Big changes at The New York Times

The New York Times, the newspaper that one might safely describe as the flagship of the Western press and the one which sets the agenda for other news media in many ways, is coming out of the greatest credibility crisis it has faced in its 150 years. At the end of April, the newspaper’s management discovered that a young reporter, Jayson Blair, had repeatedly plagiarized the work of colleagues, had faked events and sources and had covered stories in other cities without leaving his apartment in New York. The inquiry ordered by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr and executive editor Howell Raines revealed that Blair had received preferential treatment from Raines and his number two, managing editor Gerald Boyd, even though other editors at the paper had expressed serious concern about the young star’s credibility. These concerns either did not go higher up the Times hierarchy or were ignored. In the midst of a storm in other news media, and with many members of the Times’ staff in revolt, Raines and Boyd were forced to resign on June 5. They had been appointed on September 5, 2001, and in the 20 months since they had seen their paper win an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes. Also, in October 2002, The New York Times had pushed the Washington Post into selling its half of the International Herald Tribune to the Times and the New York paper was also making plans for greater involvement in television. Suddenly the paper found itself headless and under intense scrutiny. The publisher called on former executive editor Joseph Leyleveld, who had retired, to take over the newspaper temporarily and lead it to quieter waters. In mid-July, Bill Keller, who had been managing editor under Lelyveld, was appointed executive editor, something which many at the paper appear to have been hoping for. After he had been passed over for Raines, Keller had been in a kind of internal exile at the paper, working as a columnist and a senior editor in its weekly magazine. Keller, said people with knowledge of the newspaper, was very different from the sometimes difficult and haughty Raines. The first thing Keller did in taking over the paper at the end of July was to tell staff members about the changes that will be made to avoid anything like the Blair scandal in future. But he also assured them that the climate that had allowed this to happen would be eradicated. «The Blair fiasco – according to the outside participants (in the inquiry) – was made possible in part by a climate of isolation, intimidation, favoritism and unrelenting pressure, and we are determined to correct that,» he wrote in a memo to the newsroom staff. «Indeed, we have already gone a long way in correcting it. This does not mean that we will never make mistakes. There is nothing fail-safe in an institution that depends on human beings, and on trust.» He said that many of the proposals of the committee that carried out the inquiry, under associate managing editor Al Siegal, would be adopted. Siegal was later appointed the paper’s first «standards editor» as part of the radical reorganization of the paper. Shortly after taking over The New York Times, Keller discussed with Kathimerini some of the challenges facing the newspaper itself and the news media in general.

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