Changing of the Guard  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

Changing of the Guard   

AJR welcomes a new managing editor and bids a fond hasta luego to an all-time favorite.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It started with a call from Kathy Kiely.

Kiely, a USA Today congressional reporter, Pittsburgh Steelers fan extraordinaire and all-around Great American, told me about a reporter she knew who was launching a freelance career. Would I be willing to talk to her? That's how Rachel Smolkin entered the world of AJR.

We had lunch, and it was clear from the get-go that she was very smart. It soon became obvious that she was very talented as well. Rachel started writing for AJR and hasn't stopped. She's had a major piece in virtually every issue since September 2002.

And now she's becoming AJR's managing editor.

That's a great development for the magazine. I'm certain she'll be a terrific partner. And it helps offset the sad news that Lori Robertson is leaving. She's heading for Latin America, where she plans to study Spanish, travel and write.

Lori has been AJR's managing editor since 2001, after a three-and-a-half-year stint as assistant managing editor. Before that she freelanced for us for a year while she was administrative director of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, which at the time was located in the basement of the house that AJR then called home. And before that, she was essentially AJR's cruise director, organizing parties, lunches and beers on the deck.

And she has excelled in every role.

I've been in journalism management positions for 30 years, and I consider two of my very best decisions hiring and promoting Lori.

It's very hard to imagine the place without her which we won't have to entirely, since she plans to freelance for us when (if?) she returns from her adventures.

Not long ago I walked into Lori's office and asked her if she thought I'd be all right without her. "I'm leaving you in good hands," she said, pointing to Rachel's office. And she's correct.

Rachel is an excellent journalist who cares passionately about the field. She's got a great work ethic. I'm looking forward to a smooth transition. A graduate of Brown University, Rachel covered Washington for Scripps Howard News Service and for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Toledo Blade bureau before going out on her own. We're very glad she's here.

Now comes the hard part.

The Judith Miller endgame was painful and inevitable. Now the New York Times has to ask itself some tough questions.

The Times, of course, is something special, a true national treasure in many ways. The depth and breadth of its report is impressive, day after day. It has a special relationship with its readers, many of whom couldn't imagine life without it.

My wife, Ellen, spends a lot of time in Basalt, Colorado. There's no Times home delivery there. One of the key moments each day is making the pilgrimage to the 7-Eleven to pick up a copy.

Yet the last five years have been rocky ones for the Times.

The Wen Ho Lee fiasco. The Howell Raines of Terror. The Jayson Blair affair. The botched WMD coverage. And, most recently, the Judith Miller circus. That's a lot of train wrecks in a short period of time. And an awful lot of trauma for one very proud newspaper staff.

Not long ago a journalism savant I respect a great deal made a very interesting point. He said he thought that USA Today had absorbed the painful lessons of the Jack Kelley scandal and implemented necessary changes. He wasn't sure the Times had been as successful in learning from its mistakes.

So now it's up to Executive Editor Bill Keller to put the pieces back together. His handling of the Miller affair wasn't what you would call nimble. But he's a top-flight journalist and a respected figure in the newsroom (if not the world's most gregarious guy).

One common thread runs through the Times' debacles: breakdowns in the editing process. Putting safeguards in place and applying them stringently will be key.

It's also important that the Times levels with its readers, consistently. While it did publish that extraordinary (and merciless) reconstruction of the Jayson Blair saga and belatedly weighed in on the Miller episode, it took far too long to address the WMD problems, and didn't address them all that well when it finally did.

As for Times Publisher (and Times Co. Chairman) Arthur Sulzberger Jr., two of the major messes the Raines selection and the paper's awkward Miller "entanglement" (to borrow a Bill Kellerism) are on him.

One thing's for sure. The Times is going to be one closely scrutinized news outlet for quite some time.

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