Allan M. Siegal, Influential Watchdog Inside The Times, Dies at 82
Allan M. Siegal, a former assistant managing editor of The New York Times who left a deep imprint on the newspaper’s policies and practices as its exacting and unquestioned arbiter of language, taste, tone and ethics for 30 years, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
His wife, Gretchen Leefmans, confirmed the death. She did not specify a cause but said he had dealt with heart issues for many years.
Mr. Siegal, who started at The Times as a copy boy in 1960, was widely respected, often revered and sometimes feared in the newsroom. Though never the face of The Times — he worked in relative anonymity — he was something like its collective conscience, the ultimate institutionalist watching over a place whose folkways he was often called on to codify.
He did so in the late 1990s with William G. Connolly, a senior editor who had met Mr. Siegal when they were copy boys in the paper’s headquarters on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, off Times Square. The two edited a revised and expanded edition of “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,” a guide consulted by news organizations and journalists nationwide.
“Readers will believe more of what we do know if we level with them about what we don’t” was one of Mr. Siegal’s favorite injunctions, articulated long before media outlets in the digital era began emphasizing transparency in news gathering and editing.
Another: “Being fair is better than being first.”
Mr. Siegal’s knowledge of grammar, history, geography, nomenclature, culture and cuisine was expansive. But on no subject was he more authoritative than The Times itself.
“Al knew everything about The Times, it seemed,” Mr. Connolly once said. “At the age of 19 or 20, he had made the paper his life and his religion.”
Mr. Siegal had a significant hand in the paper’s news report early in his Times career.
As night foreign news editor, he helped shape coverage of the Vietnam War and was part of the team that edited the Times’s landmark report of the secret government study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He oversaw the newsroom’s conversion to electronic typesetting in the late 1970s, and in 1980 he organized the news operation for a national edition, an engine of The Times’s subsequent growth.
In 2003, in the aftermath of a scandal in which the fabrications of a reporter, Jayson Blair, led to the fall of the newsroom’s top two managers, Mr. Siegal headed an internal committee that reviewed the paper’s ethical and organizational practices.
Among its recommendations was the creation of a new job: standards editor. Mr. Siegal was the first to be named to the position, adding the title to that of assistant managing editor, a post he held from 1987 until his retirement in 2006. At the time, his name had been listed among the paper’s top editors on the masthead, which appeared on the editorial page, more than twice as long as anyone else’s.
Max Frankel, the executive editor who promoted Mr. Siegal to assistant managing editor, called him “a shining symbol of the career of an inside man.”
“Elevating him was intended to serve notice that there is a distinguished career available at The Times for non-reporters,” Mr. Frankel added, in an interview for this obituary in 2005. “It was a peculiar form of affirmative action, but he was superbly qualified.
“I used to call him ‘Pooh-Bah,’” Mr. Frankel continued. “He had seven or eight portfolios that dominated every aspect of the production of The Times, the output of news, and all the rules and regulations — drawers full of contracts with the business side as to how much space we got, and how we filled it, and where the ads went. The whole design and structure of the paper was in his hands.”
But Mr. Siegal was temperamentally reluctant to buck the chain of command.
“Al’s knowledge of current affairs — and of broad journalistic ethics — was always right up there with anyone’s,” Evan Jenkins, a fellow editor on the news desk, recalled in 2005. But, he added, “he was not one to suggest that perhaps the emperor had no clothes, and there were times when that was so.”
Mr. Siegal was capable of withering criticism. His post-mortem critiques to subordinate editors and reporters — written in precise penmanship with a green felt-tip pen (known as “greenies” among the staff, they showed up well against black-and-white newsprint, he found) — could be as terse as “Ugh!” “How, please?” “Name names” and “Absurd!”
Once, having demanded that a headline combine several complex elements in a short word count, he found the result wanting: “As if written by pedants from Mars,” he declared.
But his rockets were also astute and instructive, guiding generations of editors and reporters in the finer points of style and tone. And perhaps because he was so demanding, his not-infrequent notes of praise were cherished all the more. “Nice, who?” was his trademark comment when he thought a headline or caption, by an anonymous editor, was especially artful. (The answer, the name of the editor, would appear — to the editor’s great pride — in the next day’s compilation of post-mortems, run off and stapled together by copy machine and distributed throughout the news department.)
Other critiques showed a biting sense of humor. “If this bumpkin spelling is the best we can do,” he once wrote of a subheadline that included a reference to “fois gras” (rather than foie gras), “we should stick to chopped liver.” When a headline allowed that the football coach Mike Ditka “should recover” from a heart attack, Mr. Siegal wrote: “Unless God returns our call, we shouldn’t predict in such cases.”
“He was famously a man of integrity,” said the former Times executive editor Bill Keller, “but he managed to apply it without being a dispenser of prudish rectitude, and in fact made good sport of his reputation as the house disciplinarian.”
“When he entered the hospital to have his heart worked on,” Mr. Keller added, “he joked to a couple of people that some colleagues would be surprised to learn he had a heart.”
Allan Marshall Siegal was born on May 1, 1940, in the Bronx to Irving and Sylvia (Wrubel) Siegal. His father, who had immigrated from Poland as a teenager, ran a seltzer delivery company for a time, and young Allan would help deliver bottles to customers around Pelham Parkway. Irving later became a landlord, and Allan would work as a handyman in his buildings. His mother was a homemaker.
Allan attended Christopher Columbus High School, in the northeast Bronx, where he learned French and was the editor of the school newspaper.
He was offered a scholarship by New York University, and while still an undergraduate he was offered a spot at The Times as a copy boy. He started on Sept. 11, 1960.
Armed with a journalism degree from N.Y.U., Mr. Siegal joined the foreign desk as a copy editor in 1963 and, after a brief sojourn at ABC News, writing for the anchor Peter Jennings in 1966, he was promoted to assistant foreign editor in 1971, the year he worked on the Pentagon Papers.
The Times was so concerned that the government might find out that it had the documents and try to seize them before publication that it set up what amounted to a secret newsroom in the New York Hilton hotel, a few blocks away. To break the tension, Mr. Siegal brought rubber duckies to a colleague for his baths.
In addition to his stint at ABC, he had one other writing job: as a reporter covering the Bronx for The Times in 1974. His editors liked his work. One article, about a woman’s unexpected delivery, began, “Mrs. Hattie Thomas arrived at her daughter’s kindergarten the mother of three, and left the mother of four.”
Mr. Siegal had tried reporting to enhance his career prospects at a paper whose senior editors had all been reporters. But he found writing to be painful and returned to editing on the foreign desk.
He was named news editor of the paper in 1977, responsible for overseeing the design and editing of the front page, and for producing “Winners & Sinners,” the paper’s in-house critique of writing, editing and visual presentation, founded by a predecessor, Theodore M. Bernstein. He was promoted to assistant managing editor in 1987.
In early 2002, long before same-sex marriages were legalized in the United States, Mr. Siegal was named to head a standards committee that ultimately recommended a change in Times policy on publishing announcements of same-sex unions in its society pages. Where the paper had previously limited announcements to marriages legally recognized in the United States, it declared in August that year that it would begin publishing “reports of same-sex commitment ceremonies and of some types of formal registration of gay and lesbian partnerships.”
Mr. Siegal married Ms. Leefmans, then a freelance manuscript editor, in 1977. He battled obesity for much of his life, losing a prodigious amount of weight before his daughter, Anna, was born. He told friends that if he was going to have a baby, he wanted to be able to hold it on his lap. He later regained much of the weight.
In addition to Ms. Leefmans, he is survived by his daughter, Anna Siegal; a son, Peter; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Siegal’s devotion to The Times was so all-encompassing that virtually no detail escaped his notice — not even the listing of survivors in an obituary.
In the revised Times stylebook that he co-edited in the 1990s, the entry on obituaries includes this advice: “Survivors should be listed at the end of a routine obituary. But a fuller one, if artfully constructed, will attend to the basics earlier and end with an anecdote or otherwise memorable paragraph.”
Mr. Siegal provided a closing paragraph himself — though not with that intention in mind — when he succinctly summed up his views about newspaper style in the preface of the stylebook that he had so assiduously helped to assemble.
“The best of style relies on reporters’ ears and eyesight,” he wrote, “and on simplicity — the unpretentious language of a letter to an urbane and literate friend. In that setting, the sudden glimmer of an unusual word, a syncopation or a swerve in logic lets the reader know that here is something richer than an hourly bulletin.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.