A Compendium of Media Nepotism
In the first installment of a series, we look at the ways family connections have shaped journalism careers, from The New York Times’s Sulzberger clan (including current 5th-generation publisher A.G. Sulzberger), children of their newsroom employees (Clifton Truman Daniel, Ben Raines, Maggie Haberman, Emily Greenhouse), and the spawn of the rich and famous who take up journalism (Bill Keller, Joe Kahn, Nicolas Niarchos, Emily and Ben Dreyfuss)
It’s one of the least polite questions one can pose at any media gathering: “How did your parents’ success in media affect your own career?” For months, we’ve been asking it of people who’ve traversed familial paths. Some replied tersely (“pass, thanks”), others declined to comment with kindness or never replied at all. (Don’t worry: we’ll be naming them all.) But some agreed to share the thoughts that come from a lifetime of anxieties and striving, and their stories spilled out as if unleashed from an electric tension.
It’s not hard to understand why nepotism is such a social taboo in media circles. Privileges of all shapes are under stricter scrutiny lately, and notions that individuals should credit their good fortune to something other than their own talent and work ethic especially rankle. But the subject of nepotism in journalism has long brought out streaks of apoplexy in even habitually mild observers. “Nepotism is by no means confined to politics,” wrote John Bakeless, editor of The Living Age before becoming a journalism professor at New York University, in his 1931 book Magazine Making. He complained it “is especially rampant in publishing, largely because of the attractive character of the work and the prestige which for some odd reason attaches to it. The most grotesquely unqualified people are perpetually struggling to ‘get into editorial work.’” For example, he added, “I have known a proof-reader who could neither spell nor use reference books.”
Lately, the silly and dismissive term “nepo baby” has emerged as a culturally salient offshoot of our pervasive fascination with the romances, sex lives, and — following nature’s usual course — progeny of the rich and famous. The label doesn’t fit all or even most people who spoke to The Fine Print. Neither does “nepotism case,” that timeless office complaint about co-workers who had an in to the business. Since Bakeless’s time, editorial work has retained a surface sheen of glamor, but it has largely been overtaken by an overwhelming awareness of the extreme precarity media generally bestows on individuals and institutions that tangle with it. Journalism these days isn’t the easiest path available to anyone, no matter their bloodline.
Journalist, Yale professor, and a child of magazine writers Anne Fadiman has offered “oakling” as an alternative, inspired by a contemporaneous review of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son Hartley’s poetry which observed that “the oakling withers beneath the shadow of the oak.” In her initial exploration of the subject, Fadiman applied the term to any children of writers who become writers.
Considering journalism as a hereditary affliction raises a question: What happens to an oakling when a deadly fungus has made much of the forest that fostered their parent uninhabitable? A lot of them still do quite well. Some, like Fadiman, become oaks themselves. (We’ll have lots more to say about her life experiences in a future installment of this series.) Others flounder in the lower reaches of the biome before branching off for some more bountiful habitat. But what are any of us doing in this forest beset by clear-cutters, wildfires, and rot, anyway? Does an oakling have a better chance of turning into a tree than a tossed-off apple? Probably. Does that matter more — or less — in lean times? It is far from an uncomplicated inheritance.
Alongside sincere acknowledgments of privilege, those born into the profession often have questions about the value of their increasingly anachronistic legacies. “I know how lucky I am,” Wired executive editor Maria Streshinsky, whose father Ted Streshinsky photographed the magazine stories by Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe that would become Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and whose mother Shirley Streshinsky wrote for Glamour and Condé Nast Traveler and authored a slew of books, told The Fine Print several times. But she had second thoughts, too. “Maybe I would have been luckier to have parents who were lawyers and doctors, and I became a lawyer and doctor,” she mused. (Disclosure: This reporter had the latter, and his father, whose parents and sister had also been doctors, at one point seemed disappointed that none of his kids ended up becoming doctors.) Other oaklings were more blunt. “This is like inheriting an STD,” said one.
What follows, like Ishmael categorizing whales, does not aspire to comprehensiveness. “I promise nothing complete,” Melville writes in Moby Dick, “because any human thing supposed to be complete must for that very reason infallibly be faulty.” Instead, we’re looking at the kinds of dramas that play out when individuals wrestle with their family legacies and examining how the profession has been passed down among the staff of some of the country’s most powerful media institutions.
There are baffling executives, irresponsible editors, and inconsequential writers among the oaklings. But others are some of the best writers, reporters, and editors of our time. Some admit to getting a foot in the door with their parents’ help. Others went out of their way, sometimes literally thousands of miles away from New York City, to avoid the anxieties provoked by their parents. But all, in one way or another, responded to the circumstances of their birth.
When media-obsessive minds wander to family succession sagas, they tend toward the fictional Roys or their stranger-than-fiction counterparts, the Murdochs. In some ways, this is an indication of how the number of extant multigenerational media empires has dwindled from earlier eras when publishing dynasties were practically ubiquitous — the Grahams of The Washington Post, the Bancrofts of The Wall Street Journal, the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, the Hearsts and Newhouses of their sprawling magazine and newspaper empires, as well as the largely forgotten regional newspaper families like the Annenbergs, Binghams, and Scripps. There still are members of these clans around, of course, but, in most cases, they’re no longer involved in journalism, and their family names have disapparated into the ranks of generic American wealth.
The major exception — in media, mainly, but in American life, generally — are the Sulzbergers, who’ve kept a firm grip on power at The New York Times ever since the dynasty’s progenitor Adolph Simon Ochs, a son of German Jewish immigrants born in Cincinnati, first purchased the struggling newspaper in 1896. The five Times publishers since have all been members of his family. After Ochs died in 1935, he was succeeded by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who had married his only daughter Iphigene Bertha Ochs in 1917 and soon thereafter went to work at The Times. “The position of publisher had always been a family preserve, an office tantamount to a permanent, inherited cabinet post that passed from generation to generation, as unquestioned a divine right as the crown resting on the head of a Tudor or a Windsor,” wrote Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in The Trust, their comprehensive history of the family. The current publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, now holds the same title once held by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather — a five-generation streak that we have been hard-pressed to find any other example outside of royal lineages.
As the family tree expanded through marriages, new names were added to the clan — Dryfoos, Golden, Dolnick, Perpich among them — and, following Ochs’s tradition, to the employee directory of The New York Times. “The Sulzbergers are the Sulzbergers. They own the place for God’s sake, and frankly, I’m quite glad they do,” longtime Times reporter Clyde Haberman told The Fine Print. Would he call the elevated velocity with which the family has traditionally moved through the paper’s ranks nepotism? “Sulzbergers to me don’t count because it’s their paper,” Haberman said.
For generations, the Sulzbergers have wrestled with perceptions, and realities, of nepotism. “Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did a masterful job of navigating the burden of sonship. He really behaved very gracefully,” former Times executive editor Howell Raines told The Fine Print of the publisher who stepped down in 2018 to make way for his son. “But I remember once he said, ‘Let’s not go overboard in condemning nepotism.’ Now, there are more cousins in the administration of the paper than ever before.”
The ethos set by Arthur Jr.’s father, known as Punch, was that family members would have a leg up in getting the job, so to speak, but would have to go beyond that on their own. That didn’t stop colleagues from treating them differently. “Punch was oblivious to this problem, or at least avoided it, and would say, with sincerity, that family members’ have to work their butts off harder than most people if they want to go up the ladder.’ He felt he was freeing The Times from the forgiving nepotism that turned so many family-owned newspapers into employment agencies for ill-equipped children, cousins, and in-laws,” wrote Tifft and Jones. “Everyone knew the truth — that, barring some catastrophe, a member of the family was going to run The New York Times — yet not even Punch was supposed to say so out loud.”
Despite this posturing, Punch’s father, the publisher before him, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, had years earlier set out a deliberate program to acculturate his somewhat wayward son to the enterprise he would inherit. According to Tifft and Jones, he called it a “typical Stalin five-year plan,” which was supposed to involve a year at the Milwaukee Journal, a year on the business side at The Times, a year on the news side, and two in a foreign bureau. Punch would shepherd Arthur Jr. through a similar program, though pushing him to spend more of it outside The Times. After a youth spent experimenting with hallucinogens and getting arrested protesting outside Raytheon’s headquarters, Arthur Jr. took a job as a general assignment reporter at The Raleigh Times. Punch got him a job in the London bureau of The Associated Press next before bringing him home to The Times. His son A.G. started out at The Providence Journal and The Oregonian before making his swift ascent to the top of the Gray Lady’s hierarchy.
Beyond the Sulzbergers, there are relatively few examples of children of New York Times staffers who make their way to their parents’ institution. But it’s far from unheard of, and some of the most common examples involve the children of senior staffers who became close with the Sulzberger family. Back in the day, the children of these family friends were given an opportunity to make educational tours of duty that mirrored the programs set up for the Sulzberger spawn. Clifton Truman Daniel — whose signature carries the legacies of two powerful institutions: his father was former Times managing editor Clifton Daniel and his maternal grandfather was President Harry S. Truman — arrived into the family business in 1983 at age 26.
Daniel had originally wanted to be an actor. “I quit college and moved home and went to some acting classes, went to too many parties, and was not getting anywhere,” he told The Fine Print. “I finally went to my father one day, and I said, ‘I need a real job.’ And I’ve never seen anyone move faster in my life. Within two weeks, he had me on a plane to Wilmington, North Carolina, where The New York Times owned a small newspaper. The idea was to see: Did I fit? Did the career fit with me? Could I do what my father did? They were originally gonna move me all around in the newspaper, there was going to be writing, editing, distribution, advertising, all of that, but I stuck in place in the writing, reporting, and editing part of it.”
From the moment he showed up in the Wilmington Morning Star newsroom, Daniel’s family connections were no secret. “I wasn’t fooling anybody,” he said. “There were people who resented the hell out of the fact that I was just given a job, but I really wasn’t given any preferential treatment. The rule in those days was if you couldn’t get the spelling of someone’s name right, you could lose your job, and I was subject to that just like anybody else. They were not coddling me at all. That also came from dad’s belief system. It’s like, ‘Give him a chance, but if he screws up, you don’t have to hold on to him.’”
There was, however, at least one standard job qualification that the managing editor’s son was given a little extra leeway on. “I walked into the newsroom, and I did not know how to type. They were stunned,” Daniel said. “The editor put me in one of the small conference rooms with a book on how to type and sat me down in there and said learn. I stayed in there for maybe a week, and I hated it. I couldn’t figure it out. So I snuck out, and I went to the city editor, and I said, ‘Give me something to do, please. Something that won’t get you arrested if I screw it up. Just give me something.’” That resulted in his first story, which he two-finger typed.
Daniel spent 15 years as a reporter in Wilmington. His next step, in 1998, had more to do with his grandfather than his father. “I was invited to be the commencement speaker for Harry S. Truman College here in Chicago and apparently it went well. Afterward, the president of the college said, ‘I’d like to hire you.’ And I said, ‘Really? Doing what?’ And she said public relations,” he recalled. “It was a better salary, more security, and it made sense to do it. This was at the point, remember, in the ’90s, when the newspapers were suffering,” he said. “The Morning Star looks nothing like it used to and a lot of people were leaving at the same time I did. The whole thing felt like it was falling apart. But I miss it.” He spent the next 15 years at Truman College before taking early retirement and reconnecting with acting: In 2017, Daniel began performing as his grandfather in productions of the one-man play Give ’Em Hell Harry.
The Times sold the last of its regional newspaper holdings in 2013, so that path is closed. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of children of Times employees who also go on to work for the company. This year, Eliza Shapiro, daughter of former Times deputy executive editor Susan Chira and New Yorker contributor and Columbia journalism professor Michael Shapiro, won The Times a Polk Award for her reporting on Hasidic schools. Lindsey Gruson followed both his mother, Flora Lewis, once a foreign affairs columnist for The Times, and his father, Sydney Gruson, a former vice chairman of The New York Times Company, into the paper’s fold when he became a reporter. Kirk Semple, now a video reporter and producer for the opinion section, joined The Times in 2003 when his father, Robert B. Semple Jr., a former foreign editor, was still associate editor of the editorial page. Alex Traub, a reporter on the obituaries desk, joined the paper after his father, James Traub, gave up his position as a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine in 2011. (James Traub had wandered further from the profession of his father, Marvin Traub, the former CEO and president of Bloomingdale’s.)
Sometimes it skips a generation. The three sons of former New York Times executive editor James “Scotty” Reston all became writers, but none took jobs at The Times. The eldest brother Richard Reston was a Moscow and London bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times before taking over the Vineyard Gazette, the Martha’s Vineyard newspaper his parents purchased in 1968. The middle brother James Reston Jr.contributed to The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine while writing fiction and nonfiction books. Though the youngest brother Thomas B. Reston is better known as a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in the Carter Administration and Secretary of the Democratic Party of Virginia, he set off on a reporting odyssey in the Fall of 1968 that took him from Cuba to Vietnam. “I had a one-sentence letter from the editor of The Boston Globe saying Mr. Reston is a special correspondent of The Boston Globe. I had a knapsack and a typewriter. I left the country, and I was gone for a year and a half, and I spent less than $4,000,” he said in a lively oral history interview. “I spent a great deal of my time with a guy named Jim Sterba, who was in the New York Times bureau in Saigon at the time, and I had known Jim before he went to Vietnam, and when I got to Saigon I needed a place to stay and I stayed with Jim in his apartment.” In the acknowledgments of his book Soul of a Democrat, Thomas Reston writes, “I want to thank my family and especially my children, Laura and James Reston.” Laura Reston currently works as a senior editor at the Times opinion section. She didn’t respond when The Fine Print reached out to confirm the family connection and a Times spokesperson said he couldn’t get a hold of her, but colleagues confirmed that she’d talked about her descendance.
The example of internal Times nepotism older Times employees tend to bring up first is Andrew Rosenthal, the son of former executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal (younger employees tend to first mention Jacob Bernstein, son of Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, who we’ll get to later), who rose to be editorial page editor before he was forced out of the paper in 2016 to make room for James Bennet. “I was going to do anything but become a journalist,” Rosenthal told Editor & Publisher in 2004. Once he gave up that notion, he started as a reporter for the AP in Denver. “I decided to be in Denver to be farther away from New York. I knew anywhere I went, I was going to be Abe Rosenthal’s son.” He got to The Times in 1987, not long after his father stepped down. “People thought they knew me because they thought they knew my father,” he said in the 2004 interview. “They thought I was going to be a son of a bitch, and they eventually found out I wasn’t!”
But the most prominent example at present of a child of The Times returning to the paper is marquee Trump reporter Maggie Haberman, who has arguably eclipsed her father’s public profile. “I am pleasantly surprised that when I deal with most people, most people recognize that I had a life before Maggie, and even during Maggie,” said her father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Clyde Haberman. “I think I’m seen as my own person, flaws and all.”
Two out of Haberman’s three children followed him into journalism. Maggie’s brother Zach Habermanwas a managing editor for news at the New York Post and a politics editor at NBC News before starting a job last month as an account director at the public relations firm BerlinRosen. “Point blank, I have had nothing to do with my kids being hired anywhere,” Clyde Haberman said. “Maggie and Zack both started out at theNew York Post, long after I’d left. And since I was a product of the previous owner, Dorothy Schiff, which is going way back, I don’t think any recommendation or influence on my part would have sat very well with the Murdoch folks. There’s no reason why it should have. From their point of view I was part of a paper that seemed useless. We just happened to have good writers, he said vainly.”
Maggie Haberman has talked extensively about the trouble she had breaking into journalism after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. “I couldn’t get a job in a magazine when I got out of college, and I was bartending to pay bills. And I started working as a copy kid at the New York Post,” she said at an event with her father at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in 2018. “I fell in love with the newsroom almost immediately, just the adrenaline. Especially in the 1990s, the New York Post was really something to behold.”
It was a surprise to the elder Haberman that either of his kids would want to follow him into the profession after his work had kept him away from his family for much of their childhoods. “There was, on both their parts, I would have thought, a certain reluctance. They’re the children of a broken marriage. My marriage to their mother ended in 1979 or so, although we weren’t formally divorced for a few more years. In 1983, I went off to Japan. I was a foreign correspondent for about 13 years, and they would come visit me when they were kids for the summers or Christmas vacation,” he said. “It was hard on them. They would first have to schlep halfway across the world and news kept interfering with their visits, sometimes very, very big news.”
“When Ceausescu was overthrown I was based in Rome, and they just told a bunch of us, ‘Do whatever you can to get into that damn country,’” Haberman recalled. “This would have been 1989. They came for the annual Christmas-slash-Hanukkah stay, and I never saw them because a day or two before they arrived, I was off to Romania where there was a people’s revolt against the communist leader. By the time I made it back home, they were back in New York.”
“I don’t love talking about this,” Maggie told Politico’s Michael Kruse when he asked about her father’s foreign correspondent years in an interview. “I don’t like talking about it,” she said after being pressed, “because it’s painful.” She had first achieved prominence as a political reporter at the Post and then Politico before joining The Times in 2015. “When Maggie was hired by The Times, I assure you nobody consulted me,” Clyde said. “I took a buyout from The Times at the end of 2011. I’ve continued to write as a freelancer ever since, and for the first two years after that, in 2012 and 2013, I was on a salary, if you will, as a freelancer. I continued my column, online in that case. That ended, but I’m umbilically tied to the paper. What can I say? I first began working as a copy boy there in 1964 when I was still in college.”
“With the two of them in journalism, and with my youngest Emma working for World Central Kitchen, José Andrés’s feed the world operation, I’ve got second-generation poverty sewn up,” Clyde joked. “I couldn’t get one banker in the group to take care of me in my old age.”
With most of the nepotism paths at The New York Times reserved for the Sulzbergers and their favored employees, the children of the paper’s staff have navigated the other networks of power to which their parents’ august perches have granted them access. The daughter of former Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, who took a buyout in 2014, Emily Greenhouse, for instance, spent a spell as New Yorkereditor David Remnick’s assistant before being named editor of The New York Review of Books in 2019. “His 30-plus year career at The New York Times was the defining element of my childhood,” she told Wesleyan University Magazine in 2018. “I don’t know if I consciously decided to model myself after him, but I can see that I have.” Former business columnist Joe Nocera’s daughter Kate Nocera was a reporter at Politico, BuzzFeed News’s DC bureau chief, and currently is an editor at Axios. Former Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich’s son Nathaniel Rich has been an editor at The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review and has written novels and for The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Times. His other son Simon Rich has been a writer for Saturday Night Live and is a contributor to The New Yorker. The brothers participated in a 2013 Times profile in which they strenuously denied benefiting from nepotism. “Both men avoided dropping Papa’s name,” it read. “When Nathaniel graduated from Yale, he said, he made cold calls to magazines looking for work, most of which did not return his inquiries. And Simon said it was Saturday Night Liverepresentatives’ obtaining a galley of his 2007 book Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations that led to an offer.” As Tom Scocca pointed out in Gawker at the time, it was unusual that a recent college graduate had a book deal in the first place.
For a long time, the premier examples of exiled progeny were the children of the executive editors of The New York Times. With the exception of the first executive editor Turner Catledge, until Bill Keller, every executive editor had at least one child who became a journalist. We’ve already covered the Restons and Rosenthals. Max Frankel’s son Jon Frankel is a correspondent at HBO’s Real Sports and his daughter Margot Frankel was art director of Town & Country. His other son David Frankel is a film director, though his career brushed up against journalism when he directed The Devil Wears Prada. Joseph Lelyveld’s daughter Nita Lelyveld is the managing editor of the Portland Press Herald. But, except for Andrew Rosenthal, none have worked at The Times. And starting with Keller, none of the subsequent Times executive editors have seen their children become journalists. (Current executive editor Joe Kahn’s kids are too young to have yet embarked on a profession.)
Howell Raines was the last executive editor to have a child follow him into the profession, though Ben Raines resisted it with the best of them. During their time in Washington, D.C., he’d seen his father working through the most grueling years of his career. “I remember distinctly him saying, ‘I don’t want to work that hard,’ because in the midpoint of my career, I was on the road constantly and working long hours and often weekends,” Howell said. “By the time that I became an editor, deputy Washington editor in ’85, I was really written out. The presidential campaigns were demanding.”
Ben started at Duke in 1988 as an art history major but transferred to NYU to study film. In his last year of school, his father, who had just moved to New York to become editorial page editor, asked him to help with permissions and research for his memoir Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis. “Then he gave me the manuscript to read, and it was great — it’s a fun book, and my brother and I are in it prominently,” Ben told The Fine Print. However, a passage about how the demands of White House reporting had contributed to his father’s titular midlife crisis gave him pause. “He described journalism as being like stenography, and that was a big red flag to me.” So, after he graduated, Ben worked in a photo lab before moving to New Orleans to become, as he puts it, “a wastrel handyman carpenter.” He recalled his father, whose own father had started as a carpenter, expressing frustration at his lack of direction, telling him, “You weren’t raised to pound nails.” “I felt that a future in sheet rocking was not what I had paid NYU tuition for,” Howell said. “But he was finding himself and had a great adventure in New Orleans. I always felt that he would go into more intellectual pursuits.”
Then Ben’s girlfriend got pregnant, and they moved to Portland, where she’d grown up. Now, he needed a real job. “My wife’s best friend was a clerk at The Oregonian in the features department, and had been since high school, and called her up and knew we didn’t have health insurance, and said, ‘Look, we have an opening for a clerk. It pays 15 bucks an hour’ — this is 1996 or ’97 — ‘and comes with health insurance.’ So I went and applied and got the job,” Ben said. “That put me in a newsroom for the first time as an employee, rather than a guest of my father. And I quickly figured out newsrooms were pretty fun places and the people were pretty fun and irreverent.”
He got his chance to write his first feature when he told the paper’s outdoor writers that he’d been fly fishing from a little boat in downtown Portland. “One of them says, ‘So let me get this straight, you’re kicking around in the Willamette River, downtown, with cruise ships going by in a belly boat?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘If you can get a picture of yourself doing that, I’m gonna have you write an article about it.’ And so I went out there with my Nikon — old film days — and I paddled up to a bass boat and asked these guys if they’d take my picture. It’s the first time I ever got paid to write anything.”
Ben tried to write more for The Oregonian, but his ambitions were stifled when a manager told him that the paper didn’t promote clerks to become reporters. “I remember my dad saying that was the most asinine policy he’d ever heard when I told him,” he said. “So anyway, I got a job at a small paper out in the desert in Oregon, in a town called Bend.” Growing up with a senior newsroom figure had prepared him to fight for his work. “I grew up arguing with the guy who would become the executive editor of The New York Times, and I had to make very cogent cases for whatever I was pushing and be ready for him,” he said. “Every time I was gonna go negotiate with bosses or fight for my position on a story, I would talk to him about it. Something dad said to me early on in my career was, ‘Well, a lot of editors are just obstacles to get around,’ and that was certainly good advice.”
After Bend, Ben moved to Mobile, Alabama, to be a reporter for the Press-Register and stayed for the next 17 years, becoming the region’s premiere environmental reporter. “If they had not destroyed our newsroom, I might still be working there. I had no desire to leave. I got job offers coming in from all over the country while I was working there. I’d go do interviews, sometimes, and they’d make me an offer, and the paper would match it or beat it, and I just was content staying,” he said. “The paper had bought me a boat and bought me underwater camera gear — I was a diver. I figured out if I’d go out in the swamp, or the ocean or whatever, and come back with pictures that I could write about, they’d let me do whatever I wanted.”
Howell was pleased to see his son’s accomplishments in his home state. “Once he really got his feet on the ground in Mobile, I felt he was good enough to go anywhere he wanted to. If he had asked my advice, I might have said look at New York or Washington,” he said. “But he created his own niche down there. He’s done the most important environmental journalism in the history of Alabama, full stop, and no place ever needed it more. I think he would have done very well at The Post or The Times, but I don’t think he would have necessarily made the mark he’s made there.”
That opportunity wasn’t the only thing that kept Ben at the Press-Register for so long. “I was very worried, as journalism started declining, about going somewhere and being the new guy instead of the proven guy. I didn’t want to get stranded somewhere because I’d seen layoffs all over the country,” he said. “And I knew I could make a living here even without my journalism work because I do these nature charters. I take people out on my boat. And I got my captain’s license when I saw journalism going south as a backup plan, thinking I could do fishing trips, or the nature trips, and with outside writing and then documentary stuff.” Ben left the Press-Register in 2013 to head a local environmental nonprofit, and he’s been self-employed for five years now.
While he was still at the paper, Ben started bringing his own son, Jasper Raines, in to visit the newsroom when he was about five. “We didn’t have the internet at home, but we did have it at the newsroom, and they had big color printers. So, he would come with me,” Ben said. When Jasper was in 9th grade, his father suggested he try writing video game reviews for the paper. “I don’t think he necessarily thought I would actually follow through on that, in that I wouldn’t be getting paid,” Jasper told The Fine Print. “But then about a week later, I, sort of on a whim, wrote a review for a game that I had been playing, BioShock Infinite.” Jasper gave up writing video game reviews when he realized how hard it would be to get people to pay him for them. Still, he was pulled back into the family business about three years ago when his grandfather asked him to work as a research assistant on his latest book about their family connections to Alabama unionists in the Civil War. “When I finally got a contract with Crown to do the book, I knew I would have to spend some money to hire a researcher,” Howell explained, “and so I said to myself, ‘Well, why not see how Jasper likes it and how well he does?’ And he’s got a real gift for archival research. I think he’s found his metier.”
Ben’s happy that the project is keeping a family tradition alive. “You’ve got a father and son journalism duo indoctrinating the next generation, even if he doesn’t realize it,” he said. “Jasper has gone on to have some incredible finds in the state archives in Alabama finding documents that have been lost for more than a century that are pivotal to that whole ‘the South will rise again’ narrative.”
Jasper, like Clifton Truman Daniel’s son Gates Daniel, is now thinking about spending the rest of his career on archive work. “I often will talk about a fantasy of wanting to be in broadcast journalism of some kind,” he said. “The fantasy here would be to, somehow through work as a historian, end up in a position to be on, I’m sure you’ve seen them, those panels of historical experts that will be discussing things.” Like the Ancient Aliens guy, but more legitimate? “Or not. Whatever got me on television,” he said with a laugh. “But yeah, exactly, similar to that.”
His father and grandfather have been supportive of his ambitions. “I get asked sometimes to talk to journalism classes and I have a really hard time with it, because I loved being a journalist,” Ben said. “I loved the life it let me lead, but I don’t think that’s necessarily out there for anybody else today starting out. When I left the paper, I believe I was the highest paid reporter on staff and I was making $85,000. They were hiring these kids out of college, and they were paying them $25,000, and they were making them write multiple stories a day. I was still doing one or two stories a week. So to encourage people to go into that is difficult.”
For his part, Jasper said, “Growing up hearing your father talk constantly about how the newspaper business is dying probably doesn’t push you into going into it.” Howell speaks as a veteran of daily newspapering’s golden age. “I thought I was going to be a novelist and I, in fact, thought that I would stay in Alabama,” he said. “But frankly, the last thing the south needed was more post-Faulknerian novels. So journalism rescued me.” He recalled telling a journalism class at the University of Florida a few years ago, “You’ve got to look at this universe and say, ‘Who will pay me to do the thing I like to do, which is to write?’ I said, ‘Frankly, if I were looking at that today, I think I would be drawn to screenwriting.’ I could see the journalism faculty gulp. But that’s the current reality, so I’m pleased Jasper’s looking in more diverse directions.”
Might that reality be part of why the subsequent executive editors’ kids haven’t gone into the profession? “I don’t think it’s about the money, or not mostly. They don’t seem to be chasing economic security,” Bill Keller, who succeeded Raines, told The Fine Print of his three children who have pursued careers outside of journalism. He pointed instead to the field’s dimming sheen of prestige. “One factor may be that millennials are more likely to get their information from the meteor shower of social media than from professional, authoritative news sources,” Keller said. “You don’t need a formal media outlet to feel like you are informed and to have your say. Another, related factor, I’d bet, is that the recent years of bitter polarization in our national discourse has made some people recoil from ‘the news.’”
Keller’s successor Jill Abramson pointed out that her son Will Griggs had briefly worked in media. “I would have been happy for either of my children to go into journalism. They followed their own passions, Cornelia Griggs for medicine, and Will Griggs for music. She got totally hooked in college — no one in the family was a doctor — when she worked one summer on an EMT van in Capetown dealing with AIDS and gunshot wounds. He wrote music, played in a band beginning in middle school and founded a record label in college, which cut MGMT’s first album,” she told The Fine Print. “She has written many published pieces on guns and Covid (she has a book about the latter coming out early next year) and he once worked at a music magazine, The Fader, so journalism is partially in their blood.” Will Griggs clarified that at the magazine he “was doing digital marketing so you are correct that I have never been a journalist.”
The son of Dean Baquet, who stepped down as executive editor last year, has also not gone into journalism: Ari Baquet owns a physical therapy clinic in California. Baquet seemed surprised when The Fine Print pointed out the trend to him. “Hadn’t thought of this,” he said. “Proud of what my son is doing, but not sure of the answer.”
It’s not only the children of recent New York Times executive editors who have bailed on their journalistic inheritances. Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast global editorial director Anna Wintour, whose father was editor-in-chief of the London Evening Standard, seems committed to sticking with media until well beyond any reasonable retirement age. Still, her daughter Bee Carrozzini became a TV and theater producer after flirting with journalism as an intern at New York and a contributing editor at Teen Vogue. “I thought I wanted to be in journalism. My grandfather is an editor, my uncle is an editor, obviously, my mom is an editor,” she told Teen Vogue. “I did a bunch of internships. Every time I’ve worked at a magazine, I’ve worked in entertainment, and then I realized I loved that.”
Other oaklings head out for more remunerative sectors of America’s purportedly meritocratic elite. Tom Wolfe’s daughter Alexandra Wolfe spent more than a decade and a half as a reporter, many of them at The Wall Street Journal, before leaving journalism in 2020 to join the board of directors of Peter Thiel’s surveillance analytics firm Palantir.
Former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor and Columbia Journalism School dean Bill Grueskin’s daughter Caroline Grueskin worked on the business side of the Marshall Project before setting out as a local news reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and The Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota. When she and her father spoke with the Columbia Journalism Review in 2017, she said that after graduating from Stanford in 2014, “I was looking for jobs in criminal justice. I had worked at some district attorneys’ offices and at the Justice Department and I was interested in working on criminal justice reform. And that was how I ended up at The Marshall Project. My dad had heard about this cool new criminal justice nonprofit that was starting.” Since that interview, she has returned more directly to those criminal justice interests, getting her J.D. from Yale Law in 2022 and going to work as an associate at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. (We’ll cover the Plimptons descended from that firm’s founding partner in a subsequent installment of this series.)
When journalists complain about nepotism in their field, they usually aren’t thinking of oaklings following in their parents’ footsteps but rather the kind of leg up the offspring of the rich receive in any field. As has been frequently noted in decades worth of woeful diversity reports, as long as journalism can’t pay a living wage for its entry levels, the children of the wealthy will always be vastly over-represented in newsrooms. Examples of prominent journalists with such privileged backgrounds are not difficult to identify. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper is the son of a Vanderbilt heiress, Bill Keller’s father was the chairman of Chevron, former Harper’s editor and Lapham’s Quarterly founder Lewis Lapham’s family owned and ran a major shipping company for multiple generations, and latter-day media baron Jay Penske is the son of a trucking billionaire.
The kids of the super-rich who end up in journalism don’t always have a completely uncomplicated time. “All I’d say about how it affected my career is that it wasn’t my parents’ dream job for me and that they didn’t really know anyone in journalism. Queue a lifetime of explaining life choices,” Nicolas Niarchos, a contributor to The New Yorker and The Nation and the son of Greek shipping heir Spyros Niarchos and fellow heir Daphne Guinness, told The Fine Print. “That said, I was incredibly lucky to have graduated without student debt, to have had some support from my dad when starting out, and that I was able to save money over five years of working as a fact-checker in order to kickstart my work as a freelancer.”
Joe Kahn’s father, Leo Kahn, had a background in journalism — he received a master’s from Columbia Journalism School and briefly worked as a reporter in New Bedford, Massachusetts — but he made a career and found his fortune building up a grocery store empire and co-founding Staples. As far as we can tell, in the flurry of coverage that followed Kahn’s appointment last year, The Fine Print was the only publication to ask directly how his family’s enormous wealth affected the course of his career.
“If I had a lot of student debt coming out of college, it would have probably been harder to have gone into a job like metro reporter at a regional newspaper that, in those days, really didn’t pay a lot of money. Parental support obviously gives you more options in your selection of career than if you took on a ton of debt or otherwise had that kind of burden, or there were relatives who you were trying to support,” Kahn told us. “I think once I got started in journalism, it doesn’t really feel that relevant to me in terms of the career choices,” he added. “My family — my father — really, really didn’t have anything to do with my career after that.”
It’s not only the prodigal children of American capitalism who flow into media. The children of industries with greater cultural capital sometimes slip into journalism, too. John Lahr, the son of The Wizard of Oz’scowardly lion Bert Lahr, is a longtime New Yorker staff writer. Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris’s son Hamilton Morris created the Vice show Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. Jaws actor Richard Dreyfuss has had two of his children make their ways through media: Emily Dreyfuss was a writer and editor at Wired before joining Harvard’s Shorenstein Center as a senior editor and research fellow; Ben Dreyfuss was an editorial director for growth and strategy at Mother Jones before leaving the magazine in 2021 and now writes a Substack.
The Dreyfuss clan has, over the years, offered a kind of running Twitter commentary about the intra-family squabbles of the rich and famous. In a 2017 exchange with Richard, Ben claimed that his father had used his Jaws money to pay for his college. His movie star father replied, “I used the Poseidon money for your college.” “That wasn’t college. That was rehab,” the son corrected him. His father was blunt, “I get them confused because neither took.” More recently, when a TikTok post by Romy Mars, the teenaged daughter of Sofia Coppola, complaining about being grounded went viral, Emily tweeted, “This is amazing… When my Dad was MIA in my childhood, he was doing moralistic Honda commercial voiceovers, so whenever a Honda ad would come on my brothers and I would yell ‘Daily dose of parenting!’”
TikTok is where the current “nepo baby” trend started, but credit for lodging the term in the cultural firmament, including inspiring this series, also belongs to a delightful New York cover package from last December. Celebrity children making their way through media were the only sort sorts who attracted the interest of New York’s editors (name-checked: Rolling Stone interns Mark Ronson, Jessica Springsteen, and Frances Bean Cobain), but that doesn’t mean that the magazine hasn’t had its share of oaks and oaklings. After founding editor Clay Felker took over business magazine Manhattan Inc. in 1987, Maura Sheehy, his step-daughter with New York and Vanity Fair contributor Gail Sheehy, joined the staff as a reporter and then had a stint as a staff reporter at Details; today, she practices therapy in Brooklyn. After financier Bruce Wasserstein bought New York in 2004 and passed away in 2009, his daughter Pamela Wasserstein was named CEO in 2016. She led the magazine’s sale to Vox Media in 2019, which resulted in her being named president of Vox. On the editor level, New York features editor Nick Summers is the son of K.C. Summers, former editor of The Washington Post’s travel section. The Fine Print asked whether New York’s “nepo babies” would care to comment for this story. “Thanks for reaching out, but we’re going to pass on this one,” said a spokesperson.
In the next installment of this series: the children of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, Sarah Koenig, Taylor Plimpton, Antonia Hitchens, Evan Osnos, Alex Remnick, Katrina vanden Heuvel, David Grann, Clara Jeffery, Susan and James Lardner, Molly Jong-Fast, and more. Curious about an oakling we haven’t covered yet? Let us know.