Last fall, a committee at the New York Times set out to examine how the paper could increase its readers' trust. This week, it released its final recommendations. With just under a week to digest the committee's findings, NYT executive editor Bill Keller joins Brooke to talk about improving accuracy, reducing the use of anonymous sources, interacting with readers, and responding to critics.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In November, a committee at the New York Times set out to examine how the Gray Lady could increase its readers' trust. This week, that report was released, with recommendations for improving accuracy, reducing the use of anonymous sources, interacting with readers, and responding to critics. Among the specific suggestions - having executive editor Bill Keller and two managing editors write a column to deal with, quote, "matters about the newspaper." It also suggests better preparing Times' writers for appearances on broadcast media, and routing reader emails directly to reporters. We gave Bill Keller just under a week to digest the committee's findings. He says the paper can and should find more effective ways to build its relationship with readers.
BILL KELLER: I just think the world we live in now, you cannot hunker down and, you know, assume that the mystique of the New York Times will win readers over and be enough to sustain your credibility. People, for better or for worse, feel entitled to talk back to their newspaper, and it's a question of how you regulate it so that it doesn't become all-consuming or doesn't make a sound like you're in a permanent state of mea culpa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the nature of email itself, 'cause it can present a really distorted picture of actual reader reaction.
BILL KELLER: Mh-hm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me give you a recent radio example. Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon ran a long music interview that sparked, apparently, an avalanche of angry email saying essentially that NPR shouldn't be wasting its time with this tripe. Then the producer involved checked the sales of the record on line following the interview - they had spiked. Reviews were fabulous. The fact is, is that the people who complained didn't like it. The people who were quiet, loved it - or a lot of them.
BILL KELLER: Mh-hm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if you track your email, as the report seems to suggest, so closely, you may find yourself trying to fight a public perception that doesn't really exist.
BILL KELLER: Sure. I didn't read the report as suggesting that we try to treat incoming email as a focus group or a poll and track it as a kind of metric on how we're doing. I think what the report was suggesting, particularly in the email section, was that readers have a way to send something in that writers will see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think about the critics who have responded to this report by saying it suggests that the New York Times bend over backwards?
BILL KELLER: Well, maybe not backwards. I think we could probably bend a little bit in the name of explaining ourselves. I don't think that talking to readers should be something we do from a crouch. I think we have a pretty good story to tell, and most of the time, when we explain the lengths that we went to, to get a story, and to verify it and to balance it, I think that enhances our credibility rather than diminishing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, you've just raised the sourcing issue, which takes up a huge part of this report. Some of the recommendations are quite general, and we've seen them before - having editors push reporters harder to get quotes on the record; have reporters push the sources harder; being more descriptive about who the sources are and why they're speaking anonymously.
BILL KELLER: My problem and our problem - I think this is a view that's pretty widely shared in the news business is, you know, we - and I don't just mean the Times - are too ready to publish the blandest of quotes or sometimes the idlest of gossip and innuendo behind a cover of anonymity. I think it cheapens the currency of source protection, and there are some subjects, including much in the realm of intelligence and national security and any dissident view from a government official or a corporate executive who wants to keep his job, that just can't be covered unless you're willing to protect the source.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But among the recommendations was the suggestions that perhaps a story should be held until sources could be, (quote) "tightened," and do you really think that on a regular basis the paper would be willing to lose a big story to a competitor in order to make an extra round of calls confirming the quotes?
BILL KELLER: This is something we've been wrestling with fairly deliberately over the last few months, and there have been cases, actually, where we've made the judgment that a story could wait because the sourcing wasn't strong enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the intensifying debate over off-the-record background briefings. There have been calls among a number of news organizations to boycott them in Washington, but the report says, and here's a quote, "We do not believe, however, that we have much to gain by unilaterally boycotting such sessions or by trying to work in concert with other news organizations." But Bill, without the New York Times, there can't be a boycott. It's all or nothing, isn't it?
BILL KELLER: I guess I won't rule out that at some point we would get to that sort of, you know, job actions, but because we are so competitive, we're not very good at collective action. It's like herding cats to get a bunch of reporters in Washington to rally around any cause, particularly any cause that requires them to miss an opportunity to learn something. And you do sometimes learn something at background briefings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes, but, but as you know, very often they're simply the place where you get the generic quote from the senior administration official that's - that really just serves as window dressing on the story.
BILL KELLER: That's, that's true. And my view of that is - you don't have to quote 'em. What we have been trying to do, and Philip Taubman, our Washington bureau chief, and a number of other bureau chiefs, have begun to push the administration to significantly curtail their auto-pilot insistence on doing these briefings on the background. They started with a visit to Scott McClellan at the White House, because the assumption was if you could get the White House to do this, that would give you some leverage to then take it to individual departments and begin to push them for more of this. And there has been incremental success.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think there actually may be some movement in this area.
BILL KELLER: Yeah. As I said, incremental movement - a few briefings in recent weeks; you know, it's pushing back against the tide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thanks a lot.
BILL KELLER: Okay. Take care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Keller is the executive editor of the New York Times.