Part 4: From 'My Times in Black and White' - Gerald Boyd goes to the Times
(In 1983, Boyd, then assigned to the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau decided to accept an offer to join the Washington bureau of the New York Times.) My bosses at the Post-Dispatch had other thoughts about my leaving. David Lipman, the managing editor, insisted that I fly to St. Louis. I owed him and the Post-Dispatch a face-to-face meeting, he reasoned. I agreed, although I had already made up my mind.
Lipman, who had edged out (James) Millstone for the top editing position, played me masterfully. As soon as I sat across from him in his office, he reached in his desk drawer and produced a check for several thousand dollars. The money was a bonus for the good work I had done lately, he said, and was mine to keep whether I stayed or left. He then talked about a raise and about putting me in a special bonus program for executives and a very few journalists. Then he asked, "What do you want to do with your career?"
Publication date: Feb. 01
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
At that moment, I thought about everything -- reporting in Washington, city hall, even the lousy consumer beat. I thought about the Maneater and Blackout at Mizzou. I knew I wanted to run a paper. I told Lipman that I wanted to go into management.
Lipman said the paper would place me in one of the top five editing jobs. Because I was only in my early thirties, he reasoned, I would be in a good position to edit the paper eventually. He then said he would take me under his wing and teach me what I needed to know.
I weakened. He added that if my editing was not as rewarding as I'd hoped, he would make me a National correspondent based wherever I wanted. He then led me to the office of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the publisher. Pulitzer got right to the point.
"This is your home," he said. "You grew up here. I'm not losing you to the Times or to anyone else."
It was a simple, passionate declaration, and it worked. At that moment, I switched my allegiance back to the Post-Dispatch.
Flying back to Washington, I felt sick with confusion. How could I leave a newspaper that was home? I replayed my interview with the Times and second-guessed my decision.
Eventually, my ambition won out. I was good, I believed, but as long as I stayed at the Post-Dispatch, I would never know how good.
The Times' Washington bureau was located above a liquor store in a building at Seventeenth and K, in the heart of offices housing powerful lawyers and lobbyists. It was closer to my apartment than the Post-Dispatch office, and I could get there in about ten minutes. I got there early.
"Hi, hi!" boomed the voice of John Finney, the main assignment editor and the only other person there. He arrived early each day to organize the daily report.
Finney, a Times veteran with a slight paunch, moved through the bureau as if he owned it, handing out assignments, scheduling stories, and rigorously puffing on the pipe that always dangled from his lips.
Though he lacked the celebrity status of star reporters, he was invaluable to what the staff produced. Practically everyone in the bureau had a quirk or two, as I soon discovered. Finney's was his greeting: "Hi, hi!"
The bureau had a range of characters. There were those like Finney, who were WASP, Ivy League, and old school. There were the younger, ambitious reporters who had "rabbis" -- high-ranking or strategically placed editors who often served as mentors -- in New York plotting their careers, often unbeknownst to their supervisors in Washington.
Then there were those of different pedigrees, like (Bill) Kovach, and those like me, who were new and finding their way.
No matter their lineage, few people on staff, like their colleagues in New York, seemed happy -- even the stars. Instead, they hung in a state of perpetual neurosis as they struggled to remain on top. In doing so, they cultivated an environment of fear, distrust, and agendas. The twin goals: protecting one's turf and watching one's back. The situation was worsened by a constant shuffle of those in power. A friend or enemy would find his fortune enhanced or diminished by staff changes. Then the dominos would fall, ushering in new bosses and alignments. It felt like a game of musical chairs: no one knew when the music would stop, but everyone was poised to grab a seat when it did.
For my first few days, I observed how the bureau functioned. Stories were assigned in the morning, and by early afternoon reporters provided summaries of what the stories would ultimately say. Summaries were followed by the daily news conference with senior editors in New York. Often Washington editors would talk a story up, while editors like Rosenthal amplified, challenged, or argued for a different approach.
Story meetings occur every day in newsrooms around the country -- editors from departments like local, business, and sports "pitch" their best offerings for the front page -- but I had never seen a process so brutal. Before the call, the mood in Washington was often tense. Trying to convince Rosenthal of the merits of a story could quickly become verbal warfare. Then -- boom! -- he would render a decision.
On my third day, Finney summoned me to his desk and asked if I was "ready" for an assignment. I assured him I was. I thought it was a strange way of making the request, and I wondered how many new white reporters heard their first assignment preceded by that question.
Finney pitched me facts about a legislative breakthrough on Capitol Hill involving subsidized housing. It was similar to hundreds of stories I had covered, although I did not feel it necessary to tell Finney that.
I reported, filed a summary, and then wrote it up. As always, I first asked myself what the legislative maneuvering meant. The answer, of course, formed my lede: "Breaking a legislative stalemate over the Government's role in housing, Congress today moved toward passage of legislation that would authorize new Federal subsidies for 100,000 additional housing units around the country." My first story for the Times appeared on page B10, under the byline Gerald M. Boyd.
As a reporter for the next six years, I would write hundreds of stories each year. But that first time, I felt an enormous sense of professional and personal validation. Yes, I was ready.
From “My Times In Black and White” by Gerald M. Boyd © 2010, to be published by Lawrence Hill Books on February 1st, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.