Calame Sought Assurances Before Taking 'NYT' Job

By: Joe Strupp The first time Byron Calame went to The New York Times, it was 1965 and he was interviewing for a reporting job, which he did not get. Almost 40 years later, he'll finally be on the payroll as the paper's second public editor.

But it was not a decision that came easily. Almost from the moment Calame, the former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor who's known as "Barney," was approached about replacing outgoing public editor Daniel Okrent, he resisted. Having retired in December after 39 years at the Journal, he found retirement was a nice place to be, he told E&P. And he also wanted assurances on the independence of his position, "how far I could go," as he put it.

Calame will start at the Times on May 9. Okrent will continue as Public Editor through the end of his contract, on May 31.

"My first response was, 'I don't know,'" he said this morning. "I had to think about it for a couple of days. I had discovered that I sort of liked retirement. ... It seemed so totally unbelievable to me that the Times would be seriously interested in someone who had been at the Wall Street Journal so long, and kind of in the background," Calame, 65, said. "I thought, 'How could you have a person come from the Wall Street Journal and not have it be offensive to the New York Times? Was it just a cute idea to see if I was interested?'"

After several days, he decided to put his name into the running, then he later met with Okrent over breakfast to discuss the idea. "He was very forthcoming and very helpful, and it was a good discussion," Calame recalls about Okrent, who once compared the job to root canal work. "He was saying, 'Come on in.' He said I should take it."

Okrent said Calame was one of three top contenders for the post, but the only one offered the job, as far as he knew. He declined to identify the other applicants, but said one had no newspaper background, while the other was retired from many years in the newspaper business.

Times officials have not said if the job was offered to anyone else or how many people were in the running. Executive Editor Bill Keller did not return calls seeking comment.

Okrent, whose 18-month contract as the paper's first public editor ends May 31, said he believed Calame's background as a newspaper man would make the job a good fit. "It was interesting because his background is different from mine," Okrent recalled about the meeting. "But I believe we see most of the issues the same way. We immediately hit it off."

Calame said he was eventually offered the job last Wednesday, but did not accept it until yesterday, seeking nearly a week of time to think about it and clarify how much power and independence he would have.

"I wanted to sort out how far I could go in the job," Calame said. "There is no real description for it, and I had never been an independent contractor so I wanted to understand the details."

Specifically, Calame wanted assurances that he would have the freedom to write about whatever he chose. "The big thing was, what if I wanted to do this or do that," he said about his conversations with Keller after being offered the position. "Making sure how far I could go." He also spoke with Okrent again last Friday before accepting.

Calame would not specify exactly what freedoms he asked Keller about, but noted that one might be the ability to run letters in the place of his column if he felt it was needed. He also pointed out that he wanted to be able to run letters about anything related to the paper, not just those related to Public Editor columns, as Okrent tended to do.

"I wanted to be free to not necessarily write a full column or essay on a regular basis," he explained, noting that his contract has still not been signed. "How I use the space is entirely in my hands."

Calame also wanted the same 18-month contract that Okrent worked under, but agreed to a two-year deal after Keller requested it. "Dan has said it was a struggle for him," Calame said about Okrent's previously published comments about how difficult the job had been. "So I was taking the cue from him [to limit the time], but I gave in."

Okrent said the Times initially offered him a two-year deal, but he only wanted a one-year agreement. The 18-month timeline, he said, came as a potential compromise.

Calame declined to say which issues he planned to pursue right away, as he wants to get into the job and get a feel for the paper. He also wants to remain flexible to tackle subjects as they arise. "Will there always be enough to keep the action going?" he wondered about issues worth pursing. "There may be some weeks when everything has been pretty darn good and you may not have an issue that is worthwhile to explain."

The incoming editor said he planned to post more reader letters on the Web than Okrent, while also writing Web-only columns and items when he believes they are necessary. "The Web is unlimited space, so I see no reason why there couldn't be more," he said. "There are times when it is good for the public editor to say something on Wednesday rather than wait until Sunday."

When asked how he would differ from Okrent, Calame said "my writing won't sparkle the way his does; I'm not a gifted writer." He also said he would not avoid an issue or revisit an issue just because Okrent had written about it. "We [in the industry] have a great history of returning to issues and revisiting them when it is worth the time of the reader," he said.

Calling Okrent "a catalyst," he said the departing editor's time at the paper had shown that the job can be worthwhile. "I think he addressed some really important issues," Calame said. "He saw the job as really independent and some of the things he wrote about -- like Judith Miller and weapons of mass destruction -- clearly showed that he demanded the job be independent."

Calame cited a column Okrent wrote in which he admitted that the Times was a liberal newspaper as another example of not holding back. "That must have made some people wince a little bit," he said.

Overall, Calame said he took the job because it gives him "the freedom to criticize as you see fit, the freedom to go to the publisher anytime you feel there is a problem, and the willingness of the Times to let you delve into stories where there are problems."

In a statement released by the paper, Keller said, "Barney will bring a lifelong, in-his-bones sense of how a daily newspaper operates, and a deep, demonstrated commitment to the highest standards of our craft."


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