Here Comes the Raines: Sorting Out the New Times

Howell Raines doesn’t formally take the perch of New York Times executive editor until September (no exact date has been set), but he is already preparing for his transition, and his staff-to-be is preparing for major changes.

In recent weeks, Mr. Raines has called editors and reporters up to his 10th-floor office for a series of little chats. It’s partly a get-to-know-you exercise to reacquaint himself with a news department that he hasn’t been part of during the eight years he’s been the paper’s editorial-page editor.

“He seemed very excited,” said one person who sat down with Mr. Raines recently. “He’s more and more consumed with plans for the paper. My sense is that he’s got lots of plans and things he’s going to change.”

After years on deck for The Times’ top job–even if he hasn’t always been alone in that–sources at The Times say that Mr. Raines is relieved to finally be putting his transition plans in place.

“He’s going to want to shake things up,” said the source.

Nonetheless, even in private, the new boss hasn’t laid out any key details. Not surprisingly, the lack of specificity has been met with some nervousness in the Times newsroom.

But it’s already clear from his little chats with staffers that Mr. Raines very much likes the idea of being in charge of The New York Times– and he’s willing to wear that enjoyment on his sleeve. That sets him apart from the paper’s current executive editor, Joe Lelyveld, who people at The Times say never seemed to take much joy in his job, and Mr. Lelyveld’s predecessor, Max Frankel, who claimed that he downright detested being boss.

“[Mr. Raines is] having the time of his life, talking with people and learning the intricacies of the workings of the paper,” said one colleague. ” The New York Times has not had someone who really enjoys running the paper in a long time. Max and Joe always treated being executive editor as a cross to bear.”

“Joe never really loved the job; neither did Max,” said another Times source. “You don’t feel the joie de vivre you feel with Howell.”

That joie de vivre is bringing up comparisons to someone who has long been verboten at The Times : Abe Rosenthal. When Mr. Frankel succeeded Mr. Rosenthal, ushering in the “not-Abe” era at The Times , the job took on papal qualities: a privilege, yes, but one with severe duties placed on the elect. Mr. Raines won’t be wearing those trappings.

“Howell will be a lot like Abe in his toughness, and his certainty in his news judgment, and his enthusiasm for the job,” said another source. “Hopefully he will be not quite like Abe in his people skills.”

Two major announcements were made during the week of June 18–that current managing editor Bill Keller would become an Op-Ed columnist and senior writer for The Times Magazine , and that Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins would succeed Mr. Raines as editorial-page editor. But neither of these decisions technically belonged to Mr. Raines.

The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is in charge of the editorial desk. The selection of Ms. Collins–who has used her tart column to make obscure policy debates interesting, even entertaining–was seen by some as an endorsement of the livelier editorial page created by Mr. Raines.

Others at The Times noted that, like Mr. Raines, Ms. Collins has had a good relationship with Mr. Sulzberger through his wife, Gail Gregg. Ms. Collins met Ms. Gregg years ago, when they were both Bagehot Fellows at the Columbia School of Journalism.

“It’ll continue the approach of Howell in arguing with wit, rather than a tendentious or sanctimonious tone,” said one colleague of Ms. Collins’ hiring.

Mr. Raines’ first decision will be choosing a managing editor. The most mentioned name on 43rd Street remains Gerald Boyd, the deputy managing editor for news, but no decision has been made.

Mr. Boyd and Mr. Raines did not return requests for comment.

The future of the New York Times editorial board arrived this month in the form of economics writer Daniel Altman. All of 26 years old, Mr. Altman is a Connecticut-bred holder of multiple Harvard degrees who spent more than one whole year working in London for The Economist.

Mr. Altman’s former Economist editor, Pam Woodall, describes her former charge as “brilliant” and said she was sorry to see him go. “I was disappointed he left,” Ms. Woodall said. “But he had indicated that he wanted to work in New York. I wasn’t surprised that he went there.”

But at least a few of Mr. Altman’s ex-colleagues at The Economist aren’t crying over their stock tables. “There are a lot of remarkable economic thinkers at The Economist ,” one Economist source told Off the Record. “Fortunately, they were all spared.”

According to the source, Mr. Altman was a self-assured, “highly opinionated” presence who held forth on everything from Vicente Fox to George W., but who didn’t manage to crack the magazine’s influential inner core, a group that includes Ms. Woodall, deputy editor Clive Crook, editor Bill Emmott and New York bureau chief Matthew Bishop.

“It’s like if you went to the Manhattan Project to get a scientist and you didn’t get Oppenheimer,” the Economist source said. “Now there were a lot of talented guys surrounding Oppenheimer, but they didn’t get any of those, either.”

But The Times loved Mr. Altman, apparently. During Mr. Altman’s tenure at The Economist , he wrote unsigned pieces on gun control, political correctness and the place of economic theory in other areas of life. (In the latter realm, he once wrote that Carnegie Mellon economist Lowell Taylor considered the work of people like Harvard University’s Claudia Goldin to be “wackonomics.” Mr. Taylor responded by writing: “The Economist did not solicit my opinion for this article. Had you done so, I would have expressed a high degree of admiration for the innovative research described.” )

Word at The Times is that editorial-page editor and soon-to-be executive editor Howell Raines interviewed a number of candidates for the editorial-board slot, including a fair number quite a bit older than Mr. Altman. Part of Mr. Altman’s appeal was that he could offer a “younger sensibility” on the traditionally stodgy Times board. More importantly, though, Mr. Altman brings business and economic expertise that has been missing from The Times since Michael Weinstein left the board in February.

But that hasn’t stopped some joking about Mr. Altman’s hiring on 43rd Street. “Finally we have diversity,” goes one crack. “We hired someone from Harvard.” Still, Mr. Altman has plenty of Yale ties: not only did he grow up in New Haven, but his father, Sidney Altman, is a professor of molecular biology at Yale as well as a Nobel laureate.

For his part, Mr. Altman politely declined Off the Record’s request for an interview. “That’s not the policy of the editorial board,” he said. “I’m not at liberty to talk.”

– Sridhar Pappu

Jimmy Breslin–in the manner of, say, Mr. T in Rocky III –is calling out New York Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. Following a brutal review of Mr. Breslin’s 13th novel, I Don’t Want to Go to Jail , in the Post , Mr. Breslin wants to debate Mr. Allan on cable station New York 1. The subjects: politics and news coverage in the city.

Referring to his Australian nemesis, Mr. Breslin said, “I have a New York accent. I don’t think he does. People will be able to understand what I’m talking about. I’d make him fucking faint.” Mr. Breslin’s book, which is based on the life of mobster Joey Gallo, had received generally favorable marks before the Post got to it. Kirkus Reviews described Mr. Breslin as “the funniest crime writer on the planet.” Writing in The New York Times , Charles Salzberg said the book contained “deft observations, sharp characterizations and wit.”

The Post ‘s review, however, described the book as an “annoying meander” during which readers finish “sentences with shrugs.” The reviewer was a writer named Dan Rodricks.

Mr. Breslin thinks the pan was an orchestrated hit–payback for a June 10 Newsday column he did about the upheaval at the Post . In the column, Mr. Breslin wrote about the paper’s deposed metropolitan editor, Lisa Baird–a mother dealing with cancer who was the paper’s lone black editor–who was fired via a phone call from Mr. Allan two days before. He also described the Post ‘s owners, the Murdochs, as “aliens who bring their quaint Adelaide habits to the city of the world.”

And now, Mr. Breslin said, the Post has returned fire with its slam of his book. “That was old old-style,” he said, “1930’s–say your mother’s a whore and everything. These days, you have to be more deft. It’s 2001.”

It’s doubtful Mr. Allan will accept the challenge; it’s hard enough to get him to face his own newsroom. But if he’s ready, New York 1 is on board.

“We’d definitely do it,” said Jamie McShane, New York 1’s political producer. “Whenever they want. We’d love to host it.”

A spokesperson for the Post said that Mr. Allan had no comment.

–S.P.

Bob Guccione Jr. should have known something was amiss when he saw some strange guy assembling a tent in the hallway outside his Gear magazine offices. But Mr. Guccione simply gave the guy a strange look and walked past.

The strange guy was Brett Forrest, a freelance writer who believed that Gear owed him nearly $4,000, part for a story that had been killed around a year ago and part for a feature on the XFL that ran in the magazine’s February issue.

After repeated calls and no paycheck, Mr. Forrest arrived at Gear ‘s loft office in Chelsea on June 21 to ask nicely one more time. He said he walked into the finance department just after 11 a.m. “I said, ‘I’m here to pick up a check,'” Mr. Forrest said. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, yes, oh, um, yes, we’ll call you.’ The same shit I’ve heard from them from the beginning.”

After a heated exchange with Souzana Dandoura, head of human resources, Mr. Forrest walked out and promptly set his tent down in a spot outside Mr. Guccione’s office. The writer had made a T-shirt that read “PAY UP” and taped two signs on the side of his tent reading, “YOU OWE ME $3,865.”

That provoked some action. “Bob came running out and [Ms. Dandoura] came running over, and all these people ran over and they ripped the signs off and pushed the tent around,” Mr. Forrest said.

According to Mr. Forrest, Mr. Guccione said: “You can’t do this–get out of here. We’ll call the police and have you removed.”

Amid the commotion, Ms. Dandoura came back with his check–unsigned–in her hand, Mr. Forrest said. “Basically, they’ve just been sitting on it for all these months, refusing to sign it,” he continued. “And she holds it out to me and says, ‘Here it is, right here–you’re just making it harder on yourself.'”

Still not satisfied, Mr. Forrest unzipped the tent and went inside. He had a book to read–Chester Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry– and some peanuts. Mr. Guccione went back into his office, and things returned to normal–or as normal as possible, considering that an angry freelancer was tenting in the hallway.

Then Tim Wood, the managing editor, knocked on the front of the tent. “He’s like, ‘Can I come in?'” Mr. Forrest said. He invited Mr. Wood in, whereupon the managing editor scrunched down with Mr. Forrest and said that the writer should have called him for help first–a suggestion that produced a guffaw from Mr. Forrest.

“He was cool about it,” Mr. Forrest said. “It’s like they sent him in to be the hostage negotiator. He’s sitting in there, he has a couple peanuts, we’re hanging out and I get him to take a picture of me.”

“I just wanted to get in there so he knew we were on it [the payment situation],” Mr. Wood told Off the Record, “like we weren’t going to wait him out like a squatter or something.”

Eventually Mr. Wood went back outside, and within 20 minutes he returned to tell Mr. Forrest that his check was ready. Mr. Forrest–by then a little bit paranoid–told Mr. Wood that he wasn’t getting out of the tent without his check. The editor obliged the writer and returned with a check for $3,654.

“I looked at it and I said, ‘Tim, this isn’t the full amount,'” Mr. Forrest reported. “He kind of got this sheepish look on his face, like Oh, fuck .” The writer mulled his situation over. “I just debated, do I hold out for more? I just said, ‘O.K., I’m out of here,’ and I packed up.”

Mr. Guccione later told Off the Record, “I actually had to have a bit of a grudging admiration for him. It was a slight admiration for the innovativeness of it.” In the next breath, he added firmly, “It was inappropriate, and obviously it’s not conducive to wanting to continue a relationship …. [It] upset some of the other staff here, who just thought it was inappropriate.”

Mr. Guccione acknowledged the delay in payment, but said: “It is unfortunately the way the business is if you’re a freelancer. It’s nothing I’m doing institutionally, and most of my writers have no complaint whatsoever. He fell through the cracks.”

Mr. Guccione also denied threatening to call the police. “We don’t threaten,” he said. “If we had wanted to call the cops, we would have called the cops.”

For his part, Mr. Forrest didn’t seem concerned about burning that particular bridge. “I’d like to work with some of the editors there if they go somewhere else, but you know, I’ll never write for anyone who doesn’t pay. I mean, I understand things fall through the cracks. I mean, that’s part of being a freelancer. One of the things they’re saying is, ‘We’re not singling you out.’ I know you’re not, but I don’t really care. I just want my money for work that I’ve done.”

The whole affair took 47 minutes. Said Mr. Wood: “I wish he’d handled it differently, but I understand why he did it–and damn if it didn’t work.”

–G.S.

First there was Mr. Big. Now there’s … Mr. Latte. The love interest in “Food Diary: Confessions of a Woman Who Loves Food Too Much,” Amanda Hesser’s column in The New York Times Magazine , Mr. Latte–so named for committing the culinary sin of ordering a latte after dinner–is the Bud-drinking foil to Ms. Hesser’s professional food snob. He likes Merchants NY. She likes Le Bernardin. He uses Equal and referred to a dish as having “pork-chop seasoning.” She uses raw sugar and lists eating offal as a must for any partner. These “You say potato chip, I say pommes soufflés” stories are followed by date-tested recipes: Ms. Hesser’s column runs every other week, trading off with Jonathan Reynolds in the space formerly occupied by Molly O’Neill.

But who is this muse? The tall, handsome, bespectacled burger-eater, who told Ms. Hesser that he didn’t like smoked salmon–but later ate several salmon tartlets while “chatting away with Steven Brill” at a party–is New Yorker writer Tad Friend, author of Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands, sources tell Off the Record. Neither Mr. Friend nor Ms. Hesser would comment on the record. Bon appetit, kids.

–Christine Muhlke Here Comes the Raines: Sorting Out the New Times