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The path that Bill Keller followed to one of the most prestigious posts in journalism -- the executive editorship of The New York Times -- took a confounding zig-zag as he neared the prize. Keller, a well-traveled 20-year veteran of the paper, was its managing editor in 2001 and poised to move up to the top job. But publisher Arthur Sulzberger passed over Keller in favor of Howell Raines, a hard-charging, self-described "change agent" determined to raise the paper's "competitive metabolism."
Instead, Raines mainly raised the hackles of his staff. After the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal sparked a newsroom rebellion against Raines, Sulzberger fired his editor and replaced him with Keller in July, 2003.
Who knows if the Blair scandal would have happened if Keller had been promoted on schedule? Unquestionably, though, Keller, 54, has done what Raines could not: Change the Times without antagonizing its 1,200 editors and reporters. In November, Keller and Deputy Managing Editor Mike Oreskes sat down with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Anthony Bianco in his office just off the Times's vast newsroom to discuss recent events at America's most important newspaper. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: How badly was the paper damaged by the Blair scandal and the upheavals that followed?
Keller: The paper went through a trauma, and that had consequences internally and externally. A lot of the stuff we've done has been very explicitly aimed at restoring our credibility and accountability. The idea of having a public editor is partly to keep us on our toes internally but also partly to let the world know that we're accessible, we will listen to complaints, we will give somebody license to criticize us within our own pages. I think that was important.
That being said, there's a larger question about media in general, and the polls that show the public doesn't hold mainstream news media at large in high esteem. On the one hand, I think that's cause for concern, it's something we should think about constantly. On the other hand, it's a little like those polls that show that people loathe Congress, but they love their local Congressman, and they always reelect him.
People may hate The News Media (capital T, capital N, capital M), but people who read The New York Times tend to be incredibly loyal to it, and that includes people who write ferocious letters from the right and from the left. We get both. It really is something you have to take seriously.
Q: Why do you need to take that so seriously?
Keller: One of the reasons that we need to pay attention is because the environment in which we operate has changed, [with] the proliferation of pseudo-news programming on cable TV, on the Internet in particular, and on the radio -- stuff that's really partisanship, gossip, propaganda, vaudeville masquerading as news.
We all live in that environment, and it creates the impression that what everybody does is more entertainment or propaganda than news. At the same time, it makes what we do a lot more important.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a "change agent," in the same way that Raines did?
Keller: Maybe the first six months were kind of repair and reform and less change agent than therapist, I guess. And also just kind of doing the basic things you do when you come into a new job, which is putting the people you want in the right jobs. I think two-thirds of the employees in the newsroom [are] answering to different department heads than they had been the year before.
I think the management style changed substantially. There's a less centralized, top-down management style in the newsroom. We've made a lot of management reforms -- shoring up our credibility by establishing a public editor job, a standards editor, and instituting some new policies that were probably long overdue, like our byline policy and trying to stick a finger in the dike of anonymous sourcing. It was cleaning up our act, getting our people back [to being] focused on the news, restoring our confidence.
But that was kind of phase one. For the last eight months or so, it has felt more like we were really building. We've been focused on the core reporting responsibility of the paper, a heavy emphasis on getting the investigative unit back to where it should have been. It was, I think, a little neglected and abused during the previous regime.
We've also had redesigns of half a dozen sections. We're adding about 20 people to culture coverage at a time when newspapers elsewhere are cutting back.
Q: Why the emphasis on culture coverage?
Keller: Well, it wasn't driven by the potential to expand advertising. The strategic planning folks on the business side calculate that it will produce some. But we could not have justified that project strictly on a revenue basis. We justified it on the grounds that there are a few things that people come to the Times for that they expect us to excel at. One of them is culture coverage. We know that it's one of the reasons that people in Cleveland or Denver will plunk down money for a paper that's not their local paper.
Oreskes: Can I say one thing that Bill wouldn't and couldn't say? There's been a huge change here and a very simple one, which you can see from Bill, which is: There's a lot more humility from the top of this newsroom than there was before. The simple fact is there has never been a period of 15 months in which more change has occurred inside this newsroom than the last 15 months. But it's been done in a carefully measured way.
Q: Do you think that improvements in journalistic quality -- however you want to define it -- necessarily lead to increases in circulation?
Keller: Yes, I do, actually -- as long as you have that clause in there where I get to define what quality is. When I first became an editor here in 1995, somebody upstairs on the business side explained to me the basic business philosophy of the Times.
It was a kind of epiphany for me, and I never pass up an opportunity to relay this to the staff. And it's this: What most papers do when they want to extend their reach is they go out and interview all the people who don't subscribe and say, "What would you like?" and then they try to dumb down or spice up their paper to pander to that audience. That's what produced the kind of McNuggetization of a lot of local and regional papers in America. The Times' approach was exactly backward. What they did is focus on the most loyal subscribers and identify their characteristics. And then they went out and tried to find more people who are like those people.
Then you enter the larger discussion of what constitutes good. I don't think that only broccoli is good for you. We offer a fair amount of dessert. We cover the Philharmonic and the Met, but we also cover hip-hop and TV.
Oreskes: And recipes for how to prepare your broccoli.
Keller: And we try to do all of those things with a sophistication and an intelligence that might make it different from Entertainment Weekly, say. But we don't look down our noses at pop culture.
Q: Arthur Sulzberger has famously described himself as "platform agnostic." Do you consider yourself platform agnostic?
Keller: I will confess that I'm not a fan of that phrase, although I subscribe to what I think he meant. I'm a newspaper guy. All of my life in journalism has been at newspapers. I like the feel of a newspaper. I like the company of newspaper reporters and editors.
The reality is that just in terms of where we spend our money and where we make our money, we're still predominantly a newspaper company. That said, I honestly don't care whether 10 years from now people are getting their journalism from ink on dead trees, or from the Internet, or from a chip planted in their brain. All I care about is that there are still news organizations, including this one, that are producing stuff of very high quality, and that whatever means devised to distribute it produces enough money to pay for that newsroom.
Oreskes: I think what we're building here is a platform-savvy newsroom. I don't know that we necessarily have to be or should be agnostic about the whole situation.
Keller: That's a phrase that sits a lot better with me: Platform-savvy.
Oreskes: If the core of all of this is our relationship with our audience, and if there are those who, in the future, would rather be related to us in some way other than buying the printed paper, we want to be in touch with them. We want them to have our journalism. It's not agnosticism -- we're quite committed to staying in touch with our audience wherever they may move or go. But that's going to require us to be a lot savvier over the next few years about how we reach them.