Man Who Knew Plenty: Times’ Siegal Imprinted Invisibly on Newspaper

“There’s nobody who has had more tangible, visible effect on the newspaper you see when you pick up The New

“There’s nobody who has had more tangible, visible effect on the newspaper you see when you pick up The New York Times every day than Al Siegal,” Craig Whitney said.

Al Siegal—Allan M. Siegal—retired on May 12, shortly after turning 66 (the mandatory masthead retirement age of 65 is slightly elastic). Mr. Whitney, formerly the night news editor, inherited Mr. Siegal’s title as standards editor.

He did not, however, take over Mr. Siegal’s position at the paper. There are many measures of the depths of the influence Mr. Siegal exerted on West 43rd Street, and one of them is this: Mr. Siegal was not assigned to be standards editor; the title of standards editor was assigned to Mr. Siegal.

It was, Mr. Siegal said, a way to formalize the responsibilities that had “stuck to me” through the decades. He served as the in-house authority on language, style, taste, professional ethics and practical newspapering—part small-town judge, part English teacher, part confessor and part oracle. He co-authored both the paper’s stylebook and its ethics manual, and he helped design the first computer system in the newsroom. When an outsider would call a spokesperson to ask what The Times’ practice was on a particular matter, the spokesperson would call Mr. Siegal and ask him what the paper’s practice was.

“The cliché would be to say that he was the conscience, but he was kind of the conscience,” said Daniel Okrent, the former public editor.

Self-consciousness about cliché was one of Mr. Siegal’s effects. He wrote daily memos annotating the paper’s stories, putting criticism (and praise) in green ink. They were known as “greenies,” Mr. Whitney said, and “as well as being objects of dread, they’re sort of affectionately regarded.”

While Mr. Whitney takes over for Mr. Siegal as the top authority on ethics and practices, the language duties fall to deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett.

An Old Testament sort of awe surrounded Mr. Siegal’s work. “When I first started on Metro,” Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in an e-mail, “I did a story and used the word ‘redolent.’ He sent me one of his scary little notes, saying that I had used the word correctly but that he didn’t like the word, and not to use it again. It was redolent of a thunderbolt from God.”

Mr. Siegal began his career as a copy boy, then became a copy editor. A stint at ABC News in the 60’s was his only break from The Times. In the 70’s, he moved from editing to reporting, covering the Bronx during one of the paper’s “periodic cyclical rediscoveries of the boroughs,” he said.

Though it was a “great assignment,” Mr. Siegal said, it was not what he wanted to do. “I’m an editor by personality,” he said. “I like working with other people and their copy more than I like writing my own.” Writing, he added, is “difficult and solitary”; editing is “collaborative and gregarious—yeah, I guess gregarious is the right word.”

So he went to A.M. Rosenthal and asked to be reassigned to editing. Rosenthal, who had left a celebrated career as a correspondent to advance up the masthead, was confounded by the request. “It took a long time for it to sink in,” Mr. Siegal said.

Once it did sink in, Mr. Siegal went back to editing—first on the foreign desk, where Mr. Whitney, a Saigon correspondent, got to know him—and then as the head of the news desk.

As an editor, Mr. Siegal had a hand in the paper’s most sensitive stories. He was on the team of editors that worked in secret to turn the Pentagon Papers into newspaper copy, and he was the lead editor of the Jayson Blair postmortem.

“Any story that had anything to do with the New York Times Company had to go through him,” Mr. Okrent said.

Before the Siegal era, The Times’ ethical standards were largely implicit, occasionally reinforced by a memo from the editor or publisher. Up till 2002, Mr. Siegal said, “when people came to work for The Times in the newsroom, they would be given a stack of copies of these old memos”—some dating back to Rosenthal. In January 2003—“five months before the Jayson Blair episode,” Mr. Siegal noted—a group led by Mr. Siegal put out a formal handbook on ethical journalism.

By then, Mr. Siegal had already co-written the paper’s book on language usage. The tone he sought to encourage, Mr. Siegal said, is “a sensible middle voice, writing grown-up English for grown-ups.” (Stylebook, page 150: “grown-up (n. and adj.).”)

“I was pretty determined to make us stop sounding like a legal document,” Mr. Siegal said. He encouraged the use of “before” instead of “prior to,” and allowed people to use “contact” as a verb.

And he was alert to nuance. “The language used on the Web,” Mr. Siegal said, “is just tonally a little different from the language used in print.”

(Page 107: “To satisfy the most exacting readers, use different with from, in front of a noun …. ”)

Like God making a rock so heavy He can’t lift it, Mr. Siegal’s powers were such that he was able to restrain his own influence. He was behind the creation of the public-editor position after the Blair crisis. And one of the rules he laid down was that he would not oversee or react to the public editor’s work.

That left Mr. Okrent free to work, but it also left him at the mercy of Mr. Siegal’s imagined presence. In his new book, Public Editor No. 1, Mr. Okrent wrote that he supposed Mr. Siegal had silently disapproved of half of the columns he’d written in his two years on the job.

After that, Mr. Okrent said, Mr. Siegal broke his silence. In fact, he told Mr. Okrent, he had only seriously disagreed with two of his columns.

“And I almost wept,” Mr. Okrent said.

Which budding young scribe has snubbed the city’s most name-making, reputation-breaking gossip column? We hear the writer wouldn’t even deign to accept the invitation to a job interview with its all-powerful nightlife overlord.

More to the point, who hasn’t snubbed the Page Six job?

Over the past month, at least a dozen people have turned down the prospect of a job with the New York Post’s flagship gossip column—with the majority choosing not to interview for the position, according to sources familiar with the recruiting drive.

The job search is part of the fallout from April’s Jared Paul Stern scandal, in which the Page Six freelancer was accused of shaking down supermarket magnate Ron Burkle for money to keep damaging items out of the Post.

In response, the Post dismissed its trio of rotating freelance Page Six contributors, including Mr. Stern. Page Six chief Richard Johnson has been seeking a full-time reporter to replace them, joining existing full-timers Paula Froelich and Chris Wilson.

“You don’t climb aboard a sinking ship,” said one writer who declined to interview for the job.

Mr. Johnson has cast a wide net, trawling for print gossip writers, ordinary reporters and bloggers. “He was recklessly e-mailing people,” a source familiar with Mr. Johnson’s efforts said.

When contacted about the job search, Mr. Johnson asked if the reporter had any interest in the position. He then directed questions about the Page Six recruiting to a Post spokesperson, who declined to comment.

According to sources familiar with all or part of the search, people the Post has approached include Jacob Bernstein and Elisa Lipsky-Karasz of WWD, W’s Marshall Heyman, Gawker co-editor Jessica Coen, Us Weekly blogger Noelle Hancock, Christopher Tennant of Radar and 24-year-old freelance writer Derek Blasberg, who was among the young men profiled in an April 23 New York Times Sunday Styles story about New York’s new tribe of “Boldface Men.” Mr. Johnson has also contacted at least three New York Observer staffers.

One writer who declined Mr. Johnson’s request for an interview said that since the Burkle scandal, the allure of Page Six isn’t what it once was.

“You can’t freelance anywhere else,” the writer said, citing one example of reform. “It was an old policy, and they made exceptions. But they’re not doing that anymore.”

According to that writer, Mr. Johnson was offering a salary in the mid-to-high $70,000’s for the position.

Working the nightlife beat makes for an exciting job on paper. Hence the arrival this month of twin novels from ex-gossip reporters, describing the lives of young gossip reporters: former Page Sixer Ian Spiegelman’s Welcome to Yesterday and former New York magazine Intelligencer contributor (and former Observer reporter) Deborah Schoeneman’s 4% Famous.

But the actual duties of the Page Six position won’t necessarily be glamorous. Mr. Johnson is looking for a reporter to do legwork on the party scene, according to a source close to Page Six—taking the now-departed freelancers’ role of going to events at night and trolling for sources and tidbits.

With outlets for gossip writing proliferating—and some of them paying competitive rates—the appeal of working the clubs and scribbling in a Skyy-and-soda-dampened notebook is waning.

“I get to be more of a writer here than I would at Page Six,” one of the non-candidates said, referring to a current job. “ … There, I’d just be one of the gossip mongers.”

—Tom Scocca and Gabriel Sherman

Who wants to cover the busiest news beat in the world? New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira sent a memo out to the newsroom last month, seeking two reporters to rotate into the paper’s Baghdad bureau. According to a source with knowledge of the search, only five would-be correspondents expressed interest.

“It’s hard to get people to go,” executive editor Bill Keller said.

Mr. Keller was on the phone May 23, less than two weeks after taking his own trip to Baghdad with Ms. Chira. It was the executive editor’s first visit to the war zone.

As reporting turf, the country struck Mr. Keller as fertile. “I really felt that after this trip, if I was 30 and didn’t have kids, I’d put my hand up,” Mr. Keller said. “A lot of times, the most challenging stories are the most rewarding ones.”

So why aren’t more Times reporters looking for the rewarding experience? “People with families—their spouses don’t want them to go,” Mr. Keller explained. “In large part it’s the risk, but it’s also the separation. No one takes their family there. We have enough good applicants that we’ll replenish the pool. But it is a place a lot of reporters view with a certain foreboding.”

Mr. Keller’s five-day trip took more than a year to plan. Earlier this year, managing editor Jill Abramson and columnist Maureen Dowd had cancelled a trip to the Baghdad bureau over scheduling conflicts and security concerns.

“I felt like a visit to Iraq was overdue,” Mr. Keller said. “I was prepared to go last year. [Baghdad bureau chief] John Burns had been encouraging me to visit. The one thing that’s changed much for the better—and it’s something that makes everyone who comes in and out happy—is that the airport road is a lot more secure.”

Mr. Keller flew in from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad on the morning of May 7. As for the much-discussed corkscrew landing pattern at the Baghdad airport, Mr. Keller said the tales are overblown.

“I think that has developed into a melodrama,” he said. “It’s a leisurely circle over the vast area of the airport that is heavily secured. It’s not the stomach-lurching dive-bomb approach you hear about.”

The following day, Mr. Keller joined Times correspondent Dexter Filkins in a Black Hawk helicopter for a trip to the American base outside of Falluja.

During his stay in Baghdad, Mr. Keller met with senior American officials, including Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Generals George Casey, Peter Chiarelli and Martin Dempsey, and with Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal al-Talabani and former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

He also met former Times W.M.D. source Ahmad Chalabi for the first time. “He’s a very interesting guy,” Mr. Keller said, “who leaves you wanting to check your wallet.”

He said that he’d learned through an intermediary before the meeting that Mr. Chalabi was displeased with The Times’ recent coverage of him. “He managed to bring it up without bringing it up,” Mr. Keller said.

The visit, he added, left him confident that Times reporters can get out and tell the Iraq story, contrary to worries that security concerns have pinned correspondents down inside the Green Zone.

“I don’t know how much of an expert I can claim to be after only five days in the country, but I think the notion you can’t do real reporting there is preposterous,” Mr. Keller said. “Reading the stuff in the paper ought to convince you of that fact alone.”

Mr. Filkins, who plans to leave Baghdad to take a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in September, said that a visit by the top editor was welcome.

“It was a great morale booster and confidence builder to have them come,” he said by phone from Baghdad May 23. “I think there’s no substitute for being here. For me, the reality here is so different from the reality anywhere else. It’s so difficult to imagine when you’re in the U.S., even as they have immersed themselves in the subject. There’s nothing like being here.”

—Gabriel Sherman Man Who Knew Plenty: Times’ Siegal Imprinted Invisibly on Newspaper