When New York Times executive editor Bill Keller sent out a Nov. 28 memo announcing the layoffs of a dozen Times employees, one detail attracted little attention outside the newsroom: The paper would be eliminating a legendary Times institution, the Recording Room.
Years ago, the Recording Room was, as Gay Talese put it to Off the Record, the “way station, the midwife” for foreign, national and even New York-based reporters who needed to phone in copy in a pinch. Without the aid of e-mail—let alone a laptop—the ability to dictate copy to a Recording Room operator was a reporter’s safety net, at a time when blowing deadlines and missing the morning paper carried a greater cost than it does in today’s electronic age.
“It was indispensable,” said Arthur Gelb, the famed Times chronicler and 62-year veteran of the paper. “You could not put out The New York Times without the Recording Room.”
“I can remember countless times,” William Schmidt, a veteran Times-man who is now an assistant managing editor, told Off the Record in an e-mail, “that the Recording Room was the only thing standing between me and the ignominy of seeing a wire story run in place of my own. No matter where you were, as long as you could get them on the phone, you could land your story on deadline.”
Max Frankel, the paper’s former executive editor, agreed: “For everyone reporting around the world, it was the umbilical cord,” he said.
Mr. Talese said he used the Recording Room for civil rights reporting in Alabama; Mr. Gelb said he used it to dictate reviews from Off Broadway plays from a phone booth on Second Avenue; and Mr. Frankel said he used the paper’s London Recording Room (which no longer exists) for his dispatches from Moscow. Mr. Frankel said he would take care to slur some of his sentences so as to foil the Soviet censor on the line.
But times change. Over the past two decades, fax machines and the Internet—not to mention BlackBerries and iPhones—have rendered the Recording Room little more than a quaint antique. By January or February of next year, said Chris Campbell, who has worked there since the 1980’s, the room will no longer be staffed.
Mr. Campbell said that since he began, the Recording Room’s staff has been downsized from a dozen to three. Rarely these days are dictations delivered over the phone—the room’s main purpose now is to transcribe long interviews for reporters (quite the luxury). Still, during Hurricane Katrina, when phone lines and e-mail went down, the room was particularly critical to two Times reporters on the scene, Joe Treaster and Ralph Blumenthal.
But to a certain, older class of Times scribes, the Recording Room was more than an emergency measure. Indeed, Mr. Frankel credits the room for launching his career. Decades ago, Recording Room operators sent out messages to cruise liners and passenger ships with the next day’s Times stories. One night in July 1956, the Recording Room intercepted a distress signal from the Andrea Doria, an Italian cruiser that had just struck the Stockholm. Mr. Frankel, then a young night-rewrite reporter, was assigned to take messages from the Recording Room at the time, and got the scoop.
“It put me on the map,” Mr. Frankel said. Within two years, he would be reporting from Moscow.
There were also Times writers who continued to use the Recording Room even when more modern technologies had become available. Mr. Talese recalled being at a Holiday Inn in Selma, Ala., in 1990, reporting on the anniversary of the legendary civil rights march there. He said he called up the Recording Room to dictate his story much the same way he had 25 years earlier.
“I had a portable typewriter with me and probably did it the same way in 1990 that I did in 1965,” he said. “I didn’t change my methodology at all. Thankfully, The Times didn’t change its methodology at all, either.”