When Gay Talese’s 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’s 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’s classic leaves off, chronicling the institution’s 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’s fabulism and Judith Miller’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s been a long time, and I think the paper has gone through a major change, both in how it’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s from the history of the Times, not currently at the Times. Again A.G. gets more complicated because he’s still there, but I write about him in the past. I thought about quitting the paper.