Volume 73, Number 45 | March 10 -16, 2004

Times public editor gives talk at N.Y.U.

By Nathan Duke

Daniel Okrent showed up several minutes late to his first public speaking engagement since he began working at The New York Times two and a half months ago. Wearing a light blue shirt, several buttons unbuttoned, that bared a slight stain on its front, with sunglasses hanging off the collar, gray slacks, and a full head of gray, uncombed hair, Okrent, 55, looked a bit worn. The audience did not seem to pay his appearance much mind. He does, in fact, hold one of the most controversial and demanding jobs in the newspaper industry.

“Fifteen months and 10 days to go,” he told the crowd of New York University journalism students and professors who had bunched together into the fifth-floor atrium of 10 Washington Pl.’s Carter Hall. He was referring to the number of days left until his contract runs out.

In October of last year, Okrent was named the first public editor, or ombudsman, at The New York Times, a job that was created at the paper as a result of the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal. The first ombudsman in the newspaper industry was hired in 1971 by the Courier Journal, in Louisville, Ky., but Okrent is the first ever to be hired by The Times. His position includes addressing readers’ comments and raising questions of his own about The Times’ coverage, and then writing a column that reviews his findings that appears chiefly in the Week in Review section on Sunday. Okrent said that the job, while important to promoting accuracy in journalism, often involves walking a thin line.

“You don’t want to make a career of following around reporters and re-reporting their stories,” he said.

The position of public editor became a reality for The Times in the summer of 2003, when intern Jayson Blair fabricated entire stories that appeared in the newspaper. Okrent said that Times staffers were torn between promoting one of their own to the position or hiring an outsider who had little previous contact and less loyalty to staff members. The paper eventually went with the latter.

Okrent said that he had received the cold shoulder from a number of journalists at the paper since his induction last fall. He recalled uncomfortable early-morning elevator rides with some of the 1,500 journalists that The Times employs.

“I’m on the tenth floor,” he said laughing. “It stops on every floor and I have to see everyone.”

Okrent said that, despite the nature of his position, not all of the editors and writers at the paper have regarded him disdainfully.

“Some people have been very hostile and more than a handful have been unfriendly, but not a meaningful percentage” he said.

Many reporters, however, do seem to keep their guard up whenever he is around, said the ombudsman.

“People really become more careful,” he said. “There’s a sense of hyperconsciousness. When I walk through the newsroom, there’s a feeling of ‘There’s that guy, I’ve got to be more careful.’ ”

Okrent became the first public editor at The Times following the publication of his most recent book, “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,” in September 2003, which chronicles the deal-making that led to the construction of the famous skyscraper complex. In July 2001, prior to the book’s release, he retired from Time Inc., where he had recently served three years as editor-at-large and, before that, three years as the company’s editor of new media, and four years as managing editor of Life magazine. He was also the co-creative director of “Our Times,” an illustrated encyclopedia of the 20th century that was published in 1995, and was the founder of Rotisserie League Baseball in 1980. Along with “Great Fortune,” he has published two books about baseball and another about business. He was a featured narrator in Ken Burns’ “Baseball.” While he is currently making plans to begin on another book, he does not see his position as public editor as a temporary one.

“I think the job is permanent,” he said, despite the fact that his contract runs out in slightly over 15 months.

Despite some tensions with fellow Times workers, Okrent said he feels his job is an important contribution to producing a better newspaper and enjoys the freedoms that his position allows.

“I don’t have to write in The Times style. I don’t have to use the word ‘Mr.,’ ” he said smiling. “I can write in a more human style.”

The fact that the ombudsman chose the date to conduct his first public speaking engagement was timely. Jayson Blair, the former Times intern who, in a sense, helped create the position at the paper that Okrent now holds, would release his book, “Burnin’ Down My Master’s House: My Life at The New York Times,” slightly over two weeks later. Despite the fact that Blair’s manufacturing stories and doctoring quotes led The Times to create the public editor position, Okrent barely spoke about the former intern and only made a slight reference to the release of the book on March 6.

“I doubt I’ll look at it,” he said.


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