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Oct. 2, 2009, 10 a.m.

The New York Times navigates standards in a new age

After 44 years at The New York Times, most recently as the assistant managing editor in charge of journalistic standards, Craig Whitney bid farewell to the newsroom this week. The position of standards editor was created in the aftermath of Jayson Blair but has come to address issues that were both hard to foresee in 2003: the growth of Times-sponsored events and merchandise, the new worlds of social networks, and reporters whose brands sometimes seem as big as the newspaper’s.

“Craig inherited the job of standards editor in a world that regularly rattles our conventions,” executive editor Bill Keller told staffers at a newsroom event on Wednesday. (A transcript of the speech was posted on an internal Times site and forwarded along to us.) I found Keller’s remarks revealing of the Times’ angst as it attempts to find new revenue streams and reinvent itself online while sometimes reconsidering long-held standards. Keller mentioned a number of specific issues with which Whitney has dealt, including:

The New York Times Wine Club
Times Talks and the use of reporters at Times-sponsored events
— Times reporters appearing on opinionated TV talk shows
— standards for reporters using social networks like Twitter and Facebook
— use of the word “pooping” in a Times blog post about toilet training
— Theater critic Charles Isherwood’s cameo appearance on Gossip Girl
— Film critic A.O. Scott hosting At the Movies
long-sleeve shirts with the date of President Obama’s inauguration
— speaking fees for reporters

That’s a very different set of issues than someone in Whitney’s shoes would have faced in, say, 1980.

Keller also took a shot at The Washington Post’s aborted salons: “Let’s put it this way. I don’t think there was ever any prospect that Arthur would propose to invite opinion-makers to his house for paid salons with our reporters — but if someone at The Times had given birth to such a scheme, I have no doubt Craig would have been the first to smother it in its crib.”

Here’s the full transcript of Keller’s speech:

The jobs Craig Whitney has performed for this paper over the past four decades range from intern to AME, and include bureaus in Moscow, Bonn, Paris and Washington — with datelines from pretty much every country on the planet that possesses at least one pipe organ. It’s too much career to cram into a toast, and I won’t even try to be comprehensive.

We had a little party for Craig the other night, and he told a lot of great stories about his life at The Times, and I couldn’t help noticing that not one of his stories involved being an editor. Some of us probably understand that better than others.

But today I’d like to say a few words about what Craig has done the last few years — the largely thankless task of helping keep the paper honest at a time when we are hungry for revenues, besieged by ideologues and fly-specked by a legion of self-appointed critics.

Craig inherited the job of standards editor in a world that regularly rattles our conventions. His challenges included the high-speed journalism of the Web, where it is harder to edit rigorously and easier to lose the distinction between news and opinion; they included brand extensions like NYT Wine Clubs and NYT events; they included talk-show hosts who want guest reporters to go beyond telling stories and render verdicts.

He has managed to be gracious and open-minded about all these novelties that arise, but clear-eyed and firm about where the lines must be drawn to protect the integrity and independence of our journalism — in fact and in appearance. His response to new ventures has consistently been — NOT “we don’t do things that way,” but “Is there a way to do that within our standards?” And if the answer was “no,” he was not timid about saying so.

Let’s put it this way. I don’t think there was ever any prospect that Arthur would propose to invite opinion-makers to his house for paid salons with our reporters — but if someone at The Times had given birth to such a scheme, I have no doubt Craig would have been the first to smother it in its crib.

Craig did not save us from the Daily Show, but on a number of occasions he has saved us from ourselves.

Like a lot of judges — especially those at the Appeals Court level — Craig’s job involves making a lot of law. Some of it is written down in formal policy, like legal decisions handed down from the bench. So thanks to him we now have a policy defining how The Times company can use Times journalists in Times-sponsored events, and a whole new policy how we should and should not use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn in our reporting.

But a lot of his pronouncements are handled less formally — common law rather than written edict — opinions rendered in phone and e-mail exchanges with a staff and freelance population curious to know what they can and cannot do when it comes to appearing on TV, making a speech, writing a book, taking someone to lunch, being taken to lunch by someone else, doing a freelance article or signing a petition. He has always been, in his judgments and deliberations, resolutely Episcopalian — which is to say polite and measured and well-mannered. When a freelancer or a blogger ventures a little too far into the land of opinion, particularly political opinion, Craig is there to gently pull them back. “It is a just a fact of life that The Times and everybody connected with it is held under a much more powerful microscope than a lot of other publications,” Craig has observed. “What I am saying is, be careful.”

But it is true that the sudden explosion of tweeting and twittering that erupted out of the newsroom has also puzzled him, as it has perhaps puzzled a lot of us. While Craig understands the utility and the appeal of this sort of networking, and its intersection with our journalism, he wonders about the lack of boundaries among some people who twitter. “Too many tweets can make a twitterer sound like a birdbrain,” he has often been heard to say.

Along with Greg Brock, he has read every correction. And along with Phil Corbett, his successor, he has worried about all the words that appear not only in the paper but, now, on the web (a recent exchange with a department head involved the appearance of the word “pooping” in one of our sites). He cleared the way for Charles Isherwood to make a cameo appearance on the show Gossip Girl; did the groundwork to ensure that Tony Scott can appear as a co-host of At the Movies, and worried whether the Times marketing of men’s and women’s long-sleeve shirts with the Obama inauguration date and NYT logo made us look just a little too close to the new administration.

And he has vetted the scale of speaking fees for reporters invited to give outside talks, although the money some groups are willing to pay to hear his colleagues talk has never failed to amaze Craig. “The American Guild of Organists never offered me that much money for a speech,” Craig complained mildly once. For those of you puzzled by all the references to things organic: Craig is an accomplished organist, and has written a book about organs.

Greg Brock told me that whenever he attended a management training session with Craig, he would open the session by reviewing examples of egregious errors we had made. “Now, that’s an embarrassing error to have to admit, isn’t it?” he would say. Then he’d read another one: “Well, anyone should have known that.” And another one: “Can you BELIEVE we got that wrong?”

Of course, all of the errors were under the byline “Craig R. Whitney.” That’s the Whitney style.

One of Craig’s plans after he walks out the door is to write a book about the Second Amendment — and part of me wonders whether his new interest in guns relates at all to the frustrations of being standards editor. For the last few years, Craig has been enforcing the rules in our Dodge City of a newsroom, armed only with the ethics code and his own abundant reasonableness. Perhaps he hankers to pack something with a little more firepower.

At our party the other night I pointed out that it took three people to take over the duties of Al Siegal when he left, and now we’re subdividing Craig’s work among three people: Phil Corbett, Bill Schmidt and Greg Brock. Even with three people picking up his work, Craig will be a very hard act to follow, and we’ll miss him.

POSTED     Oct. 2, 2009, 10 a.m.
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