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Don't Call Me "Sir"

A. M. Rosenthal's Legacy at The New York Times

Larger Pictures, Larger Type, Fewer Hard-News Articles, More Magazinish Articles, Abrogration of Editorial Oversight to Art Directors

A. M. Rosenthal

A. M. Rosenthal in a 1999 picture taken by Jeffrey A. Salter for The New York Times

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 conflict.

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 Bush Administration.

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 tremendous weight.

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 at NYU.

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 it was.

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, Arthur Gelb.

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 of things.

One cannot fault Mr. Rosenthal and The Times for wanting and trying to stay on top of a lot change. Hey, that's news!

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 death.

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 several wars.

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 place."

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 discover.

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 journalism.

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 profitability.

"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 newspaper.

"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 on Fridays.

"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 him otherwise.

"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 places.

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 surprisingly necessary.

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 work.

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.

 

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