Times Recruits Team For Baghdad Bureau: Its ‘Volunteer Army’

Over Memorial Day weekend, New York Times metro reporter Paul von Zielbauer called his mother to tell her about his

Over Memorial Day weekend, New York Times metro reporter Paul von Zielbauer called his mother to tell her about his new assignment: Next month, he’ll be going to the Baghdad bureau.

“She freaked out and she hung up,” Mr. von Zielbauer said, “and turned on the TV and saw what happened to the CBS News crew.”

The bombing that hit the CBS team—killing cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan, and leaving correspondent Kimberly Dozier in critical condition—made Iraq the deadliest modern war for journalists, by the tally of the Committee to Protect Journalists. When The Times posted job openings in Baghdad in March, only five applicants came forward.

Still, Mr. von Zielbauer, 39, is on his way, to be joined in July by Damien Cave, 32, and later this fall by Marc Santora, 31. The three are on six-to-eight week trial tours, to prepare them to be possible replacements for bureau staff.

“It’s a complete volunteer army,” Times foreign editor Susan Chira said of the Baghdad recruiting effort. “What we make clear is that this story is the most dangerous and challenging and stressful assignment in the world.”

For reporters in their 20’s and 30’s, it’s also the biggest assignment there is.

“For me, it’s the most important story of our generation,” Mr. Santora said. “It’s something I feel passionate about trying to do.”

Mr. Cave, currently in the Newark bureau, has covered military-recruiting efforts on the home front. He closely echoed Mr. Santora’s generational sentiments. “Having done enough military reporting to feel what some of these families are going through, I felt going to Iraq is something I should experience too,” Mr. Cave said.

In the face of a historic reporting opportunity, even Mr. von Zielbauer’s mother relented. “To her credit,” Mr. von Zielbauer said, “she called me the next day and said she was supportive of me and asked to stay in touch.”

“As one of my colleagues said, it’s the story of our time,” Mr. von Zielbauer said.

The Times is seeking to replenish the paper’s pool of Baghdad correspondents, as the veterans begin extracting themselves from the war zone. “People will be in this summer entering their fourth year covering this war,” Baghdad bureau chief John Burns said by phone from Iraq. “A natural foreign assignment doesn’t run over four to five years. Clearly, when you get to that length of time, then people start thinking about life after Iraq …. This is a pretty limited environment to live.”

Those limitations make the job less attractive to reporters with families and domestic responsibilities. All three of the new Times representatives are childless, and only Mr. Cave among them is married.

The turnover in Iraq extends beyond The Times. On June 8, The Washington Post is sending 28-year-old metro reporter Josh Partlow to Baghdad, where he will join Nelson Hernandez, 28, who has been there since December. The Post is looking to replace current full-time correspondent Jonathan Finer and bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer by the end of the year.

“The biggest reason I wanted to come to Iraq is because my younger brother, Thomas, is a Marine corporal who is coming here on his first tour in September,” Mr. Hernandez wrote via e-mail from Iraq. “I want to be able to relate to him when he gets back. I have also had a fascination with the military since I was young. My dad was an Army paratrooper and for a long time I thought I might follow in his footsteps. One of the first serious books I read as a kid was The United States in World War I.

“I wanted to see the face of battle. My life would not have been complete unless I had come here.”

Meanwhile, among Times Iraq veterans, Dexter Filkins will be beginning a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University in September. According to Times sources, correspondent Ed Wong is in discussions with the foreign desk to leave Iraq. And Mr. Burns has been offered the paper’s London bureau, but hasn’t yet decided whether to end his Iraq stay.

“We’ve got various movements going on here,” Mr. Burns said, though he declined to discuss specific staffing changes.

“There’s a certain amount of natural turnover here,” Mr. Burns said. “And so we need to start bringing new people in so the old people can go.”

At any given time, The Times has five or six correspondents in Baghdad, in addition to more than 70 local Iraqi staffers. Many of the current Times correspondents have been in the country since the invasion in March 2003.

“We’re rotating some people in with no commitment either way,” Ms. Chira said. “They’re trying it out to see if it works for them and works for us. I have to expect we will have people who will rotate out in six to nine months. We want to maintain expertise on the ground, and we’re feeling it will be optimal for people to go into Baghdad while we have the most experienced people there. We need to prepare.”

For Mr. Cave, that preparation will include a survival course taught by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, an outfit staffed by former British Royal Marine commandos.

The five-day program, in the Shenandoah Valley, includes lessons about I.E.D.’s and other booby traps, as well as instruction covering survival skills, first aid, the limits of body armor and the use of guides and fixers, according to Centurion’s founder and managing director, Paul Rees. Mr. Rees said that hands-on activity is “63 percent” of the training.

“We put them all through a hostage-taking scenario,” Mr. Rees said. “It’s not meant to scare them witless. It’s to teach them how the hostage-taking process goes and what to expect. We want them to know what is a typical stage and what will come next …. We do kidnap them and debrief them thoroughly. We video it. We discuss different options.”

“I don’t know how much training you can do for this kind of thing,” Mr. Cave said. “But every little training helps.”

Mr. Cave said he has been reading about the conflict, citing books by George Packer, Anthony Shadid and Michael Gordon.

Mr. von Zielbauer went through the course last June, in preparation for an Iraq assignment that didn’t come to pass. Before joining The Times seven years ago, he gained foreign experience covering the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Serbia in 1998, as a stringer for Newsday.

“It can feel almost routine to read stories about Iraq in the paper,” Mr. von Zielbauer said, “but it occurs to me that there is no more important story in the world right now. We all have questions what Baghdad feels, smells and sounds like. I want to know that.”

Mr. Santora—formerly Maureen Dowd’s assistant and now a metro reporter—will be on his second tour. At the start of the invasion, he covered the war for four months from southern Iraq.

“The last time I was there, I was not embedded,” Mr. Santora said. “I was able to travel to Karbala, to Najaf, just to visit. Basically, I was able to travel clear across the country. It had its own dangers and problems, but now, I’m pretty sure, it’s much more difficult. I think it will be a world of difference.”

T he New York Times Magazine of Gerald Marzorati is many magazines—more magazines all the time. The next one, the real-estate magazine planned for this autumn, will be called Key.

Carol Day of the Times marketing department revealed Key’s name June 4, as she introduced Mr. Marzorati to an audience at the CUNY Graduate Center. It was part of a litany of Mr. Marzorati’s accomplishments since taking over the Sunday magazine, along with the T style monthlies—fashion, dining, entertaining—and the sports quarterly, Play.

And the event itself: the first annual “Sunday with The Magazine,” in which Mr. Marzorati’s editors and writers and their big-meat subjects gathered to present live symposiums on Times Magazine topics. If a certain other weekly magazine can have an entire weeklong festival, why can’t The Times’ budding empire have one day? After Ms. Day finished listing his accomplishments in real estate, fashion and sports, Mr. Marzorati—wearing a summery olive-green suit, black dress shoes and no socks—took the stage to lead a panel discussion about the press and the Iraq war.

There were some 200 people on hand, watching reporters Dexter Filkins, Peter Maass and David Rieff discuss the war with essayist Michael Massing. Mr. Massing accused The Times of burying stories about civilian casualties and the Bush administration’s flawed case for war; Mr. Filkins called the charges “absurd” and cited multiple counterexamples. The two cut each other off. Eyes were rolled.

After some 90 minutes, Mr. Marzorati opened the floor to the audience. A few questions in, a young woman stepped to the microphone and asked, “So, um, why did we go to war, again?”

The panelists and the crowd shared an uncomfortable laugh—no one onstage answered, and Mr. Marzorati went to the next person in line.

Riding in the elevator afterward, Mr. Marzorati sounded disappointed. The questions had dealt with the war directly rather the designated subject, the war’s coverage. The guests weren’t quite interested in what Mr. Marzorati had wanted to talk about.

After a quick photo op with Howard Dean, Karl Lagerfeld and Gail Sheehy, Mr. Marzorati made his way to the dimly lit basement green room. Mr. Dean and Mr. Lagerfeld had had very little to say to one another when they met. Mr. Marzorati, the man who put them in that situation, thought it was very funny. “They’ve had very different lives!” he chuckled, recounting the scene to his magazine’s Q&A scribe, Deborah Solomon, and editor at large, Lynn Hirschberg.

Was there a certain lack of coherence to the day’s events? “No one in Europe would have a problem, you know, seeing what’s interesting and beautiful about Rochas slacks or a Dior suit and then also be able to really care about, you know, the civil war in the Congo,” Mr. Marzorati said. He was sitting in a bare room off the lobby, discussing the event and the magazine. His suit pants were short, showing his sockless ankles. “We have this bifurcation in our culture, in our, you know, chattering class. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be that way.”

If Mr. Marzorati was challenging his readers to embrace diverse topics, many of them failed. Only a handful of attendees came for more than one of the 75-minute talks. Partly it was because each one cost a separate $25, but it also reflected the limits of general interest: Clinton administration junkie James Traub spoke to Madeleine Albright; Mark Bryant, editor of Play, spoke to Mets-man Omar Minaya. Howard Dean was interviewed by political writer Matt Bai, Karl Lagerfeld by style editor Stefano Tonchi and fashion critic Cathy Horyn. Somewhere in there were lectures by Randy “The Ethicist” Cohen, crossword guru Will Shortz, a panel of TV celebrity chefs and an interview with musician James Blunt.

“I think I’m making a bet that there is a person who, in an encounter with a great piece of writing or some great photographs or a great headline, can be made curious about almost anything,” Mr. Marzorati said. “I still make a bet that that person exists.”

This past October, Mr. Marzorati told public editor Byron Calame that he imagined his reader to be “a late-thirties-something woman, a lawyer or educator or businesswoman.”

“She’s busy with work, and also with family matters,” Mr. Marzorati was quoted as saying in that piece, “but Sunday morning is a time she’ll allow herself to read something that is not work related, or kids’ homework related. She’s got 45 minutes, an hour …. My hunch is she wants to read not something escapist but something substantive—something that holds a mirror up to her own life or opens a window onto a pretty troubled world.”

On June 4, Mr. Marzorati said that he had just been trying to give Mr. Calame a creative answer—that he does not actually “sit down and have some very specific imagined reader.”

Instead, he has an ideal.

“We want to bring people proximate to big ideas. People want to be proximate to ideas,” he said. “They hunger for ideas.”

And Sunday breakfast is the time to feed them. “People just have more time to read and reflect, and we reach them all at the same time,” Mr. Marzorati said. “It’s the moment to catch people with stories about the way we live now.”

“The Way We Live Now” is the modern Times Magazine’s all-purpose slogan: the title of its front-of-the-book section and the theme of “Sunday with The Magazine.” Everywhere was we, we, we; each of the 12 sessions was labeled something cute: “What We Eat” for the food panel, “How We Think and Act” for Mr. Cohen, “How We Govern” for Dr. Dean. After about a half-hour, Mr. Marzorati excused himself and headed off to the Dean presentation.

But who’s “We”? New Yorker readers go to the New Yorker Festival because it’s a New Yorker kind of thing to do. What made the readers of The New York Times Magazine get up from around Mr. Marzorati’s imaginary national kitchen table and come out on a Sunday?

Rita and David Kaufman said they had come because they are fans of Randy Cohen. Mr. Kaufman said he likes The Ethicist’s humility and practicality; his daughter even got a question in print once (the question was about plagiarism; Mr. Kaufman said he couldn’t recall the nuances of Mr. Cohen’s verdict).

One woman, sitting in the auditorium awaiting the Albright interview, said she was there because she’d been reading Ms. Albright’s autobiography. “How long are these supposed to be?” she asked.

Still others came for reasons that fell somewhere in between. High-school student Alex Taureaux, for instance, came because he’s obsessed with Karl Lagerfeld and because he thinks The Times Magazine is “just really excellent.”

“It’s so good,” he said, dressed in a dapper tan jacket and clutching five complementary issues of T. “It is really excellently written.” And who reads it? “Intellectual beings,” said Mr. Taureaux’s friend, Haley Desette. “This is world-renowned. It’s well known, you know?”

Connie Lee, a late-30’s-something businesswoman, let out a little laugh when she heard about Mr. Marzorati’s portrait of a reader from last year’s Public Editor’s column.

Why does she read The Times Magazine? “It’s just physically there,” she said. “The minute you step out of the house, it’s right there in front of you.”

—Leon Neyfakh Times Recruits Team For Baghdad Bureau: Its ‘Volunteer Army’