NEW YORK — The Gray Lady did extensive housecleaning Thursday: executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd resigned after being made to answer for one of the worst scandals in the history of the newspaper.
The New York Times announced it has tapped Raines’ immediate predecessor, the staid and deliberate Joseph Lelyveld, to run the paper on an interim basis. The post held by Boyd, Raines’ No. 2, will remain unfilled for the time being.
“Howell and Gerald have tendered their resignations, and I accepted them with sadness based on what we believe is best for the Times,” said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher and chair of the New York Times Co.
Loss of faith
Despite Sulzberger’s sorrow, it was clearly his loss of faith in Raines that led to the resignations.
“Arthur hired Howell. For him to fire him is saying that he didn’t think Howell could regain control of the newsroom,” said one industryite who wished to remain anonymous.
It was well known that Raines, the first executive editor to resign under controversial circumstances, had more critics than supporters during his brief tenure. He took over the post just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Outspoken and autocratic, Raines made abrupt staff transfers and ordered sweeping changes to the paper itself: He retooled the Arts & Leisure section to up the pop culture ante and brought quirky stories, usually from somewhere down South, where Raines is from, to the front page.
Relief in newsroom
The resignations brought an immediate sense of relief to the newsroom.
“Morale is better today than it was yesterday,” one Times staffer said.
News reverberated across the media world, which has been riveted by the controversy that erupted last month when the newspaper disclosed that former staff reporter Jayson Blair had repeatedly fabricated information and plagiarized from other publications.
Across the country, newspapers and TV journalists have dusted off their own standards and practices of reporting, huddling with editors to sniff out potential Blairs.
The Times detailed the Blair saga in an unprecedented four-page spread over Mother’s Day May 11, a tactic that may have only served to fuel the fire.
In recent days, Times reporter Rick Bragg resigned after he was criticized for habitually using information gathered by interns and editorial assistants without giving due credit.
Both Blair and Bragg were considered Raines proteges, part of a favored circle.
Those outside the circle were sorely demoralized and staffers say there was growing hostility simmering below the surface.
Raines was also known for his undue demands on reporters, even on the Times’ most experienced correspondents.
“People would go out on a backbreaking, exhausting assignment and when they’d come back, he’d send them to do it again,” one Times reporter said.
Sulzberger, who once served as a reporter under Raines in the paper’s Washington bureau, was one of Raines’ most ardent supporters and handpicked him for the exec editor slot.
When the Blair crisis broke, Sulzberger stood by Raines. In a photograph of Sulzberger, Raines and Boyd walking into a New York theater for a staff meeting last month, all three were smiling.
But the pressure never let up, even with the mea culpas, and the decision for Raines to step down was made a few days ago. The Times’ Board of Directors wields enormous clout, and board members are sure to have had their say in the matter, particularly those members of the Sulzberger family.
“The place is devastated. But, as time goes by it will be seen as the right thing to do and Joe is the right guy for the job,” the Times source said. “Objectively, Arthur made a mistake in the first 48 hours to embrace Howell as unequivocally as he did.”
It is not clear how long Lelyveld will remain in his interim position, but staffers speculate he will stay through Labor Day or even possibly the 2004 presidential election.
The Times newsroom was already abuzz by late Thursday as to possible candidates for the top job. Names being tossed around include Boston Globe editor Martin Baron and L.A. Times managing editor Dean Baquet (both former Times staffers).
A key problem in choosing the next executive editor is finding someone who is the right age: The Times mandates that the exec editor retire at the age of 65.
The preference for not having executive editors serve too long at the Times harks back to Abe Rosenthal, who had to be pried from the top post.
When Raines was picked over Bill Keller for executive editor, one of the key selling points was that Raines was 58 while Keller was 52. This mattered because it meant Raines would be executive editor for 7 years while Keller could conceivably try to stay in the post for 13 years.
“Anyone below Howell’s age looks like a big risk. Who do they want to bet on for 15 years?” says a source.
Dramatic to the end, Raines made one final exhortation after newsroom staffers were told of the resignations: “When a great story breaks out, go like hell!”
(Jill Goldsmith in New York and Gabriel Snyder in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)