Howell Raines: Life After the Times

David A. Andelman – Forbes

Copyright Forbes
05.17.06,
Howell Raines, veteran editor and correspondent for The New York Times, who served for 21 months as executive editor before losing his job in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, has retired to rural Pennsylvania to resume his two beloved pastimes–writing and fly-fishing, both of which he chronicles in a new book, The One That Got Away: A Memoir. Recently, he sat down with the Forbes.com Video Network for a conversation about the media, life and fly-fishing. The following is a transcript of that interview.
Forbes.com: What’s your day like these days?
Raines: Well, as you know, I was hooked to the deadline of a daily newspaper for something like 40 years. My life is very different now. If I’m working on a book, I like to work from 8 a.m. to noon, or some four-hour window. If I’m finished with a project, my typical day now is my wife and I get up, make tea and coffee, sit overlooking the Pennsylvania mountains and read whatever comes to mind, and it is very seldom a newspaper or a newsmagazine–more typically novels, or, since I’m working on a Civil War novel, I read a lot of Civil War history these days.
The trout season has started. Aren’t you up at dawn and out on the river?
Actually, my brother from Alabama, my older brother, comes up for a month every spring, so we took the entire month of April and fished every day that the weather and our aching bodies would allow.
Why would a man who can write such an extraordinary book and catch such extraordinary fish all over the world want to be executive editor of The New York Times?
It took me about 300 pages to understand that myself, and I hope one of the things that comes through here is that I have had two great loves in my life in terms of career. The first was I wanted to be a novelist, like many people who grew up in the era of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. And then I was exposed to newspapering at the age of 21, and I found the world of the newsroom absolutely magical. So I think I love newspapering with the second chamber of my heart, let us say, and I developed a really strong feeling about the role of the press in a democracy, which I think is central to our system and our society.
What this book is about in a sense is that in getting fired from The New York Times, I had the rarest opportunity that could come to a person late in middle life, and that is to go back and take the road not taken. I had some offers to go back into journalism. The Washington Post and the L.A. Times both generously invited me to talk with them about doing a column, and I decided I had done newspapering and that I would try to return to my original ambition of being a literary writer.
Watch this interview with Howell Raines:
Part I: Swimming Upstream
Part II: Writing On The Wall
What does fly-fishing do for you that running a daily newspaper doesn’t?
I think all of the above, in a sense, and I liken it to other what I call nonessential passions that we have–golf, for example, horseback riding, neither of which are to my taste. But fly-fishing is, and I think I get from it what devotees of these other outdoor activities get: It is a way of being in emotional and physical contact with the natural world. And particularly those of us who have spent so much of our lives in cities, it is a deeply relaxing feeling.
So it gives you a feeling of equilibrium in a sense?
Yes, I think so.
So does that carry over to the rest of life? Into your dealings with your wife or friends or colleagues. Does it add a base inside you somewhere?
I hope so. It certainly has carried over into my marriage. My wife, Krystina, was not a fisherperson when we met, and she’s become quite expert. And having been a fencer in high school, she turns out to have this natural hand-eye coordination, which is quite magical.
But one of the nice things about retirement–it’s a working retirement, but I took to it like a duck to water. Because not only do I have time to read and write exactly what I want to, but I have time to be a husband, a fisherman, a doting grandfather and all those things that, by necessity when we’re pursuing active careers, you have to squeeze down.
Do you remember the first fish you ever caught?
My brother says I don’t because he says I started catching them at 3, but I definitely remember the 20 fish that changed my life. I caught a limit of crappies, or croppies as we call them down South, on the Tennessee River when I was age 7, playing hooky from school with my parents, and I was never fit for anything again.
It did shape your life?
How did it come to be such an important thing in my life? I think one thing is my father was an outdoorsman, both a hunter and a fisherman, and for a small boy to be taken into the world of men, and it was essentially a masculine world in those days, was very important. As it happened in my family also, my mother was an ardent fisherperson, so she and I fished quite a bit together when I was in high school and college. So initially it was a way of a family being together.
You mentioned your father. Some of the things about him in the book are quite moving. He was a businessman, but you said a life lived for business does not matter. Do you still believe there is a good reason for not being a businessman?
There is a transition in my life that is covered in the book. I grew up in a family business. My father and his two brothers started out as carpenters and became successful contractors, and I was around business all my life. I worked summers starting at age 15. I was in my 20s sometimes running construction crews. And I just had a feeling that business wouldn’t fulfill what I wanted, and I think it’s because I was early hooked on the writing thing.
That said, I did a very interesting thing for me. The Times sent me to Dartmouth to do one of those M.B.A. programs in a month, you know–I call it an M.B.A. in a nitroglycerin tablet. And I began reading economics and business news with quite a sophistication, frankly. And the other thing that happened: Because I was in an industry that clearly was in a business crisis, I came to feel very strongly that we needed to improve the Times in some specific ways in order to prolong its life as a viable business.
Do you think the time for the Times has passed? You look at the Times lately, it’s under attack by Wall Street for its stock price and everything else. You devised a strategy, though, “which worked at the time we devised it,” was one thing you said. Has it stopped working now?
I can’t say that. And I want to say one reason I became passionate on this issue is that I think the Times is an irreplaceable national institution, and I want to see it prosper in every way. At the time that I was there, Arthur Sulzberger and I and a core group of executives had a strategy for trying to use the revenues, considerable revenues but time-limited revenues from the print paper, to move into digital and broadcast and other areas of publishing, and we were going to go international.
Thatís why Arthur bought the International Herald Tribune. That was the right strategy for that time. I assume these are serious, smart people there, but I haven’t been in the inner sanctum in three years, so I hope and assume they have a good strategy. I don’t think the one we had at that moment is right for this moment. You have to adjust.
Your attempt to evolve this newspaper seems to have come to a sort of stasis. Since you left, there have been none of the changes that occurred at the time you were there, or even when Abe Rosenthal was making his changes in the ’70s. Does this paper still need a makeover of the kind you completed?
I think what you have to look at in a business sense in a newspaper of the traditional sort are two sets of numbers that I think are important. If your circulation has been basically flat for 20 or 25 years and your stock price has decreased by 50% in the last two or three years, I think youíve got to look at those numbers and see what they mean. And I think they mean you have to make significant changes in the quality of what you do in order to drive circulation and eventually follow that circulation into other media outlets.
I don’t want to say and I donít have the basis of saying that the Times is in a state of stasis, because frankly I don’t read it every day any more. I follow the news situationally now. I read the Journal, I read the Financial Times, I read USA Today, which I think is a very interesting publication in its own way. And I read the Times sort of interchangeably. But I think I would have to follow the paper every day and every way to really make a sweeping judgment.
More…
What about the economics of the media industry? When I started in the media industry, there were five TV stations in New York, there were six newspapers. Now there are three or three and a half, yet there is a plurality of media out there, all competing for an advertising pie that hasn’t gotten that much bigger. Given these parameters, is it possible to produce a really quality newspaper anymore?
I think so. But I think that I come to the question from an interesting perspective. I started going to journalism seminars in the 1970s where the theme was always you’re in an industry that won’t be around in another ten years, and now I’ve retired and the horse is still running. So that is an overstatement.
But I think we’re obviously in a watershed period for print journalism. And I think just from the outside, figuring out how to make money in this multifaceted environment is the real challenge the business sides are gong to take. Because the old advertising model seems to be falling apart in many ways, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the future yet.
Do you think there are constructive things being done by corporate America these days?
Yes, obviously. The business of America is business. One of the things I touch on in this book is I am very concerned about corporate influence, unrestrained corporate influence in government. For a very specific reason: The American corporation as it has developed is a marvelous mechanism for what it’s designed to do, which is to make money. It is not, in my judgment, a marvelous mechanism for setting social policy. And I think the balance in Washington right now is out of kilter.
What would it take to get back into kilter, and what should it get back into kilter? Is the media the mechanism that can help it get back into kilter?
I doubt it, at this moment. I think this changes at different times. I think earlier in my career the media on the issues like civil rights, war and the environment was the critical factor. Right now, I think we need two parties that are smarter and better in a variety of ways. Reagan must be spinning in his grave when he sees these deficits. By the same token, the Democrats seem to me to be very flat right now. I think what we need as a nation is another leader on Reagan’s scale.
Do you think the media the way it is structured now is speaking to the young generation, under the age of 30? Is the American establishment, is the media establishment, speaking to people under the age of 30 who are more interested in watching TRL on MTV?
You have touched on one of my favorite things when I was still in the business, which was that what we needed was a younger readership. When people pass 35 or 40, you’re going to get them with articles about the Social Security trust fund. But when they’re under 35, you have to speak the language of style, culture, entertainment, and there’s been a kind of snobbery I think at the Times and other places built around the wrong ideas that you can’t really have highly intellectual writing and reporting about popular subjects. And I just simply disagree about that. To me, for example, the rise of the rap music industry was one of the most important business stories of the last decade of my time in newspapering.
Was it covered adequately by the Times?
I don’t think so. And I don’t fault anyone but myself perhaps for that. But what I thought was interesting and what I think we began to come to grips with–the story of rap music was not two guys shooting one another in the street and insulting each other’s mothers. The story of rap music was Sony and other multinational entertainment corporations trying to adapt to a new audience environment. And that was the story.
They did because they could take the words and music of rap music and put it on discs or on TV. But the Times has a certain tone that’s the same from the beginning of Section A all the way to the end. So how do you have that rap music tone in one section of the paper and not have it permeate into other sections of the paper, destroying that overall tone?
That’s not quite what I mean to be saying, David. A journalistic style as distinctive as the Times or let’s say The Wall Street Journal, can be used, I think, to take on any subject matter, and it’s not a case because youíre writing about rap music you’ve changed your own language or your own style. That’s not what I mean to be saying.
What I think is very important now for newspapers is a general rise in quality through the sections. I wish I thought there was this consistency of excellence through every section of the Times or any other paper. My mantra when I was there was, we need to make every section of the paper as good every day as our best sections, let’s say our foreign report, on our best days. That’s a tall order. It’s an idealistic one, but that was the method for that moment to grow our circulation, I think.
You succeeded then. Are they succeeding now?
Well, I don’t think I succeeded then, driving the circulation very much in 21 months. I’m very proud of the fact that in the 21 months I was there, the work published by the Times won nine Pulitzers, seven in one year, a record I’m very proud of. The Times won three Pulitzers this year, which means they had a very good year.
And you know I don’t want to be in a position of being a lifelong commentator on The New York Times. I am talking about it more freely with you, frankly, because the sophistication of the environment here, I think there are important business and journalistic issues, but I have to tell you my real bottom line is, these are problems for the next generation of journalists and the news executives to figure out. I’m on a different journey now, and frankly it’s a very pleasant one.
So what’s next for Howell Raines?
Iím under a two-book contract with Scribner, of which this is the first. The second is a Civil War novel, which I’ve been planning since my 20s, saving string, both in terms of folk tales from my native South and in terms of serious scholarly histories of the war. And reading other historical fiction like The Killer Angels or Gone With the Wind still holds up pretty well. I always in the back of my mind said I don’t want to write this book until I’m writing my very best. And then at age 63 you’re as good as you’re going to get, so if you’re going to climb that mountain, you’d better start up it.
So itís an intimidating project. I’ve heard the Civil War compared to elephants’ attraction for American writers, or Moby Dick. It’s a big subject. After that I want to write a book about the civil rights era in the South. And frankly after that I’m thinking of writing a political novel set in Pennsylvania. Because my friend Jim Carville says in describing Pennsylvania politics–you’ve got Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Alabama in between. So in a very unusual way, I’ve gone home again.
With your roots in Alabama, you feel at home in Pennsylvania?
There is a reason for that feeling of continuity, because the Scotch Irish came into Philadelphia. The Quakers had the notion they could make good farmers out of them. Once they got into Pennsylvania, they hit the Appalachian Trail and went all the way to Alabama. There is a cultural continuity in the Appalachian people that many know about. I was stunned to find out that Philadelphia was the major point of entry for Scotch Irish immigrants. And my family was one of those who had people in both [Civil War] armies.
Watch this interview with Howell Raines:
Part I: Swimming Upstream
Part II: Writing On The Wall
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