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The Life and Times of Daniel Okrent

The Life and Times of Daniel Okrent

When Daniel Okrent stepped down as The New York Times’s first public editor, he may have been the happiest man in America. Okrent took the job in late 2004 – a position created in response to the Jayson Blair scandal, which rocked the Times internally and led to the resignation of two top editors.

As the intermediary between readers and the editorial staff, Okrent occupied the hottest seat in American journalism for 18 months. Columns on issues like anonymous sourcing, the paper’s perceived liberal bias, its reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and other foreign affairs (notably Israel and Palestine), and even the Tony awards (Okrent thought far too much ink was spilled on them) provoked strong responses from readers and staffers alike. It was no secret that many Times people resented Okrent – initially, at least – for daring to examine their procedures and performance in public. Having once compared the job to undergoing oral surgery, Okrent was understandably relieved as the clock wound down on his tenure. Yet he was also proud of, and saluted for, his groundbreaking role in making the inner workings of the nation’s most influential newspaper more transparent than ever before.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Okrent established his reputation as an author and magazine editor long before the Times came calling. His books include The Ultimate Baseball Book, Nine Innings, and Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. In the 1980s and 90s he served as founding editor of New England Monthly and managing editor of Life, one of several hats he wore at Time Inc. One more cap he’s worn: that of the inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball [Fantasy Baseball], the oft-imitated parlor game that turns armchair fans into horse-trading owners and general managers.

In a conversation with Raymond Elman, Okrent reflected on life at the Times — and his own life and times – while looking ahead to his next project, a book about the social history of Prohibition.

RAYMOND ELMAN: How did you move from Time Inc. to the New York Times, since by your own admission you had virtually no background in newspapers?

DANIEL OKRENT: I had three jobs during my 12 years at Time Inc.: editor of Life magazine; editor of new media for Time, Inc., in the early Internet days; and corporate editor-at-large, which was the best job in publishing. I wrote for the different Time Inc. magazines when I wished to and sat in for various editors when they were on vacation.

A year before I retired, AOL bought Time Inc. Time magazine needed somebody to write the cover story about the merger. On the principle that you cannot hurt a condemned man, they gave the assignment to me. In retrospect, it was that article as much as anything else that got me the New York.Times job, as it showed that I was willing to criticize the people I worked for.

RE: Six years ago, you gave a speech at the Columbia School of Journalism predicting the death of print media. Do you still believe the species is endangered?

DO: Personally, I always want to have a book in my hand. Books have endured for 500 years. You’ll always have writers, too. But the form in which their work is read doesn’t really matter. What I posited – a technological future where there’ll be no such thing as a book or magazine or newspaper – is, if anything, more likely than ever, mainly because it costs so much money to manufacture and distribute the printed word.

RE: What shaped you own career path?

DO: Coming out of college I thought I was going to be a newspaper reporter, but I wasn’t very good at it.

RE: How so?

DO: I would make one phone call when I needed to make four.

RE: Were you lazy?

DO: Lazy and intimidated. I had what I’d call the Krugman Problem. (Paul Krugman, the Times op-ed columnist) He thinks he knows something but doesn’t check – he doesn’t make the call asking, “Is this exactly right?” Me neither. I thought I knew something, but as I’ve learned you really don’t. The capital of the United States? Look it up. Eventually I decided I couldn’t do that for a living, that I didn’t have the emotional make-up for it, either. So I fell into book publishing – by accident – instead.

RE: How did you do that?

DO: I was book review editor for my college paper, The Michigan Daily, and I wrote Robert Gottlieb, editor in chief at Knopf, a very open and ingenuous letter. His secretary was on vacation, so he read the letter, and wrote back to me, apoorly typed, single-spaced thing that I think I still have somewhere, in which he said he doesn’t know why I’d want to be in the book business, but if I do here’s how he got into it, and we don’t have any jobs for you, but if you ever find yourself in New York, let me know, and I’ll talk to you. Whereupon, I immediately went to the airport, got a student stand-by ticket, and flew to New York for $29. I had been to New York once on my high school senior trip. I landed at LaGuardia, and I called Gottlieb, but his secretary was now back from vacation, and she answered the phone. She said you don’t have an appointment, and he doesn’t know you – you couldn’t possibly see him. And I said, miss, you don’t understand, I’m a 20-year-old college student, I don’t have any money, and I’m at LaGuardia Airport. She said hold on, and she checked with him, and he said, yes, come in. So I took the bus to Grand Central and walked up to his office. I talked with him for a few hours, and he said a year from now when you graduate, we’ll have room for you, if you’d like to come to work here.

RE: Writing and editing take different skills. How do you view the differences?

DO: Editing is really my profession. Writing is something I worked into my career. When I was seven, though, I wanted to be a writer. I mean, no kid wants to be an editor. Then when I left book publishing in 1978, at age 30, to try writing, I found out how tough it really was to make a living writing. In 1979, my total income was $11,000. By 1981, it was up to maybe $17,000. Meanwhile, Becky and I had left New York City for Worthington, Massachusetts, living in a 200-year old farmhouse heated by wood, while she was pregnant with our second child, had our two-year-old underfoot, and had her husband on the road, trying to make it as a freelance writerI realized I had to get a job locally. Unfortunately, there were no such jobs, so I started New England Monthly.

RE: New England Monthly won several national awards and is fondly remembered by many readers. Why did you start the magazine, and why didn’t it last?

DO: As I said, it was literally born out of my need to find a job. Becky and I were living in Worthington, and I’d been consulting to Texas Monthly magazine. A colleague suggested we start a business together, which ended up being a magazine exceedingly imitative of Texas Monthly – at least in the business conception. We raised the money for it in the winter of ’82-83 and began publishing in April ’84.

RE: Why did it fail?

DO: One, it was aimed at too small an audience. American culture is built like a pyramid. The closer you get to the top – the most literate, the most informed — the fewer people are there. You have to spend an awful lot to reach those people, Two, we walked right into the collapse of the New England economy in 1990. Three, Texas has a kind of unified field theory that New England simply doesn’t. You might live in Dallas or El Paso, but you’re first and foremost a Texan. Not so here. All that being said, the magazine wouldn’t have made it no matter what.

RE: You had some incredible talent on staff, though, including Jonathan Harr, who wrote an article that turned into the best-selling book A Civil Action.

DO: Yes, and I remember warning him not to do the book. “It’s going to take longer than you think,” I said. “One day you’ll find yourself pulling the back seat out of your car, looking for quarters.” He worked on the book for nine years on an $80,000 advance. One day, as predicted, I got a collect call at Life magazine from Harr. He’d run out of gas on the Massachusetts Turnpike and had just taken the back seat out in order to buy enough gas to get home to Northampton. But he had the last laugh. The book went on to sell 2.5 million copies, becoming one of the biggest nonfiction bestsellers of the past 20 years.

RE: Was New England Monthly’s demise your biggest professional disappointment?

DO: Uh, no. In 1995, Norman Pearlstine, the editor in chief of Time Inc., asked me if I’d be interested in running Sports Illustrated. I said yes, and he said, “Good. I’m going to have a competition.” Internally, S.I.’s editor, Mark Mulvoy, had already picked Bill Colson to succeed him. Nevertheless, Pearlstine wanted me to edit S.I, for three months and have Colson do it for three months, too. It was billed as a ”bake-off,” and it was very public. I lost.

RE: Did Pearlstine say why?

DO: Yeah. He liked the other guy’s work better than mine. I was crushed at the time, but life went on.

RE: You did produce one of the great covers in S.I.’s history, though. After Mickey Mantle died, you ran a haunting black and white photo of a young, rawboned Mantle – no text, just the photo – that few editors would have the imagination to put out front.

DO: Well, funny you should mention it. Mulvoy heard what I was doing at the time and said, “We can’t put people on the cover just because they die. We’ve never done that before. What are we going to do when Ted Williams dies?” And I said, “Put him on the cover, too.”

RE: Which of course S.I. did.

DO: The Mantle cover was a huge success, I might also point out, selling five or six times as many copies on the newsstand as the average issue. But you can’t kill a Hall of Famer every week, so I didn’t get the job.

RE: Has your subsequent success made writing easier for you?

DO: I think I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s also gotten much harder. I’m much slower than I used to be. And maybe because I was writing on such a big stage in the Times, I’ve had a little stage fright. It took me two full days to write a 1,400-word column, which is not very fast for a newspaper columnist.

RE: You’ve joked that the first line items in your obituary will be your invention of Rotisserie League Baseball [Fantasy Baseball]. How did that happen?

DO: I was writing about baseball quite a lot and had several friends who were crazy about the Philadelphia Phillies. So I brought them together for lunch at in Manhattan called La Rotisserie Francaise, and proposed the idea of forming a league where you’d draft and trade real major leaguers, and their real-life statistics would become your team’s statistics. It took off to the extent that there’s now a fantasy soccer league in Poland and fantasy cricket in the UK. The most bizarre, though, is fantasy horse racing in Hong Kong. I mean, horse racing is already a fantasy, right?

RE: Did you ever patent the idea?

DO: We trademarked the name, but there was nothing to patent, really. Once the rules were published, they could be repeated everywhere. Then it quickly grew way beyond our control. At spring training one year I was stopped by twin dentists from Indianapolis. “Are you Daniel Okrent?” they asked. “We admire you so much, because you didn’t want to make money off Rotisserie Baseball. You gave it to the people.” I said I would have loved to have made money off it, I was just too much of a schmuck to know how.

RE: Do strangers come up to you saying, “I can’t believe I spent $4 on Mark Bellhorn?”

DO: Oh yes. The worst is when they talk to you about their teams. There’s nothing more interesting than your own Rotisserie team — and nothing less interesting than somebody else’s team. I once gave a speech to Boston bankers about the future of the New England economy. During the question session this guy who looked like Ray Milland put up his hand and said, “How much should I pay for Rickey Henderson?” Terrible.

RE: What interested you about writing the history of Rockefeller Center?

DO: A large check.

RE: Was it your idea, though?

DO: No, the publisher came to me, actually. But it was so right for what interests me. That is, the Thirties, New York City, and all the factors that go into a large-scale project: money, art, family, and politics. It was absolutely the right idea for me.

RE: Structurally, it seems similar to Nine Innings.

DO: If you’re referring to chronology, well, I’ve always said chronology is a writer’s friend. Nine Innings had a very clear narrative – first pitch to last pitch of a baseball game, with all this digression and discursive stuff thrown in. Funny story: Nine Innings was already in the production process when my editor called me with “some really bad news.” What? I asked. “Well,” he said, “you left out the bottom of the fifth.” The book was so digressive, I hadn’t even noticed. So I went back and wrote the bottom of the fifth inning in a day, as the book was going to press.

RE: You’re the only talking head to have appeared in Ken Burns’s PBS series on both baseball and jazz, one reason you’ve been described more than once as a Renaissance man. Do you shrug off that encomium?

DO: Actually, I was a script consultant on “Jazz,” but didn’t appear in the film; I remembered how Shelby Foote, Burns’s main commentator in “The Civil War,” showed up yakking in “Baseball,” and I thought that was really weird. Renaissance Man? No thanks – that’s really pretentious. My wife Becky prefers “serial obsessive,” which is better. Because once I get interested in something, I must know everything about it. Then I move on to the next thing.

RE: Like baseball and jazz.

DO: Baseball, yes. Jazz, not so much anymore. I became obsessive about classical music ten years ago. And of course, there was scuba diving. For six years, I was insanely into that. You could not name a fish I did not know personally.

RE: One striking change in the media recently is the amount of self-analysis and navel-gazing that’s going on in major news organizations. In taking the Times job, where did you find yourself getting inserted into that conversation?

DO: When I was interviewing for the public editor’s job, Jill Abramson, the paper’s managing editor, asked me if I were a media critic. God no, I said, but I am a media consumer – and creator. And consumers, too, are concerned about the creation process. So when I went to the Times, I tried only to write about the Times. To avoid, you know, the larger whither-the-media questions. The internal discussion of the media is about as interesting to others as the internal discussion of the automobile industry.

RE: Is the media’s relentless self-examination a good thing?

DO: I think it is. But the volume of e-mail I got from insane, nasty, hate-filled people was hard to take.

RE: Before Blair came along and Howell Raines resigned as editor, many thought the paper ought to appoint a readers’ advocate like yourself. Knowing what you know now, would you have taken the position under Raines?

DO: I’ve never even thought of that. At least part of me says, yes, because only one person can be the first. But my response is colored by my own ego and vanity. When my successor was about to be chosen last winter, I was relieved to be leaving this incredibly bright, intense spotlight I’d been in. Then he was named, and suddenly the focus was all on him. Nobody paid attention to me anymore.

RE: What do you feel you’ve changed at the Times?

DO: One thing, no question, is the use of anonymous sourcing. I really pushed that issue. My real contribution, though, was that Monday morning after my column appeared, Times people came into the office talking about what I’d written. They might have been saying, “What an idiot Okrent is.” But they were engaged. The same conversation was happening at other newspapers, too. What pleased me most was hearing from retired journalists thanking me for writing what I did.

RAYMOND ELMAN is an artist who cofounded Provincetown Arts magazine in 1985. His paintings have been widely exhibited and are included in numerous collections. His large scale portraits of Pulitzer Prize recipients Stanley Kunitz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alan Dugan, and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinksky are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. In Miami, he is represented by the Williams McCall Gallery. (See for more information.)

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