By Carter B. Horsley
A. M. Rosenthal, who
won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for reporting from Poland and went
on to become the Metropolitan Editor and eventually the Executive
Editor of The New York Times, died May 10, 2006 at the
age of 84.
In his well-balanced obituary of Mr. Rosenthal,
Robert D. McFadden, one of the newspaper's legendary rewritemen,
accurately desribed Mr. Rosenthal as "Brilliant, passionate,
abrasive, a man of dark moods and mercurial temperament,"
adding, in the same sentence, "he could cooly evaluate world
developments one minute and humble a subordinate for an error
in the next."
His shining moment was probably overseeing
the publication of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971, a
7,000-page secret government history of the Vietnam War that indicated
that every every administration since World War II had enlarged
America's involvement while hiding the true dimensions of the
The Nixon administration sought to have the
publication of the papers prevented but the newspaper won a landmark
decision in the United States Supreme Court that upheld, according
to Mr. McFadden's article, the primacy of the press over government
attempts to impose "prior restraint" on what may be
printed. The "papers" had been found and reported on
by Neil Sheehan.
It is ironic that 35 years after the publication
of the "papers," The Times has become embroiled
once again in a similar issue that has incurred the wrath of the
Mr. Rosenthal was at the helm of the newsroom
at The Times when the Washington Post was producing
many exclusive stories about "Watergate," a much more
important journalistic scoop, much to the chagrin of The Times.
The Times, of
course, wrote a lot about Watergate and remains the most influential
journalistic enterprise in the United States, whose page-one stories
are picked up by thousands of other journalistic outlets, both
print and other media, daily and whose lesser stories still carry
Before Mr. Rosenthal was appointed the Metropolitan
Editor of the paper in 1963, the paper's newsroom staff was based
on a pretty long apprenticeship. working one's way slowly but
surely up through the ranks. The joke was that to become a copyboy
at The Times you needed a doctorate degree. That was somewhat
apochacryful but not totally off the mark. As a copyboy, you ran
to a reporters' desks when they called "Copy!" and took
the multi-part typewritten page up to Sammy Solovitz at the editors'
bullpen where it would be broken down for distribution to various
editors. When I was a copyboy, there were 10 copies, one of which
the reporter kept and I once calculated that as many as 33 different
people could see a story before it appeared in print and make
comments about or changes to it.
The next step up from copyboy was becoming
a "news clerk" and then a "news assistant"
and each major news department had a few of these to cover operations
day and night. Their tasks varied but were a bit more responsible
than being a "gopher" for coffee," or running down
to the basements to get the first papers literally hot off the
massive and deafening presses, or running upstairs to the composing
room to deliver a hastily rewritten headline to a linotype operator
to punch into his Rube Goldberg machine that spit out very hot
lines of lead type that were then conveyed in metal trays to the
large counters where the individual pages were laid out prior
to be taken to a cardboard press that would formed a semi-circular
mold for insertion on the giant rollers of the presses.
Some news clerks answered phones and gathered
the material for the weather page while some news assistants measured
how many column inches their department got into the paper, or
ran to the "morgue," the back-clipping department to
find out what had been previously published on some subject or
individual now again in the news.
I started in as the late-night clerk in the
morgue, working to 3AM in the morning while I was still attending
New York University where I was the news editor of the university
paper under Allan M. Siegal, who just retired this spring as an
assistant manager editor of The Times where he was primarily
responsible for maintaining and arbitrating standards, a role
previously held by Theodore Bernstein who also was one of the
editors who actually laid out the front page.
I had applied for a job as a "news clerk"
on the day foreign desk at The Times when an acquaintance
of my mine at the university, whose family at the time owned the
former Gotham Hotel on Fifth Avenue, told me he was giving the
job up. I didn't get the job, probably because he had not told
me it required that you had to type about 80 words a minute, accurately.
My accuracy was not so hot then. A couple of months later I was
desperately wondering what job I could get for the summer when
I got a telegram from The Times asking if I wanted to work
at night in the newsroom. My answer, of course, was yes, even
though it meant working until 3AM while I was carrying a full
load of coarses and more than a dozen extra-curricular activities
Much of the job involved filing articles in
folders in cabinets in the cavernous "morgue." During
the day, nine copies of the paper were minced up and marked with
the "filing" subject and stamp-dated. It would usually
take me a few hours to get my share of the evening's filings done
and then I was alone at the counter to respond to queries on deadline
from the newsroom. As the hours went by, I generally would walk
down the corridor to the open newsroom and stand there to be able
to more quickly respond to any emergency as well as to better
soak in the atmosphere of clickety-clacking and smoke and occasional
poker game. In time, I began friendly with some of the reporters
and editors and supervisors and asked Sammy Solovitz if he could
arrange a transfer for me from the morgue to the newsroom as a
copyboy as the morgue was a literal dead-end career-wise.
A few weeks later, Sammy said a transfer could
be arranged but it would involve taking a pay cut of about 30
percent. I said yes right away.
I hustled as a copyboy and I suppose my shining
hour came one night a little after the paper had "closed"
at 3AM when Herbie French, the late-night head of the foreign
copy desk who was famous for drinking cold, not iced, coffee,
decided to stop the presses to add a story and thanked me for
my help in scrambling about to help him. He said "Thanks,
Carter," an unheard of pleasantry from him.
Before long, I became the news clerk on the
night city desk and very soon thereafter was made the news assistant
on the night city desk, which was then headed by Sheldon Binn,
the most brilliant newsman I every encountered at The Times, apart
from Allen Siegel. There was nothing that Shelly didn't know about
the city. Reporters who had been assigned stories during the day
by the editors on the day desk would do their reporting and by
shortly before 4 PM would submit a long paragraph summary of the
article that was circulated to various editors. By 6 PM, the reporters
would individually sit down with Shelly to discuss their story
and receive a "space allotment" that wsa simply how
many words the story should be then retreat back to their desks
to pound it out as best they could. Shelly was a gentle interrogator
who deftly determined what the real merits of the story were on
deadline rather than the perceived hopes of the dayside. The brief
meeting with Shelly was the reporter's moment of truth. The dayside
editors, of course, had notions of which stories would become
major "candidates" for the page one and for the "second
front," which was the first page of the second (and last)
section of the daily paper and was reserved almost exclusively
for stories from the City Desk. Some stories just didn't pan out
that strongly, of course, and, more frequently, were supplanted
by later developments.
In those days of the early 60s, there were
seven major papers in New York City: The Times and its
archrival, the Herald Tribune, both of which were published
at night, and The New York Post, The New York News, The New
York Mirror, The Journal-American and The Telegram. The
Post, The News, and The Mirror were tabloids. The rest
were "broadsheets," the much larger and folded format.
There was considerable competition among the papers and everyday
I calculated each of the other papers had at least one "exclusive"
we did not know about and most of which we would pursue and follow
up with our own, belated version.
A fair amount of news then happened at night.
We usually had five to seven reporters, including most of the
political reporters, who regularly covered events at night that
would be written about for the second edition. The first edition
was known as the City Edition and the presses started printing
it about 9:50 PM. The first edition of The Herald Tribune,
however, came out about 20 minutes earlier and was very carefully
read and followed up, not just for their "exclusive"
stories, but also for their interpretations or takes on stories
that we were also working. The first Late City Edition of The
Times was sent to the presses about 11:40 PM and there would
usually be at least one more edition and on some election nights
and some major catastrophies there might be a total of as many
as 8 editions, the number of periods after the volume number on
the top left corner of the front page indicated which edition
The overwhelming majority of people who became
reporters at The Times worked their way up from copyboy
over a three- to five-year period. I was on-track to get promoted
to reporter after about two-and-half-years when A. M. Rosenthal
was appointed as the new editor of the Metropolitan Desk, which
up until then had been called the City Desk. Mr. Rosenthal, a
rather frumpy but energy man who had started as a stringer at
the City College of the University of New York and had become
a foreign correspondent at the United Nations, India and Poland.
He was replacing Frank Adams, a rolly-polly, bright-cheeked, dapper
graduate of Princeton University, who was the City Editor.
To my great dismay, Mr. Rosenthal selected
me to become his "news assistant" on the dayside, probably
because he assumed I was familiar with the nightside operation,
which, of course, I was. I was not thrilled because I had been
anticipating being promoted to reporter, not prolonging my "news
assistant" internship. Moreover, it was clear that major
changes were starting and many on the nightside were not thrilled
at the prospect. Mr. Rosenthal was apparently coming in with a
mandate to improve the quality of writing and make the city coverage
more lively. For his deputy, he appointed his old friend from
City College who had been an editor in the Culture Department,
Mr. Gelb was tall and lanky and even more energetic
than Mr. Rosenthal. He was the idea man. Mr. Rosenthal was the
executioner, the administrator, the manager. They complemented
one another terrifically. They were "Mutt and Jeff,"
although many in the newsroom referred to them as Rosencrantz
and Gilderstern. Before I made the switch to dayside, about which
I obviously had no choice, it was clear that Shelly and his able
crew of Joe Turso, Will Weng, Bill Luce and Jerry Gold, all fine,
sharp and sophisticated editors, were at wit's end almost nightly
trying to salvage the day's wreckage of assignments that did not
pan out. To be fair, any one new to the task would need some time
to grapple with the gigantic bundle of news reporting that The
Times then had. There were several reporters covering labor,
most notably Abe Raskin, several covering the various courts,
several covering religion, several covering police headquarters,
a large contingent of political reporters at large as well as
at City Hall and in Albany, as well general assignment reporters
for covering disasters, parades, obituaries, health and the like
and the outer boroughs and the suburbs.
I was not the only "news assistant"
on the dayside as a couple had been there for many years. My job
was specifically assisting Bayard Webster, a delightfuly pleasant
and earnest man who I was astounded to later discover had been
a fighter pilot in the Navy during World War II. I sat next to
him for about three years and never knew about his having been
a pilot, a revelation that sobered me up quite a bit about the
men, and a few women, who I worked with in this legendary newsroom.
Up until this time, the vast majority of national
and foreign correspondents were chosen from the City Desk, now
Metropolitan Desk, staff. It should also be noted that many of
the reporters in the newsroom had been famous foreign correspondents
for the paper.
As it quickly developed, I was the only person
on the day Metropolitan Desk who read every wire copy, every press
release and every memo that came to the desk and about "spike"
about half of them and rerouted another quarter of them before
passing them on to "By," who would then pass them on
to Mr. Gelb. In addition, I would take the vast majority of the
phone calls to the desk, dispensing with most them unless they
were very urgent by taking notes or making minor decisions.
Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb would take long
lunches for meetings with staff or other editors and not infrequently
I was left alone for a couple of hours or so on the desk and would
often have to make assignments for some emergency. One day was
so busy in fact that I wrote Mr. Rosenthal a memo detailing 22
new developments that had to be addressed, several of which I
had already assigned. It was presumptuous but I never was called
down on it and I had confidence in knowing how Shelly would judge
the stories. I never sought to undercut By and I think he was
gracious in not minding that I was taking some of the burdens
off his shoulders.
Mr. Rosenthal began to make a lot of changes,
not the least of which was his disregard and overthrow of the
old apprenticeship system, his hiring of outsiders as reporters,
and his lack of respect for seniority among his staff. After about
a year or so working directly across the desk from him every day,
he decided to promote a young man, Ralph Blumenthal, to reporter.
Ralph had been a City College stringer for the paper as had Mr.
Rosenthal and there was no question that he was bright and intelligent,
but he had not been in the newsroom for very long. A few days
later, I approached Mr. Rosenthal. "Sir," I started.
"Don't call me, sir!" he blurted. It was not the first
time I had addressed him as "Sir" when I needed to get
his attention for something important, but it was the first time
he told me not to. He was right, of course. I should have simply
said "Mr. Rosenthal," or "Abe," but unfortunately
it was a habit I had acquired when I was in private school and
it was hard to shake. It was not meant cynically, or snidely,
or unctuously. It was meant with respect for his position, and
probably with a fair bit of fear. Mr. Rosenthal had a temper,
but more importantly, a vengeful spirit. He did not take slights,
real or perceived, lightly. Though not enunciated, he clearly
had a "enemies and friends" list and clearly played
favorites and clearly had a long memory.
I asked why I had not yet been promoted to
reporter. He sidestepped the question quickly and offered to promote
me to being a copy editor quickly. There was always a need for
good copy editors, who got about the same pay as reporters. I
was taken back a bit by the offer as it was something I had never
considered, but I quickly said "No, thanks" as I knew
that I preferred to be a reporter who had a byline. I don't remember
the rest of the brief conversation but in any event he did not
promote me to reporter although I continued to work as his news
assistant for quite some time until he was promoted to managing
editor and succeeded as Metropolitan Editor by Arthur Gelb. I
also in time pressed Mr. Gelb about when I was going to be promoted.
He asked me why I had never complimented him. I was shocked. We
had worked daily across the desk from one another. I had been
"in his face" every day, hustling to make his job a
bit easier and making countless decisions that were not faulted.
He and Mr. Rosenthal were the most powerful people in the city
other than the mayor. I told him that, adding that therefore I
felt there was no need to me to waste his time with being a sychophant.
I was not promoted then, although Mr. Gelb eventually did promote
me to reporter, some three years after I had been transfered from
nightside to dayside and some three years after I would have been
promoted in the "old" system.
I witnessed several instances when promotions
were given to people who had been blatantly flattering of Mr.
Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb. Many of those people were, in fact, quite
contemptuous of them behind their back. The morale of the newsroom
deteriorated seriously under both of them. One of Mr. Rosenthal's
first outside "hires" as Metropolitan Editor was R.
W. ("Johnny") Apple who was hired away from Time
Magazine. His salary, which was considerably higher than what
many of the best reporters were then receiving, became known rather
quickly and created a lot of resentment. It should be noted, of
course, that Johnny Apple went on to an illustrious and fine career
at The Times, a fact that should be balanced, however,
by the very impressive list of fine reporters who would leave
the paper under their reign: David Halberstam, Gay Talese, and
Richard Reeves, among many others. On a recent Charlie Rose program
honoring A. M. Rosenthal, Gay Talese remarked that he and David,
two very major stars of the paper in the early 1960s, left primarily
to pursue opportunities that favored a different kind of in-depth
journalism. Prior to their departure, it was almost unheard of
for a reporter to willingly leave The Times whose newsroom
had been a lifelong occupation for most since it was the pinnacle
of traditional American journalism.
Working as a reporter for The Times
set one apart from one's professional peers at other newspapers
simply because you never had trouble reaching anyone. Its institutional
power in established bastions was such that you could as a reporter
actually be a bit lazy and not have to hustle as much. Your phone
call would be returned first. It would be returned. You would
be given as much time as you needed by a source with rare exception.
When Mr. Rosenthal took over the helm of the
Metropolitan Desk, American society was trying to adjust to the
Beatles, drugs, civil rights, and Vietnam and journalism was beginning
to change dramatically as the gang of "New Journalists"
such as Tom Wolfe and Jimmie Breslin were personalizing their
reportage and making it more colorful and lively. Great feature
writing, of course, had been around, but Wolfe and Breslin were
highly visible on the smaller staffs of the papers they worked
for. The Times had had one fine feature writer, Meyer Berger,
and Gay Talese, quite the perfectionist, had always wanted to
inherit his column but Gay occasionally had problems with deadlines
and never got the column and was lured away by a magazine that
gave him a major increase in pay and the need to produce only
a few columns a year.
Mr. Rosenthal's apparent mandate upon becoming
the Metropolitan Editor was to enliven the paper and promote a
higher quality of writing. His advent as Metropolitan Editor also
happened to coincide with the ascendancy of television news, and
the glamor of John F. Kennedy and John L. Lindsay. Before long,
the paper also began to succumb to the pressures of polls. I remember
one meeting at which Arthur Gelb had invited several reporters,
including myself, to meet Lou Harris, the pollster. After the
meeting, Richard Reeves and I chatted with great disdain about
the potential of polls to seriously affect serious journalism.
Was it right for a responsible newspaper to turn over an important
aspect of its journalism to non-journalists who worked the phones
rather than the street? No!
To venture into the newsroom of The Times
on election nights in the mid-1960s was a shock for old-line journalists.
Everyone was watching television sets. Second-hand reporting and
reporting of polls!
Television and polls, of course, have left
indelible marks or scars on journalism. No one cannot deny the
globalizing importance of watching small steps for man on the
moon, but polls are still way too influential in the overall scheme
One cannot fault Mr. Rosenthal and The Times
for wanting and trying to stay on top of a lot change. Hey, that's
One cannot consider Mr. Rosenthal's legacy
at The Times without Mr. Gelb's legacy and vice-versa.
They were an inseparable team, and together a journalistic juggernaut
without parallel or peers. Everyday Mr. Gelb would come into the
newsrooms and the newsstaff would swear they could see a halo
of sparkling story ideas encircling his head atop his quite tall
body, and many feared that sparks from that hallow would fall
on their shoulders shortly.
Mr. Gelb's batting average was not much better
than a Major League All-Star player's, which is too say that not
a few ideas of his struck out or ground out. For a small or modest
newspaper that would have been calamitous as most do not have
the resources that The Times has had in terms of personnel
to throw into the attack and like "The Little House of Horrors,"
newsprint demands "Feed Me!"
To their resounding credit, both Mr. Rosenthal
and Mr. Gelb were thoroughly steeped in the finest journalistic
traditions of the paper and took their jobs and responsibilities
very, very, very seriously. When Clyde Haberman, a stringer at
City College, snuck in an esoteric reference to an Ernest Hemingway
character in a list of graduation awards, Mr. Rosenthal fired
him. Years later, Mr. Haberman would be hired as a reporter and
is one of the paper's best columnists and he recently wrote a
nice and very thoughtful tribute about Mr. Rosenthal after his
John Kifner didn't like wear socks and Mr.
Rosenthal, a quite conservative and not flashy dresser, let him
get away with it and promoted him to reporter fairly quickly.
John and I covered the East Harlem riots in the mid-1960s and
I continued to wear socks, which slowed me down a bit chasing
after him as we dodged sniper bullets. That was my only experience
as a "war" correspondent while John would go on to cover
Deep down, almost all journalists, including
me, yearn to become "foreign correspondents" - on our
own, away from the glances of editors, ferreting out the "truth"
and "meaning" and "guts" of life in a "different
There are two basic kinds of reporter: the
fact-finder and the poet. Peter Kihss was the pre-eminent fact-finder
and when Mr. Rosenthal ascended to the Metropolitan Editorship,
Peter sat at the first seat in the first row as you ended the
gigantic newsroom at 229 West 36th Street on the third floor.
Peter could produce three different, major page-one stories at
a time and take time to give phone numbers from his many hand-written
phone books to other reporters. His copy was clean, but rather
dry. He prided himself, with great justification, on accuracy,
not style. Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb respected Peter enough to
keep out of his way, but they were more interested in flashier
stories, exclusive stories, investigative stories.
Homer Bigart won two Pulitzer Prizes as a foreign
correspondent before joining the staff of The Times and
he sat just to the left of Peter and he sat and sat and sat. Mr.
Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb respected Homer enough to want to give
him stories equal to his great talents as an all-around journalistic
poet who could see the complicated, "big picture" and
toss it memorably into a brilliant and accurate article. Mr. Rosenthal
and Mr. Gelb would often notice late in the afternoon, with great
chagrin, that Homer was still sitting at his upfront desk waiting
for an assignment. Homer was not particularly fond of either Mr.
Rosenthal or Mr. Gelb. During Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb's tenure
as major editors in the newsroom there were a couple of reporters
who were similar to Homer: Richard Shepard and Murray Schumach.
They could neatly handle just about any assignment on any subject
and produce wonderful articles that were accurate and very well-written.
Both became reporters before Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb took charge
in the newsroom.
Juggling a cauldron of prima donnas, and reporters,
in the best "Front Page" tradition, are prima donnas,
is not easy, of course. While it is easy to say that Mr. Rosenthal
was not widely beloved in the newsroom that is not what really
matters. What really matters is what type of standards are upheld
and imposed and are changes that are made beneficial.
When I began at the paper in 1961 there was
an average of 14 and a half articles that appeared on the front
page. Nowadays, there are perhaps 5 and a half on average, not
counting the one-sentence blurbs at the bottom of the page. Some
of the changes were made incrementally. Pictures became bigger,
eating up a higher percentage of the news "hole." Fonts
became larger, resulting in fewer words per column inch, and therefore,
generally shorter articles in number of words.
The really big and really important change
under the Rosenthal administration was the introduction of new
"books" or sections to the daily paper coupled with
the ascendancy of Louis Silverstein, an art director who oversaw
the layouts of most of the new sections and determined that the
layouts would be based on the most graphically appealing rather
than the most editorially important.
Traditionally, readers of The Times
could figure the importance of an article based on the size of
its headline and its placement within the paper and on each page,
especially the front page. Articles "above the fold"
were more important than articles below it and articles at the
right of the front page were more important than those at the
left. Under Mr. Silverstein, the articles leading the new "Home,"
"Style," "Science," "Weekend," sections
and the like were those that had what he considered the best graphics.
What happened was perhaps not immediately apparent.
The editors of these new "special" sections, which were
created primarily to attract new advertisers, were relinguishing
their responsibility to present news based on editorial importance
to an art director who cared not a wit about content, but only
looks. If the art director were merely making the best presentation
of articles but not also deciding where they should fit in a layout
the problem would be not so critical.
"All the news that's fit to print"
was the paper's logo. It was now being unofficially replaced by
"all the features that fit an art director's vision of good
design," which is quite akin to placing photographs of scantilly
dressed women on page three, or the front page, of many tabloids.
The Times's reputation
for decades was that it was "the paper of record," where
you turned to discover the relevancy and importance of matters
of some historic interest as determined by the experienced collective
mindset of a group of intelligent journalists. The Times remains
the best paper in the country, but that does not reflect the fact
that nearly half of articles that now appear on its front page
are features that need not run that day. Most of the articles,
of course, are interesting, but do not have the "hard-news"
quality, that is, urgency, of something that just happened and
are "soft-news" articles that often reflect trends that
did not just occur yesterday, or worse, the results of polls taken
by non-Times-trained personnel.
There is nothing wrong with taking a fresh
look at one's product to see if it can be improved, freshened.
But it is quite another to throw the baby out with wash and the
dirty linen now began to include a huge amount of what had passed
for decades as serious and important news.
The reputation of The Times rested for
decades on its international reporting and its national coverage
as well as its highly influential cultural reportage and criticism.
The local news was important primarily because it looked bad if
you did not cover it at all. Historically, at least in post-World
War II era until the introduction of the new sections and the
ascendancy of Mr. Silverstein, the paper divided its main news
"hole" equally between the foreign, national and local
sections, each getting about 20 to 22 column inches in the average
weekday edition barring major disasters that might skew the division
of space somewhat and generally not by taking away from the other
sections but more increasing the news hole to accommodate the
need for more in-depth coverage.
Sports and the financial news departments were
also large but were relegated to back pages and generally were
not considered the strengths of the newspapers.
When Mr. Rosenthal approved the additions of
the new daily sections, it was widely assumed that they represented
an expansion of the paper and were not taking away space from
the foreign, national and news departments. Such an assumption
was and is completely wrong as anyone with a tape measure can
Newspapers were losing circulation and influence
as more and more Americans got their news from television, which
is to say that more and more Americans became dumber and dumber
by and large if one were to base that judgment on the quality
of local newscasts which were, and are, an affront out of kindergarten.
Yes, Edward R. Murrow was a terrific journalist and Peter Jennings
brought a fine level of intelligence and nimbleness to the role
of anchorman, but even in their finest hours they oversaw news
presentations that were paltry at best in their coverage of a
world with many more nations, many more disciplines, many more
artists than at any time in history. Television excels at coverage
of disasters and very important events, but not at the nitty-gritty
that is important but constantly lost in its sound-bite world.
The circulation of The Times has remained
essentially unchanged over the decades. Its weekday circulation
hovers at about 1.1 million copies of the paper of which a third
is national, a third is the New York metropolitan area and a third
is within the confines of the five boroughs of New York City.
In comparison, The Wall Street Journal has had a national
circulation of about two million for a long time.
In a nation with a population now of about
300 million people representing perhaps close to a 100 million
households, the combined circulation of The Times and The
Wall Street Journal only reaches about 3 million copies, a
pretty terrible indictment of the American mindset towards intelligent
The Wall Street Journal, which has never bothered to consider itself a local
newspaper, has always had very high journalistic standards and
its off-beat prominently displayed feature stories on its front
page have been a marvel of fine writing and excellent reporting.
It has, however, focused the vast majority of its resources on
business news, although it recent years it has finally began to
incorporate very well written features of interest to its generally
very well-heeled readership such as columns on wines and travel.
I was always astounded that The Wall Street Journal did
not beef up its cultural coverage. By simply adding at least one
full page of cultural criticism each day, it could have knocked
the socks off The Times.
The Times has
had a terrible business record, especially given its incredible
clout and brand. At one point, it got interested in the electronic
retrieval of news articles, but it squandered that pre-Internet
opportunity and not much came of it and it did not became the
Nexis-Lexis of record.
At one point, it tried to launch a national
edition but aborted it early. I met Jules Stein at a party in
Los Angeles during the launch and when he heard I was with The
Times he said that he and all his friends in Hollywood were very
eager to help support a national addition and that he had made
numerous phone calls to the paper in New York all of which were
unanswered. At that same time, I dropped in to the Los Angeles
bureau and was astounded to hear from Murray Schumach, then covering
Hollywood for the paper, that he had arranged a meeting with several
major advertising executives of the major film studios for a representative
of the newspaper's advertising department. He had done so reluctantly
because of the long-standing antipathy of the editorial department
for the business side of the paper. God forbid that a business-type
dared set foot in the third-floor newsroom! The publisher only
dared to do about once a year. Murray told me that the meeting
was set for a Saturday in the bureau's offices. On Monday, he
had phone messages from the studio executives who were annoyed
that the advertising representative from the paper had excused
himself from the meeting for a very long time and was discovered
watching a football game on television. Needless to say, the national
edition died an early death, unfortunately, and improbably and
it was probably because of that failure that The Times
was slow to pick up on its extremely enviable position as the
nation's arbiter of value.
Credit for once again picking up the throwaway
mantle of entrepreneurship should probably go to Walter Mattson
who was able to convince the publisher and Mr. Rosenthal of the
advertising potential of new sections.
In his obituary article on Mr. Rosenthal in
The Times, Bob McFadden provided the following commentary:
"As managing editor from 1969 to 1977
and as executive editor until 1986, he guided The Times
through a remarkable transformation that brightened its sober
pages, expanded news coverage, introduced new production technology,
launched a national edition, won new advertisers and tens of thousands
of new readers, and raised the paper's sagging fortunes to unparalleled
"By the end of the 1960's, The Times,
despite a distinguished journalistic history, had a clouded future.
Its reporting and writing were widely regarded as thorough but
ponderous. Revenues were declining, profits were marginal, circulation
was stagnant, and some studies said The Times might be
doomed in the age of television to join a dozen New York newspapers
in the elephant graveyard.
"Mr. Rosenthal's objective, often stated
in memos to the staff and in public comments, was a delicate one:
to forge dramatic changes in The Times, to erase a stodgy
image with a new look and to improve readability and profitability
all this while maintaining the essential character of the
"Many innovations during Mr. Rosenthal's
tenure are familiar components of today's Times. He expanded
the weekday paper from two to four parts, including separate metropolitan
and business news sections, and inaugurated new feature sections
for weekdays: SportsMonday, Science Times on Tuesdays, the Living
section on Wednesdays, the Home section on Thursdays and Weekend
"Critics said the feature sections undercut
The Times's reputation for serious reporting, and some
called articles on gourmet cooking and penthouse deck furniture
elitist in an age of homelessness and poverty. But defenders said
the sections usurped no space from regular news and brightened
the paper's tone. The innovations, highly popular with readers
and advertisers, were copied by many newspapers across the country.
"Mr. Rosenthal also redesigned most of
the Sunday feature sections; started suburban weeklies for New
Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Westchester County; and began
a series of Sunday magazine supplements that focused on business,
travel, home entertainment, leisure activities, education, fashion,
health and other subjects.
"The Sunday innovations drew a similarly
split critical reaction defended as stylish and colorful,
disparaged as distractions from important news. But most were
also popular with readers and advertisers, and the supplements
became sources of large advertising income."
Lines of advertising, Mr. McFadden wrote, "rose
to 118 million in 1986 from 87 million in 1969. Circulation increases
in the same period were more modest up 80,000 daily to
one million, and up 112,000 on Sundays to 1.6 million but
most of the gains were made among higher-income readers, enabling
The Times to raise its advertising rates and its profitability.
Revenues of The New York Times Company soared nearly sevenfold,
to $1.6 billion in 1986 from $238 million in 1969, while net income
in the same period rose to $132 million from $14 million."
In an article in the December/January 2005
issue of AJR, the American Journalism Review," John Morton
provides the following commentary of Mr. Mattson's and Mr. Rosenthal's
roles in creating the new sections:
"There are many pleasures to be had in
reading Arthur Gelb's "City Room," his account of a
lengthy career at The New York Times [a book that had been
recently published]. But the most fascinating to me was his detailing
of the brilliant journalistic decisions that transformed the Times
from a near money-losing newspaper into the success it is today.
"Gelb joined the Times in 1944
as a 20-year-old copy boy, having just dropped out of City College
of New York. (He later got a degree from New York University while
still working at the Times.) Over the next 45 years he
worked as reporter, drama critic, deputy culture editor, metropolitan
editor and, finally, managing editor. Somehow he amassed voluminous
details about the people, events and dramas within and outside
the newspaper that he uses to flesh out the narrative of his career.
"In 1975, as Gelb relates, Times
editors were warned that rising newsprint costs threatened to
drive the paper into unprofitability, and this led, under instructions
of Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, to an unusual meeting of
news and business executives. At most newspapers then, and at
many still, news executives were leery of the business side.
"Those concerns were assuaged at the Times
primarily by Walter Mattson, a senior vice president who got his
start in the business as a Linotype operator and who later became
president and chief executive officer of the parent New York Times
Co. (and who was one of the smartest men I've ever known). Mattson
had developed a respectful relationship with Abe Rosenthal, then
the managing editor, because, as Gelb puts it, he understood 'our
problems involving news space and production.'
"Before the collaborative meeting, Mattson
invited all the desk editors to a gathering where he displayed
graphs that projected decreasing circulation and advertising and
rising costs. Gelb writes that the 'message was unmistakable -
the paper was in big trouble,' and he recalls commenting to another
editor, 'Let's open the window and jump right now.'
"Instead, the news and business executives
arranged for polls to develop demographic data about typical readers
and to learn why more of them were not taking the Times.
"Gelb, as metropolitan editor, had already
devised a Sunday New Jersey Section and a daily New Jersey page,
which had increased circulation and advertising. Next came a half-page
of open space that anchored daily culture coverage in the following
pages. 'It wasn't long before the foreign desk also requested
open space as an introduction to its daily report - and so it
went,' writes Gelb.
"The Times then was a two-section
paper, and Mattson had been promoting the idea of a four-section
paper, possibly with separate business, metropolitan and sports
sections following the first section's national and international
news. Rosenthal had resisted this, fearing the Times' traditional
character would suffer, but the paper's dwindling finances convinced
"Still, Rosenthal insisted that the new
sections would require spending more on space and staff if they
were to become "must reading." In a much-quoted comment,
he said, 'When a newspaper like ours needs help in difficult times,
the best way to nourish it is not by watering the soup but by
enriching it with more meat and tomatoes.' Mattson agreed.
"As the alliance with the business side
developed, it became fractious at one point when the advertising
department pressed for a daily style section with emphasis on
fashion. The editors resisted, successfully arguing that this
section should change its focus daily.
"Thus the modern New York Times
unfolded. The first new section, Weekend, triumphed, eventually
boosting Friday circulation by 35,000, with significant advertising
gains. Next came The Living Section, boosting Wednesday circulation
by 32,000. Later came The Home Section on Thursday, Sports Monday
and Science Times on Tuesday. In a little more than three years,
the Times had been transformed from barely profitable into
a thriving newspaper."
The bottom-line improvements in cash-flow need,
however, to be taken with several grains of salt. First of all,
there were quite modest. Secondly, and more importantly, imagine
what some entrepreneurs might have been able to do with The
Times. I remember suggesting to Sydney Gruson, then the charming
foreign editor of the paper who would became vice-chairman of
the company and a very close friend of the publisher, that it
would make a lot of sense for the paper to buy up real estate
in and around its offices just off Times Square. Nothing came
of my suggestion and the paper decided to invest millions in new
print facilities, not within the city, but in New Jersey of all
Being a great editor is not a popularity contest.
Being ambitious is not a crime.
Being mercurial is human nature.
Mr. Rosenthal consolidated enormous power at
The Times. His first attempt to take over control of the
paper's Washington Bureau involved imposing a friend of his, James
Greenfield, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek,
as the new head of the bureau, an action that prompted most of
the bureau's staff, including such legendary journalistic figures
as James ("Scotty") Reston and Tom Wicker to threaten
to resign. Mr. Rosenthal's coup attempt was thwarted, Mr. Greenfield
resigned, and Reston was brought back to New York as executive
editor to cool things down. The "coup" was the dramatic
thread that run through Gay Talese's fine book on the Times,
"The Kingdom and the Power." When a new edition of the
book came out a few years later, however, it was not updated to
reflect the fact that Reston soon tired of being a peacemaker
and that Rosenthal had not retreated into the woodwork and had
in fact become the top editor with total control. Mr. Greenfield
rejoined the paper.
The Washington Bureau had operated as an elite
club pretty much independent of New York. The coup had been scandously
embarrassing for the paper. The paper survived it and Mr. Rosenthal,
it must be said with some awe, survived.
The end of Mr. Rosenthal's career, when he
had become a columnist, was not filled with glory and subsequent
commentaries by others indicated that he was not universally beloved.
One can detect a lot of vitriol in Mr. Rosenthal's
columns, particularly on the subject of Communism, of which he
was not enamoured.
He was, of course, entitled to his opinions
and in many instances his journalistic instincts were right and
admirable. He passionately loved The Times and journalism
and could even be light-hearted at the upstairs bar at Sardi's
after a long day running the great ship of The Times.
Objectively, Mr. Rosenthal's legacy was a weakening
of The Times. It would be wrong to suggest that he sold
the soul of The Times for its financial survival. It was,
and is, critical for The Times to survive and prosper.
Mr. Rosenthal's successors have been more open and collegial and
have picked up the torch that lights the integrity of journalism,
an openness to criticism and a desire to make amends where necessary
and, unfortunately, in the last couple of years that has been
The quality of writing in the paper has improved,
but many challenges remain, the most formidable of which is the
Internet. Surfers no longer have to wait for the first edition
of the paper to be printed, and there are many websites and some
blogs of superb quality. For many years, The Times has
given up on making a good show of being encyclopaedic and most
people have supplemented it with specialized journals and other
media sources. Unfortunately, the general "audience"
has dumbed down. Perhaps there are just too many options and distractions.
It's hard to stay on top. It's hard to keep at the grindstone
and not want to be occasionally "entertained."
The Times still
needs to stick to its traditional guns, its arsenal of talent,
its prodigious institutional memory and culture, more than ever
before. It has had its share of snafus in recent years: the Jayson
Blair scandal, the Judith Miller imbroglio over weapons of mass
destruction and the integrity of "sources." Given the
scope of what it purports to cover, it is remarkable it has not
had more. Over the years, the paper has been slow to recognize
some issues such as AIDS, and gay rights and the feminist movement,
but once it has become alert to them it has done well.
A good journalist needs to be alert and ready
for the unexpected and understanding that "good faith"
alone is often not enough. Making the obligatory phone call to
get comment from "the other side" is a must, but so
is perserving and making more phone calls to make sure you've
got it right.
There is no doubt that deep in his curmudgeonly
heart Mr. Rosenthal, Abe, would agree that fluff is better left
to the light-weights and that good journalism is hard, but rewarding
Sir - Abe - you may not always be missed, but
you will be remembered, perhaps not fondly, but with respect,
for earnestly fighting the good fight. Wielding great power is
not easy particularly when distracted by petty insecurities that
fostered favoritism. Abe was a formidable talent and a fearsome
leader who just happened to be human. One of his best accomplishments
was giving greater visibility and importance to corrections.