On Thursday, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced he’ll be stepping down to write fulltime for the paper. He’ll be replaced by Jill Abramson, who as managing editor was instrumental in creating the recently implemented pay wall system and has pushed to integrate the newsroom for both print and the web. Keller and Abramson talk about the change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller announced he'd be stepping down in September to write full-time for the paper. He'll be replaced by Jill Abramson, who, as managing editor, was instrumental in creating the recently implemented pay wall and has worked to push the newsroom and the paper’s website closer together. Abramson will be replaced by Assistant Managing Editor Dean Baquet.
I spoke with both Keller and Abramson shortly after the announcement, as they were headed to an afternoon editorial meeting. I asked Keller if he felt a sense of utter liberation.
BILL KELLER: Not utter, no.
I mean, I think I'll probably feel more liberated as time passes, but it was a fairly emotional scene. And I look around the newsroom and up at the balconies and there are all these people. Some of them are sort of friends in the Facebook sense of the word and some of them are friends in the genuine you-love-these-people sense of the word. And I'm - I'm gonna miss 'em.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You took over from Howell Raines after the Jayson Blair affair. You had to get the ship somewhat righted. You also issued the Editor’s Note, the apology for the coverage of the war.
BILL KELLER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. I think both Jill and I would probably put that at the top of our list of things we wish we'd done differently, that is to say that we wish we'd done sooner. I think it would have been wiser and healthier for the paper and its credibility if I'd taken that bull by the horns first thing and said, you know what, we screwed up here, and the way we screwed up was we fell too hard for the conventional wisdom about Saddam Hussein, and we let some of the reporting run a little wild.
JILL ABRAMSON: I completely agree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jill, the paper will stay fundamentally the same but you both have very different leadership styles.
JILL ABRAMSON: Well, I would take issue with your premise, because Bill and I have worked very closely as a team for eight years, and we have differences but I think our strengths have complemented one another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Actually, what I was simply asking was how that style might change now that you won't have the same complementary relationship.
JILL ABRAMSON: Well, that is part of the reason that I was drawn to select Dean as managing editor. I feel we have certain of the same journalistic passions and that in terms of our leadership styles we will complement one another.
BILL KELLER: You know, Brooke, the thing I think people often don't get about newspapers, and it’s maybe different from magazines, a magazine tends to take a shape around the personality of the editor; newspapers are really such collective ventures.
I mean, yes, you get extreme cases where you have a particularly authoritarian editor or an editor with a - God forbid - an unvarnished political bias. But in most cases, and I think this is a good thing, newspapers are way too big and too complicated to be run or dominated by any one person. Most of the stuff flows up from the bottom, from the field. Most of what goes into the paper every day, Jill and I see when [LAUGHING] it’s in the paper or on the website.
We have certain levers that we hold, including the choice of what stories go on the front page, how something is going to be played on the home page. We get to play a role in deciding, you know, who’s going to be the correspondent on X beat or in X country. But to a degree that I think would surprise most people, you know, the temperament and the passions of the top person at a place like The New York Times are diffused and balanced by a whole lot of other people around you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I do remember that there were a lot of reports from inside contrasting your style with that of Howell Raines, who gave the editors beneath him far less freedom to make their decisions.
BILL KELLER: That’s true, and I kind of had that in mind when I prefaced it by saying that there are exceptions. You know, there are editors whose personality is so forceful, for good or for ill, that the whole place tends to move accordingly. But that’s mostly not the case, and I think has not been the case under me and Jill, and probably won't be under Jill and Dean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jill, you said that this was a dream job.
JILL ABRAMSON: Yeah, it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Working alongside Bill all these years, do you feel like he was in a dream?
JILL ABRAMSON: Um, you know, he looked like he was having -
BILL KELLER: [HUMMING TWILIGHT ZONE THEME]: Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JILL ABRAMSON: - a very interesting and good time.
[BOTH AT ONCE]
BILL KELLER: Except when he wasn't. [LAUGHS]
JILL ABRAMSON: Except when he wasn't. And it’s a dream job because you are dealing with very important stories and making very critical judgment calls about when they're ready to be published. And it’s so stimulating, even while being stressful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the girl thing? You feel any pressure there?
JILL ABRAMSON: No, I feel pride in the girl thing. You know, I'm proud to be the first woman Executive Editor, as I was happy to be the first woman Washington Bureau Chief. And, you know, I in fact, wrote a Week in Review piece when Katie Couric was named anchor and the point of my piece is that when will we get to the point when people aren’t fixating on the first woman this or that.
You know, in some ways we're there, and from the number of messages I've gotten from other women journalists it seems like it’s a big day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it was The Observer that said Jill was more alpha.
BILL KELLER: Yeah? [LAUGHS] It did? You know, if that comment is sort of suggesting that the role of a woman editor should not be alpha –[LAUGHS], that she should be the one who dispenses band-aids and makes people feel better all the time and pats them on the head, that’s, [LAUGHS] you know, a little bit of a dated stereotype. I mean -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
BILL KELLER: - Jill is a dogged, tough-minded editor with a great deal of spine. She will stand up to her bosses. I can tell you that from personal experience.
JILL ABRAMSON: [LAUGHS]
BILL KELLER: If reporters have not gotten to the bottom of a story and she can see where the bottom is, she will get them there. I mean, this is the woman who, you know, was run over by a truck a few years ago -
JILL ABRAMSON: [LAUGHS]
BILL KELLER: - and, you know, the truck lost.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jill Abramson will take over as executive editor of The New York Times this September, when Bill Keller steps down to write fulltime for the paper.
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