A Choice for Troubled Times  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2003

A Choice for Troubled Times   

The New York Times chooses Bill Keller to take the paper's helm after Executive Editor Howell Raines resigns in a firestorm ignited by the Jayson Blair scandal.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Who doesn't believe in second chances?

Certainly, the New York Times and its new Executive Editor Bill Keller do. Ending weeks of successor speculation, Keller was named the top guy on July 14, two years after Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. passed him over, choosing to hand the job instead to Howell Raines.

On the day of the announcement, Keller said in an interview, he had a moment, standing in the newsroom, "looking at all those amazing people.... It's like somebody had just handed you the keys to a Jaguar."

But this wasn't a mint-condition deal: Said Jaguar's mechanical problems were by then quite well known. The Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal, followed by the ouster of star reporter Rick Bragg, led to the widespread airing of deep-seated staff resentment of Raines' heavy-handed management style. Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd stepped down in early June.

How difficult is it going to be to repair the damage? "I don't have a sense that the place is broken," Keller says. "It's been through a rough time, but Joe Lelyveld had already... started to get people focused back on their work." (Lelyveld, the Times' executive editor from 1994 to 2001, served as interim editor after Raines departed.)

And judging from staff and industry reaction, Keller may be able to mend wounds quickly. The newsroom, says Susan E. Tifft, "wants the next executive editor to succeed, and they have a lot of goodwill in them. And I think it needed a place to go." Tifft thinks staffers feel comfortable having it go to Keller.

Plus, Keller got some additional help from Raines' interview on "The Charlie Rose Show," says Tifft, coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times" and a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University. In his July 11 appearance, a non-apologetic Raines said he was appointed to be a change agent at the Times, charged with leading "a talented staff that was settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency." The friction, he said, was caused by those who wanted to maintain the status quo.

Tifft says she has received e-mails from staffers who were really hurt by those comments. One told her, " 'If there was ever a reservoir of goodwill for Howell, it's gone now,' " she says. "That just shifts them even more into the arms of Bill Keller."

Keller, 54, is a known quantity. He was managing editor from 1997 to 2001 and foreign editor from '95 to '97. A seasoned foreign correspondent, Keller was bureau chief in Johannesburg and Moscow, where his coverage of the Soviet Union earned him a 1989 Pulitzer Prize. He joined the Times in 1984, having previously reported for the Dallas Times Herald, the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report and Portland's Oregonian. In the last two years, Keller was a Times op-ed columnist and a senior writer for the Sunday magazine.

The Times' Felicity Barringer, who covers the United Nations, worked under Keller in Moscow. "There could not have been a better person picked at this particular time," she says. "Without disrespect to Howell," she continues, "a wise person once said to me, every executive editor is in some ways a reaction to the executive editor who came before. Given the seismic shocks we've gone through...that particular bit of wisdom, I think, has great applicability to this choice."

Keller, in personality and management philosophy, seems to be a distinct departure from Raines. "If I have a view of how you run something like this," Keller says, "it is [that] it's a much less centralized operation than I understand the practice of the past two years to have been." With something of the size of the New York Times--a newsroom of 1,200--you can't run it with all decisions and authority flowing from one person, he says. Beyond the fact that people won't feel noticed and "you'll end up with a considerable amount of unhappiness," Keller says, "you're going to miss stories. The way this business works is that things bubble up."

In his remarks to the staff, Keller made mention of something rarely discussed by new top editors: life outside the newsroom. "[T]his is a better paper," he said, "if you bring to your jobs...some experience of life--family and reflection, art and adventure, a little fun."

As someone with small children, staff writer Leslie Kaufman says she was glad to hear those comments, which she calls "certainly a very welcome break from any of his predecessors." Keller is "deeply respected by the newsroom," Kaufman says. "His talents as a journalist are pretty much without peer."

"Nobody is going to be loved by everybody, but Bill is respected by just about everybody I've talked to who's dealt with him firsthand," Barringer says. He's not the touchy-feely type, though. "He doesn't at first blush seem like the warmest or most approachable person, but that really belies the man I knew in Moscow who really knew how to throw a party."

Tifft also talks about the fun side of the "cool, cerebral" Bill Keller. In talking to him for her book, she says, she was struck by his sense of humor. "He doesn't take himself all that seriously," she says. He's "able to make jokes about himself."

Keller's self-deprecation comes through in interviews. Asked what he'd like to see the paper do on his watch over the long-term, he first replies that is assuming his watch will be more than two years.

Then he adds, seriously, that he wants to bolster the paper's investigative reporting. He says the paper's efforts in this area "got off track...partly because of 9/11." He says he'd like to increase the number of investigative stories and work on inculcating investigative skills in beat reporters.

And he'll pay attention to morale. "I think Joe started that process [of healing], and it's a much calmer place.... Clearly more of that needs to be done," Keller says. "There are groups of people within the paper that still feel beat up."

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