<i>Online Exclusive:</i><br> Times to Go  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2003

Online Exclusive:
Times to Go   

Raines, Boyd depart from the New York Times. Former Executive Editor Lelyveld returns as interim chief.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Despite the flurry of recent press reports detailing the angst inside the New York Times and the short-lived journalism guessing game of "will he or won't he?," the news that Times Executive Editor Howell Raines – along with his managing editor, Gerald M. Boyd -- was stepping down came as a surprise to many.

Among those in the industry, surely it was a rare journalist who didn't gasp at the revelation.

And in the Times newsroom--from which we've heard complaints of Raines' top-down, fear-instilling management style--the mood, say some staffers, was simply one of grief.

"It was really sad here today," says Deputy National Editor Alison Mitchell, who says the Thursday morning newsroom announcement came as "a total shock."

"It felt like a funeral or a wake, and I think everyone here is determined that we're going to pull together and get through it and do great journalism," Mitchell says.

Floyd Norris, the paper's chief financial correspondent, says even people who thought Raines and Boyd needed to go were sad once they actually did. "These are two good men, good journalists who made mistakes and got themselves into a position where they concluded they had to resign," Norris says.

Another staffer, who asked not to be named, agrees that even though the writing on the wall was becoming quite clear, the final act was hard to accept. "My feeling is it's just very sad. People's lives are wrecked, and I think that's really what we're dealing with right now," says this staffer. "There was overall a sense that it seemed inevitable, but now that it actually happened it seems almost unfathomable."
Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins, who worked for Raines when he held her present job, was devastated by the news. "I'm crushed. Howell hired me, and I worked under him...and the man who has been described by newsroom critics is not a person I ever knew or remembered." She characterized the much-chastised fallen editor as "very open, a joy to work with" and as "a spectacular leader."

Raines, 60, also a former Times Washington bureau chief, took over as top editor on September 5, 2001. He came to the paper in 1978 as a national correspondent in Atlanta. Boyd, 52, joined the paper in 1983 and had held the deputy managing editor for news post prior to his promotion.

Their relatively short stint has been filled with journalistic highs--the winning of seven Pulitzers at one time, many due to the paper's extraordinary coverage of September 11--and the lowest of lows--a period that began with the revelation that then-Times reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarized his way through the paper.

The Raines endgame began on April 29 with indications that Blair had plagiarized a story from the San Antonio Express-News. The results of the Times' investigation of the reporter's work were published May 11 on the front page and across four full inside pages. Of Blair's 73 national stories, the Times reported, 36 contained problems such as stolen passages, made-up interviews or faked datelines. The lengthy Times report didn't quite answer how such journalistic sins could constantly be committed in the pages of the nation's--if not the world's--greatest newspaper, and how Blair was promoted despite the now-famous warning from Jonathan Landman, the metro editor, that "we have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."

The Blair episode unleashed a torrent of internal unrest. Newsroom issues with Raines and Boyd became clear at a staff meeting May 14 and subsequently in daily news stories about what ailed the Times. Then came the resignation of national writer Rick Bragg, a Raines favorite, who was suspended for taking sole byline credit for a story to which a freelancer heavily contributed. Bragg's published comments that this was the way the Times operated (and Raines and Co.'s slowness in countering those claims) prompted impassioned criticisms from Times reporters, who stressed that they did their own work.

So it was amid this turmoil that Raines and Boyd said their goodbyes.

Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau, says this is an important step. "I'm grateful really to [Times Publisher] Arthur [Sulzberger Jr.] for doing it," says Overholser, a former Times editorial writer. "I feel sorry for both Gerald and Howell. I think it's an awfully tough time." But, she adds, "All of us can be glad that this conclusive step has been taken."

Others weren't convinced that the top guys had to walk the plank. James M. Naughton, president of The Poynter Institute and a former Timesman, says he was astonished. "I thought Howell would ride this out and go on being Howell and learn from the process of having been bloodied a bit. I'm really surprised that it happened."

Naughton stresses that he doesn't know anything about the internal happenings at the paper, but he says it "wouldn't astonish me if we learn later that something precipitated the decision to do it today."

Former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, who relinquished the post to Raines, has assumed command again until a successor is named, a move that Naughton calls "the most positive thing that I've learned today." Lelyveld, says Naughton, is "a known commodity, he's trusted, he's respected outside the building." This "gives them a chance to calm things down while they figure out the next set of moves."

Speculation about Raines' successor focused on Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron, Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet and Bill Keller, now a New York Times columnist, who was the runner-up when Raines was chosen.

Naughton, who was a Times Washington correspondent from 1969 to 1977, says Raines' ouster "runs the risk of giving credence to the critics who want to attack the Times." The departed editor was a particular target of conservatives, who accused Raines of using the news pages of the paper to advance a liberal agenda. But Naughton expects the Times, albeit slowly, to rebuild its credibility among readers.

"It will continue to be a great paper, and it will get beyond this episode," Naughton says. "But it's going to take time to get back both externally and internally the kind of awesome trust that the Times had."

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