In the journalism world, one consequence of the supercharged news cycle of the late twenty-teens is the booming economy for extracurricular side-hustles, namely cable-news gigs and books. With books in particular, perhaps no single outlet has seen more action than The New York Times, whose reporters are landing lucrative publishing contracts left and right these days. One of the latest deals, I’ve learned, is Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart on CBS and Les Moonves, which sold to power editor Ann Godoff at Penguin. Stewart is also about to turn in his other book, Deep State, about Donald Trump and the F.B.I. Then you’ve got Mike Schmidt on Russiagate, Jeremy Peters on the G.O.P., Peter Baker on James Baker, Julie Davis and Michael Shear on Trump and immigration, Carl Hulse on the Supreme Court, Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin on Brett Kavanaugh, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang on Facebook, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey on #MeToo, Jim Rutenberg on truth and the media, Adam Nagourney on The New York Times, David Enrich on Trump and Deutsche Bank, Mike Isaac on Uber, Vanessa Friedman on Kate Spade, Alexandra Jacobs on Elaine Stritch, Alan Feuer on El Chapo, Jonathan Mahler on 1980s New York, Ron Lieber on the cost of college, Nikole Hannah-Jones on school segregation, Kevin Sack on race and faith, and Ben Hubbard on Mohammed bin Salman, to name a few. (Who am I missing?)
“The Times has become a book-deal factory,” said a journalist there. “I don’t think the Times has ever seen this number of requests,” a veteran editor concurred, adding, “For department heads, it’s become almost impossible to manage.” The glut of big newsy projects that require essential beat reporters to take book leave is especially tricky. For one thing, there’s always concern among editors about balancing reporting that’s exclusive to books with reporting that can be published in the Times. More practically, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s kind of made the editors stand up and realize, holy shit, we have all these people writing books, and that’s an awful lot of man- and woman-power off the daily report in a pretty significant way.”
Lately, the newsroom has been buzzing about a memo that landed in people’s inboxes on May 6 from executive editor Dean Baquet and assistant managing editor Carolyn Ryan. It was a stern and comprehensive reminder, described by one source as a “gentle wrist slap,” about the company policy governing book projects. Step one: pitch your book idea to the Times so the company at least has the opportunity to make a competitive bid. (The Times occasionally publishes books of its own). Step two: make sure your department head and the standards editor are looped in on your proposal. Step three: submit a formal request for leave including the number of months that are required and your anticipated return date.
“The Company reserves the right to deny a book leave request for any reason. Our journalistic needs must come first,” Baquet and Ryan wrote. “When returning to work from book leave, you are required to be fully back at work. That means that 100 percent of your time at work must be dedicated to your job at the Company, not split between a book project that is yet to be finished and your job. . . . As with any leave, there is no guarantee that when you return to work from a book leave, you will return to precisely the same job that you held prior to your book leave.”
To keep the gears turning as smoothly as possible, some reporters have been swooping in and out while working on their books. Schmidt sprung into action when the Mueller report landed. Rutenberg will go on leave in a few weeks, but will be on call for the campaigns before ducking out again. Overall, as another Times journalist put it, “It’s a difficult thing. On the one hand, for reporters, this is an area where you can get some extra money aside from your day job. But on the other hand, if you have a wave of folks asking for time off, that can be difficult for the administration.”
The nonfiction publishing gold rush can create other sorts of awkward situations, especially given the velocity at which many of these books are going to market. For instance, one morning in February, right after Frenkel and Kang landed a seven-figure deal for their Facebook tome—which grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–finalist Facebook exposé from November, co-authored by Nicholas Confessore, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas—I was tipped off by an awestruck publishing source, and I published an item later that afternoon, which is apparently how Baquet learned about the deal. Not long before the policy reminder, management had gotten a fresh batch of book-project requests, which was another precipitating factor for the memo, on top of the gazillion books already in the works.
“That note made it pretty clear that there’s been a surge, and they can’t say yes to everyone,” one of my Times sources said. At the same time, in our modern media environment, the cross-promotion cuts both ways. “The Times is in a really good moment right now,” this source said. “They’re revving up, their branding is positive, and strategically, they’re putting reporters out there more, encouraging reporters to be their own brand. So this comes with the territory. If you work at The New York Times, it’s always been much easier to get a book deal to begin with. Now, it’s like that times 10.”
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