Howell Raines’s first major innovation as executive editor of the New York Times – he started shortly before September 11 – was to create “A Nation Challenged.” But now, as the rest of the country settles into its new normal, Raines has pushed the Times toward a state of turmoil not felt since A. M. Rosenthal ruled. Raines has targeted the national desk first: Reporters are being told they’ll be recalled to New York or shipped to new bureaus as the section gets a wholesale makeover to provide what Raines calls “a fast-metabolism reaction to news.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone on the national desk who’s comfortable at the moment,” one reporter says. “It’s pretty dispiriting.” Staffers are particularly upset about reporters who’ve been asked to leave the regions they were working in spite of personal concerns.
Take the case of Kevin Sack. A longtime Atlanta bureau chief, Sack – who Times sources say is going through a divorce and who has an 8-year-old child – was told to give up his post. According to several people at the paper, he offered to cover any range of beats – immigration, race relations, welfare – as long as he could do so from Atlanta. When the brass still insisted that he move to Washington, Sack (who wouldn’t comment on the situation) quit.
“There’s some question about whether correspondents are going to be allowed to raise families,” worries one reporter.
For his part, Raines has told staffers that he didn’t work long and hard to get to where he is just so he could be a passive leader, according to people present at a recent bureau meeting in Washington; he added that he would “aggressively affect people’s lives” by changing copy, rotating assignments, and generally shaking things up.
Consider the national staff shook. For weeks, correspondents have been hearing rumors from their colleagues that they’re about to be recalled. Evelyn Nieves (based in San Francisco), James Sterngold (Los Angeles), Michael Janofsky (Denver), and Sam Howe Verhovek (Seattle) are all rumored to be either pulled back to New York or reassigned, and David Firestone, who works with Sack in Atlanta, has already been told he’s going to Washington (all of the reporters declined to comment).
While some of this shuffling is in keeping with the Times’ tradition of placing national and international correspondents in new regions every four to six years, under Raines’s two immediate predecessors, Joseph Lelyveld and Max Frankel, the paper made an effort to accommodate reporters with families when possible. In contrast, staffers feel that Raines (who declined to comment) is looking for “unencumbered” reporters.
“I don’t think Howell wants people bitching about how they can’t spend time on the road,” says one reporter. “He’s looking for 30-year-olds with no spouse and no children, people who can file from four datelines in five days. It’s the model of what a national correspondent was like when Howell was on the national staff.” Bill Schmidt, a Times associate managing editor, insists that’s not the case: “There would be no reason to go in that direction. You pick journalists you want out in the country.”
But reporters are worried. “There’s suddenly this whole issue of what it means to be a reporter at the Times,” says one staffer. “It used to be if you were a star, you either went national or foreign. What do you do now when you’re 40 or 50 years old?”
And the nervousness isn’t limited to writers. Where Lelyveld and managing editor Bill Keller gave individual editors more control over their sections, Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd are transferring power back to the masthead, leaving editors unsure of where they stand and fanning fears that “Lelyveld people” would not do well under Raines. Foreign editor Roger Cohen is still operating with an “acting” in front of his title, an unsettling reminder that his post may not be secure. “No one feels safe,” one Times source says. “So many people are running scared.”