By: Joe Strupp
Clark Hoyt had planned to teach a semester at Davidson College in North Carolina this fall when an assistant managing editor at The New York Times called in March to suggest he consider being the paper’s new public editor.
Soon after, Executive Editor Bill Keller phoned to push the idea and, a week later, Hoyt met with several Times folks at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington, D.C.
“I wound up sitting next to [Publisher] Arthur Sulzberger at lunch there,” Hoyt recalled during a phone interview Thursday from his Virginia home. “The conversations kept going on and then I went to New York last Thursday to meet with them.”
Hoyt, the 64-year-old veteran newsman who headed Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau before leaving after it was bought by McClatchy, was named to the post earlier today. He said he was attracted by the idea of working for the Times, which he dubbed “a powerful institution. … It’s a tremendous honor to be asked to take on a role to help the Times live up to its own extremely high standards,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt becomes the third Public Editor at the paper, which created the post in the wake of the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal. Daniel Okrent was the first, serving an 18-month tenure, while Byron Calame followed with a two-year contract that ends next week. Calame’s last column will be this Sunday.
When asked about the obvious friction that can result between the public editor and those who lead the Times, Hoyt said he felt confident through conversations with Keller that he would be able to act independently. “He and I had a very good conversation about this. We are both in agreement that there will be times when I have judgments that differ from his,” Hoyt explained. “I think we are both committed to doing this with a highly professional tone.”
Calame, who said he found out about the choice of Hoyt last week when he spoke to him about the position, praised the pick. “I think he brings a wealth of experience and it is important that he has real newsroom experience,” Calame said. “He has also had that corporate level experience, which can help him interact with the big guys.”
Okrent called Hoyt “ideal for the job.” “He clearly understands the importance of being independent,” Okrent said, referring to the pre-war coverage Hoyt led. “He has an excellent reputation.”
In announcing the hiring to staffers today, Keller took the unusual step of noting that Knight Ridder, under Hoyt’s direction, had provided more “skeptical” coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war than many larger news outlets — including the Times.
Hoyt said that experience, which drew criticism, will help him handle the likely harsh feedback of his upcoming columns.
“Any judgment one makes is certainly going to disappoint some people,” he said of the Times Public Editor post. “I’ve had some practice in that.”
When asked what he thought of the Times own pre-war coverage, which drew criticism and eventually prompted a prominent Editor’s Note that admitted mistakes, Hoyt said he had “wondered at the time where they and other news organizations were” on the story. “But I can’t speak to why their coverage went in the direction it did, or The Washington Post or others. We were very aware of it and, for a long time, quite alone.”
Married with no children, Hoyt said he will move to New York, but commute to his home in Virginia, which he shares with his wife, Linda Kauss, a deputy managing editor for USA Today.
Hoyt started his newspaper career in 1966 at The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., then began working for Knight Ridder at the Detroit Free Press in 1968 as a general assignment reporter and then political reporter. In 1970, he became Washington correspondent for The Miami Herald and was later a national correspondent for Knight Ridder, and then news editor of its Washington bureau.
He returned to the Free Press as business editor of the Free Press, then became managing editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle-Beacon from 1981-85, before returning to Washington to be bureau chief in 1987. He was Knight Ridder’s vice president/news from 1993-99. From 1999 until 2006, he was Washington editor, with responsibility for the Washington bureau and the editorial operations of Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
In 1973, Hoyt shared the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with Robert S. Boyd for their coverage of Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton’s history of treatment for severe depression.
Hoyt is contracted to serve in the position for two years, but says he may write more often than his predecessors, possibly once a week. “I think it fits my work rhythm,” he said. “My sense of how I want to approach the job. I might write at a somewhat less length each time.” He said the issues that he approaches will mostly be dictated by readers. “First and foremost it is what readers care about,” he said. “The experience of the first two public editors suggests that much of their agenda was set by reader concerns.”
Although he starts on May 14, Hoyt does not plan to write a column for at least a month, hoping to get acclimated to the paper and the issues.