The Filing Cabinet

A Reporter’s Journey Through the Archives of the New York Times
By Richard F. Shepard
Times Books, 375 pp.

Even to those who love newspapers, they’re a daily disappointment. Every newspaper is an insistently authoritative chronicle of passing events, slapped together out of typographical mistakes, grammatical lapses, syntactical inelegance, dubious logic, infuriating opinion, technical glitches, and errors of assertion or omission.

But if a newspaper is doing its job well, it’s an indispensable daily disappointment. Which makes The New York Times the biggest, most indispensable disappointment of them all. As Richard F. Shepard points out, it’s a paper of such cultural poundage that during the Second World War “spy trainees were taught how to disable an opponent by belting him with a copy of the Sunday Times.”

I don’t read it as often as I should, but I thank my lucky stars it’s out there, and you should too. The New York Times – or at least, all that it stands for – is the true north on the magnetic compass of responsible journalism.

It has boundless resources. It eschews needless sensation. It covers the world as assiduously as it covers its city. It values intelligence above all. It has the gravity to stand up to the state when push comes to shove. And it does all this while making a ton of money.

How did the Times become the Times? Or, rather, how did a down-on-its-luck New York daily build itself into one of the continent’s pre-eminent cultural institutions?

The paper was founded in 1851, but by 1896 it was floundering, when it was purchased by Adolph Ochs, who owned The Chattanooga Times. At the time, Ochs was seen as an ambitious interloper bent on cutting staff and milking the paper for revenue to cover his losses in Tennessee land dealings – much the same greeting that has been accorded Conrad Black’s latest manoeuvrings. It was Ochs, however, who set the paper on the course to becoming what it is today.

Quirky, wry and entertaining, The Paper’s Papers is a centennial project in honour of Ochs’ purchase of the property, and as good an account of the rise of the Times as any. All newspapers keep a record of themselves in the form of a clippings “morgue” or, today, an electronic data base. But the Times, meticulous as always, kept a record of its own internal communications – the memos and correspondence that flew daily from publisher to editors, from editors to reporters and back again. In 1969, these documents were formally organized into an archive.

Richard F. Shepard is himself as much a product of the Times as the archives from which he works. He joined the paper in 1946 as a copy boy, and by his retirement in 1991 he had held positions as a reporter, editor and columnist. What he shows, in his meanderings through the cultural memory of his employer, is that the Times became the paper it is by dint of the personalities who ran it and the people they hired.

Take something as simple as the crossword puzzle. The first such word game had actually been introduced by The New York World in 1913, but the Times disdained such frippery. Ten years later, senior management started to think seriously about introducing a puzzle. They thought long and hard. The Times crossword puzzle didn’t make its debut until 1942. Typically, it quickly established itself as the best on the continent.

Of course, there are dangers associated with being the best. On page 94, Shepard observes that the Times’ reputation for omniscience “has made the world particularly intolerant of slip-ups.” Alas, the very next sentence contains a typographical error.

  • Globe and Mail June 29, 1996