Q&A with former New York Times editor Robert Phelps on the newspaper industry.
An editor of great influence at The New York Times during the newspaper’s golden age, Robert H. Phelps helped shape coverage of some of the most formative stories of modern American journalism.
Phelps got his start in 1941, earning $20 per week as a reporter for the now defunct Citizen in Ambridge, Pa. After a stint with the United Press wire service, he joined the Navy, where he served as an enlisted combat correspondent based out of Okinawa during World War II. After the war, he worked at The Providence Journal before landing a job as a copyeditor for the Times, where he was promoted several times.
As the news editor of the Times’ Washington Bureau from 1965-1974, Phelps coordinated the paper’s reporting on such seminal moments as the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.
In 1974, Phelps left the Times for the Boston Globe, where he supervised the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of school desegregation.
Phelps, who will turn 90 in July, recently penned his memoirs, titled “God and the Editor: My Search for Meaning at The New York Times.”
He recently sat down with the Lincoln Journal to reflect upon his career and share his insights on the past, present and future of newspapers.
Q: Why did you want to pursue a career in journalism?
A: I was interested in the news, of course. I was taken because of politics, the New Deal, Roosevelt, that sort of thing.
I read the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” by Drew Pearson. He was one of the first of the popular columnists. You had people like Walter Lippmann who were above the fray and who were part of the establishment. They dined regularly with the people in charge in Washington. Drew Pearson, he did some of that, but he was more of an antagonist. He had news exclusives that others didn’t have.
I used to read that stuff as a pretty young kid because my mother was a Democratic Committee woman and my father was an officer in the General Electric union. I was there at the table at all meals and listened to all this talk.
Q: What makes a good reporter versus a good editor?
A: With me, it was the fact that I was socially incompetent. In the job I had with United Press covering politicians, I saw the ones who got the good scoops were the ones who hung around in bars – and I didn’t even drink!
I realized that I had to get stories in a different way and then I tried to outthink the other reporters through simple things like reading the trade press. The lobbyists know what’s going on, like the Pennsylvania Pharmaceutical Association. I just signed up for everything they had. They sent me everything and they talked very freely because nobody else was even talking to them. So you would get advanced tips on stories. And even if the trade press had used it, I beat the regular press.
I got more satisfaction out of setting up the coverage. There’s also this contrarian sense — when something is going one way, you say, ‘What about the other?’ If everybody hates Nixon, try to look at it a contrary way that maybe he’s not all wrong. And that’s needed in an editor if you want to get balanced coverage.
Q: When did you start to see the decline in newspapers?
A: It came pretty fast. I can’t say I foresaw it by any means.
The Internet is primarily responsible. But that’s not going to last. I think the print press is going to come back.
Look at the Internet. What you have there now is almost an unedited cacophony, a Tower of Babel, with everybody saying what they want. They get they’re reporting from where? Because they read the newspapers mostly.
I think that the public will realize eventually — they’re going to zero in on things they can trust. And the advertisers will learn that. There’s a lot of advertising that when the economy improves will go back to newspapers. It won’t be as much. There’s no question about the Internet reach. I’m sure newspapers won’t be the way they were.
I think they’ll discover that the missing ingredient on the Internet is the lack of editing. It’s a tough thing to fight because people want something for nothing.
Q: Have newspapers lost some of their ethics and standards?
A:I think they’ve gotten a lot better. Most newspapers, I’m talking about, even tabloids. I think that’s the effect of journalism schools.
Q: If Watergate happened today, how do you think it would be covered?
A: One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers, which is a necessary precede to Watergate, was: You don’t trust the government. Which, to me, meant you don’t trust anybody really. You don’t trust dissidents, even though your heart might go out to these people. So I think that those same things would be a factor.
There’s no question about it in my mind, the metropolitan press is generally more liberal and their heart will go out to the downtrodden and the dissidents, whoever they are. I hope there will be editors who will rein them in.
I think you’ll have that struggle going on no matter what story it is.
Q: In your book, you write about how never had an interest in the editorial page of the paper. Are you comfortable with the editorial voice in newspapers today?
A: When you have these other competitors, more and more, the reporters are being freed up to get what’s close to an opinion — analysis, call it — in their regular news stories. They have to take it beyond what they’ve already heard on television and what they’ve seen on the Internet. You look at the Times today, those economic reporters on the front page of the business section — just loaded with opinions.
And with some columnists, you know what they’re going to say before they say it. What many people look for are cheerleaders on their side — a new argument why they’re right.
The question is: Are they capable of looking at it dispassionately and objectively? I think they can be.
Q: Why did you decide to write your memoirs?
A: I never thought the Times got adequate credit for what it did on Watergate. The Washington Post, rightfully, broke the story and broke it open. But what people have not understood is that after that first flush, the Washington Post did not do well. We beat ‘em.
The second reason had to do with women’s rights. At the end, I realized I hadn’t, in my mind, treated my wife fairly. When a person marries, each partner should try to help the other accomplish as much as they can with their talents. And I didn’t do that for my wife. She did it for me, in the sense that everything was: ‘Whatever you want.’ So I wanted to straighten that out.
I also had this interest in religion, which, to this moment, has not been fulfilled.
I always said: There’s no such thing as good writing. There’s only good rewriting. I always told reporters to over-report the story. They’d say, ‘All this good stuff you’re cutting out.’ And I said, ‘But only the best stays here.’
I wrote 139,000 words and there are 95,000 in the book, and I cut them all.
Q: Would you still want to be a journalist if you were starting in today’s environment?
A: I would talk to some old guy who’s way past his prime and never was that much, and I would say, "What would you do?"