Will the Journal Be Pleased by Sewell Chan’s Departure From the Times ‘Metro’ Section?

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Sewell Chan.Photo: Friendster.com

For the past few months, The Wall Street Journal has been marshaling staff and resources for its fledgling New York bureau. Editor John Seeley and hiring manager Deborah Brewster have been interviewing all over town, and have already hired some reporters who are set to start later this very month. While originally reported to launch in April, it looks like the bureau will begin reporting its own stories by February. Its goal is to compete with the Times on its own turf: the news, politics, and culture of New York City (and State!). Starting with a reported staff of twelve and a budget of $15 million, obviously that's a tall order. But news today that Sewell Chan, one of the Times "Metro" section's powerhouses, is transferring to a Washington beat, has got to have at least some people at the Journal smiling.

"Really, I am at a loss — at a loss to try and calculate Metro’s loss," wrote section chief Joe Sexton in a memo to staffers today. "It is great for him. It is wonderful and exciting for this paper ... But it still leaves me at a loss." He went on to describe Chan, who helped found the paper's popular and prolific City Room blog in 2007 and continued to oversee it ever since, thusly:


City Room, sometimes called a blog, was and is, of course, way more than that. And Sewell, its creator and conscience and beating heart from Day 1, was no less than all of that.

Sewell was brave, relentless, generous, mercilessly competitive, religiously careful, wholeheartedly committed. He was a pioneer, a trailblazer, an evangelist, a warrior, a mentor, a student. And always, utterly, a Timesman.

He’s left me nonplussed before. At one of those many moments, I sought out [Times Executive Editor Bill] Keller (he really is good at these kinds of memos), and he found some words to capture what Sewell is, and what he has been so central in creating.

It's amazing how quickly Sewell has become the gold standard for a particular, extremely valuable kind of Times journalist. Editors who want a beat covered with industry and inventiveness will wish aloud that they had "a Sewell." Anyone planning to launch a new venture, especially a Web journalism venture, sets out to find "someone like Sewell." You hear things like that all the time. And I don't think the key to it is that Sewell is comfortable with the new medium (though he is). I think his journalistic qualities are timeless. Sewell is one of the very few people I've interviewed for a job who was emphatic about wanting to do beat coverage. At a time when it seemed everybody was in thrall to "long form narrative," yearning to do large, important but unspecific projects, Sewell understood the thrill of mastering a subject, developing sources, breaking stories and generally acquiring go-to-the-bank authority. What seems to drive him — more than the glory of page-one bylines or the satisfaction of literary writing — is a wide, insatiable curiosity. That, combined with a canny instinct for a story and (really important) the sheer infectiousness of this passion for news, which draws others into the project, is why City Room works so well.”

Pretty high praise, eh? Veteran Journal staffer Nikki Waller, who will be overseeing the online development of their new bureau, has got to be pleased she's not competing with that. "Sewell actually exceeded people's expectations for how long someone could do that," one newsroom staffer said today, noting that his replacement, Andy Newman — who currently runs the Local blog for the paper — will not have much choice about keeping up the pace. "The job sort of demands 24-hour attention. Whoever's going to do it is probably going to have to keep the same metabolism."

Chan's departure comes on the heels of his friend and fellow City Room big-name blogger Jenny 8. Lee last month, but in recent months Lee had not been viewed to be as critical a part of the reporting team. As for whether the Times is yet worrying about their upcoming new rival, reporters say there's not a lot of talk about it in the newsroom. "The Times already has the apparatus to dominate city coverage," said one staffer. "That takes years to build, and the Journal doesn't have any of that."

Changing of the Guard at City Room [City Room/NYT]