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Eyes on the Times

Ombudsman Dan Okrent will be watching the paper -- and people will be watching him

Dan Okrent was at home in Wellfleet living the good life - "not having to shave every day'' - when The New York Times called to ask whether he was interested in becoming the paper's first public editor. But a few days after accepting the job, he experienced a serious bout of panic and regret.

 

Okrent, whose first column as public editor - or ombudsman - will appear Sunday, is taking on one of the dicier tasks in journalism. Brought in to evaluate Times journalism in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, he instantly moves into the glare of the media spotlight, his every word likely to be scrutinized by media insiders, savvy news consumers, Timesmen, and Times haters. He becomes an independent monitor at a news outlet that had long rejected the concept of an ombudsman.

That should be enough to give anyone a case of the sweats. But one of Okrent's old friends says it is the Times that may have reason to be nervous. Describing him as someone who can be ``committedly earnest'' and ``wildly irreverent at the same time,'' former Esquire editor in chief Lee Eisenberg says, ``The New York Times is taking a considerable and potentially laudable risk in [hiring] Dan Okrent.''

"I feel this is very much a learn-as-we-go experiment,'' says Okrent, who seems intrigued but not naive about the challenge. ``The Times has never done it before, and I've never done it before.'' (The New York Times Co. owns The Boston Globe.)

The standing joke is that no matter what else Okrent does, the first sentence of his obituary will identify him as the founder of Rotisserie Baseball, a game that has allowed countless baseball wannabees to indulge in the fantasy of running their own Major League ball club. But Okrent, 55, has an impressive resume that features stints in book publishing and a career at Time Inc., where he was everything from managing editor at Life magazine to the company's editor of new media. He is the author of a number of books, including the recent ``Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,'' and he founded the critically acclaimed but now defunct New England Monthly magazine.

More unofficially, he is a devoted music aficionado, a crossword puzzle fiend, a social catalyst for his considerable circle of friends, a devoted foodie known for pursuing exotic delicacies, and, by his own acknowledgment, something of an obsessive personality.

"Dan is the last Renaissance man,'' offers Joseph Nocera, editorial director of Fortune magazine, who is not surprised Okrent took the Times job because ``it's an interesting intellectual challenge,'' and one of his skills is "rethinking [an idea] from its foundation.''

"I think Rotisserie Baseball,'' says Nocera, "is an example of that.''

A Detroit native and big baseball fan - who now roots for the Cubs - Okrent was sitting around "bereft of baseball'' one off-season many years ago when he created Rotisserie. (Rotisserie competitors draft real Major League players to create imaginary teams, and the performance of the actual players in real games determines how the fantasy teams fare.) Eisenberg, an original member of the league, says it was Okrent who "created a Gothic cathedral out of a simple idea, which is what he does.'' Glen Waggoner, deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine, agrees that the game"sprang full-grown from his overtaxed brain.''

The league began back in 1980. With surprisingly little sheepishness, Okrent acknowledges that his teams - ``The Okrent Fenokees'' and ``The Dan Druffs'' - have never won a championship, chalking it up to the fact that ``I'm a really bad trader.'' Today, he has mixed feelings about being the father of the faux American pastime that has grown far beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

"I now know how J. Robert Oppenheimer felt inventing the atomic bomb,'' he says. "It's not the thing I want to be remembered for, but I will be.''

Debunking myths

If there are twinges of regret about Rotisserie, Okrent has fond memories of another brainchild, New England Monthly. A bold experiment launched in Haydenville in 1984, the magazine was cofounded by Okrent and Robert Nylen, who got to know each other at Texas Monthly magazine.

``We were not Yankee [magazine], we were not Boston [magazine]. We were going to be serious,'' recalls Nylen, now a media consultant. ``What we were basically interested in at the outset was debunking the mythology of New England.'' Under Okrent's stewardship as editor, the magazine was often literate and edgy, provided a home for up-and-coming writers, and garnered two National Magazine Awards in the general excellence category. But a regional magazine tying together six New England states was an economic nonstarter. And in 1990, the monthly shut down.

``There were few advertisers who need to advertise trans-New England,'' says Okrent. ``That was the best moment for New England economically, and we couldn't make it. ... I thought the writing was really good. I think it was inventive, it was very original. Some of those were the reasons it failed.''

``When you think back about it now,'' adds former Monthly staffer Nocera, ``it remains one of the noble failures in the magazine business.''

In the fall of 1989, Okrent left New England Monthly and became a magazine consultant, took a job at Life, and began a Time Inc. career that was marred by a major disappointment in the mid-'90s, when he lost the famous Sports Illustrated ``bakeoff.'' That was a unique competition in which he and SI assistant managing editor Bill Colson auditioned for the top editorial job by each running the magazine for several months. Okrent says he ``was dazed,'' when Colson edged him out.

An affinity for numbers

Okrent has a sports fan's affinity for numbers and competition. Each day for the past eight years, in the pages of a battered notebook, he has recorded the time it takes him to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle. He competes in the annual national crossword championship, most recently finishing 75th out of 500. ``I'm getting worse every year for two reasons,'' he says with evident disgust. ``I'm getting older and losing brain cells.''

As for the fanatical record keeping, Okrent is candid. ``I'm clearly an obsessive to some degree,'' he says. ``I don't think I'm compulsive. I'm obsessive, but not in a socially harmful way.''

For the last few years, Okrent, who also has a Manhattan residence, has kept track of his frequent cultural and social outings on a computer. He used to have a database cross-referencing his extensive jazz collection by various criteria until he decided to erase it one day. Guests at his 50th birthday bash at the Rainbow Grill were each given a button with a number on it. That number matched the number of years the guest had known the birthday boy. Passionate about music - particularly classical - Okrent alerts his friends when the Carnegie Hall schedule is announced so he can arrange the bulk ticket purchases. Or as Waggoner puts it: ``He organizes people's social lives.''

One other passion is more offbeat. As chronicled in a 1999 New Yorker article, Okrent is part of a group called "The Innard Circle,'' which indulges in the culinary thrill of dining in restaurants that feature the internal organs - such as kidneys or hearts - of some animals. "We have to eat organs, [but] there was a doctrinal argument. Is it organ meat or variety meat'' such as ears and tongue, says Okrent, who explains that the group leans toward the looser "variety meat'' standard.

Whatever Okrent's eating, his friends call him the ideal dinner partner, someone who can converse about Tchaikovsky or Barry Bonds. "Dan knows the difference between intellectual heft and glibness,'' says Eisenberg, now administrative director of Land's End. Nylen cites another Okrent quality that will come in handy on the Times job - he is "totally fearless.''

That trait was on display in the first issue of New England Monthly, when Okrent wrote a column critical of how the magazine's headquarters had been redeveloped using public money to line the pockets of certain people - including his own landlord, who happened to be an investor.``What I was doing was proving my independence,'' says Okrent of that bite-the-hand-that-feeds-him column. ``It was really a juvenile thing to do.''

Okrent's backbone was tested in January 2000 when he was chosen to write the Time magazine story about his company's massive merger with America Online. Walter Isaacson, then Time's managing editor, says Okrent was selected because ``he had a devil-may-care attitude that would keep him straight and honest. He was amused by all situations.''

Okrent has a different recollection, saying everyone knew he was leaving the company and "you can't hurt a condemned man.'' (Okrent will not detail how the merger affected his personal wealth. But the house he built in Wellfleet a few years ago is called ``Casa Case,'' after former AOL chairman Steve Case).

Okrent's talents and toughness will surely be tested in a Times role that he has characterized as ``intimidating'' and ``auspicious.'' But it will probably not be the last stop in an eclectic media career. He has agreed to stay for only 18 months and is already working on another book, this one about Prohibition.

So what would he like to see as the opening words of his obit? "Okrent dies, did a lot of different things,'' he says before making a small adjustment.

"Okrent, 120, did a lot of different things.''

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