What does it take to be an author? For New York Times reporters, the answer is still up in the air.
On March 2, executive editor Bill Keller put out a memo aimed, in his words, at “setting the record straight” about the paper’s policies on book writing. In response, the Newspaper Guild called a grievance meeting to object to Mr. Keller’s account of the rules.
Newspaper Guild president Barry Lipton said in a phone interview that Mr. Keller’s memo had gone beyond the terms of the union’s 2002 agreement. Mr. Lipton said his specific concern was Mr. Keller’s message that Times editors should be told in advance of a book project even if the topic is off the reporter’s beat.
“What’s contained in this memo hadn’t been discussed with the Guild,” Mr. Lipton said. The union and The Times have scheduled follow-up meetings, possibly as early as this week, he added.
Mr. Keller didn’t respond to calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the memo, though, is in the rules it doesn’t lay down. Much of The Times’ book policy remains murky; on one of the most contentious points—whether or not reporters are allowed to take book leave—Mr. Keller’s memo declared that “there is no one-size-fits-all policy.”
In other words, The Times’ fabled star system applies between hard covers as well as in newsprint.
“All of these are individually negotiated deals that reflect the reporter’s position at The Times,” a senior Times staffer said.
Thus, Mr. Keller and the masthead decide which reporters will be granted book leave, which ones will have to resign their positions and work out a written return agreement, and which ones will have to choose between literary ambitions and a Times job altogether. (Previously, Off the Record mistakenly reported that the resign-and-return approach was a blanket policy.)
Through most of its history, The Times has been reluctant, unlike The Washington Post, to serve as a veritable Yaddo for a Bob Woodward class of author-reporter. “It goes way beyond [Woodward],” said one Post reporter who recently wrote a book. “I literally tried to count—there are 25 people in the newsroom who are currently writing or going off to write books. The Post is very nurturing of that. They understand it’s to its benefit.”
“Nobody at The Times will get the deal Woodward has,” the senior Times staffer said. Times tradition has put the newspaper above all, encouraging budding authors to get lost—so long, Gay Talese!—or to accept punishingly cheap deals from The Times’ house imprint.
But Mr. Keller’s memo noted a recent “tidal surge in the yearning of Times staffers to put their wisdom between hard covers.”
The Times’ editorial director of book development, Alex Ward, wrote in a statement through a spokesperson that such an increase “is probably attributable to the quality of reporting and writing in the Times—because many of these queries start with a phone call from an agent to a reporter.”
And the writers tend to take that call. “As print journalism as a whole constricts,” a Times staffer said, “people are getting a little restless and have fewer options or exit strategies. Because of that, they look to books.”
And the more that writers look to books, the more consternation those books create for the Times brass. Books by Times staffers are currently the subject of two lawsuits: a $5 billion suit against business writer Timothy O’Brien by book subject Donald Trump, and a suit against Styles reporter Warren St. John over the use of a photo of a particular R.V. on the cover of his book about college-football fandom. Reporter Alan Feuer claimed in his 2005 memoir about covering Iraq that he’d fudged details in his Times stories—a scandal The Times settled by concluding that Mr. Feuer’s anecdotes about fudging were themselves fudged.
In the Washington bureau, The Times has found itself in direct competition with the book industry for manpower and stories. With the Iraq war now into its third year, publishers continue to fork out lucrative advances for national-security-themed books, especially ones from well-sourced Times staffers.
Over the past two years, the Washington bureau has lost three staffers—Michael R. Gordon, James Risen and Jeff Gerth—temporarily or permanently to book projects. In June, White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller is slated to leave to write a biography of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That book deal intensified strains between the bureau and West 43rd Street when Mr. Keller removed Ms. Bumiller’s husband, Steven Weisman, from the State Department beat to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest.
To cover for the missing staffers, editors tried rejiggering the bureau. In January, Mr. Keller offered an editing position in D.C. to New York–based Don Van Natta Jr.—but Mr. Van Natta turned him down. Instead, he will join Mr. Gerth in working on a Hillary Clinton biography.
“Having covered terrorism since the morning of 9/11,” Mr. Van Natta said by phone, “having the chance to write an investigative biography with my former colleague Jeff Gerth on the front-runner for the Democrats’ Presidential nomination was too much of an appealing and exciting challenge to pass up.”
One way for the newspaper to bridge the divide between staffers’ institutional loyalty and their literary ambitions has been to encourage them to publish through Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. Contrary to longstanding rumor, reporters are not required to offer Times Books the right of first refusal on book proposals, but they are required to give the imprint an opportunity to bid along with any other house (the rule is waived if the reporter has a contractual obligation to another publisher).
The imprint was born in 1969, when The Times bought a small Chicago publisher called Quadrangle Books. It was renamed the New York Times Book Company, then eventually Times Books, and it was run for a number of years entirely by The Times. In 1984, the paper decided to get out of the publishing business and licensed the name to Random House, which set the operation up as one of its imprints.
Peter Osnos, who later went on to found PublicAffairs, was head of the imprint from 1991 to 1996, and it was then that the label became known as somewhat of a sleepy backwater that didn’t necessarily hand out the most generous advances. In 2000, The Times took the license back and entered into a partnership with Henry Holt.
“The mandate is to publish books that explain our world, explain and give background and provide context for what’s going on in the news,” said Paul Golob, editorial director of the imprint since 2003. Times books written by Times staffers (the imprint also publishes non-Times writers) are published jointly, Mr. Golob said, with a shared financial interest between The Times and Holt, and shared decision-making with regard to which books to sign up and how much to pay for them. (The person responsible on the Times side is the paper’s head of book development, Mr. Ward.) All of those books are the recipients of free advertising in the newspaper and potentially other publicity, such as “Times Talks” events.
If the paper is invested in a book project, it can apparently help increase the odds for the author of getting a book leave or other helpful terms. “Because we’re partners of the paper, we can talk to the folks over there,” said Mr. Golob. “Obviously, the question about whether someone gets a leave has to do primarily with the person’s own editors and their own desk at the newspaper. But we can facilitate that. And sometimes we’ve even able to build in a paid leave of absence as part of the deal.”
Though Times Books was historically believed to chintz on advances, the imprint has bid competitively on several recent book projects. Mr. Golob made aggressive offers on Jennifer 8. Lee’s book about Chinese food in America, and on the upcoming Hillary Clinton book by Mr. Van Natta and Mr. Gerth (the two went with Little, Brown, because Mr. Van Natta owed that publisher one more book under an existing contract). Next month, Times Books is publishing Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, by foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, which was the subject of an auction.
Agents who have worked with Times Books had favorable things to say about it. Navigating the politics at the newspaper was another matter, especially in light of Mr. Keller’s edict.
“When I’m talking to someone [about doing a book], they all know that they have to let their editor know,” said one literary agent. “But I don’t want them to do that in the middle of the proposal-writing process. I don’t want anyone trying to get into the middle of that. I want them to go with the best offer and do what’s best for the book.”
—Gabriel Sherman and Sheelah Kolhatkar
On March 19, the Los Angeles Times took the art of the anonymous-source descriptor to dizzyingly self-referential heights.
Robin Abcarian’s story “A Cast of Many on the Phone Lines” investigated the popular Hollywood convention of executives and agents keeping their assistants listening on the line during most of their phone calls. In it, Ms. Abcarian described a studio publicist’s desire to be nameless: The publicist “asked not to be named because people in Hollywood often reflexively ask for anonymity for no particular reason.”
“I don’t normally cover Hollywood,” Ms. Abcarian said on March 21 by phone, “but I’ve been around plenty and done many Hollywood-related stories.” Ms. Abcarian is a former style editor at the paper; she is now a reporter. She wrote frequently for the national desk during the last Presidential election.
“I found in the course of reporting this story, it was just bizarre that people didn’t want to go on the record about something so innocuous,” Ms. Abcarian said. “And so, almost out of frustration or as an afterthought, I just wrote that, because it was what I was thinking.
“The truth of the matter is, I really didn’t think it would make it in the paper,” she said of the disclaimer.
But the subject didn’t even come up in discussions with her editor, she continued. “I only heard about it afterward, that people thought it was a funny line.”
(Disclosure: This reporter is an occasional freelancer for the Los Angeles Times.)
The published story had six named sources, including an agent, two producers, a publicist and a studio spokesperson. There was one other anonymous source, an assistant who went nameless “for fear of alienating his employer.”
“The readers are owed an explanation about why we grant anonymity, particularly in a case where there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, as in a national-security situation,” Ms. Abcarian said.
“And then,” she said of her anonymous press officer, “you get people who are like publicists, whose job is to talk to the media for a living.”
Tough as the Howell Raines Era was on The New York Times, it continues to be fertile for the publishing industry. May 2 will bring Mr. Raines’ latest memoir, The One That Got Away. Then, on May 29, MacAdam/Cage publishers will release Carry My Bones, the debut novel by J. Wes Yoder.
Mr. Yoder was previously best known for his anonymity: He was the un-bylined stringer whose 2002 reporting on Apalachicola, Fla., oystermen appeared in the paper under national correspondent Rick Bragg’s byline. Mr. Bragg himself, a Pulitzer winner and a Raines favorite, turned out to have only dropped by Florida long enough to pick up the dateline.
Though their journalistic partnership resulted in Mr. Bragg’s unceremonious exit from The Times, Mr. Yoder and Mr. Bragg have remained close. A blurb from Mr. Bragg—“They say some people are born to write. I think this boy was”—dominates the cover of the prepublication galley of Mr. Yoder’s novel.
“I think J. Wes is a wonderful writer,” Mr. Bragg said by phone from Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he is a writing professor at the University of Alabama. “This book, it would be close to my heart, because it’s grim and dark and about people who live on the margin.”
When the scandal broke in 2003, Mr. Yoder was a general-assignment reporter at The Anniston Star in Alabama. He quit that post and, in the fall of 2003, made his way to Hoboken and then Park Slope. He took a job making chocolate at Jacques Torres in Dumbo, and later sold clothes at Ralph Lauren in Manhattan. Meanwhile, he worked on his novel.
“With fiction, you can explore the motives, the psyche of a person, which you can’t do in a newspaper,” Mr. Yoder, now 26, said on the phone from Salina Cruz, Mexico, where he was traveling. He currently lives in Oaxaca, where he is studying Spanish. “You have to be so gentle in newspapers, and I understand that. We go crazy sometimes, you know, and that’s rough, but you can’t say that in a newspaper. You can point to it, but you can’t say it.”
Mr. Yoder’s novel follows a sculptor turned criminal and his traveling companions on the lam through the present-day South, in flat, masculine prose (“Behind the mirror I found a razor. I soaped my face and shaved it”).
In May of 2005, Mr. Yoder attended Mr. Bragg’s wedding in Memphis, Tenn. While there, he told Mr. Bragg about his fiction-writing efforts. Shortly after, Mr. Bragg introduced him to the writer Sonny Brewer, who sent Mr. Yoder’s manuscript to MacAdam/Cage. The publisher took the book for what Mr. Yoder said was a “modest advance.”
Mr. Bragg’s previous effort to promote Mr. Yoder’s work was less successful. Shortly before the oystermen story ran, Mr. Yoder said, Mr. Bragg had sent the national desk a story his stringer had written about the award-winning oysters of Apalachicola. The editors wouldn’t give a stringer credit, Mr. Yoder said, so the 400-word item ran un-bylined as a sidebar to the larger story.
Mr. Bragg said he wouldn’t comment on the matter. “I got no interest in talking about it,” he said. “I just don’t care.”
Mr. Yoder said he sees his mentor as a victim of the larger upheavals at The Times. “I think the media jumped on Rick to get at Raines,” Mr. Yoder said. “It was shark behavior.”
And Mr. Yoder said he would have ended up a novelist with or without the Times experience. “I would have made the same decision,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve figured it all out. I’ll just say, when I went to work for Rick, I was thrilled to do that. I didn’t care to see my name in print. I wanted to look over his shoulder.”
Correction: An item last week about The New York Times’ coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton misreported a quote by deputy Washington bureau chief Richard Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson said, “[W]e’re not predicting what’s going to happen to her and what decisions we’ll make should she end up running for President,” not “[W]e’re not predicting what’s going to happen to her and what decisions she’ll make should she end up running for President.” Off the Record regrets the error.