Times’ National Desk in ‘Head-Snapping’ Revamp

In recent weeks, The New York Times’ national desk has undergone quite a face-lift. There’s a new editor, Rick Berke. There is a new deputy editor in Adam Bryant. And there will be a new Los Angeles bureau chief in Adam Nagourney.

Two editors will leave the department—Suzanne Daley, the outgoing editor, and Dean Murphy, the deputy editor—and, according to several sources, up to four additional editors will also leave the desk and are currently looking for other jobs at the paper (David Firestone, a deputy; Jack Kadden, another deputy; Joan Nassivera, assistant national editor; and Suzanne Spector, the Web editor). 

By The Times’ standards, that’s an upheaval.

“Head-snapping,” said one reporter.

“Highly unusual,” said another Times source.

It’s standard practice for a new department head to assemble his own team. But the fact that Mr. Berke is on the verge of replacing roughly half the editors on the national desk less than a month after he was named editor—he hasn’t even formally started the job yet—is notable for a newsroom that has had so little movement in recent years.

“It is normal for someone taking over a major desk to build their own team. I did it myself, though at a much slower pace,” said Ms. Daley, the outgoing national editor, who will be a European correspondent reporting from New York.

Generally it takes many months for a department head to put together that team. This time, it’s been “on a swifter timetable than usual,” acknowledged Mr. Berke in an email.

Still a week away from filling the editor’s desk, Mr. Berke has already been given greater latitude than most new department heads, due to his close relationship with Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, sources said. Mr. Berke was most recently The Times’ assistant managing editor. Among other jobs, he was the traffic cop for the front page.

He has been a favorite of the top bosses since he took over his job in 2005. “Rick is trying to make a strong impression, but he’s coming off the masthead and getting more help than most department heads would have had,” said one senior editor. “He’s gotten the permission to do it quickly.”

“Yes, he’s moved quickly to assemble his team,” said Mr. Keller in an email. “From his masthead perch, he’s had a chance to study the entire newsroom, so he didn’t have to do a lot of additional reporting or auditioning to know who he wanted.”

In mid-February, when Mr. Keller announced that Mr. Berke was taking over the national desk, it surprised many. The Times gossip mill kept churning out the name Dean Murphy, Ms. Daley’s deputy, as her likely successor.

Mr. Keller had other plans. He conducted no formal search and gave the job to Mr. Berke.

In a memo announcing the change, Mr. Keller said that the “amazing” Rick Berke “has done it all—except, before this, being the head of a major news department.”
Though Mr. Berke’s experience is deep—he worked in the Washington bureau for 19 years, rising from night editor to national political correspondent to Washington editor before joining the masthead in 2005—he has never run a department. And though it could appear like a demotion to step down from the masthead to work on the national desk, there are likely greater factors at play.

Times’ National Desk in ‘Head-Snapping’ Revamp