Joe Lelyveld, who died earlier this month on the age of 86, was the final nice print editor of The New York Instances, a steward and image of a passing period. He presided over the newsroom throughout a interval when the Instances, like virtually all newspapers, outlined its journalism by what rolled off the presses each evening. And he was there for the start of momentous upheaval for the Instances and for American journalism, with the rise of the web.
Lelyveld bowed, albeit with greater than slightly skepticism and reluctance, to the primary stirrings of the digital revolution that was championed by a younger and forward-looking writer, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. And he navigated, with discomfort, the best way this untethered period pressured a reconsideration of journalistic requirements, evident within the rise of the Drudge Report and the usually unrestrained protection of the exploits of figures reminiscent of Michael Jackson and the Kardashians. Lelyveld understood intuitively that these two forces shaping American newspapers have been associated: that digital was greater than a method of supply, that the immediacy of the format—the velocity with which information would now must be gathered, written, edited, and printed—would change the substance and, doubtlessly, the accuracy of reporting. He had discovered concerning the potential and dangers of asking reporters to cowl information with little oversight in his years as a overseas correspondent, earlier than the period of cellphones, when he may go days with out having the ability to discuss by means of a narrative he was engaged on with an editor again in New York. (He wouldn’t have been stunned, I feel, on the editors’ notice the Instances was pressured to run after an uproar a few digital headline, posted within the early hours of a fast-moving story, that blamed Israel for bombing a Gaza Metropolis hospital.)
Lelyveld walked out of the New York Instances newsroom for the final time as govt editor in July 2003. He was 66 years outdated, and he had labored on the Instances since 1962, when he began as a copyboy. He had, over these 41 years, been a reporter on the Metropolitan desk; a overseas correspondent in Congo, Hong Kong, India, and South Africa; the overseas editor; the deputy managing editor; the managing editor; and, on two completely different events, the manager editor. By the point of his loss of life, although, Lelyveld had turn out to be a fading reminiscence within the churn of a youthful newsroom. Lelyveld discovered that deflating, however hardly stunning. Once we spoke—over the course of a sequence of interviews as I researched The Instances, my e-book on the historical past of the paper, from which this essay is drawn—Lelyveld would speak about how the mark of an govt editor was fleeting, in contrast to the mark of a reporter, who had a preserved report of accomplishment, whether or not crumpled newspaper clips or a Pulitzer Prize. (He had each.)
Lelyveld was a traditionalist. His unquestioned stature and credentials made him interesting to Sulzberger, who appointed him govt editor in 1994. The Instances beneath Lelyveld’s eight-year watch was marked by distinguished, usually superlative protection; it was a affluent and rising newspaper. (There was one blemish of notice on his tenure, although a largely forgotten one at that: the protection of espionage prices towards Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American nuclear scientist, which have been later dropped, tales that an editors’ notice stated “fell in need of our requirements.”)
The Instances was a newspaper that, ever because it was purchased by Adolph Ochs in 1896, had believed in restraint and discretion, even when that meant ignoring what different newspapers have been masking or being a day late on a narrative of questionable value, and Lelyveld embraced and celebrated these values. The Instances wouldn’t write gratuitously concerning the intercourse lives of politicians, or chase the tabloid tales about Lorena Bobbitt or Tonya Harding or something that smacked of widespread tradition’s excesses. “That’s not why most of us received into this enterprise, that’s not the place we wish to take it,” Lelyveld instructed the Sulzberger household at a non-public retreat in 1999. “If others have been doing it, allow them to do it. We’ll cope with the implications. We are able to lead on different tales.” When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a automobile crash in Paris in 1997, a number of hours earlier than the deadline in New York, the Instances remade the entrance web page to announce her loss of life with a single-line headline throughout three columns. Because the outpouring of grief over her loss of life consumed newspapers world wide, a reporter from Time journal requested Lelyveld whether or not the paper might need given her loss of life extra play if there had been extra time to think about the significance of her loss of life. “Really,” Lelyveld responded, “I might need given it much less.”
He struggled with how the Instances ought to cowl the story of a former White Home intern, Monica Lewinsky, and her sexual encounters with President Invoice Clinton. Because the salacious particulars of their relationship trickled out, Lelyveld was the guard on the gates. “I would go away the cigar out so long as we presumably can,” he instructed his editors, after the paper discovered of testimony that the previous president had used a cigar for intercourse play with Lewinsky. His resistance would in the end show futile. He described his choice to report the account of Lewinsky’s blue gown, saved after an encounter with Clinton, maybe the hardest name he ever made. “Abe Rosenthal had the Pentagon Papers,” he instructed me with mordant humor. “I had the semen-stained gown.”
However it was the digital revolution that the majority vexed him, that examined his instincts and resolve, that positioned him on the hinge of change. Lelyveld went together with the early, usually unsteady ventures by the Instances into the web world of the Nineteen Nineties: its first web site; the posting of tales through the day, slightly than ready for the morning print newspaper; and, most important, the hiring of Martin Nisenholtz, the founder and president of the Interactive Advertising Group at Ogilvy & Mather, to run the paper’s digital operation. He understood the writer’s curiosity in transferring the Instances into this new world—Sulzberger’s intuition would show appropriate; the thriving Instances of at the moment is his legacy—and Lelyveld was not about to show his again on the longer term.
However Lelyveld would go solely thus far in accepting change. He learn the web model of the newspaper, however defensively, to verify it didn’t stray from the Instances’ requirements. He by no means loved it, by no means believed that it may honor the standard that imbued the Instances, by no means thought that it might (or ought to) substitute the Instances he had grown up with. Within the early years of his profession, Lelyveld labored beside Robert D. McFadden, who would go on to put in writing his obituary for the Instances, on the printed desk, scouring wire studies and banging out fast summaries of the information to ship as much as WQXR, the Instances radio station. It was mandatory work—he would recall 50 years later their crisp bulletins heralding the top of the 13-day Cuban missile disaster—however he discovered the product neither satisfying nor enduring. And that’s what got here to thoughts as he learn his newspaper on a pc display screen. “I by no means actually believed that the digital New York Instances may have the identical authority and sway that the paper New York Instances had,” he stated.
His reservations solely grew because the digital operation gained stature and prominence. Lelyveld fearful concerning the menace to the newsroom posed by its ambitions—to its employees, its price range, and most of all, its status. He fearful that the ability of figuring out the journalistic identification of the Instances would transfer from his newsroom to the digital empire that Nisenholtz was constructing. Because the Instances contemplated an IPO to fund its digital growth, he was distressed to be taught that Nisenholtz may obtain choices value as a lot because the mixed earnings of dozens of the paper’s most senior writers. “No one requested me, however I feel that that is grotesque if not obscene and that some day, possibly some day very quickly, we are going to look again on these choices with a mix of amazement and embarrassment,” he wrote a Instances govt. Most of all, he objected to the concept that the paper’s traditions have been a burden slightly than an asset. “Martin needs what he deems to be the useless hand of the newsroom off his group,” Lelyveld wrote Sulzberger. “He’ll take our steady information, be courteous and collegial in private encounters however grant us as little stake in what is completed with Instances information on the Net as he presumably can.” Lelyveld, as he did usually over time, schooled the youthful man who was his writer: “A part of your job is to have fun and certainly seize the longer term. One other half is to keep away from leaving the impression that there’s a revolutionary vanguard that excludes most of us.”
Sulzberger tried to reassure him. “The Web is a horny matter proper now,” the writer wrote in Lelyveld’s employment assessment in 1999. “One result’s that Martin and his operation is getting a substantial amount of press and general consideration. It is a second in time, and it’ll go. The motive force of our Firm at the moment and within the years forward is and can stay the New York Instances newspaper.” However Sulzberger later instructed me that hiring Nisenholtz was “one of many smartest issues I ever did,” a window into the writer’s priorities and ambitions for his newspaper.
Lelyveld was a critical journalist operating a critical newspaper. He took a “sneaking pleasure” in placing tales concerning the Bosnian Struggle on the entrance web page—realizing full effectively that the majority readers would by no means learn them—as a result of it confirmed the mission of the Instances. That was a luxurious of an period when the Instances’ entrance web page set the agenda for the remainder of the media, and when govt editors didn’t actually have to consider circulation or promoting gross sales. His mindset stated a lot about how the Instances seen itself. Lelyveld couldn’t know that these have been the ultimate years when the newspaper may simply assume profitability and dominance, when it thought it knew higher than its readers what they need to be studying, when the newsroom might be dismissive of the notion that it had a duty to assist entice new readers with a purpose to guarantee the newspaper’s monetary success.
Lelyveld would little doubt battle in at the moment’s Instances newsroom, the place the print newspaper has been pushed to the facet of the stage; the place the information report is introduced on so many alternative platforms, lots of them short-form summaries; and the place there’s a give attention to drawing the paying subscribers who are actually the paper’s financial lifeblood. Lelyveld instructed me that in his closing years operating the newsroom, he would attend conferences the place digital editors would throw round concepts about what the Instances may do with its web site, notions reminiscent of reader chats with reporters about eating places and wine and politics. He would object—this isn’t why readers got here to the Instances, he would say—however earlier than lengthy Lelyveld started to really feel, as he put it, just like the outdated man within the room whom individuals have been treating with well mannered tolerance. “I didn’t actually perceive what he was speaking about,” he stated, referring to Nisenholtz. “And I didn’t actually care about what he was speaking about.”
For Sulzberger, the story of those previous 30 years has been the survival and the reinvention of his household’s newspaper whereas making an attempt to remain true to its historical past and its mission. He was a former wire-service reporter who described himself as “platform-agnostic.” Lelyveld, the defender of the Instances, or of his imaginative and prescient of the Instances, didn’t need readers to consider the web site after they considered the Instances. However after all that’s exactly what has occurred.
The enduring high quality of the Instances’ journalism at the moment—no matter platform it seems on—is testimony to the seriousness of objective that’s ingrained within the newsroom and that Lelyveld championed throughout his 41 years there. The New York Instances continues to be very a lot itself, regardless of the format. Nonetheless, the velocity and exigencies of digital reporting—the necessity to entice new paying readers, be it with edgy protection of politics or with diversions reminiscent of Wordle and the Cooking app—imply that that is an unfinished debate. The tip of the story wherein Lelyveld performed so massive a task will not be but recognized.