Lelyveld Using Farewell Tour To Retool Times

“I O.D.’d on The New York Times ,” said Clyde Haberman, The Times ‘ Metro columnist, of his recent overindulgence in news about his own newsroom. “And now I’m going through withdrawal.”

Mr. Haberman was speaking early in the morning of June 17, after publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. brought Joe Lelyveld-Howell Raines’ predecessor-out of retirement after 21 months.

In those 12 days, Mr. Lelyveld has managed to administer The Times a stern slap and a cup of black coffee. The Times ‘ pages reek of sobriety.

Increasingly, Mr. Lelyveld has begun to seem like a full-scale 12-step program, looking more and more like someone who is meant to stick around after The Times ‘ next leader takes office.

Indeed, in his June 6 remarks to the newsroom, he told the staff he was likely to remain in some form-either as a liaison between Mr. Sulzberger Jr. and the new executive editor, as some accounts have it, or as a sort of consigliere to the new executive editor.

“I’ve promised Arthur that I’ll hang around for a little while after [the new executive editor is] in place to advise him and them; basically to stay informed, troubleshoot and be available for lunch.”

Mr. Lelyveld has been seen dining with former Times publisher Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger at Elio’s, and has also made arrangements to visit The Times ‘ exotic pet, The International Herald Tribune .

According to Times sources, Mr. Lelyveld is trying to push through a modest redesign of the paper’s front page involving headline typefaces, something he was unable to do before leaving his post in September 2001. Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said Mr. Lelyveld was unavailable for comment, and declined to comment on the matter in his stead.

And one area where sources said Mr. Lelyveld’s been devoting significant attention is the foreign desk, headed by Roger Cohen.

In a recent meeting, said a Times source, Mr. Cohen told Mr. Lelyveld: “We need more backfielders.”

Mr. Lelyveld, according to the source, shot back, saying: “In my day, we had far fewer backfielders.”

Mr. Cohen did not return a call seeking comment, and assistant managing editor Andrew Rosenthal called any particular doting on the paper’s foreign coverage an “exaggeration.”

“The executive editor is always interested in the foreign report,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “There’s nothing significant there. It’s the first 10 pages of our newspaper.”

On Friday, June 13, Mr. Lelyveld attended a portion of a two-day retreat for national correspondents and bureau chiefs at the W hotel in Chicago, during which the paper’s staff-which had suffered defections during Mr. Raines’ tenure-talked over, among other topics, story ideas, the report’s mission, editing processes and the use of stringers. The latter, of course, came under a particularly harsh light after former national correspondent and Raines confidant Rick Bragg was criticized for the excessive use of uncredited freelancers in his reporting, and then-before his resignation, and to the great anger of his peers-deemed it a common practice among members of the national staff.

“What Joe’s done and is doing is calming the place now,” national editor Jim Roberts said. “There’s a focus on the news of the moment, on stories, on projects we’re going to do in the future.”

Back at the 43rd Street newsroom, Times staffers were seeing the first signs of glasnost . During the tenure of Mr. Raines and Gerald Boyd, critics had howled that job listings and open positions were treated and filled with Skull-and-Bones-ian secrecy, leading to the continual promotion of epic fabricator and fact-mongreler Jayson Blair. Memos from the many subcommittees of the famed Siegal committee, set up before Messrs. Raines and Boyd resigned to untangle the Blair Affair and get to the roots of The Times ‘ malaise, are already having an effect.

“Everyone resolved that there would be open postings for every position,” said Mr. Rosenthal.

Now, The Times ‘ internal Web site resembles a mini-Monster.com. On one day alone, June 13, readers of the site found four job postings: two in Baghdad, one in Silicon Valley and one on the metro desk. There’s still one listing you won’t find there: executive editor.

“One assumes you wouldn’t need an open posting for that,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

So it would seem-though until the paper picks a new executive editor, The Times will continue to be the subject of speculation, both inside and out. According to sources within The Times , the horse race lacks a Funny Cide-ian dark horse who will emerge from nowhere to take the coveted crown. According to those sources, the situation is being viewed as a two-man race, between former Times national editor and current Los Angeles Times managing editor Dean Baquet and former Times managing editor Bill Keller, now an Op-Ed columnist and contributing writer to The Times Magazine . Privately, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, Mr. Baquet has told friends that he wouldn’t accept what many within the paper had earlier viewed as the ideal compromise: bringing him in as managing editor to serve under Mr. Keller, to be groomed as the eventual executive editor in his turn. (Mr. Keller was out of the country on a reporting assignment, and Mr. Baquet did not respond to a request seeking comment.)

Whoever the new executive editor is, said Mr. Roberts, he will inherit a better model of The Times than the one Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd left on June 5.

“These are all very positive things for us,” he said. “[Mr. Lelyveld] will hand over a newsroom that is calmer and more stable than it was in the past six weeks.”

One thing that could really help is the thing that many thought buoyed Mr. Raines through 21 months of rough waters inside the Times building: the big story.

Mr. Raines steered the paper through 9/11, American military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a space shuttle explosion and a sniper terrorizing greater Washington, D.C. But when he really needed an opportunity to flood the zone, sources said, and push his reporters into action and away from whispering around the water cooler, the outside world didn’t give him one.

Again, Mr. Rosenthal dismissed the notion, saying: “Big stories are the easiest thing. You go out and cover it. It’s not something for us to focus on; it’s something the rest of you guys could focus on instead of us.”

The New York Post has found Queens. And Brooklyn, too! The spunky Murdochian tabloid is currently looking for staff and hunting out real-estate for bureaus in what has been uncharted territory for a paper that seems perpetually perched outside Lizzie Grubman’s apartment building.

“Brooklyn … how many people live there-three, four million?” Post editor in chief Col Allan proclaimed when Off the Record asked about the move. “It’s amazing. That’s why we want to make the investment.”

Mr. Allan said he expects the bureaus to be up and running in four to six weeks.

“We’re a New York newspaper, not a Manhattan newspaper,” Mr. Allan said. “We’re selling 150,000 to 160,000 more copies each day than we were two years ago. That’s been pretty evenly spread in percentage terms in Manhattan, the outer boroughs and the suburbs.

“We will be rewarded,” Mr. Allan continued. “These are very large places.”

Earlier this year, members of Time ‘s foreign bureaus received a “scheduling query” seeking out subjects for a story on evangelical Christians working as missionaries in predominantly Muslim countries.

The 1,350-word query asked correspondents to nominate subjects from a wide range of evangelical and missionary backgrounds and sought answers to how they worked in countries where religious law often prescribed dire consequences for missionaries and converts alike.

The query also bluntly proclaimed that “the most evangelistically gung-ho your subjects are, the better.” The ideal subjects would be ones who “work in some kind of ‘cover’ capacity in order to do their real work as evangelists.”

Soon enough, the query was leaked by one of the recipients and became widely circulated in missionary and evangelical circles. Evangelicals and missionaries called and e-mailed the magazine, raising concerns that Time was, in fact, pursuing a story with a prejudiced agenda-and worse, was putting missionaries in danger by reporting the piece.

This response forced Time senior writer David Van Biema to send out a letter to everyone who’d contacted the magazine and clear the record concerning an internal e-mail about a story that, as of this writing, had yet to appear.

Saying it made him “heartsick” that such a confidential document would be made public before an actual story appeared, Mr. Van Biema wrote that “the reason such documents are confidential is so that they are not mistaken as definitive or prescriptive of the finished product. They are imperfect and are understood by everyone on staff as a way to get a story going, not indicative of where it may go.

“Whoever supplied you with this query did /not/ send on subsequent communications amending it,” Mr. Van Biema continued, “some of which went out over our wires, some of which were e-mailed and some of which occurred by phone. Those subsequent communications reflected our growing understanding of missions to Muslim lands.”

Contacted by Off the Record, Mr. Van Biema said he wrote the response because “we wanted to let them know we would be fair.

“Some of the people thought the scheduling query was saying, ‘This is how the story ought to be written,'” Mr. Van Biema said. “It’s not. We find this story pretty compelling, something that’s worth explaining. And we will explain it.”

Time managing editor Jim Kelly wouldn’t say when the story might appear. He said he thought the letter was “judicious” and “intelligent.”

“People were getting excited about something in a query,” Mr. Kelly said. “Do I wish it had not been released publicly? Of course. But I stand by it, and will stand behind the story if and when it appears.”

Pack your hot dish and run! Vanity Fair is preparing to bomb Chicago with swag!

On June 12, the “Tempo” section of the Chicago Tribune (the desolate, cold, unforgiving flatlands version of The Washington Post ‘s “Style” section) printed a staff-produced story ranking its top 50 magazines. They rated Cook’s Magazine first, while saying that Time scribe Nancy Gibbs wrote “like an angel” and, for kicks, included a brief list of “mags gone bad.” This included Spin , Newsweek , Rolling Stone , and-thank you, Toby Young- Vanity Fair .

Four days later, according to Tribune deputy managing editor Jim Warren, came Vanity Fair ‘s return shot: a gargantuan box full of Vanity Fair branded T-shirts, luggage tags, hats and copies of the magazine, in an effort to “show there are no hard feelings,” according to the gift tag attached.

“Rest assured,” the note continued, “we’ll continue to send you Vanity Fair until we win our way back into your hearts, onto your nightstands, coffee tables, bathtub rims, and in your backpacks, until we’re everywhere, including your next ’50 Best’ list.”

“I had to make a quick snap judgment and consider whether or not we could accept it,” Mr. Warren said of the freebies. “We have a very strict ethics code. But this is the pretty low end of the totem pole. The only T-shirts I will accept are 100 percent cotton.”

Examining the label further, Mr. Warren said: “These were made in Russia. That’s unusual. There must be a Graydon Carter-Putin link here.”

Vanity Fair spokesperson Beth Kseniak explained the gesture this way: “My mother always taught me it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Lelyveld Using Farewell Tour To Retool Times