From AJR, December 1998 issue
In The Maelstrom
A perpetually turblent newsroom with a macho culture, a mercurial owner, major production problems-- New York Daily News Editor Debby Krenek has no shortage of challenges.
By Marilyn W. Thompson
Marilyn W. Thomspon is editor of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader.
D EBBY KRENEK IS LEADING A VISITOR through the New York Daily News newsroom she commands, past walls of memorable headlines and the news desk where she got her start there. Suddenly, she stops to point at a jumble of electrical cords behind a reporter's desk.
``See this?" she asks. Laughing at her intimacy with the cavernous place, she notes, ``I'm the only person in the room who can tell you where all the electrical outlets are."
This is not, in Krenek's frenetic world, a trivial concern. If computers crash, electricity matters. The paper must come out; the trucks must run on time. A few panicked minutes on deadline searching for a working terminal can start a domino fall toward production disaster.
So Krenek takes some comfort in knowing her newsroom inside and out, in memorizing from the design grids the precise locations of its plugs and vents and wires. ``If everybody dropped dead," she says assuredly, ``I could sit down and put the paper out."
Krenek, who turns 43 this month, knows a thing or two about power. In October 1997, Publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman anointed her editor in chief, making her the first woman at that post in the Daily News' 79-year history. She's also the first to run an American metropolitan paper with a daily circulation over 500,000. The News circulates 721,256 copies daily and 807,788 on Sunday, the 1998 Editor & Publisher Yearbook reports.
Since coming to the tabloid more than a decade ago, Krenek has emerged as a soft voice of reason and efficiency amid huge dysfunction. In an often anxious newsroom--rocked by a nasty 1990 strike, two ownership changes and a cavalcade of editors (Krenek is the fourth in five years)--she's gently coaxed headline writers to move faster and nursed endangered projects, plus soothed tempers riled by her big-footed boss.
All along, Krenek has proven herself an expert technician, taking on important but distinctly low-profile projects that nobody else wanted or knew how to do. She mastered pagination and presses, redesign and circulation. She helped create a splashy new TV book and spearheaded a short-lived experiment with a Spanish-English paper. On orders from Zuckerman and CEO/Co-Publisher Fred Drasner, she coordinated the demoralizing 1995 move across town from the newspaper's historic East 42nd Street address to a dreary section of West 33rd Street--a move that saves the company several million dollars each year but caused extensive staff grumbling.
``If Zuckerman wanted something done, she delivered," says former Daily News features editor Larry Hackett, now a senior editor at People Magazine. ``You don't have to worry with Debby."
Since her move up from the post of executive editor, Krenek has been trying to make her newspaper the ``eyes and voice" of New York, she says, with the city's best mix of cops-and-courts fare, edgy features and groundbreaking investigations. She wants to build sagging morale with compliments and champagne toasts, simple gestures overlooked by management for far too long. And she has stepped in with personal appeals to try to stanch the steady hemorrhaging of reporting talent.
Still, Krenek's managerial style has hardly been inspirational, newsroom critics say. Her swashbuckling predecessor, Pete Hamill--who ran the News from January to September 1997--bombarded reporters with his vision of the tabloid as a reflection of the ethnically diverse, exciting New York he saw in the streets. By comparison, Krenek's easy-going manner and deadline-driven focus have made many staffers question whether she has the brassy journalistic courage or the big ideas to guide the News to distinction in a fiercely competitive newspaper city.
Krenek's long-range ambitions for the newspaper remain elusive to many reporters. And the recent departures of familiar bylines--such as White House reporter Kathy Kiely to USA Today and investigative reporter Kevin Flynn to the New York Times--have stirred more unrest. If Krenek has a grand vision, many of her reporters ask, why hasn't she given the slightest clue what it is?
W ATCHING DEBBY KRENEK RUN A FEISTY New York City tabloid is, for those who knew her in a previous life, an amazing transformation. A dentist's daughter, she grew up in Taylor, Texas, and wanted to be a secretary. She took journalism in high school only because she was crowded out of a shorthand class, then ended up editing the weekly newspaper, the Cotton Bowl.
Her parents wanted her close to home, so Krenek enrolled at Texas A&M. In her junior year as a journalism student, she backed out at the last minute from a Dow Jones newspaper internship that would have placed her far away in California for a summer. ``I called about three weeks before I was supposed to go and said, `Could you put me at a paper in Texas instead?' By that time, it was too late," she remembers. She stayed home and went through what she now describes as a ``life crisis," afraid she had embarrassed her school and derailed her future.
Meanwhile, she went back to a lucrative waitressing job at the Fort Shiloh Steak House that summer--until Bob Rogers, head of the Texas A&M journalism department, asked her to edit the campus daily, the Battalion. ``I remember cajoling, pleading, urging her to give up that money," says Rogers, now retired. ``She finally agreed. She had the style and the talent to work so well with others. I can't remember an instance of conflict on the paper that whole summer, which is fairly remarkable."
After college, Krenek took a job at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as a copy editor for the news section. The daily was considered a stepping stone to the Dallas papers. Krenek, who liked spending her days on the beach and rolling into work in the late afternoon, had a talent for fast headline writing and smart design. Before long, she was laying out the paper's front page.
She decided to move on to the thriving newspaper scene in Dallas, where, in the early 1980s, the Times Herald still was slugging it out with the Morning News. Krenek was hired by the scrappy Times Herald (which folded in 1991) to lay out the advice page. To show her stuff, she volunteered for overtime hours on the bustling news and city desks, which were ``ripping up the entire front page every hour" to compete head-on with the Morning News, she says. Krenek loved the competitive atmosphere--``we were always pushing, pushing, pushing"--and soaked it up until 3 or 4 a.m. daily.
Some remember the male-dominated Dallas newsroom as openly sexist, with locker-room banter often emanating from the news desk. But the atmosphere did not faze Krenek, who worked her way up to news editor. Quiet and reserved, Krenek flourished by ``doing a good job," recalls former Times Herald Executive Editor Larry Tarleton, now assistant publisher of South Carolina's Charleston Post and Courier. ``She just seemed to blend in with the culture there, and she was tough enough that she was not going to put up with anything."
Penelope Muse Abernathy, a former Times Herald staffer who is now president of the news services division of the New York Times, recalls the competitive atmosphere that helped shape Krenek. The spirited Dallas newsroom was a ``great laboratory" for big-city journalism, she says. ``It was the last of the great newspaper wars, and with that came all of the hyperbole and superlatives you hear. You learned the notion of thinking on your feet, of always saying not just `what do I do for tomorrow?' but `what is the competition going to be doing?'... There was a premium on getting it first and getting it right."
In that charged environment, Krenek gained confidence. ``I grew up with sort of an inferiority complex," she admits, ``because everywhere I went people knew more than I did. They'd been to Europe. They'd done this. They'd done that. And I was always saying to myself, `God, I'll never know all that,' and `they're so much smarter than me.' And I've really had to cope with that all of my life." But in Dallas, ``I sort of grew. It was at that point that I started learning about a broader life than just Texas."
Good thing. Late in 1986, Times Herald National Editor Jim Roberts announced he was taking a job at the New York Times--and taking Krenek with him to be his wife. Krenek didn't have a job offer, and she'd only been to New York twice as a tourist. But she was finally ready to take a chance.
I N NEW YORK, KRENEK SOON HAD TWO offers: a copy desk job at the stable Newsday or a deputy news editor job with more vacation time at the less respectable but larger circulation Daily News. She decided to go for the extra days off.
Krenek bonded with Managing Editor Jim Willse and Editor Gil Spencer, who'd persuaded her that she would have more fun at the frisky News, at the time owned by the Tribune Co. She joined a news desk ``with a lot of bluster and noise," Willse says, ``and she was conspicuous because of her relative quiet. But it was quickly apparent that she had everything she needed to be a terrific editor. She had all the technical nuts and bolts that get the paper out on time, but more importantly she had an instantaneous understanding of what a lively tabloid should be. It was like she had been there for years."
The adjustment was more difficult than it seemed. Working until well past midnight, Krenek was mugged twice while making her way home to Brooklyn's Park Slope (she now lives in its Bay Ridge neighborhood). Mastering a newsroom right out of ``The Front Page" was even more challenging. With girlie shots adorning some walls and thick smoke in the air, the News was a proud men's club treating the infusion of women as a change to be tolerated but never welcomed. One well-endowed female reporter was nicknamed ``Big Tits" the day she showed up for a job interview. Women on the night staff were sometimes treated to the spectacle of male colleagues shamelessly climbing atop an air conditioning unit near the city desk to watch a woman in a neighboring skyscraper disrobe before an open window.
``For the first six months, I was in total shock," Krenek says. ``There were people screaming at each other, throwing typewriters at each other."
She kept her nose to the desk and found support among a few other hardy females, such as then-Sunday Editor Anthea Disney, now the chairman and CEO of Rupert Murdoch's News America Publishing Group.
``There was room for women, but you couldn't get on your high horse," Disney observes. ``If you were basically willing to play with the guys, then you were fine." Disney and dozens of others left the News before the real turmoil began in 1990: the bitter strike followed by two ownership changes, revolving-door editorships, and massive defections and firings. Krenek admits that ``there were times I felt like leaving, but the thing that kept me here was the people."
She rode out the storms, winning promotions to managing editor in 1991 and executive editor in 1993. When Zuckerman bought the paper late in 1992, she became the point person for some of the News' most ambitious projects.
One was a Spanish-language edition launched in 1995. Krenek poured her heart into its planning and production. When it was killed after six months, mainly because of distribution problems, it was Krenek who broke the news to the devastated staff. Only five of the 23 staffers--all new hires--were retained. ``She gathered the whole group in an office. They were crying a lot, and she was crying, too," says Albor Ruiz, who edited the section and is now a News columnist. ``She did everything in her power to save it."
Such emotional displays were rare on the News' hardball management team. Employees complain that Zuckerman set the tone with an attitude that was not only cold but openly disdainful of the staff.
Hamill infused the staff with new optimism during his brief tenure. His first few months were spent just trying to impress upon the ravaged staff that ``working at a newspaper shouldn't depress you," he says. The paper's content was steadily improving--beefed-up coverage of New York's immigrant community included Mike McAlary's Pulitzer-winning columns on police brutality--but circulation was not. Zuckerman's patience with Hamill ran out.
Zuckerman waited nearly two months before promoting Krenek. Battered veterans felt that no one deserved it more and that, while she lacked Hamill's magnetism and flair, she represented proven stability. She knew how to work with Zuckerman and how to shield the staff from his story impulses and second-guessing.
``Debby, to her credit, has a skill that the others don't have: an ability to get along with people," says veteran reporter Barbara Ross. ``And unlike the others, she actually listens."
But some reporters and editors who had been recharged under Hamill questioned what Krenek, the solid technician, could bring to an uneven editorial product that cried out for definition. Early in her tenure, she courted the investigative staff with a dinner. Former Investigations Editor Jim Mulvaney says she seemed most excited not about stories but about the installation of T-1 lines enabling Internet access.
But reporter Joe Calderone praises Krenek for giving ``full support" to an investigative project this year on an asthma epidemic among city children. ``She approved it, gave us four months to do it and backed it with plenty of space and play when we brought it in," says Calderone, the project's lead reporter.
Much of the newspaper's content is still controlled by Senior Managing Editor Arthur Browne, another longtime News survivor whose heavy editing has been a source of dissension among reporters, staffers say.
Krenek defends Browne, noting they have a close and trusting relationship developed through many management shuffles. Browne is equally supportive of his boss, saying they engage in ``endless discussions about what this paper should be and become." (Browne was promoted from the post of managing editor last month as part of a newsroom reorganization. Ed Kosner--former editor of Esquire and New York magazines--was brought in as Sunday editor, a new position.)
In news meetings, Krenek cheerleads for stories with ``pop" and a ``gee-whiz" quality. Hardened reporters cringe when she offers ideas picked up from a bowling alley where she takes her two young children. She is an unashamed fan of celebrity news--she was the editor who decided to run a suggestive crotch shot of Princess Di in a commemorative edition, a judgment that offended both staffers and readers. She tries whenever possible to illustrate complex stories with charts and displays that some staffers criticize as sophomoric. ``Do we really need a graphic to explain what D-Day is?" one reporter grouses.
Shortly before Christmas last year, editors were summoned to a management retreat, an unheard-of proposition at the News. Krenek says there was great concern that the session would turn ``down and dirty, but that didn't happen." Managers were asked to present six-month plans, and part of the session was used to air differences over the handling of a major project. But when it came to Krenek's own plans for coverage, ``there was no depth there," says Mulvaney, a Hamill hire who was terminated after nine months.
Browne has a different perspective on the retreat. It was a success, he says, because for ``the first time we, as a group of editors, got together and talked about an agenda for the newspaper." Last month, editors were to discuss department goals at a second retreat.
Serious-minded staffers wince at some of the work that has thus far defined the Krenek regime: a computer-assisted, three-day project on favorite dog names and food preferences, a Meet the Spice Girls contest that Hamill says seemed geared to ``11-year-olds, and 11-year-olds don't buy the newspaper." Krenek, however, loved the buzz the Spice Girls contest created and took her daughter to the music event, bringing back her own snapshot of concert-goer Madonna that was published in the News.
Krenek says one of her prouder moments involves an exposť by columnist Jim Dwyer about a $100 million budget surplus being hoarded by the transit authority. The News successfully pressured the authority to give some of the money back to riders through discounted passes. Krenek decided to celebrate with a champagne toast and sent out an announcement to the staff to gather that afternoon.
A near panic ensued. ``I heard everything from `Fred Drasner is leaving' to `they're canceling the health plan,' " Krenek says. ``This paper has been in crisis for most of the time that I've known it." She sees it as part of her job to make the staff ``feel more comfortable and make them see that great work" is noticed.
Such was the case when McAlary, who is fighting colon cancer, won his 1998 Pulitzer and came in to a heart-warming reception organized by Krenek.
And when one editor's wife went into labor, he arrived at the hospital to find her on the phone with a well-wisher--Krenek again.
The new editor has long been a consensus builder in a newsroom beset by factions and by a grinding friction plaguing it since the early 1990s, when the strike and ownership turmoil left the News' future in doubt. Yet Krenek, Hamill says, resists the ``pervasive sourness of the place." She shows a defiantly cheerful spirit even in dark times.
W ITH KRENEK'S ASCENSION, WOMEN reached a milestone not just at the notoriously macho Daily News (where female staffers toasted her by throwing back shots of tequila) but in American newspaper management at large. The glass ceiling has been real and unbreakable for all but a few women with ambitions to run newspapers.
Most newspaper diversity activists had never heard of Krenek before she became editor. She has not been a voice in any major professional organization, and some women on the staff grumble that she has shown no interest in serving as an advocate for women reporters or editors, who they say still tend to bruise easily in the News' rough-and-tumble culture.
Krenek is no feminist crusader in the journalistic world, and she discounts the suggestion that gender was a factor in her appointment. ``I hope not," she says. In fact, Zuckerman, not known for people skills, has praised Krenek as both a ``wonderful person" and an adept manager. Months before her promotion, he told a visitor that Krenek had the talent to manage a Fortune 500 company; afterward, he glowingly told reporters she was capable of running the Pentagon.
Zuckerman took the edge off the historic import of Krenek's appointment--which the jet-setting publisher announced through a telephone hookup to the newsroom--by naming Harold Evans, formerly of Random House, as editorial director for Zuckerman-owned publications. The move raised speculation that Krenek was only a figurehead, with Evans the real power through his close connection to Zuckerman. The latter denies this, saying he appointed Evans to guide the editorial side of all his media ventures, including the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News & World Report.
Zuckerman talks about Krenek running the paper for years to come, offering a newspaper that is ``continuously better focused," with sharper, more appealing features and design. The beauty of Krenek, he says, is that she is a team player who is receptive to and unthreatened by his or Evans' ideas.
Newsroom observers say Krenek adopted a ``no surprises" policy early on in dealing with Zuckerman and talks with him regularly throughout the day, a successful technique in avoiding many of publisher's notorious second-day critiques and criticisms. But Zuckerman is quick to note that Krenek is far from compliant, able to deal with authorities including Drasner, Evans or himself: ``She's capable of it, and I've seen her do it."
Longevity may be the least of Krenek's worries after a year on the job. Even her greatest admirers--like Willse, now editor of Newark's Star-Ledger--believe that Krenek's technical competence and can-do spirit cannot overcome the News' staggering production problems. The relocation of presses from Brooklyn to New Jersey has had disastrous consequences, slowing delivery and leaving the newspaper's circulation vulnerable to the traffic jams of two tunnels as trucks make their way to the outer boroughs. There have been times, Hamill says, when the paper hasn't hit the streets until regular readers have left for work. ``And when you have papers showing up at 8:30 or 9 a.m., you couldn't sell that for two cents," he says.
Zuckerman, however, says he's pleased with the News' gradual progress toward becoming a ``serious newspaper that still captures the drama of the news." The asthma project and a series on lax restaurant inspections represent the kind of journalism that will set the News apart, he maintains.
Krenek may not necessarily be a reporter's editor but, Zuckerman says, she's a ``reader's editor"--intuitively connected to the News' largely middle-class audience.
And she is a proven survivor. Even if Zuckerman tires of her, Krenek's strengths in many ways make her irreplaceable. She has both the technical skills to tackle mechanical problems and the people skills to manage the human ones.
Then there's the simple matter of those electrical plugs. No one else could even begin to tell you where they are.