‘At The [NY] Times, you can imagine yourself making journalism that changes the world’

Rich Meislin, who is leaving the New York Times after almost 40 years, wrote what one Romenesko reader calls “the best farewell address.” Here it is:

Rich Meislin, April 22, 2015

When I started here as a copy boy almost four decades ago, The Times was distributed only once a day, only on newsprint, and only in black and white. The front page was eight columns, not six. The paper had only two sections each day. Abe Rosenthal was the editor.

Rich Meislin

Rich Meislin

Newsroom technology was pretty straightforward: reporters wrote their stories using manual typewriters on ten-part carbon books, which a copy boy would fetch, snap apart and distribute to many editors. Serious reordering of a story was done with scissors and paste, not copy and paste.

Finished stories were sucked by pneumatic tube to a huge composing room, where more than 800 people punched at Linotype keyboards and created type from molten lead, then assembled it into pages. The pages were pressed into mats and sent downstairs to be turned into plates and printed in the basement of 229 West 43rd Street. In the lobby, you could smell the ink in the air when the presses ran.

When I came to The Times, I dreamed of what was then a pretty typical career: I would hopefully work my way up from copy boy to be a reporter trainee and reporter, then maybe a Washington or foreign correspondent, and then an editor someday, maybe even a big-deal one.

My additional, private hope was that I could prove that I was a great reporter and become a correspondent before they found out I was gay./CONTINUES

Because when I started here, being gay was something you didn’t admit at The Times, except to someone you were certain was gay as well. The world outside was a far more hostile place for gay people than it is today – and you learned very quickly that this was true or maybe truer inside The Times.

I ended up playing 15 different roles for The Times, many of which Dean and Tom touched on in their incredibly gracious note earlier this month, and a few more unofficial roles as well. In several of them I helped to change the picture I just described, both in technology and tolerance, and for that I am very pleased, and very proud.

Not least is that I’m standing here with my husband, Hendrik, who has been my rock for more than 23 years and deserves medals for endurance from both me and The Times.

But you can accomplish very little alone at The Times, and I had a lot of help along the way, in the newsroom and with dedicated colleagues on the business side.

I had the very good fortune during my career to have a number of bosses and mentors who took an interest in me and who understood and even promoted some of my odd ideas and inclinations, and tried to steer me away from acts of career self-harm.

If you’re newer here and don’t have someone like that in your life, you should find someone. And if you’re older, you should be that person for someone. Not just because The Times can be a difficult and confusing place, but because it’s one way the unique DNA of the place is passed on.

Part of helping people succeed is being able to connect them to each other to get things done – sometimes against long odds – and in my seven years of this hodge-podge role I’ve had as a consultant, I’ve made it one of my self-assigned tasks. So I was touched and had a small rush of success few months back when Erin Grau told InSite that her No. 1 piece of advice for a new employee was, “All roads lead to Rich Meislin.”

I won’t name all of my own mentors but Tom and Al Siegal, who recognized that I had a design gene as well as a journalistic one, were two key ones. They blew apart the straightforward career track I envisioned for myself. Martin Nisenholtz changed my life by bringing me to New York Times Digital as editor in chief and putting me at the center of an astonishing whirlwind of creativity and the amazing early turf war between the old Times and the new.

The Times has a strong set of institutional values, and Arthur and the rest of the Sulzberger family have been amazing in defending them even while other journalistic institutions have increasingly bowed.

But it’s the many people who share those values and work toward them each day that make the place great.

Those values and a dedication to excellence in telling the stories that matter – to a smart, critical core audience that cares – are part of why people come to work at The Times and stay, even though other places might be sexier or pay better. At The Times, you can imagine yourself making journalism that changes the world.

Those values are also a part of why loyal readers pay for the quality of The Times, even online, where a less discriminating reader can get a basic news diet many other places for free. We serve our loyalists well. But that secret ingredient needs to be identified and protected and expanded to the realm of creating new and excellent Times products that new audiences can’t live without.

I’m not going to pretend that my career has been all sunshine and lollipops; I’ve had my share of setbacks along the way. When I mentioned to David Dunlap some months ago that I was talking to Dean about leaving, he said, “You’ve been talking about leaving for 20 years.” And not for nothing did I take the buyout in 2008. Jon Landman worked a deal to get me to stay on as a part-time consultant, and I’m grateful. I think.

But now is the time for a change. Fair warning: You will still see me around now and again, particularly in the next few weeks, when I’ll be moving some of my tasks to someone new. So no “Are you still here?” comments, please. This time it’s for real.

Best of luck to all of you, and to The Times.

Also: “News hacker” Jacob Harris on leaving the New York Times (medium.com)