New York Times resignations signal industry turmoil

With high-profile departures Thursday, newspaper self-scrutiny may increase.

Journalism's Old Gray Lady has been rocked again.

Howell Raines, the colorful and controversial editor of The New York Times, resigned on Thursday in the wake of the worst journalistic scandal in the paper's prestigious history.

The announcement was made at a morning meeting at the newsroom on 43rd Street. Raines had instituted sweeping changes in America's most-watched paper, many of which were controversial with his staff. It was also on Mr. Raines watch that troubled young reporter Jayson Blair fabricated datelines, descriptions, and quotes in his quest for glory in the highly competitive newsroom.

The move is expected to intensify the self-scrutiny already prompted in newsrooms across the country. The Blair scandal is symptomatic of an overall erosion of journalistic ethics that began about 15 years ago as circulation steadily declined, analysts say.

Newspapers, seeing their readers siphoned off to television, began to demand more colorful and compelling stories. That led to scandals at other papers from the Boston Globe to the Washington Post.

Problems at each of these publications have included firings of popular columnists. But it is rare for an editor to take responsibility for failings on his watch.

"What this reflects is that journalism is a self-policing and very sensitive social institution ... and one would hope more so than other businesses," says Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "The head of most corporations would not have to step down if there were a weird dishonest employee but in the news business, credibility, candor, and leadership are so critical, this is a public institution, as well as a business, and that public trust is the asset that is at the heart of the value of a news company."

Managing editor Gerald Boyd also resigned.

Mr. Raines took over the newspaper just prior to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001 from Joseph Lelyveld.

Raines, an opinionated Southerner, quickly won respect for his coordination of the 9/11 coverage, which included the "Portraits of Grief" commemorating each victim.

The papers overall coverage won a record 7 Pulitzer prizes that year.

But to critics, Raines also tried to transform the paper in his own image. He shifted reporters from the national and investigative beats. He was known for "flooding the zone" - that is, sending in a larger number of reporters to cover a major news event. It was not unusual for the Times to have over 100 bylines, over time, cover a big story such as Enron or the shuttle disaster.

"It was a kind of shock treatment to which the patient did not respond favorably," says Jack Shafer, a media critic at Slate Magazine.

The problem, says Mr. Shafer, is that other Times reporters and editors did not like the changes. "It's very difficult for a general to command troops who don't respect him or believe in the mission," says Mr. Shafer. "Raines has sensed a vote of no-confidence from his troops, and he can't continue."

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times, praised Raines and Boyd for their contributions and said he accepted their resignations with "sadness based on what we believe is best for the Times." In the wake of the Blair scandal, the paper set up several committees to review the paper's internal operating procedures and overall culture.

"It's a great institution," says Michael Janeway, the former editor of the Boston Globe and now professor of journalism at Columbia University. "And it will recover."

Staff writers Ron Scherer, Kim Campbell, and Abraham McLaughlin contributed.

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