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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2005: Media

Arthur Sulzberger Jr. needed little coaxing in exploring a strategy for change for the New York Times when he became publisher in 1992. He had already worked at the newspaper in a variety of positions for 14 years and was widely considered the heir apparent. While he always viewed himself as a guardian of the newspaper’s high-minded values, Mr. Sulzberger also longed for recognition as a dynamic, innovative chief executive, capable of leading and managing change. From the early 1990s, even before Mr. Raines became his “chief content officer,” he saw himself as a change agent pushing reform, renewal, and reinvention. He brought in management experts, including the famed W. Edwards Deming, for weekend retreats with key staffers. Although such moves exposed him to ridicule among journalists who scorn the notion of “MBAs in the newsroom,” they also showed that he recognized that the Times’s strategy, content, and style must impress investors, expand ad revenue, and inspire management and staff. It is a pressured role — that of a hereditary leader whose longevity in office is not necessarily a lifetime guarantee.

Mr. Mnookin’s account, drawing on scores of interviews, explains how Mr. Sulzberger eventually — and, in retrospect, unfortunately — settled on Mr. Raines, himself brash and combative, who had spent more than a decade in the Times’s cloistered editorial page offices, distant from daily news decisions. Mr. Raines courted his boss through flattery and promises to produce content that would strengthen the bottom line. But, tellingly, he seems to have lacked both Mr. Sulzberger’s sensitivities and his interest in organization. Critical of some of the paper’s most honored (he would say “pampered”) staff, and poised to make waves, Mr. Raines took command on September 5, 2001, six days before the terrorist attacks. The summer before, he had called on and summoned top editors and reporters, letting them know they could expect changes — some of them bound to be unsettling.

Whatever problems Mr. Raines might have faced with such a threatening approach were postponed as the staff mobilized to cover September 11 and its aftermath. When the paper won an unprecedented number of Pulitzer prizes the following spring, he was designated “Editor of the Year” by the National Press Foundation. He was less than gracious in victory, boasting that if not for him, this once “uninspired” staff could not have achieved so much. Such remarks hardly ingratiated him with those who would eventually cast a de facto no-confidence vote.

As the Blair scandal unfolded, the paper took a tremendous battering from an enormous range of constituencies — from sharp-tongued authors of Weblogs to well-known media leaders. Truly, a blow to the Times’s reputation and credibility had been sustained, and extended mea culpas and cosmetic changes would not be enough to satisfy critics within and outside the paper. The demand for Mr. Raines’s head — coming both from outside critics and from influential staffers to whom Mr. Sulzberger listened — won the day. Under pressure, both Mr. Raines and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, resigned. Mr. Sulzberger kept his job, but had to ward off unhappiness on the corporate board, which has other options within the family and senior management should the present heir prove unequal to the tasks of the future.

The Times’s harsh treatment of its newsroom leaders has written new rules for media management and accountability. In previous instances, including the Washington Post’s forfeit of a Pulitzer Prize over a fabricated story in 1981, the Wall Street Journal’s embarrassment when a columnist went to jail for leaking stock tips, and the outrageous serial fabrications of Stephen Glass of the New Republic (the subject of a film, Shattered Glass), no editor had been fired. But in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and the Times’s reaction, a case of fakery by a reporter at USA Today brought down its top editor. In 2004, when CBS’s 60 Minutes overreached with faked documents regarding President Bush’s National Guard service, two high-ranking producers were sacked and anchor Dan Rather was effectively forced into early retirement. There is still, however, no clear standard for editorial responsibility (another USA Today transgressor in 2005 was fired, but his editors were spared).

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