What Adam Nagourney Learned Mining the Times

The veteran reporter reflects on researching his own newsroom’蝉 sagas and scandals, finding Abe Rosenthal’蝉 diary, and how The New York Times has survived and thrived in the digital age.
NEW YORK NY  APRIL 29 Taxi cabs drive past the front of the New York Times building on April 29 2023 in New York City.
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Taxi cabs drive past the front of the New York Times building on April 29, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)From Gary Hershorn/Getty Images.

When Gay Talese’蝉 landmark New York Times history, The Kingdom and the Power, hit shelves in 1969, the reviews were largely favorable—not least from the Times itself. The literary critic and Times daily book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it “beguilingly gossipy, intimately anecdotal, exhaustively and sometimes irrelevantly detailed…a grand epic that personalizes the impersonal and turns monolith to flesh.” Writing for The New York Times Book Review, the journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian concluded: “Despite its flaws, the book creates moving scenes and personalities. Seldom has anyone been so successful in making a newspaper come alive as a human institution.”

It’蝉 a high bar to live up to. But veteran Times reporter Adam Nagourney hopes he has at least come close with The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism, out Tuesday from Crown Publishing Group. The story picks up not long after Talese’蝉 classic leaves off, chronicling the institution’蝉 journalistic triumphs, shameful sagas, and various currents of change through four decades and seven executive editors. You know the convulsions I’m talking about, at least the ones from the more recent annals of Times history: the scandals surrounding Jayson Blair’蝉 fabulism and Judith Miller’蝉 Iraq-war reporting; the life-saving decision to build an online paywall; the much-ballyhooed innovation report that lit a fire regarding the need for digital transformation and audience development.

Is it fair to think of Nagourney’蝉 book as a sequel? “The only reason I would resist that at all,” he told me, “is that I don’t think I’m in the same league as Talese. But that is what I was trying to do. I pick up in about 1977; I think he ends in 1969. But very much I was trying to help people understand what makes the Times the Times, and what motivates these men and women who put out the paper.”

Nagourney and I caught up last week ahead of The Times’蝉 September 26 pub date. Our condensed and edited conversation is below.

Vanity Fair: You’ve worked at the Times since 1996. Of all the convulsions you’ve witnessed—from Judy Miller and Jayson Blair and the fall of Howell Raines, to the introduction of a paywall, the innovation report, Jill Abramson’蝉 firing, the ouster of James Bennet—which of these feels, in hindsight, like it was the most major? The most disruptive to the institution?

Adam Nagourney: I think the confluence of Jayson Blair and Judy Miller was the most disruptive, and had the most long-term effect on the newsroom, but also on the paper’蝉 reputation. Jayson Blair was, what, 20 years ago? Even now you still get people accusing you of making stuff up. Are you Jayson-Blairing me? And I think the Judith Miller stuff, some of her dubious reporting on Iraq—without taking away from some of her good reporting—has always sort of colored the way a lot of people view the Times.

What made you want to write a book about the Times?

I’ve always been someone who kind of grew up on the Times. It was always part of my life. I always wanted to work there, and without sounding like a cliche, I read Gay Talese’蝉 book, and it really influenced me. I always thought there was a need to do another book on the Times. There were two major ones, but it’蝉 been a long time, and I think the paper has gone through a major change, both in how it’蝉 viewed in society and how it has succeeded and not succeeded. There was just a lot to write about. I decided this is something I wanted to do, and I spent seven years doing it.

What advice did Talese give you?

After I got the book contract, I said, “Can I come over and see you?” I didn’t know him beforehand. I knocked and he opened the door and he goes, “I’ve been waiting 15 years for someone to write this book.” He invited me in, opened up this phone book, told me all these people to talk to. I mean, he was just amazing.

I talked to some of your more illustrious past and present colleagues about what I should I ask you, so if there’蝉 anything you don’t like in this next batch of questions, don’t shoot the messenger. This first one came up most often: Considering you still work at the Times, why should readers trust your views on the place? Aren’t you restrained from being totally honest?

That’蝉 a totally legitimate question that I anticipated from day one. This book ends in 2016. There are a couple of reasons I do that, but a lot of it’蝉 because I did not want to be writing about people that I work for. And I was really, really assiduous about that. There are one or two exceptions. I write about Arthur Gregg Sulzberger [the publisher] and a little bit about Carolyn Ryan [a managing editor]. But mostly I’m writing about people who I don’t work for. Pretty much everyone in this book is someone who’蝉 from the history of the Times, not currently at the Times. Again A.G. gets more complicated because he’蝉 still there, but I write about him in the past. I thought about quitting the paper.

Which Talese did.

He did. I guess what I would say is, read the book and see whether you think it pulls any punches. I don’t think it does. That’蝉 not what I’ve done with my career. I hope I don’t do it now.

A lot of media coverage about the Times tends to focus on the paper’蝉 big personalities and the dramas that entangle them. Do you think there’蝉 too much attention paid to that sort of stuff, particularly with the executive editors, and not enough to the core journalism that defines each executive editor?

I think the executive editor and the publisher are a really good way to organize and think about a book like this. Or, for that matter, an article that you’re doing about some scandal at the Times. They each impose their personality on the paper. They tend to be extraordinary talents and extraordinary personalities, for better and for worse. But I did try to make a point of making sure it wasn’t only a story talking about the big powerful white dudes, and later on women, who were in charge.

To clarify the original question, do you think coverage of the Times focuses on the substance of Times journalism in a way that’蝉 commensurate with the focus on personalities?

I think so. That’蝉 something I was very conscious of in writing and rewriting and editing. Some of these characters are really big, colorful, powerful, interesting characters. The fact of the matter is that they are really big personalities who, in my opinion, really do influence what the newsroom is, though maybe more in the past than now. They determined people’蝉 careers. They determined what story you found on the front page. They determined who got to go to Paris. So I hope I got the balance right, but I think it would be a mistake to go too far the other way.

Do you think the Times has lost anything by going so hard at national and international audiences?

No. I mean, it’蝉 obviously partly a financial decision. Remember, I started in Metro. I used to work at the Daily News. My blood is at New York City Hall. But the paper has always been dragged into national and foreign coverage. That’蝉 part of what it does, and it does it pretty well. We still have some really great New York City and Albany coverage, but the paper is going to survive and succeed as a sort of national, international newspaper.

When it comes down to it, do you think the innovation report was basically a directive to chase audience?

No. I think it was a way of survival. It was a way of figuring out how the newspaper is going to adjust to this new era where the old ways of doing things were not going to work. The?innovation report is a big part of the book, because it was such a transformational moment. It’蝉 what sort of really accelerated the Times from this old-school newspaper into what it is today.

You obviously did a lot of reporting on Mark Thompson’蝉 tenure as CEO. Do you think he was a good choice to lead CNN? And is there anything in particular about his Times stewardship that makes him well-suited for this new job?

I really have not thought about that question at all. I will answer this in general, because I don’t really feel qualified to say what CNN needs. I thought he did a really good job at the Times in a very difficult environment. I think some people, like Jill Abramson, would disagree with that. They had their clashes. But I think that, coming in as a business person at this pivot point, and kind of guiding the paper, or helping the paper get in this direction, I think that was impressive. So it struck me as a good choice.

When we think of the editors of old, like A.M. Rosenthal, we think of these towering figures who basically embody the newspaper, whereas these days, the business side is so much more in the forefront than it used to be. Does it feel less and less like there’蝉 one person who leads the Times?

I think a big part of it is, those kinds of big figures—they’re all men, I would point out—I don’t think they can exist in today’蝉 environment. Listen, I will never take away from, say, Abe Rosenthal’蝉 brilliance as a correspondent, and to some extent as an editor and a journalist, but his personality and some of the stuff he did, and some of the ways he treated people—gay people, women, people of color—you wouldn’t get away with that kind of stuff today. I think he would’ve gotten blown up. I don’t think there is an appetite, or even the possibility, to kind of have the big, colorful, larger-than-life executive editors we had in the past. That personality could not survive anymore.

Back to my own questions. I know you said you were mostly writing about people you don’t currently work for, but you did talk to scores of people for this book, including current colleagues and people you used to work for. What were some of the more uncomfortable things to report on?

Some of the stuff with Jill Abramson’蝉 firing. Even though I was writing about Jill, who had moved on, some of the people still there still felt very strongly about it. I didn’t write that much about Dean Baquet. That would’ve gotten more complicated. If you look at the cast of players in the book, you’ll see that, with some exceptions, most of them have moved on. I’m not writing about people who are still players. It would’ve been harder to do that, not only because it gets awkward, but also, it’蝉 hard to get the kind of candor you want or the kind of perspective you want. Howell Raines today is going to be a lot more open about his deliberations than he would’ve been if I had interviewed him at the height of his editorship.

Are there any previously unpublished revelations that you want to plug?

I came across a private diary that Abe Rosenthal wrote that I think really answers the question of whether he was homophobic. He talks about gay people as forming a clique in the newsroom, and how he would let a gay person cover culture or something, but he wouldn’t want him or her to be covering the State Department or the White House. There’蝉 an interesting side story to that. My father used to be president of Quadrangle/Times Books. I found a memo that my father wrote to Abe Rosenthal saying, you should write a memoir. So Rosenthal began putting down his thoughts for a memoir, as far as I can tell, because my father did that. There’蝉 lots of stuff like that in the book, and I think that’蝉 what makes it come alive.

In terms of Times coverage that has been criticized more recently than the historical scope of your book—I’m thinking, for instance, Russiagate, or trans issues, or Hillary’蝉 emails, although I guess that last one just barely squeaks into the timeline—are there any examples where you think some of the criticism was justified, or where a little introspection might be in order?

I’ve watched over the years when this kind of stuff happens. The paper gets stuff—I don’t want to say wrong, that’蝉 a strong word, but it gets stuff a little bit…off, and they come back and they sort of work it out in the end. The trans coverage is a really good example. So is the coverage of the Iraq war. It’蝉 the paper trying to figure out how to navigate a really complicated situation. And at some point, somebody’蝉 going to come along in five or 10 years and we’ll be able to figure out, How did the paper do on this? If you would’ve dropped me into the middle of the Iraq-war coverage, it would’ve been a pretty negative, but also not completely informed, account of what was going on. This book has taught me that you better wait and see how things work out.

We’ve mostly been talking about the modern New York Times. What do you think were some of the most consequential moments from the earlier periods that your book covers?

The paper was in really big trouble in 1976, 1977. There was a big economic downturn, New York City was in the dumps, people were moving out to suburbs, circulation was going down, advertising was going down. The publisher at the time, Punch Sulzberger, and A.M. Rosenthal, they did what they thought was a radical reinvention of the paper, by inventing the food section, the sports section, these five new sections. And the purpose of them was to (a) get advertising and (b) bring in more readers. You see them do this adjustment and it was very, very successful. And you look at the adjustment they’ve had to do now with all the digital stuff, and you realize that this has kind of happened before, and the paper survived and did pretty well as a result.

Are there any threats to the Times’蝉 survival today?

From a business perspective, it’蝉 figured it out, so I remain confident the paper is gonna be fine. It survives not-great executive editors and not-great executives and the occasional bad reporter, and so I think long-term, it’ll be fine.