By Jon Fine Bill Keller looks a lot like you'd expect the top editor of The New York Times to look: the plume of silvering hair that signifies gravitas, the tie and white shirt beneath a well-cut (but not too well-cut) suit. On Oct. 7, the Times' executive editor made a very Times-ian and articulate case for the necessity of his paper and the better instincts of mainstream journalism, while casually and elegantly sticking a shiv in adversaries ranging from Bill O'Reilly to The Wall Street Journal to America's Presidents.
Keller's appearance, speaking to a roomful of executives gathered for lunch at the annual Association of National Advertisers conference in Phoenix, came at a time when the nation's most prominent daily newspaper is frequently finding itself in the headlines.
MILLER'S TALE. There's the situation with reporter Judith Miller, who recently spent 85 days in jail before divulging a source -- with her source's consent -- to "Plamegate" Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. There's the Times' notable silence on the matter, although Keller promised imminent exhaustive coverage on the story. (While he spent little time discussing Miller, during a question-and-answer session, Keller said that the complexities of the situation put the paper in the "uncomfortable" position of not being able to share important information one of its reporters knew.)
Like other major-market dailies, the Times (NYT) faces dispiriting revenue dynamics, and last month it announced it would be forced to shed newsroom jobs. "The cost of everything we do is going up faster than revenues," he said bluntly. "How long will this vessel stay afloat?" His unsurprising answer: A long time, or, more specifically, newspapers will be "alive and flourishing 20 years from now."
The news business, he said, is "the only industry where people who make the product are kept from the people who sell it.... You put up a kind of wall" between the business side and the journalists. Most advertisers doing business with newspapers understand this, he said. But "some corporate relations people understand it through gritted teeth," which Keller likened to "the way Presidents respect the Constitution." This remark was followed by chuckles and a smattering of faint applause.
"JOURNALISM OF VERIFICATION." "Most of what you know, you know because of the mainstream media," Keller said. "Bloggers recycle and chew on the news. That's not bad. But it's not enough."
Keller pointed out that it cost the Times around $1.5 million to maintain a Baghdad bureau in 2004. (It cost one Times freelancer much more last month: He was murdered.) "This kind of civic labor can't be replaced by bloggers." The Times' assets: "A worldwide network of trained, skilled [observers] to witness events" and write about them, and "a rigorous set of standards. A journalism of verification," rather than of "assertion," and maintaining an "agnosticism" as to where any story may lead. And, borrowing a key buzzword of the day, he said the Times practiced "transparency," or, in math-teacher terms, "we show our work."
Keller made repeated references to the extreme partisan nature of current discourse, and cited voices that he said urged the Times to "give it up. Embrace your biases," and write about them "openly." To this, he said "I object. It's like saying since genetics account for so much, we should abandon being parents." Still, he conceded that "a lot of people want journalism that thrills them by telling them what they believe."
UNDERWHELMED BY THE JOURNAL. As for inveterate Times-bashers like commentators Rush Limbaugh and Fox's (NWS) Bill O'Reilly, he pointed out that both were, first and foremost, performers, and he claimed not to know what their true beliefs were. But he noted that O'Reilly "denounced" the Times so frequently that "if he didn't have The New York Times, he might be selling Ginsu knives on late-night TV." Along the same lines, Keller termed the Fox News Channel's "fair and balanced" tagline "the most ingeniously cynical slogan" in media marketing.
Although online portal Yahoo! (YHOO) sent tremors through the chattering confines of journalism by announcing the high-profile hire of Kevin Sites to cover Iraq, Keller does not see them as large-scale rivals. "I'm confident [Yahoo! and Google (GOOG)] will not be the next generation of press barons," he said. "Yahoo! could buy 1,200 journalists tomorrow," a figure which roughly compares to those employed by the Times. But, he added, "to them, it's a boutique" business.
Keller was much more unsparing when it came to The Wall Street Journal (DJ), which he identified as the Times' key national rival, with which it competes for ads targeting the nation's elite. He said the Times had made "a lot of renovations in anticipation" of the Journal's just-launched Saturday edition. But his reaction when it made its debut was, "Huh? What was that all about?"
"The Journal made some serious strategic mistakes" with its Saturday edition, he said, by shifting "from indispensable to optional." The Journal breaks news every day of the week, he added, but "the paper has yet to break important news on Saturday." (A Journal spokesman declined to comment on Keller's remarlks.)
GO FIGURE. Keller hailed early returns on TimesSelect, which grants online access to the paper's columnists only to Times subscribers and those who pay $49.95 a year, saying a "couple hundred thousand people" have signed on for the service. However, a Times spokeswoman later clarified this figure, explaining that it includes current Times subscribers, who get TimesSelect for free, saying that the paper was not disclosing how many people were paying for TimesSelect.
Meanwhile, the daily that Keller took pains to dis in front of a roomful of major advertisers -- the Journal -- remains the one newspaper that, for all of its recent travails, has been successful in its bids to make users pay for online access.
Fine is BusinessWeek's media columnist