At 2 p.m. on March 10, The New York Times published a story on its Web site reporting that Governor Eliot Spitzer had been named in connection with a federal investigation into a prostitution ring.
And the story belonged, unequivocally, to the Cinderella section of the Times newsroom, the Metro desk. Joe Sexton, editor of the section since 2006, was finally getting to try on the glass slipper: The Spitzer story was arguably the biggest scoop in a year at The Times, and was certainly the biggest story of Joe Sexton’s reign at Metro.
Managing editor Jill Abramson was not shy about handing out the laurels in an interview the next day.
“Metro was the absolute center of gravity on this story,” she said. “I see it at the nexus of news and investigative reporting, something which Joe and the Metro desk have excelled at.”
But part of the reason there is so much excitement on Eighth Avenue right now is that the Metro desk has had a hard time finding its direction. Mr. Sexton is in love with the blood-and-guts reporting of a city paper, the kind of paper the stentorian and increasingly nationally focused Times has, for decades now, had some trouble impersonating; at the same time, according to several sources, Mr. Sexton has been under pressure to commission more lifestyle features and to soften its hard-news focus, with bigger, wider photos on the front page. Two reporters from non-newspaper backgrounds have been hired into the section within the last year and a half: Susan Dominus and Eric Konigsberg.
But for the last few days, at least, Metro’s mission has been crystal clear.
According to two people involved in the story, it started on Friday, March 7, when William Rashbaum, a reporter of the old school whose outgoing message refers telephone callers to a pager number, got a tip. The nine-year veteran of the paper’s courts and investigations desks was holding a complaint detailing the arrest of four people associated with a prostitution ring; information in the documents told the story of a john in Room 871 at a hotel somewhere in Washington.
They knew from the tip that Client 9, as the court documents called him, was a “New York official,” one source familiar with the investigation said.
But which one? And what Washington hotel has a Room 871?
Reporters were given specialized missions to help narrow down the identity of the subject they were after.
“It was a real nibble” of information most reporters outside of the core group got in the first hours of reporting, the source said.
But as Friday wore on, the investigative team became convinced this was a real story, and that Client 9 could be Eliot Spitzer.
The Times, in its own account printed Tuesday, said the reporting had started on Friday and that inquiries to the governor began “over the weekend and on Monday,” and that the governor had canceled his public schedule on Monday.
In the building, there was a sense that something was going on. “You knew something was up,” said one staffer present over the weekend who wasn’t let in on the secret.
Ms. Abramson was there late Friday night and much of the weekend, and Mr. Sexton and Metro political editor Carolyn Ryan barely seemed to leave.
“We were very much here,” said Ms. Abramson. “Very late. I talked to Joe all the time—all weekend.” On Sunday, Mr. Sexton, who only rarely makes appearances in the office over the weekend, was quietly shuffling small groups into the “crying rooms,” little conference rooms where reporters and editors go for privacy, along with Ms. Ryan and Metro investigations editors Kevin Flynn and Matthew Purdy and Albany bureau chief Danny Hakim, who made an even rarer weekend appearance in the Eighth Avenue newsroom.
After the saga surrounding the months-delayed publication of the John McCain-lobbyist story, a story that was written about before The Times even published it and that ended with a whimper amid a cloud of public opprobrium (and that, in the end, was a tie with The Washington Post), one person involved with the story said the biggest fear, by far, was that they’d lose it.
No Spitzer story appeared on the Sunday “sked”—the lineup of stories sent out to the Metro staff to let them know what was in the hopper for Monday papers.
“There was an extreme effort” to keep it quiet, said one person involved with the story.
Even on the Metro desk, many reporters arrived Monday morning with no idea that the story of the year was breaking in cubicles all around them.
“Everything seemed normal,” said one staffer who would, hours later, be assigned to the story.
By 11 a.m. Mr. Sexton knew for sure that he was sitting on top of the biggest break in his tenure as editor of the section, but he’d left the third-floor newsroom to conduct a previously scheduled annual State of Metro meeting up in the executive offices, in a 15th-floor room with views across the Hudson, with his team, acting for all as if nothing were happening.
Two sources who were present said Mr. Sexton seemed a little nervous and distracted. But he was on point.
“Someone asked, if you break everything from the Web, don’t you take away something from the newspaper?” one staffer in attendance said. “Joe defended breaking news on the Web—he argued for its importance. In some ways, [the Spitzer article] was a perfect illustration of that point.”
The meeting lasted more than an hour, and it was shortly before 12:30 that Metro reporters who weren’t in the loop took note that something was happening. Mr. Sexton, Ms. Ryan, Mr. Flynn and Metro editor Jim Dao group were making up for lost nail-chewing, pacing gravely in a third-floor hallway and “huddling up.”
“People were like, ‘What’s going on here?’” said one Metro reporter.
“The secrecy was pretty intense—I don’t even think they were telling their reporters the exact depths of it,” the source continued. “We had the scoop and a lot of secrecy within the newsroom up until soon before the press conference was announced.”
Meanwhile, assigning editors were already dispatching reporters and stringers to stake out Mr. Spitzer’s apartment, where the paper had sent a stringer, a photographer and a video unit—all before the story ran on the Web, and without any of them being told why they were there, according to a person who was present.
At a little before 2 p.m. Ms. Ryan, an immigrant from The Times’ sister paper The Boston Globe who took over the Metro section’s political coverage last April, was looking at a final draft of a piece filed by Danny Hakim. The story—headlined “Spitzer Linked to Prostitution Ring”—was sourced to an administration official—pay dirt!
Ms. Ryan, satisfied with the story, shouted over a row of desks in the third-floor newsroom to Ms. Abramson, “Can we go with it?”
Ms. Abramson, standing about 20 feet away, took a breath, nodded and shouted back, “O.K., hit it.”
The story was on the Web right around 2 p.m., about 15 minutes before Eliot Spitzer was scheduled to speak. Over the course of the next 45 minutes—roughly the time that Mr. Spitzer was late for his meeting—the Metro section’s encampment on the third floor became the rendezvous-point of the entire newsroom.