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Editor's Legacy : Good Writing, Long Stories and Freedom

January 01, 1989|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Noel Greenwood can still remember the hoots of derision and confusion he heard at The Times in 1967 when he was a new reporter here and the paper had just published a colleague's lengthy, impressionistic account of hippie life in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco.

Reporter David Felton had spent six weeks on the story, and when Greenwood came to work the morning it was published, he found many of the paper's veteran reporters muttering about the judgment--if not the sanity--of William F. Thomas, the metropolitan editor, who had assigned and approved the story.

Felton is a gifted and stylish writer, and on the Haight story Thomas had told him, "Don't be afraid to try something different . . . take risks." Sure enough, Felton had produced a 6,000-word blend of hippie dialogue in quasi-dramatic form, punctuated by his own observations, written almost as stage directions and presented in italics and parentheses.

'Down the Toilet'

"The older reporters . . . thought that the newspaper had gone down the toilet," said Greenwood, now a deputy managing editor at The Times. "They thought that Thomas had lost his mind. . . . What was this strange piece doing in the paper? And why in the world would you need (several) . . . weeks to do a story?"

But Greenwood admires both Thomas and Felton (who is now a movie and television writer), and he saw Felton's story as a "shot fired across the bow" of traditional journalism.

Indeed it was.

Thomas officially retires today, five months shy of his 65th birthday, after 32 years with the Times Mirror Co., including six years as metropolitan editor and the last 17 years as editor of The Times; two decades after Felton's story was written, it remains symbolic, in a way, of both Thomas' tenure and his legacy.

600% Increase in Budget

In tributes to Thomas over the last few weeks, company executives have almost inevitably focused on the numbers that tell the tale of Thomas' stewardship--nine Pulitzer Prizes; six new foreign bureaus and five new domestic bureaus; two new regional editions, in San Diego and the San Fernando Valley; three new separate sections, Book Review, Calendar and Business; a new Sunday magazine; a 100% increase in the paper's news and editorial staff; a 600% increase in the paper's annual news and editorial budget; all-time highs in daily circulation (1.1 million) and Sunday circulation (1.4 million).

But as impressive as those numbers are, stories like Felton's "Haight-Ashbury Revisited: Some Observations in the Week After the Death of Chocolate George" may represent--to admirers and critics alike--a more relevant and more revealing insight into the Thomas years at The Times.

Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and others were experimenting with different approaches to conventional journalistic storytelling before Felton, Dave Smith, Charles T. Powers and other young journalists-cum-poets were hired by Thomas in the late 1960s. But most of this work showed up in magazines, not in the news columns of daily newspapers; with a few notable exceptions, most newspaper journalism in 1967 was straightforward, unadorned prose that told--as briefly as possible--the who, what, when, where and why of a city council meeting, a murder, a political speech or some other traditional news event.

Thomas felt that to fully engage contemporary readers, to compete with the then-new threat of television and to address the increasingly complex and diverse issues of the time, newspapers had to break with many of their rigid formulas of the past. He remained committed to fairness, accuracy and responsibility--fiercely so--but he wanted these essential journalistic precepts embodied in new forms, addressing new subjects.

Thomas was not the only newspaper editor to take on this challenge, of course, but he gave the new forms a freer rein, enabling his best writers to practice literature as daily journalism.

Not surprisingly, this freedom also contributed significantly to what critics came to see as the paper's biggest flaws:

The Times is uneven. When talented, enterprising reporters take on interesting and/or important subjects, Times coverage is generally superb, as good as, or sometimes better than, that provided by any other newspaper in the country. But other Times coverage--individual stories, general subjects, whole sections of the paper--are, at times, embarrassingly weak. ("You wonder why a paper of this caliber has the shortcomings it does have," said David Lamb, a Times reporter, and a Thomas admirer, since 1970.)

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