted. When the roasting portion of the program was over, Mr. Sulzberger took the stage and stiffly attacked the moose with a butter knife.
Mr. Raines had already given his ex-boss, and The Times, the biggest favor he could offer. In the May Atlantic Monthly, the deposed editor had fired off a 20,000-word account of his Times career-a raging, pompous, self-excusing essay. On the surface, Mr. Raines was targeting entrenched and ongoing problems at the newspaper: “smug complacency,” “mañana journalism,” a culture “indifferent to competition.” Those were complaints that had some Times-watchers nodding in agreement.
The underlying message, though, was that 2003′s disasters weren’t really about the paper’s entrenched bad habits. They were all about Howell.
But there was yet another message under that one. In its 20,000 words, the Atlantic piece made it clear that the author was not merely a narcissistic megalomaniac. Nor does history say that megalomaniacal tendencies are enough to disqualify someone from running The Times.
When you got past the complaints about what everyone else had been doing wrong, the ex-editor was still pushing his pet notion that the “serial ups and downs of a Britney Spears are … worthy of serious reporting.”
That’s Britney Federline to you, now.
And this was the person whom Mr. Sulzberger had hand-picked to guide the paper into the 21st century. Mr. Raines’ tantrum may have inoculated The Times against further blame for his failures, but those failures are still the most sharply defined events of the publisher’s term.
If Mr. Sulzberger is in a hurry to create more history, though, it didn’t show this year. At the same luncheon, former Times culture czar Adam Moss-who ditched his post to become the editor of New York magazine-mocked Mr. Sulzberger’s 10-year plan as “faith-based.”
Mr. Moss himself was supposed to be one of the newspaper’s visionaries, part of the team that wrote the plan to remake the culture desk. But the job of implementing the plan fell to nuts-and-bolts manager Jonathan Landman-who was explicitly brought in to handle the year-long transition, not to guide culture coverage into some indefinite future.
And even that project is likely to be the last such undertaking for a while. There are still spots that need refurbishing-Sunday Styles, Dining-but with the economy sagging, no other major capital improvements are in the works.
Indeed, cutbacks are coming. Last month, The Times announced it would be shutting down its television-production unit, New York Times Television. The paper’s lone 2003 Pulitzer came from a joint television-newspaper investigation of workplace safety, which also won Polk, I.R.E. and duPont-Columbia awards.
Electronic-news chief Michael Oreskes, recently promoted to deputy managing editor, said that the move, which eliminated some two dozen jobs, won’t interfere with The Times’ (and Mr. Sulzberger’s) oft-stated goal of expanding its brand into television.
“It turns out we don’t really need to have a television-production house,” Mr. Oreskes said. Instead, The Times will work with other production facilities to make programming for its Discovery Times Channel. What it’s dropping, Mr. Oreskes said, is the business of producing non- Times-branded shows-medical shows and such-to sell to other channels. The amount of Times TV news, he said, will “either be the same or more.”
On Dec. 13, the paper informed the staff that it was closing down World Business as a stand-alone section. “To cut down on newsprint costs, we have decided to further [consolidate] our agate listings of stocks, bonds and other financial investments. That means World Business no longer will be large enough to accommodate the minimum of eight pages for a separate section.”
Still, next to the suffering of other newspaper companies, The Times seems to be in flagrantly good health. The Times Company’s October financial-news release even included a piece of highly unexpected good news from its New England Media Group: “Retail advertising revenues rose as sports/toys, apparel and other retail advertising benefited from increased activity from the Red Sox post-season run.”
So The Times’ minority investment in Curt Schilling’s salary paid off. Given the company’s stake in the Red Sox, will Mr. Sulzberger be collecting a championship ring next spring? When asked, at the end of October, he said he had never considered the question, and that he’d rather see outgoing chief executive Russ Lewis get one.
Was Mr. Sulzberger rooting for the Yankees, then?
“Actually, he doesn’t follow baseball,” a Times spokesperson wrote via e-mail.