After a long, long, long deliberation process that pitted two popular editors — Sam Sifton and Jim Schachter — against one another, The New York Times on Friday afternoon finally named Sifton as its new Culture editor. He replaced Jon Landman, who is moving up the paper’s editorial ladder. The announcement by editor Bill Keller was much anticipated, because both Sifton and Schachter badly wanted the job and were openly in competition for it. At times, the tension inside the Culture department could be cut with the proverbial knife, as each had their camp of supporters and rumors were flying that whoever didn’t get the job would bolt the Times in a huff. That proved incorrect, because the late word is that Schachter will indeed be staying. Sources tell L.A. Weekly that Sunday Arts and Leisure editor Jodi Kantor also had her sights on the job, but it was clear before too long that the final candidates were Sifton and Schachter.
From the start, Landman was known to be a short-timer as Culture editor. Not only was he an arts and pop culture neophyte, but he was given the primary task of overseeing the Culture department’s complex redesign and repurpose, which has had the section in a virtual uproar since it began a year ago with new hires, new features, etc. (Interestingly, Keller called the Culture department changes a “renaissance” in his e-mail to the exhausted Culture staff, which is not how anyone there would term the chaos.)
The appointment of Sifton as opposed to Schachter was a classic case of the eventual triumph of creative over content. Schachter on paper had all the necessary goods: He’d been a prominent editor within the Los Angeles Times’ Business section before jumping to the NYT in a similar capacity. His move to Culture was surprising but also sensible. Everyone who has worked with him likes him and respects him.
Sifton, too, is a favorite of much of the staff. But his route to the head Culture job was circuitous. He’d been the editor of the NYT’s Dining section before moving to Culture, and before then a senior writer at Tina Brown’s Talk magazine as well as the managing editor of the weekly New York Press. A talented writer and deft wordsmith, Sifton also has authored the satirical book Field Guide to the Yetie; Young Entrepreneurial Technocrats, about dot-com geeks, published in 2000.
Here is Keller’s announcement, in its entirety:
“Over the past year, the Culture Department has begun a renaissance, led by as impressive a team of editors as we have ever assembled. The Arts report is bigger and richer and newsier; the reporting and editing machinery hums; the critical voices are thrilling. It is quite simply the finest staff of culture journalists working anywhere, and working at the top of their game. Now Jon Landman, who stepped in to preside over these accomplishments, is ready to move on, and we need a Culture Editor who can continue the great things that have been set in motion.
And he is Sam Sifton.
Since Sam moved in last year from the Dining section, he has impressed his colleagues in the department and beyond with his natural leadership and his ability to make exciting things happen. As Jon Landman puts it, ‘He persuades by promising that the effort will be fun. And he delivers.’ During that year, he has demonstrated a strong sense of the intersecting worlds of the arts, a powerful devotion to strengthening the reporting tradition in Culture, and a coherent vision of how the disparate pieces of that complex department fit together.
Sam has an impresario’s gift for matching writers with ideas. He has an ear for language (search his own byline if you want evidence). He also has an enthusiasm that rubs off on his colleagues and that (not a small thing in culture) reaches the outside constituencies who see The Times as the country’s most important public space. He can make you laugh even when he is disagreeing with you. He will be, I’m confident, a great Culture editor.
The good news does not end there. I’m delighted to report that Jim Schachter, who as Sam’s partner has proven himself an editor of immense skill, competitive drive, inventiveness and wit, has agreed to keep the dream team intact. Jim will assume an enlarged deputy role, running the news operation across all disciplines and ambitiously steering the department’s enterprise reporting. When Jim came to the department a year ago from Bizday, his mission was primarily to add some real, money-world street cred to the mix of coverage, and some management skill to a department that was badly balkanized. He has supplied a lot more than that, including keen news judgment and investigative instincts that have given new urgency to the Arts report. Mr. Landman, again: ‘Jim is one of the very best editors I’ve known at The Times . . . The biggest change in the section over the last few months has been the vitality of its news report, and no single individual has done as much as Jim to make that happen.’
One of the most gratifying things about the past year in Culture — a distant second to the sheer pleasure of reading it, of course — is the collaborative spirit that has grown up in the place. It’s easy to imagine that several hungry and talented editors thrown together under an interim boss would spend the year throwing elbows. In fact, Sam and Jim and the amazing Jodi Kantor and their colleagues lifted one another up. It was a triumph of collegiality without compromise. There are lots of people to thank for this (Frank Rich comes to mind), but it tells you something about the character of the two men who now take over the department.
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About Mr. Landman, more anon. But for now, just let me say that he deserves more credit than anyone else — and more credit than he will ever claim — for what the Arts staff has pulled off, and for the fact that we have such a crack team in place to carry on. With Jon it’s never about the glory or the title (remember, he stepped down from the masthead for this assignment), it’s about the work and the people who do it. But he’s earned the glory whether he wants it or not.
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