When Joe Vecchione, a longtime editor at The New York Times, died this month, at 85, tributes poured in from people in all walks of newspaper life, from secretaries to executives. Lawrie Mifflin, a former Times editor who started working with Mr. Vecchione in 1982, recalls his multifaceted career.
In the pre-Internet days, when a newspaper began as Lego-like chunks of hot-metal type dropped into steel frames, union rules meant only printers were allowed to touch the type. Editors stood opposite them to look for errors and suggest changes. That’s how Joe Vecchione learned to read upside down.
In 1960, a few months after Joe was hired at The Times, he was working as a clerk on what was called the make-up desk, where pages were laid out before going to press. During the second presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, he noticed that a section of type was missing from the debate transcript. It had been accidentally omitted — corrections were quickly made.
“When a clerk on the make-up desk assays to reform even a tiny segment of The New York Times in respect to accuracy, that’s news — and Joseph John Vecchione has achieved this improbable distinction in his 23rd year,” reads an internal Times award citation he received. (With it came $50, a princely sum at the time.)
For the next 41 years, Joe did “assay to reform” The Times. Accuracy remained paramount, but add some pizazz to its pages? Yes. Shake up the status quo in hiring? Yes. Welcome unconventional voices to its columns? Yes indeed.
Although he was best known in his role as sports editor, Joe had a range of behind-the-scenes jobs in which he influenced the paper and its people. In his career at The Times, he served as the deputy photo editor; a layout designer; the deputy editor of a new national edition; the overseer of new recruitment policies; and, late in his career, a major-domo for all newsroom logistics, including moving the entire newsroom from offices on West 43rd Street to a new tower on Eighth Avenue.
In the late 1970s, Joe helped redesign the entire newspaper’s appearance — more photos, more graphics, jazzy typefaces — and helped create five new sections: SportsMonday, Science Times, Dining, Home and Weekend.
I was a sportswriter at The Daily News then, wholly ignorant of these changes at The Times. But Joe would soon change my life. He became sports editor in 1980, and, in 1982, he hired me. It was still rare then for papers to have female sportswriters; Black or Hispanic writers weren’t much more common. In his decade as sports editor, Joe made sports one of the most diverse departments in the newsroom. And he didn’t just hire women and people of color — he made sure they felt as valued as anyone else and pushed them to excel.
Bill Rhoden was one of those people. He came to sports from another department, with bruised confidence. “Joe believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Bill told me. He went on to a distinguished career as a columnist for more than three decades. Claire Smith was another; she was inducted, in 2017, into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I got that encouragement myself. When Joe made me his deputy editor, I was 33 but looked younger and, as a woman, was often patronized. Joe regularly sent me to pitch our story offerings at the Page 1 meeting, where the smartest and most intimidating editors met daily to choose what would run on the front page. “You can do it; you’re the one who knows this story, not them,” he told me. He also sent me to Seoul to run our coverage of the 1988 Olympics, instead of taking that plum assignment himself.
Joe kept an eye out for unsung colleagues. Mary Hardiman was a secretary in the mid-1970s but wanted to be a photographer. She confided in Joe, then the deputy photo editor, about her aspirations. “Joe let me go shoot photos on my lunch hour,” she told me, “and he would process them and critique them for me. One of my first pictures — it was of a blizzard — got on Page 1.”
Mary, who went on to become a photo editor, said Joe had particularly helped women who were overlooked be transferred into more promising jobs: “In the newsroom back then, it was almost all men and secretaries,” she said, “but Joe would always help you.”
One of my favorite stories is from Dave Smith, who began as a night copy editor in sports and went on to hold other editing roles.
Long before the web existed, the sports desk operated like a breaking news website. Night sports copy editors typically worked until 2:45 a.m., in a “cavelike existence,” as Dave called it. While proofreading around 9:30 p.m. one night in 1983, Dave felt a tap on the shoulder. “Get your coat,” Joe told him. A short taxi ride later, they were in Madison Square Garden, sitting ringside for a lightweight championship fight (Ray ‘Boom-Boom’ Mancini knocked out Orlando Romero). Should I go back to the office? Dave recalls asking Joe.
“Nah,” his boss said, “take a slide.”
Joe loved opera (he even attended student productions); he also wrote, with David Dunlap, a book about the architecture of Manhattan’s churches. David remembers him as “ever innovative, utterly principled, unfailingly generous and savagely funny.”
I, and so many other of his colleagues, agree.