Executive Editor Bill Keller’s Remarks to the Times Staff Today

billkeller 4 Executive Editor Bill Kellers Remarks to the Times Staff TodayBill Keller wrote a speech for each of the three "Throw Stuff at Bill" sessions he had today. [Update, October 28th: The Times sessions are actually called "Throw Stuff at Bill."]

Highlights include: No Coldplay! No layoffs! The paper came under budget this year! Lots and lots of praise to Larry Ingrassia and BizDay for coverage of the financial crisis! Updates on copy flow! Or, make that last a low-light …

Here’s what the Times staff heard today (n.b.: these are remarks as prepared):

In case you’re wondering, the music you’ve been listening to is not Coldplay.
It’s Verdi, and it is not a random choice. Does anyone want to guess why we are listening to Rigoletto? No, it has nothing to do with the fact that the protagonist of the opera is a deformed court jester. It’s because Rigoletto had its premiere in 1851, and so did The New York Times. They’ve both held up pretty well.
I was flying back from California the week before last and by chance I was seated next to someone from the advertising department of The Times. (In economy class, for the record.) And he asked me, "How long does it take to report and write a front-page story." Interesting question, something we take for granted. So I said, well, it can take minutes, if it’s news breaking on deadline; it can take months, if it’s an investigative project. And then I thought for a bit, and I added — actually, that’s not the whole story. Most news stories are written by reporters who have spent a lot of time — often years — developing sources and mastering subjects, and that informs every story they write.
Only later did I realize that that answer, too, was incomplete. Because the reporters and editors at The Times stand on a century and a half of tradition and reinvention, of high standards and superior craft. So, in some primordial sense, the journalism of The Times began when Verdi was introducing the world to Rigoletto. Like the vines that produce great wine, journalism is enriched by its rootstock, and ours is fine and sturdy.
Arthur’s State of the Times speech last month has somewhat relieved me of the need to dwell on the future of the company as a business. I share his confidence in our future and I rejoice in the steady support that he, his family, and the company’s executives promise for the kind of journalism we produce. I also respect the fact that we cannot map out every step from here to the future. There is just too much beyond our control, including what seems these days to be the collapse of the modern economy. Moreover, the pace of innovation in the information business is just too rapid to make firm predictions. If you’re not comfortable with uncertainty, you’re probably in the wrong racket.

My confidence in The Times rests on the obvious, overwhelming, growing demand for what we do. It rests on the loyal print audience that will sustain us as our digital operations grow. (I assume we’ve all had the number 820,000 tattooed on some body part. Those loyal subscribers, who stick with us through the price hikes, are the reason that, even as our print CIRCULATION has eroded, our print circulation REVENUES have gone up substantially.) My confidence rests, also, on the dedication and inventiveness of the people in this company. It rests on the fact that our newsroom, while stretched, is strong and nimble and increasingly organized for the new world. To my mind, those factors justify an abiding optimism about The New York Times.
Since Arthur stood on this stage, the economy has gone from a decline to a tailspin, but our confidence — his and mine — remains strong.
Let me answer the question that I assume is on many of your minds: No.
No, I do not see another round of newsroom staff reductions on the horizon. In fact, we are entering into the budget discussions for 2009 with a determination — shared by Arthur and Scott — to protect the journalistic team that is the engine of our long-term success.
A deep, sustained recession will mean the search for savings and the quest for new revenues continues, that there will be no luxuries and little comfort. It will mean, as the company announced last week, that for management there will be some cuts in future pension benefits and retiree medical insurance. (Susan Murphy from Corporate HR is with us today, in case any of you managers would like that announcement translated from the original Swahili.) The tough business climate has already meant the consolidation of sections to save printing costs. It will mean, I’m sure, that our hiring is even more selective than before. It will mean some new projects get delayed. It may mean we get more exotic and garish species of advertisements.
What it will NOT mean, I most fervently hope, is a surrender to the short-sighted, serial staff cuts that have hollowed out some of the nation’s great news organizations. There are no guarantees, especially since we have such limited visibility into the future. But as of now, even with the growing misery of the global economy, our aim is to move forward without another wave of newsroom buyouts or layoffs. If I learn that such a staff reduction is on the table, I will tell you, and I will tell you promptly.
Nothing better validates the priority we have given to our journalists than our coverage of the financial crisis. Because Larry Ingrassia has been building a stronger Bizday staff over the past few years when other newsrooms have been brutally downsizing, we have dominated this story with the best reporting team in journalism. That is not just sloganeering or paternal pride. We told Larry when the deluge began in mid-September that this was Bizday’s 9/11 — and, sure enough, Bizday, along with Washington, National, Foreign, Metro, the Week in Review, the magazine, graphics, pictures — all have risen to this story with the same aggressiveness, intelligence and human touch that this paper demonstrated after the attacks of 2001. Day after day, week after week, we have been quicker to the news, smarter and more lucid in explaining it, and better at conveying what it means to ordinary Americans than our competition — and, yes, that includes publications that live primarily to report on business. Of course, I WOULD say that, wouldn’t I — but Jill and John and Larry and I have been hearing it from rival reporters and editors, from Wall Street sources, from all manner of serious readers.
As they always do in times of crisis, readers have flocked to the news sources they trust. They want experience, impartial judgment, authority. On some of these big-news days of the past six weeks, newsstand sales of The Times have spiked 10 percent, even 20 percent. The traffic to the Times website, as most of you know, swelled to a record 40 million page views on September 15 — the day the crisis became a four-alarm story — and our traffic has continued to set records ever since. There is a desperate hunger for the work we produce.
Since we last gathered here, the news gods have rained news upon us in abundance, and not just economic news. We covered, first-hand, the devastation wrought by a cyclone in the secretive military dictatorship of Myanmar — that reporting, by the way, was an example of the advantages we have gained by our closer alignment with the International Herald Trib. We used a disastrous earthquake, and then an exhilarating Olympics, as two reporting windows into a China that exerts a gravitational force around the globe. We were there for Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Of all the world’s media, we have been farthest out front and most often on the ground to report on the resurgence of jihadist terror along the unpoliced border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our Iraq coverage, from Baghdad and Washington, has continued to be a priority and a source of pride, even as those who depend on television for their news might well wonder what ever became of that war.
Our political coverage, under Dick Stevenson’s leadership, has lived up to the momentousness of the choice facing the country. I can’t itemize here all of the things that have distinguished us from our competition — the investigative muscle we have thrown into vetting the candidates, the rich and subtle character studies, explorations of the issues that went well beyond the dueling position papers of the campaigns, the non-stop wit and insight of the Caucus blog, those addictive electoral maps. We set out this year — inspired by the possibilities of the Web — to put a premium on fact-checking, and we have done that. We determined early on that part of our responsibility would be to police the shadow campaign — the smears and dirty tricks that often take place just under the national radar. We have done that, too, notably in Jim Rutenberg’s work. All of this material lives on as a vibrant, accessible Online Election guide — so good that Aron Pilhofer, Lisa Tozzi, Matt Ericson and the other creators are regularly asked to give lectures and demonstrations. In yesterday’s Week in Review, Dave Smith, Rebecca Corbett, Mary Jo Murphy and a large cast of reporters and designers gave us a magnificent analog equivalent.
Since we last gathered, our Metro staff has revealed the career-ending proclivities of Eliot Spitzer, and the rent-controlled lifestyle of Charlie Rangel. (Republicans take note. When it comes to afflicting the comfortable, we are an equal opportunity afflicter.)
Walt Bogdanich and a couple of his journalism students, along with Andy Lehren of the computer-assisted reporting group, laid bare the bizarre story of how workers on the Long Island Railroad — almost all of them — manage to reap a generous second pension by having themselves classified as disabled, though not too disabled to walk nine holes of the Sunken Meadow golf course. As a citizen, I cringe in horror. As an editor, this is the kind of old-fashioned expose that makes me grin from ear to ear.
Steve Duenes and Andrew DeVigal have written the graphics world a new text book on how to make numbers talk to us. Online and in print, throughout the political year and the financial meltdown, our graphics have been a generation ahead of the competition.
As for our picture staff, there are many feats of photojournalism I could single out — but I want to mention one that is not so obvious unless you’re looking for it. We all know that one of the great challenges for a picture staff is Bizday. Let’s face it, there’s only so much visual pop you can derive from the usual gallery of well-fed white guys in suits, oil wells and assembly lines. So here’s what the Columbia Journalism Review business blog had to say the other day:
What does the financial crisis look like? Well, judging from recent weeks, it looks better in The New York Times than it does in the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Since the crisis really hit its stride in mid-September, the Times has provided more creative, substantive, and eye-catching front-page photos than has the Journal or the FT.
The Times has long had a strong tradition of photojournalism, and an estimable staff of in-house photographers. That experience and investment has served it well in recent weeks as business news has regularly hit the front page, and thus required front-page-caliber photography to go along with it.
I recommend you visit the CJR website, which is filled with comparative examples. That’s just one of many reasons I was pleased to see Michele McNally named Picture Editor of the Year this month at the International Photography Awards.
We used to describe ourselves — wishfully — as platform agnostic. These days, I think we can describe ourselves, without exaggeration, as platform aggressive. We have shown that in an integrated newsroom, old-school print journalists become innovators and web-savvy newcomers uphold the highest standards of quality. Among the true leaders of the newsroom, Marc Frons, Fiona Spruill, Nick Ascheim, Juliet Gorman and Lisa Tozzi are as integral to our present and future success as any of the people Jon Landman refers to as Jurassic journalists. In turn, Jim Roberts — and my friend Mr. Landman — have proven that old-school journalists can learn to be extraordinary modernizers. The collaboration, versatility and productivity of our integrated newsroom is astounding. We live-blog congressional hearings in real time; we fact-check debates as they are underway. When Dick Stevenson took a turn answering reader questions on the Web recently, one reader wanted to know whether Kit Seelye was a real person or a pseudonym that we use for half a dozen reporters. I can think of many more writers who have demonstrated an ability to play multiple positions at Hall of Fame level.
We are still resolving important issues, including the existential question of how we offer the depth and reflection people expect of The Times — which is the thing that most makes The Times The Times — while also delivering news at the speed demanded on the Web. The best evidence that we can do both is that we DO both, and do both extremely well, every day.
And we are reorienting ourselves and re-engineering the way we work to assure we can continue to satisfy a variety of audiences without cheating any of them.
Here’s one example, from Susan Edgerley’s copy flow committee, which aims to move early-breaking news and non-deadline enterprise through the system in a timelier fashion. Over the past several weeks the committee has worked with Metro, shifting some copy editors to day shifts so that more stories get posted to the website earlier, vetted by the best copy editors in the business, and more pages get set earlier for the print paper. Metro’s slot, Charles Knittle, describes it this way: "We are no longer relying on the 10 p.m. print deadline as the crutch to get our work done. We are publishing at least one third of the report earlier — up to 18 hours earlier. We are editing the on-line report more thoroughly." By distributing the copy flow more evenly, Charles reports, a copy desk that is 20 percent smaller than it was six months ago is doing more work with no evident drop in quality.
Next week, Susan’s copy flow committee moves on to Foreign.
Meanwhile, Marc Frons is conceiving new ways to get our work to an even wider audience — by giving readers custom-tailored packages of news, by organizing our readers into communities, by inviting web innovators to create new applications using NYT content. I’ve never really bought the conventional image of The Times as stodgy or imprisoned by the status quo — but these days we are a truly motherlode of invention.
I could easily fill the rest of the hour with shout-outs to all of you who make The Times the indispensable resource it is — but this is not a Joe Biden campaign rally.
In February, I outlined three particular challenges facing us in this year — besides Job One, which is to continue covering the world with the depth and insight our readers expect.
One was to adapt to the upheavals in the broader economy. This we have done, and this, as I said earlier, we will continue to do. We started the year with an extremely tight newsroom budget, and by rigorously minding our expenses at every level we have come in UNDER that budget.
The second challenge was advancing a digital strategy that builds on our strengths. We are accomplishing that, making NYTimes.com an irresistible lure to people who want to know what is going on in the world, and what it means. The economy will slow us down a little, postponing some investments and delaying the magic moment when our digital revenues put the company’s overall revenues back on an upward trajectory. But there is no doubt we are building a journalistic marvel on line, and readers are beating a path to our door.
The third challenge I identified in February was facing intensified competition, especially from the Wall Street Journal, but also from websites like Politico, and perhaps from new leadership at the Washington Post. As always, we should be on guard against complacency, particularly when competing against a news mogul who doesn’t seem to mind if his newspapers swim in red ink. But so far I think our standing as the finest journalistic organization on the planet remains undiminished.
These are unnerving times. We read — in our own paper — that we are part of a shriveling industry, embedded in a withering global economy. We’ve said goodbye to some beloved and talented colleagues. We’re working harder than ever, without commensurate rewards. Our company’s stock is worth a fifth what it was a few years ago. Jitters about our personal finances have become a larger anxiety about the fate of the company.
All I can tell you is that, as a company, we’ve been through this before — many times, since 1851, and a couple of times within memory. The Times endures, and grows, and grows BETTER, because we are very good at what we do, and because people who know how much it matters have our backs. We will get through this, together.
And in the meantime, look at what we get to do. Look at the amazing narratives unfolding before us. Look at the people who trust us to tell these stories. Look around you at the amazing professionals who collaborate in this immense public trust. When I get up in the morning, and think of this magical thing we create, and think about another day in the company of the best witnesses history could want, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
Thank you.