NEW YORK — The jockeying has no doubt already begun within The New York Times’ building on 43rd Street almost two years after departed executive editor Howell Raines stepped up the paper’s focus on pop culture, fashion and media.
The Times announced Thursday morning that Raines was resigning, along with managing editor Gerald Boyd. Raines is being replaced temporarily by former executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, who will take up his old seat until a long-term replacement is found.
The announcements of their resignations came just five weeks after the Times published a four-page mea culpa that detailed how a Times staff reporter, 27-year-old African-American Jayson Blair, had plagiarized and made up facts in some 36 articles during his short time at the paper.
Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher and partial owner, continually voiced support for Raines, but it did not seem to help. On Tuesday, Sulzberger went to Washington, D.C., to meet with the bureau, and according to two sources, was shocked to find that there was almost no support whatsoever for Raines’ continued presence at the paper.
When Sulzberger returned, a source said, he began to call around to the other bureaus. The reaction was by and large the same. By late Wednesday, a source said, Sulzberger had reached an agreement with Lelyveld to come back, and he asked Raines and Boyd to step down. (A staff memo sent from Sulzberger disputed this, saying he had “sadly” accepted their resignations, though it seemed telling to some that Boyd and Raines were not given any sort of face-saving gesture, like a column).
From the time Sulzberger moved Raines from the editorial page to the executive editor position, the paper began to make rapid changes and stepped up its coverage of pop culture and style. Scores of editors were bumped out of their posts and Raines rapidly shuffled some of the paper’s better-known writers. Alex Kuczynski was moved from the business desk — where she’d been covering the magazine industry — to the Sunday Styles section, and Raines even sent Hollywood reporter Bernard Weinraub to Iraq. He jazzed up the paper’s photos, put feature-like stories that were not necessarily of national importance on the front page and “flooded the zone” on stories like the Augusta National controversy. The folding of Talk Magazine in January 2002 made the front page two days in a row, and Mariah Carey’s exit deal with Virgin was given page-one status as well.
“He was catalytic and galvanizing,” said one cultural reporter. “He opened the door wide for page-one stories from the style department, whether it was a pop culture story on Britney Spears or Botox.”
But the very star system that increased the paper’s buzz seemed to undermine Raines in the aftermath of the Blair scandal, as staffers began to complain vociferously about being ignored and impugned by that system. The complaints only increased after a miniscandal erupted weeks later over star reporter Rick Bragg. Characterizing the sentiments of the staff, the source said, “they began focusing on people whose merits were questionable and who were all jazz and no substance. There are a lot people who do fabulous work and do their job and don’t get any attention. I remember someone saying under Lelyveld that the powers that be hear every noise in the forest, but somehow [Howell and Gerald] didn’t hear every noise. I think maybe their management style prevented them from hearing the vibrations.”
What the powers that be do next is up in the air. Lelyveld has privately told friends that he expects his stay to be short (he’s currently penning a memoir on growing up as the son of a rabbi), perhaps as little as six weeks. Others think that the search could take up to a year, even though a short list of obvious candidates has already surfaced. Most industry speculation centers around OpEd columnist Bill Keller, whom Raines beat out for the top job in 2001, though two knowledgeable sources thought this was unlikely. Dean Baquet, the former national editor for the Times who moved to The Los Angeles Times shortly after Raines’ appointment and is African American, is believed to be high up on the list. Additionally, his strong professional record, combined with his race, could send a powerful message that the Times has done enough apologizing for the Blair scandal and plans to stay true to its course, which contends that diversity and great journalism are not mutually exclusive of one another, several sources said. A third candidate is Marty Baron, editor of the Boston Globe. The paper’s London bureau chief, Warren Hoge, who is in his 60s, could also be a contender, though his age might work against him.
The paper will also probably continue to investigate some of its reporters. There have been reports that Kuczynski — who resigned to write a book — would not be asked back, though several Times sources said that was news to everyone in the Style department. They stressed that none of her work with the Style desk is under investigation and pointed out that she’d stopped into the offices earlier this week to say hello and pick up her mail.