From 2001 to this summer, Bill Keller was tucked away in a 10th-floor office at the Times headquarters on West 43rd Street, thinking through Op-Ed pieces on topics from workplace smoking bans to the military build-up in Iraq.
Now that he’s back on the third-floor newsroom, the conversations in his new office-where he’s spent the last two months picking up where ousted predecessor Howell Raines left off-are mostly about one thing: The New York Times .
Of course there’s work to be done, stories to discuss, coverage to coordinate. But they begin, Mr. Keller told Off the Record in a recent interview, with a “ritualistic anecdote about some awful thing that happened to them under the previous regime.”
And in the new regime-as in all counter-revolutions-diagnosing the downfall of the old one is more than just a pastime.
“It’s partly establishing loyalty and partly catharsis and partly [people saying], ‘if you’re going to run this place I want you to know how bad it was,'” Mr. Keller said. “Now it’s starting to abate, which is nice, but if there’s somebody I haven’t had a sit-down with, the first one is likely to include one of those kind of things establishing their membership in the legions of the long-suffering.”
If Mr. Keller lacks the booming Rainesian charisma that could suck the oxygen out of a room, all the better. But Mr. Keller does have something of his own to offer. Attracted like old ladies to the sensitive new young vicar at a country church, the Times is singing a more modern hymn of inclusiveness, humaneness and general good-feeling. The era of fire and brimstone is over; pass the crumpets, please, it’s time for a heart-to-heart!
“The thing I’ve kind of forgotten because I was living up in a different world is how much you feel yourself drawn into the personal lives of the people you work with,” Mr. Keller said. “Not just their professional miseries and complaints but their personal ones. Their illnesses and family tragedies. A lot of your time gets taken up working with these people as people rather than employees.”
Yes, this is the executive editor of The New York Times . No longer scowling under orders to flood the zones of the Augusta National Golf Club, or rising up in anger in a Times Square town-hall meeting, or speculating who publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. might put in charge, the culture inside The Times has evolved into something almost unrecognizable.
It’s a sweet honeymoon, but how long that will last remains to be seen. There are, according to sources within the paper, big changes in the works-changes that, once implemented, are sure to hurt people’s feelings.
First, though, comes filling out the rest of the revamped post–Siegal Committee masthead, including the public editor’s post. (Many inside The Times see the job going to columnist Joyce Purnick.) There are also areas of coverage that have to be revamped, Mr. Keller said-things he didn’t want to speak about now, shortcomings he didn’t want to “itemize.”
“I haven’t come in with a hit list,” Mr. Keller said. “I think there are areas of the paper that need a lot of attention. One of the most obvious ones I can talk to, because it started under Howell, is the culture department. He hired [Arts and Leisure editor] Jodi Kantor, which was a great hire and which I think was Frank Rich’s idea. And he brought Frank down and brought in Steve Erlanger.
“It was a great kind of moment to rethink the cultural coverage and reinvent it,” Mr. Keller said. “And then I think it got waylaid by what everybody now refers to as the ‘recent unpleasantness.’ So nothing happened, but it was the right impulse. That was a section, a department that was ripe for being reinvigorated, and that’s something [new culture czar] Adam [Moss] and I have made one of our priorities for the coming year. And there are other things that are ready for one of those cyclical re-inventions.”
But for the moment-and that moment shows no sign of a sudden and dramatic end-it’s the schmoopy Times , where people actually care about one another’s feelings.
Part of this has grown organically. New Times standards editor Al Siegal, who headed the famous Siegal Committee (instituted to find and provide resolutions for the root causes behind the Jayson Blair episode), said an undying bond had developed among the 25 internal members of his committee-alliances that didn’t break down when their work was finished.
“I was talking to a rather senior-level editor-not a masthead editor-who was so taken with the process [of the Siegal Committee] that she invited a bunch of people and their spouses to her home,” Mr. Siegal said. “These are people whom she would not have invited otherwise. The ice floes are breaking up, I suppose.”
They’re breaking up, according to Mr. Keller and others, not just through impromptu gatherings over a wheel of supermarket brie and a bottle of wine at home, but also in the newsroom itself.
Following the music industry’s lawsuit against 12-year-olds, Mr. Moss gathered, according to business and financial editor Glenn Kramon, “editors and reporters who had never sat in the same room together” for a meeting to coordinate coverage of the suit across sections of the paper that almost never interacts.
“There were people from the magazine, from Arts and Leisure, Mr. Kramon said. “The technology editor. The editorial-page editor. The national editor. The media editor. Adam called the meeting at 3:45, which is an unusual time, but it didn’t take more than 25 minutes and we mapped out a fairly aggressive line of coverage for the story. And it was Adam with a note pad being a facilitator rather than a commander. At the end he said, ‘Do we agree that this is what we have to do?’ And we went out and did it.”
Before Mr. Keller arrived, the department heads-thrown around like Raggedy Ann dolls under Messrs. Raines and Boyd-began their own weekly meeting where they could swap information and vent. This has continued, Mr. Keller said, with his blessing: “If they want to invite me or one of the managing editors to come, we will and we have,” he added.
“That’s another thing that’s still evolving a bit,” Mr. Keller said. “You sort of figure out what’s the rhythm of meetings. You want to have them all make sense, not just be meetings for the sake of meetings. [New co-managing editor] Jill [Abramson] came up with the idea of having a few of the masthead editors, whose focus is on news coverage rather than the larger kind of news management, meet. And we meet at 10 in the morning just to swap notes on what the competition had, and [which of] this morning’s stories will be ongoing for tomorrow’s paper. But that’s pretty helpful, and it also means we exchange some intelligence early in the morning.”
At the same time, masthead editors have flooded the newsroom with encouragement and motherly kisses. Most of the visits follow a familiar theme: No, we’re really not like Howell and Gerald! Really, we’re here for you! Mr. Siegal said he and others from the paper’s editorial hierarchy have spent a fair amount of time “schmoozing” with the newsroom staff, and Mr. Kramon said: “They are trying really hard not to come across as imperious.”
Recently, Mr. Keller said, he and Ms. Abramson visited the Washington bureau to meet with all the reporters involved in covering Iraq and terrorism, to “kind of think about how to get a fresh start on a lot of those subjects and where we want to go.”
This meeting was held in a bureau that strained to the tight leash of Messrs. Raines and Boyd, and where a recriminatory public hearing with Mr. Sulzberger occurred on June 3 that has been widely credited with administering the final blow to the Raines regime.
“I remember Jill, about two weeks ago, said we should really take a big step back and look at [former NYSE chairman Richard] Grasso, and I said, ‘You’re right,'” Mr. Kramon said. “Next Sunday, you had it. It was a conversation. It was more than a suggestion, [but] it wasn’t an order-I’m trying to find a way to describe it. I think Jill expressed the interest and left it to us to decide how to meet the interest, how to satisfy the interest.”
Mr. Keller said that his directives on stories to this point have been in the vein of “A little more in this direction, a little more in that.”
“Smart people are there,” Mr. Keller said. “You put them in the right place and you sprinkle holy water on them and good things will happen.” Mr. Keller pointed to the blackout (which happened during his vacation) as not only a well-executed news story, but also as a kind of turning point for a staff that had spent the summer reading, well, stories about themselves.
“It was a kind of cathartic moment for the staff,” Mr. Keller said. “What we needed was a big story, and that’s one of those kinds of stories with everybody working around the few computers that are working, and figuring out how you put out a paper without electricity and showing up the next day having slept on a floor somewhere. It was one of those moments where people could say, ‘Oh, yeah-we still have the chops to do this.'”
Most likely, Mr. Keller’s short-term narrative has already been written. Six months from now, there will be a well-read diatribe-perhaps on Slate- marking out Mr. Keller as a fine journalist and a fine man, but one who, in the process of quelling the unrest and angst on 43rd Street, has de-sexed the paper. Sure, he’s made The Times more responsible, someone will say-but hell, that Britney Spears piece Howell ran, all those Augusta stories, were pretty great.
“I don’t particularly care if I’m a less commanding presence than Howell was,” Mr. Keller said. “The personal part doesn’t bother me at all. If people want to describe me as low-key and even-tempered and calm, that’s fine. If people decide that after a year or two, the paper has become less exciting, I’ll be disappointed and I’ll be surprised. I don’t think I have to be a celebrity for the paper to knock people out, and I think we will.
“I wouldn’t mind, when I’m done with this job, if people said it’s a much more pleasant place to work,” Mr. Keller continued. “But I’d be crestfallen if that were the extent of my legacy here. I would like people to say it was a much more congenial and pleasant place to work, and they put out a kick-ass newspaper. And I’d make a pretty substantial bet that you’ll see that.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 23, Wall Street Journa l managing editor Paul Steiger announced sweeping changes to the way the paper operates: combining the news desk operations of New York, Brussels and Hong Kong.
Current national news editor Marcus Brauchli will head the new effort, in which he’ll take on the new title of global news editor. Technology and telecom bureau chief Laurie Hays will take Mr. Brauchli’s place and get another title: global news editor/U.S. In addition, other editors will take on additional titles and extra responsibilities.
The move furthers the kind of merging between the American edition of The Journal and its European and Asian counterparts that’s been developing for quite some time.
But some Journal staffers thought Mr. Steiger buried the lead in his e-mail to staff about the changes: In the middle of his memo, Mr. Steiger said the move would reduce “duplicate editing” and announced that “a total of 12 positions will be eliminated in Hong Kong, Brussels and New York.
“We will make every effort to assist the people affected to find new jobs,” the e-mail continued, “either within Dow Jones or outside it, between now and Jan. 1, when these changes become fully effective.
“On behalf of the Journal, I thank these men and women for their many contributions,” Mr. Steiger wrote.
Brigitte Trafford, a spokeswoman for Journal parent company Dow Jones, said no reporters would be eliminated in the move.
“There’s still going to be news editors based in Brussels, Hong Kong and the U.S.,” Ms. Trafford said. “The point is that now, it’s a global news desk: one desk in three locations instead of three desks in three locations.”
No, she’s my Gail Collins!
For the past week, the kids at The New York Times have been talking about two book parties like they were a couple of post-prom events-both of them for Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins, whose third book, America’s Women , was released this fall.
Scheduled first: a party thrown on Monday, Sept. 22, in the home of former executive editor Howell Raines and his wife, Krystyna Anna Stachowiak. On Sept. 23, Ms. Collins partied down with the paper’s staff on the 14th floor of The Times , at a party thrown by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the man who fired Mr. Raines in June.
Mr. Raines’ party, according to a source familiar with the situation, was largely devoid of Times staffers and included mostly Ms. Collins’ close friends.
When contacted by Off the Record, Ms. Collins declined to comment. Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said, on the day the office party was scheduled: “Tonight, we are hosting a party for Gail at The Times . There can never be too many parties for Gail Collins.”
Say good-bye to the weekly feature known internally as “My New York,” the essay that has appeared in the culture pages of The New York Times every Friday, where Times reporters like Ginia Bellafante and outside authors like Sandee Brawarsky and Blake Eskin mused about their perambulations and adventures through “my Manhattan” or “my Brooklyn” or “my Queens.”
The last in the series will appear on Friday, Sept. 26.
“Every feature has a life span,” said Times culture editor Steve Erlanger. “And this one had a very good and long life.”