Today's New York Times, the stately and respected establishmentarian of the American newspaper industry, will sell almost a million copies around the nation.
Its news and editorial pages will send ripples of concern or support to those who run universities, businesses and governments. Its front page will help define what is news, setting an agenda that will help guide television networks, newspapers and national news magazines. Its reviews can launch young talent or snuff it out. And its four full sections will undoubtedly be the first public version of yesterday's happenings reviewed by future historians -- the newspaper of record's durable rendering of the events of January 7, 1986.
This powerful newspaper, whose readers include most of the nation's elite or "the very very very top top top," as Times Co. Vice Chairman Sydney Gruson described the paper's audience, conveys solidity and security to its loyal subscribers. But as many of those who produce The Times and some of those who obsessively read it said in interviews over the past few months, this image of unshakable stability is increasingly misleading.
The New York Times today is a nervous institution preparing for what may be one of the most difficult periods in its 134-year history -- the retirement of Executive Editor Abraham Michael Rosenthal. In May 1987, after almost 20 years of increasing dominance over this powerful journalistic kingdom, Rosenthal will reach 65, the mandatory age for Times executives to move on, and the tremors have already begun to shake the foundations under the gray lady of Times Square.
Talented young journalists, who once yearned for even the lowliest job on The New York Times, are increasingly opting for better positions on "publications The Times once considered not even in the competition," as one top editor lamented recently.
Potential heirs to Rosenthal's journalistic throne find themselves nervously doing their jobs while anxiously eyeing their competition. "It is a paper in waiting," as a reporter in the Washington bureau put it. "We're in a kind of psychological limbo."
Once the waiting is over, the change at the top of The Times will be more than a mere switch in corporate personnel. It will be the end of a brilliant, lucrative and tumultuous era -- two decades in which one of the world's most powerful institutions has been dominated by one of journalism's most distinctive and controversial men.
It will also mean a change in the paper, a product that is far more malleable by the top man than is a line of automobiles or an array of breakfast cereals.
The daily offering of a great newspaper is rather like the menu of a great restaurant -- a direct reflection of the energy and personality of the person in charge. And it seems a virtually universal view among The Times' 650 writers and editors that in the Rosenthal era, the chef's personality has been dominant as never before. Famous for his strong emotions, Rosenthal has total control over the news side of his institution. Basking in a strong paternal love or cowering under his anger, Times journalists have been known to despair when they have taken what Rosenthal considered a wrong journalistic or personal step or to rejoice when one of his warm notes arrived in the interoffice mail.
Rosenthal also gained power at The Times in a period when the newspaper struggled to pull itself out of a financial slide. Though the paper prospers today as never before, in the early 1970s there were whispers on Wall Street that it might have to close, so bad was its financial performance. Times Publisher Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger spent a good deal of his time denying to the financial community that he would ever perform euthanasia on the staid but solid journalistic product that had been in his family since 1896.
In New York's financial crisis of the mid-'70s, when the city government perched on the cliff of bankruptcy, Times advertisers scaled back their media buys. Circulation dropped as readers fled to the suburbs. At the same time, printing costs soared, union contracts brought rising wages, and the various journalistic and financial parts of the paper -- run like independent fiefdoms -- sometimes seemed to compete more with each other than with any news organization outside the paper.
But almost at the same time such publications as Business Week were lamenting that "the financial health of The Times has seriously deteriorated," the paper was beginning to recuperate, primarily through the efforts of three men: Sulzberger; Walter Mattson, now president of The New York Times Co., who pushed the paper to appeal to new readers in the '70s; and Rosenthal, who captured those new subscribers by providing stories about asparagus and anthropology as well as politics and the economy.
"I think what I'm proud of is that I was able to change The Times and not change it," said Rosenthal of this crucial period.
"I remember the day I became managing editor, trying out my fancy new desk, sitting behind it, and Harrison Salisbury, then assistant managing editor, came in and said, 'Well, Abe, you're the first editor of The Times that will have to worry about money,' " Rosenthal said recently in an interview for this series.
Marketing data in the early '70s showed that the paper was missing thousands of readers Times managers thought should be subscribers, Rosenthal said. "There was no particular demographic or educational reason," he said. "If everybody had behaved like a good American and read The Times every day like they should have, we wouldn't have had this problem."
"I guess the fundamental decision had to be made by Punch when we were in this economic crunch," Rosenthal said later. "That is, there are two ways The Times could go -- a lot of businesses face the same problem -- and that is to put more water in the soup or more tomatoes in the soup. And the business decision here . . . was to put a lot more tomatoes in the soup. You know, make it a bigger, fatter paper."
Rosenthal was referring to what some Times observers call "the sectional revolution" -- the expansion of the paper into four weekday sections. The traditional news sections were bolstered by new ones devoted to business, sports, home decorating and life styles, entertainment and science. The first was Weekend, which appeared on Friday, April 30, 1976. It was followed in November by Living (on Wednesdays), in March 1977 by Home (Thursdays), in January 1978 by SportsMonday and, in May of that year, Business Day (daily).
Although the style and panache of the new sections were widely admired, The New New York Times, as it was called, was not universally applauded. In 1977, when Rosenthal was about to be promoted to executive editor, it was a standing joke in the Times news room that the paper was about to create another innovative section. It was going to be called News.
"It wouldn't have meant anything if The Times had become a different kind of paper, if its character had changed," Rosenthal said, responding to those early critics. "It didn't -- it's still the same paper. You pick it up, you like it or you don't like it, it's The New York Times."
While Rosenthal gave in to additional sections for "soft" features on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays -- they were largely the result of prodding from Mattson on the business side -- he says he drew the line at Tuesdays. The business executives at The Times, looking for segments of the economy that could spend big money on advertising, wanted a fashion section, he said.
"I didn't want to do it. I had this stomach feeling against it," he said, adding that fashion would have been "a kind of parody, really."
"I wanted to do something very Timesian. I wanted to do something for the reader who loved us and stuck with us," he said. "I had an image in mind, it was author Teddy White's face, a very nice guy, our type of reader in a sense."
So, as Rosenthal recalls it, he borrowed space from other sections of the paper and simply started putting out the science section.
"I remember somebody from the business section coming down one day and saying, 'Abe, you stole Tuesday,' " he remembered.
Says one editor who has been critical of Rosenthal on other matters: "The bottom-line virtue to Abe's regime is that you have to give credit to anybody who has conquered that transition from an uncomplicated newspaper to a very complicated one without a diminution of quality.
"It's really hard to remember how boring and lazy this newspaper was. We were always quick to punditize, and when we did reporting, we sometimes did it very, very well," said the editor. "But we weren't very hungry. We rested on our laurels a lot." Charges of Elitism
As the paper of the "very very very top top top," The New York Times "product," as it is now called in business circles, carefully caters to its consumers, and some critics suggest that the newer, more lucrative Times misses many of the social issues that were widely covered in that earlier era.
A story on Nov. 2, for example, analyzed the anxiety of parents scrambling to make certain their child goes to the "right" nursery school in order to get into Harvard. When Hurricane Gloria swept across the East Coast, The Times carried a large front-page story about a young couple who could not get electricity for their mansion, a Yankee version of Tara complete with a storm-damaged column on the front portico.
Such stories excite despair and anger among some members of The Times staff and among some readers of the paper who believe The Times caters to its upper-crust readers by sparing them too much detail about the downtrodden. One example widely cited by those interviewed for these articles was the discontinuation of Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg's column on New York.
Schanberg often railed against the city's treatment of the poor and the homeless, and his friends suggested that it was because of his subjects that he was dropped from the Op-Ed page. Times insiders said that Schanberg's voice was quelled because he angrily criticized The Times' own coverage of the Westway highway proposal through lower Manhattan and also because his work had become "monotonous."
Rosenthal and others at The Times have said that the discontinuation of Schanberg's column was Sulzberger's decision, not Rosenthal's.
However, how the less glamorous sections of the New York community are covered is Rosenthal's territory. The New York Post noted with some glee last May that The Times was breaking with tradition and assigning a reporter to Queens. The story, headlined "Times discovers Queens," said that the new reporter, Joseph Fried, would join the ranks of other "illustrious Times foreign correspondents" stationed in such spots as South Africa, Italy and Moscow.
Asked about the criticism that the paper avoids some areas of the city and some of the seamier local issues, Rosenthal said: "It seems to me we cover every bloody issue. Do we cover Hispanic news, let's say? Not well enough. But the reason we cover Hispanic news is not for Hispanic readers. Hispanic readers do not buy The New York Times to read about Hispanic news, nor will they ever."
Readers buy the paper, he said, because they are interested in New York City -- its culture, its politics, its ideas and its business -- a package that is provided most completely each day in The New York Times. The Rosenthal Regime
As the paper evolved during Rosenthal's term, he amassed control -- ending warring baronies by taking over control of the news and culture sections of the paper as Times Publisher Sulzberger asked him to do when Rosenthal became managing editor in 1969.
But with the increasing power came the problems, and many Times staffers said in interviews that as Rosenthal's control over the paper became absolute, he and the paper sometimes seemed virtually interchangeable. To love The Times was to love Rosenthal, to criticize Rosenthal was to criticize The Times.
At the same time, Rosenthal's reporters and editors bemoaned this emotionally exhilarating and exhausting way of doing business, they had to acknowledge his formidable talent. One editor said that for all the talk of the awesome fury of Rosenthal, he often dominates news meetings quietly, first finding the loose end in a story, unraveling it quickly as he reminisces about some article in his own career. At the other end of the desk, the editor in charge of this story lapses into embarrassed silence.
As Rosenthal himself put it: "I've thought a lot about why it is that I am a good editor. I am a good editor. You may not like this or that, but I'm a good editor. It's silly not to recognize that.
"I recognized that I was a good foreign correspondent," he added, laughing. "Matter of fact, there was once a poll taken about who was the best correspondent in the world at that time, and broadcaster Dan Schorr said he voted for me, and I said, 'That's nice, because I did too.' It's part of the myth, this story is part of the Rosenthal arrogance myth."
But the kind of chutzpah and energy that was necessary to kick-start the sluggish old New York Times also appears to have taken its toll in the past decade.
In interviews with reporters, editors and managers who work for The Times or who count themselves among The Times' distinguished alumni, few described Rosenthal in neutral terms. For them, Rosenthal's portrait is painted with primary emotions -- love, hate, fear, anger, devotion, compassion. And most members of the staff who agreed to discuss Rosenthal spoke nervously, often reluctantly. "We haven't talked" were the last words in several conversations with Times reporters -- some of whom feared they were speaking too critically of Rosenthal and others who were concerned that their praise of Rosenthal would look too sycophantic in print.
Salisbury, in his 1980 book on The Times, "Without Fear or Favor," described Rosenthal's emotional managerial style, a style that some say is based on fear but that Salisbury believes was "founded on love."
"What neither he nor those around him really grasped was the swiftness with which love, that capricious and untidy emotion, could change at the flicker of an eye, a perceived tonality of speech, a physical gesture; could change from milky, almost maudlin affection into Othello's paranoia, suspicion, fear and hate," he wrote.
Rosenthal, friends and critics agree, is an emotional man. He can seethe at people who displease him; he can break into tears over some historic moment, like the death of Robert Kennedy; he can suddenly hug a young reporter who has performed masterfully; and he can send a staff member into a kind of journalistic deep freeze.
Such was the fate of Ben Franklin, a reporter at the Washington bureau who Rosenthal reportedly suspected had talked about an in-house announcement of job changes at The Times to USA Today. Rosenthal, according to persons familiar with the event, ordered that Franklin's name not appear in the paper.
And although Franklin slowly began to resurface in print after 4 1/2 months without a byline, one of Franklin's friends says: "His career hasn't recovered yet, and he's still trying to make sure he doesn't get blown away."
Others have faced the worst Rosenthal storm and survived.
"A lot of it goes back to 1963 when Rosenthal as metropolitan editor took over what everybody agreed was a very encrusted, antediluvian operation and he had to break some crockery," says the Washington editor of The Times, Bill Kovach, who praises Rosenthal for the results. "Some of it may have been pretty tough, pretty rough, and he got the reputation for being callous and the more power he got and the more people whose lives were touched by him, the more that reputation grew.
"But I can tell you as somebody who had a personal problem with him -- I've been on what is called the shit list -- but it obviously didn't hurt me in the long run," Kovach said.
Recently, however, the credit given Rosenthal for rejuvenating the paper has been submerged in a wave of criticism over perceived excesses during his stewardship.
In October, writer Pete Hamill, once a personal friend, wrote a tough, sorrowful attack on Rosenthal in The Village Voice. Hamill, whose piece drew private and grudging praise from some Times executives, described a "climate of fear and demoralization on the staff" and accused Rosenthal of practicing "the journalism of punishment or revenge."
John Hess, a former Times foreign correspondent and critic, has written bitingly about his former paper's cultural coverage, accusing Rosenthal of overseeing "an era of personal favoritism and spite."
And in the Washington Journalism Review, Robert Kuttner, a staff writer for The New Republic and former Washington Post reporter, wrote of The Times' staff's view of Rosenthal: "The metaphors are shocking: King Lear, Louis XVI, Captain Queeg, the last days of Stalin's Kremlin. Even Watergate."
Rosenthal, analyzing the bitter charges that have been leveled against him, has broken down the criticism into categories. Up to 20 percent, he said, is his personality; another 15 to 20 percent is his role as "an agent of change" at the paper. But the chief reason, as he sees it, is political: the reaction to his open effort to pull the paper back from a slight tilt to the left.
"I was once asked what my epitaph should be," he said. "I never thought a minute before I said, 'I want it to be: "He kept the paper straight." ' " Tomorrow: Rosenthal responds to his critics.