Media: Outside heir to the grey lady's chair: Peter Pringle reports on the crowning of an editor, New York-style

When a British newspaper gains a new editor, the change is invariably sudden and bloody, the result of an office putsch or external takeover. In America, years before the actual moment, they start to talk about 'the succession', as if it were royalty. This is especially true at the New York Times, the city's leading daily, where such momentous decisions are never made on deadline but pondered for years. Not only must a new editor be named, an heir apparent must be recognised, too.

Everyone at the Times knows when 'the succession' is due: on the editor's 65th birthday, not a day later. So when Max Frankel, the current executive editor, suddenly decided one year ahead of time to abdicate, Arthur Sulzberger, the youthful Times publisher who inherited his job by virtue of his family owning the controlling stock, was presented with an unusual problem. The succession had not been decided. At all costs an unseemly scramble at court had to be avoided; there must never be any public scrapping in the wood-panelled offices at the 'good grey lady', as the Times was known before sexism codes ruled out such a nickname.

As announced this month, the new editor will be Frankel's deputy, the current managing editor, Joe Lelyveld, a lifelong Times man, described by the New Yorker as 'brilliant but forbidding'. He is 57 and therefore has a good eight years to go in the editor's chair. Publisher Sulzberger, 42, let Lelyveld know in the manner expected of Northern gentlemen, or chiefs of state. One weekend they went for a walk in the woods of upstate New York. 'It was a very touching moment,' Lelyveld recalled.

But who was to be Lelyveld's deputy, and heir to the chair? To follow tradition, the Times had to pick an insider; and, to be politically correct, as always, the Times had at least to consider a woman, or a minority candidate, preferably somebody black.

Two such candidates were discussed. Anna Quindlen, a columnist who is a good friend of Sulzberger, but too young at 41: that meant she would become editor at 49 with 16 years to go. Couldn't have that. The black candidate was Gerald Boyd, currently an assistant managing editor, but he is only 43 and has never been a foreign correspondent. Hrrumph, hrrumph. That would not do, either. Not yet, anyway.

So, the Times had to do what every monarchy must in such cases: bring in a guardian, a prince regent. In the past, outsiders were not even considered, but in this case the Times turned to Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who is 61. He had been a Times junior editor, so that was just about all right. And he would have to retire before Lelyveld was forced to give up. So Sulzberger was buying time.

But to many watching this old-style rite of passage, Sulzberger has bought much more than time. Frankel, known as courtly and professorial, moved the newspaper away from strictly defined rules for news reporting, allowing his star reporters to enter the previously forbidden territory of 'context', instead of only what happened yesterday. The 'news analysis' appeared more frequently, and sometimes even became, dare one say it, opinionated pieces that were a joy to read. In its editorials, the Times suddenly switched from gentlemanly counsel to sharp name-calling of senators and congressmen. They didn't like it, of course. But good writers were given their head and, in that way, Frankel retained the kind of maturing talent that, under his predecessors, had left daily journalism to write books or join magazines.

In foreign and domestic news, however, Times reporters are still restrained, unable to use first-person pronouns and forced to include middle initials, as in Boris N Yeltsin. Because it is the paper of record its reporters include phonetic spellings of unpronounceable places, all of which slow the flow of the story - especially against the freer styles of the Times's local rivals, the tabloid Daily News and Newsday.

Even with its sterling reputation, the Times cannot afford to coast into the next century. In the economic climate of the Nineties, competition for advertising is tough. In 1987, the paper carried a total of 123,237,300 lines of advertising. In 1993, it carried only 77,786,600 lines.

Roberts may not be able to beef up advertising, but he has a reputation for encouraging reporting staff to go after local stories and write them at length. He is a Southerner who is legendary for long silences, broken by nuggets of journalistic wisdom, and presided over a staff that won 17 Pulitzers during his 18-year tenure at the Inquirer. More changes are expected.

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