A Job Well Done
Bill Keller’s tenure as New York Times executive editor. Posted: Thurs, June 2, 2011
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (email@example.com) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
Nice job, Bill Keller.
Keller, who is stepping down as executive editor of the New York Times in September, deserves major credit for steering our most important news organization in an immensely challenging time, for the most part avoiding the icebergs.
Keller took over the Times at a very low point, in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco and the autocratic reign of the unlamented Howell Raines. The proud newspaper had been humiliated. Keller righted the ship.
But the best measure of his effectiveness is to compare the Times to other top-tier newspapers. While most, battered by the loss of readers and advertisers to the Internet, have shrunk alarmingly, the Times remains a beacon with its serious commitment to serious journalism. Day after day the paper is packed with excellent work. It has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes in the past four years.
Of course, that's not all Keller. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who is also chairman of the New York Times Co., deserves immense credit for continuing to devote serious resources to such endangered bastions as foreign coverage and investigative reporting in the face of withering pressure to do otherwise. And Keller is surrounded by talented editors and reporters.
But he's been the man in charge of the newsroom since 2003 and, like the manager of the baseball team, he gets the credit or the blame. He sets the tone. All the resources in the world won't matter if the wrong person is running the show (see Raines, Howell).
Of course, Keller's leadership has hardly been perfect. It's probably a good thing that he is going to write for the Times rather than pursue a career in diplomacy. Keller seems to relish getting into public feuds with the likes of Fox News and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange. Most puzzling were moves like going out of his way to pick a fight with Huffington Post impresario Arianna Huffington and to disparage the users of Twitter. Keller managed to make himself the poster boy for the head-in-the-sand old-media guy who doesn't get it. That really isn't the image you are seeking for the person running the nation's best newspaper as it struggles to adjust to the digital age.
As for the future, the Times seems to be in exceedingly good hands. Keller's successor, Managing Editor Jill Abramson, and her successor, Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, have sterling reputations as top-flight journalists. Talk about a deep bench.
Both Abramson, the first woman to hold the top job at the Times, and Baquet are former investigative reporters. Baquet is also the former editor of the Los Angeles Times. He resigned in 2006 rather than make massive job cuts ordered by that paper's owner, Tribune Co.
Here's another good sign for the future: Abramson stepped away from her day-to-day duties last year to help oversee the Times' online operations. That experience should help immensely as she guides the Times into the digital future.