At 1 p.m. on July 14, Bill Keller stood before the top editors and managers of The New York Times in an 11th-floor dining room at the paper’s West 43rd Street headquarters. He was there, according to sources at the meeting, to offer an unvarnished version of the introduction he had given to staffers in the third-floor newsroom two hours earlier, when he was crowned the new executive editor of The New York Times.
Like a latter-day Mikhail Gorbachev, charged with bringing reform and openness to the dark corridors of the Kremlin, Mr. Keller told them there would be no personal recriminations as a result of the previous scandal-rocked months at the paper under former executive editor Howell Raines, who was asked to resign when mounting trouble at the paper in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair threatened to swallow the paper’s leadership whole. He would not, he told his new subjects as they ate their lunches, “divide the paper into Friends of Howell and Friends of Bill.”
He specifically rejected published reports that assistant managing editor Andrew Rosenthal was headed for career exile as punishment for being an ally of Mr. Raines and former managing editor Gerald Boyd during their tenure. He also rejected rumors about the existence of a list of “Howell hires” whose careers were now in dire straits.
Looking at the group, according to sources present at the lunch, Mr. Keller said that he knew there were people in the room who had done “extraordinary work under extraordinary duress,” adding: “I admire people who can lead under duress.”
In an interview, Mr. Keller declined to comment on his remarks. But, in a phrase, he articulated a connection to his staff that Mr. Raines could never accomplish.
Of course, the newsroom was fresh from a slap in the face by its former boss—and some recriminations are different from others.
In an interview on the Charlie Rose show three days before, Mr. Raines delivered a staunch, prideful defense of his tenure at The Times, in which he patted himself on the back for introducing a “performance culture” to a lackadaisical staff, only to be undermined in the schism created by those who clung to a parochial, New York–based Times folk culture.
To many in the angered newsroom, the interview served as a moment of closure, a parting middle finger that summed up everything that had gone wrong within the paper since September 2001, and a reminder of why Mr. Raines could no longer be at the helm. Self-righteous, distant, admittedly arrogant and unapologetic for all of that, Mr. Raines had much to lose when the paper started to really fall apart—and a lot less to lose now. For Mr. Keller, there was an opportunity to draw the contrast brightly.
“If—oh, hypothetically—somebody goes on television and trashes your staff, you stick up for them,” he said, speaking from his office on July 15, the same day The Times provided its own page 1 burial of its former leader in an article about the appointment.
Though Mr. Keller said he didn’t “want to start off my new job with an argument with one of my predecessors,” he allowed that watching Mr. Raines’ interview had “dredged a lot” of the feelings about the former executive editor’s tenure to the surface.
“The collateral damage, intentional or accidental, in all of the things that were said, were these people,” Mr. Keller said, gesturing metaphorically to his new staff. “You know, the notion that the people who knocked themselves out covering an endless scandal, an impeachment in Washington, an election, the Florida recount, a couple of Balkan wars that I remember—the notion that these people were in the least bit complacent or lethargic was insulting to a lot of first-class professionals.”
And yet other, more recent stories hadn’t gone so well. Stories written by Jayson Blair, for instance, about the investigation into the Washington-area sniper attacks last fall; stories about military mothers waiting in vain for word on their missing sons. Stories by the celebrated Rick Bragg about oystermen in Apalachicola, Fla. Even a story by radio reporter Lynnette Holloway, which resulted that same day in a lengthy corrective article, about a music-industry executive and his efforts to stay on top of his business as an independent.
Having, as he noted in his introductory remarks to the third-floor newsroom, developed a “perverse affection” for the phrase “no comment” over the past couple of months—roughly the time it became clear that he was a leading candidate to take the helm at the paper—Mr. Keller was now ready to speak out on the Blair affair and the toll it took on The Times.
While saying he was waiting for the Siegal committee’s recommendations on how to prevent the Blair episode’s reoccurrence, Mr. Keller deemed Mr. Blair an aberration. He said that the case did, however, point up the basic vulnerability of the newspaper business, which places an implicit trust in reporters and their work.
“Even after you’ve vetted somebody’s résumé, talked to their references, watched them during a trial period, looked over their accuracy records and so on,” Mr. Keller said, “it can still be not enough. You can do a lot of things to monitor somebody’s performance, but you basically trust them to do their job. We’re not going to start assigning minders to reporters or bug their phones. We’re not going to enact the Patriot Act at The New York Times. That would just be horrible! Who would want to work at a place like that?”
Mr. Keller went on to call the actions of Mr. Bragg—Mr. Raines’ beloved star reporter, whose excessive use of stringers and subsequent claim that the practice was typical made him a pariah on 43rd Street—”outrageous.”
“He didn’t just take something that everyone else does and push it a little further,” Mr. Keller said. “If anybody really had a sense of what he did, he would’ve been out of here in a heartbeat. The notion that these guys are somehow symptoms of how The Times did its work is ludicrous. So you don’t want to strip all the trust from the newsroom just because of a couple of rogues.”
Watching Mr. Raines at a distance for nearly two years, Mr. Keller said, “confirmed my general sense that a centralized system that might work very well running an organization of 50 people doesn’t work that well when you have an organization of 1,200. And when you try and do that, you not only make people feel alienated and frustrated, you also cut yourself off from what really matters: the ideas that bubble up from below.”
This was also his answer to the scandals that unseated Mr. Raines. The problem, to Mr. Keller, was not in the culture of The Times, but in the leadership of that culture. In short, these were aberrations—but there’s still “stuff” to do, some of which Mr. Keller began after he received a fairly undramatic congratulation from Mr. Sulzberger.
“What kind of stuff? For starters, making my way around,” Mr. Keller said, adding that he was talking to “a lot of people whose judgment I respect” about “trying to do damage assessment, first of all. How wounded does the place seem now, after several weeks of Joe Lelyveld’s convalescence? Were there particular areas that will need particular attention? And started talking to people about putting together the rest of the hierarchy.”
It was perhaps Mr. Raines’ behavior toward his staff after the Blair affair, not before, that made all this clear. Coming out of the now-legendary town-hall meeting on May 14, Mr. Keller remembered thinking that Mr. Raines would survive the crisis, because he was “a smart guy with extraordinary political instincts, and it was pretty clear the publisher at that point wanted to give him a chance.
“What I underestimated at that point,” Mr. Keller continued, “was that quality that Maureen Dowd refers to as the Lord of the Flies quality, where on top of all the legitimate grievances, a lot of extraneous baggage and frustrations exploded up. It was clear that people at the paper were not going to let it go. There was a small part of me that thought of it as poetic justice. But there was a much bigger part that thought it was excruciating to watch, because I’m devoted to this place and a lot of these people. And I don’t know if you can really have friends when you’re the executive editor, but a lot of these people have been my friends until now. And it hurt to watch them.”
Now, he must lead them. Even more, Mr. Keller has put himself in the uneasy political position of being a fixer, whose new regime brings with it both the great promise and the weighty expectations of something measurably better than what came before. He also enters an environment with an emboldened, more powerful staff, whose refusal to accept the apologies of Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd, to put away the blame for Mr. Blair, helped topple their previous governor. Mr. Keller has promised a kindler, gentler Times.
Indeed, the brutality of that organization as a place to work had been felt by many long before Mr. Raines took over. But somewhere in the Blair saga, it boiled over. Mr. Raines told Mr. Rose that he didn’t understand Times staffers complaining that they were being pushed too hard: “Because I can’t imagine anyone coming to work at The New York Times, accepting a job, unless they wanted to be measured against the highest expectations of the profession. Why join the New York Yankees if you don’t want to play on the field where Ruth and DiMaggio and Mantle played?” Finding the extent of the damage computes to another question: Can The Times be led?
“I don’t think you should read what happened over the past few months as that people at this newspaper want it to be a democracy or run by plebiscite, or that they don’t want to be led,” Mr. Keller said. “They want to be led. Partly it’s a matter of how you lead people—how, over time, you trust their judgment—and a matter of respect, mutual respect ... And partly—and I don’t want to overemphasize the humanitarian aspects of the job, but letting people have a life and see their families and being attentive to their problems.
“I’ve watched people here have kids in the hospital and come to work day after day and pour their hearts into the paper, when most people would have found this impossible to do,” Mr. Keller said. “When people give you that much, you have to give them something back. Yeah, you give them bylines and you give them the thrill of covering big stories. But you also have to give them a little. When you’re not in the middle of covering a terrorist attack in New York City, you have to give them an occasional weekend; once in a while, some time to go home early to watch their kids in the school play. That’s important. The place takes a toll on you.”
It’s a toll Mr. Keller has felt himself. Business editor Glenn Kramon doesn’t question Mr. Keller’s ability to re-emerge from regime-change pundit and magazine writer to editor because he had, in his previous incarnation as Joe Lelyveld’s managing editor, worked with many of the same people before for a number of years. Simply put, Mr. Kramon said, “he knows the newsroom much better than Howell did.”
Metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman called Mr. Keller “really smart” and a good listener, adding: “He’s personally secure. He himself doesn’t need to be the center of attention.”
And yet, by his own admission, Mr. Keller has some catching up to do. In the coming days, Mr. Keller said, he will travel to the Washington bureau, the always-discontented Times outpost that turned into a platform for anti-Howellian rage during Mr. Raines’ tenure. It was also the site of one of the decisive battles in the war for the soul of The New York Times when, on June 3, an angry meeting with Mr. Sulzberger took place that was widely believed to be the turning point. Two days later, Messrs. Raines and Boyd resigned.
“I think a lot of people there felt roughed up during the Blair and Bragg thing,” Mr. Keller said. “But even before that, they felt alienated and angry a lot of the time. They managed to keep putting out a pretty damn good report,” he said, but they were doing it under strain.
“Tensions always exist, because there’s a tug of war for control between Washington and New York. They were probably accentuated over the past two years, because you had three people in New York [Messrs. Raines, Boyd and Rosenthal], all of whom had Washington DNA and strong views of what was going on in Washington. I’ve spent time in Washington, too, briefly working in The Times’ bureau and on reporting work over the past two years. But I’m going to be much humbler in second-guessing the people we’ve entrusted to run the bureau.”
Besides working on the psychological scaffolding of The Times, there are practical matters that Mr. Keller will have to address. He said he’s still trying to figure out the shape of the masthead: if there will be one managing editor or two, or if the second in command will even be called the managing editor. There’s also the reshaping of the International Herald Tribune, whose size and scope and allotted resources will have to be determined using both the business and the journalistic judgments of the institution.
And there’s The Times itself. Mr. Keller doesn’t seem content to “add his ideas into the blend” that had been determined when Mr. Sulzberger brought on Mr. Raines as executive editor.
He differs with Mr. Raines, for instance, on the matter of how you go about making The Times a national and international newspaper without compromising its identity. He dismissed the notion that The Times was a paper faced with either beating the New York Daily News on the Bloomberg administration’s latest machinations or reaching the 41-year-old mother of two in Houston, calling it a “false choice.”
“New York isn’t just a locality we cover,” Mr. Keller explained. “It’s the financial and cultural capital of the country. It’s the source of enormous vitality and energy for the paper. I really don’t mean to diss any other paper, but I always thought one of the things missing from USA Today is any sense it’s anchored in a place. You get little nuggets from all the states and all over, and USA Today does some things very well and it’s a much-copied business model. So my point is to not trash USA Today. But when you pick up the national edition of the New York Times in California, it feels like a national paper. But it also feels like it’s anchored somewhere, in some place that matters. That’s true of The Washington Post, which is much less of a national paper and has decided not to be. It’s anchored in the political capital of the country, and that means there are certain kinds of stories that you want to know what The Post’s take is, partly because they have roots.”
Mr. Keller’s own roots are not in the executive suites of The New York Times.
“I spent the first 25 years of my career never wanting to be an editor,” he said, remembering the first editorial post he took, from Mr. Lelyveld, as foreign editor in 1995. “It’s one thing to face the theoretical question of not wanting to be an editor. It’s another asking if you want to be the foreign editor of The New York Times. That letter came from Joe—and he knew the most vulnerable moment to hit me. I had just finished the two most important stories I ever expected to have: the end of communism and the end of apartheid. There were other stories I certainly wanted to cover, but there wasn’t anything quite likely to live up to those. So the offer was intriguing.
“If you can’t go cover the fall of communism again,” Mr. Keller added, as if unconscious of a simple narrative that might have carried him from those reporting glory days to his present position, “you might as well try something new.”
This next story may have a familiar ring.
Shridar Pappu covers the media for The New York Observer.