Bill Keller's Speech to the Times Staff

At yesterday’s series of regular all-staff meetings convened by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller (you know, the one where he announced that between 100 and 150 newsroom employees might be eliminated!), other ways of cutting the newsroom payroll were also discussed, according to two sources, including one senior newsroom source.

Staff were told that the newspaper would consider eliminating bonuses for top editors, section heads, deputies and some of the line editors (which would not include copy editors) to cut costs without elminating newsroom jobs,

One source also said that Keller talked about the possibility of eliminating a masthead-level job. There are currently 13 masthead editors, excluding the editorial page editors.

From another source, a transcript of his remarks. (You’ll notice that Gawker’s report that Keller called the Wall Street Journal "New York Times Lite," is a little off; he said that any newspaper that tries to compete with the paper would be an inferior product, and although he mentioned the Journal, the "Times Lite" epithet appears original to Gawker’s sources.

Here’s the speech:

Welcome. Thanks for coming.

So, here we are on Valentine’s Day. This is a holiday with ambiguous cultural echoes, conjuring as it does both Cupid and Al Capone. When we get to the throw-stuff stage, you’re welcome to throw flowers and heart-shaped candies, but I’ve got my Kevlar vest on just in case.

Maybe it’s because I’m nearing the end of my fifth year in this job, but lately I’ve found myself in a stock-taking mood. I’ve been thinking about what we have accomplished over the past few years, while so much of the newspaper industry was in a sad state of retreat.

We — all of us — have taken a badly wounded, publicly humiliated newsroom and restored it, largely by dint of great journalism, to a position of international esteem.

We have spoken up and stood up for high standards of journalistic independence and integrity — in the newsroom, in the public arena, even, on one occasion, in the Oval Office.

We have installed the most rigorous and intelligent management discipline the newsroom has ever known.

We have created an integrated print/digital newsgathering operation — invented in the newsroom, and led by the newsroom — that editors from around the world come to study and admire, and which is now our most credible foundation for the future of this company.

We have coined new products, in print and on line, that have enriched our readers AND the bottom line.

We have made the newsroom more diverse — with more women in positions of leadership, with journalists of color on some of our most high-profile beats.

We have built for the future, hiring choice talent, grooming and training excellent managers.

We have been constructive participants in planning for the future of the company.

And we have done all of this while avoiding the cutting of muscle that has so badly weakened many of our competitors.

The "we" in this litany of accomplishment includes all of you who pour your energy and creativity and intelligence and heart into building and reinventing what is, more than ever, the world’s finest news organization.

I do not offer this up as cause for self-satisfaction. Smugness, in our business, is death. There is always room for improvement. But it’s important, as we head into a very difficult year, that we move forward with confidence — and the record of the past few years inspires confidence.

Before I continue that thought, meaning the "difficult year" thought, let me say a few things about the reason we’re all here, the journalism.

This is the time of year when we submit our entries in various journalism contests and meet with department heads to discuss major projects for the year ahead. You can all recite the usual caveat: Prizes are an inadequate measure of quality journalism. But there’s something invigorating about looking back over a year of work and remembering what a difference we made.

For starters, we’ve been deeply committed to the presidential campaign for most of a year. It started early, and so did we — offering serial biographies of the candidates, in-depth pieces on their positions, investigations of their financial and personal entanglements, and clear-eyed reporting on the race itself. This is the first presidential election where news organizations will be judged as much for their coverage on the Web as for what we put in the newspaper.
From the beginning, we deployed a unified team of reporters and editors, serving the print and web editions seamlessly — and if you spend any time at our website you know the results have been pretty phenomenal. The Caucus blog is the busiest blog on our website, and a must-read for politics junkies. Our candidate topics pages are essentially one-stop, easily navigated archives on the people who aspire to be the next president. We give readers tools to browse through databases of the candidate’s financial backers and political records.

Mostly, we give our readers great political reporting. I imagine Johnny Apple looking down from the veranda of some celestial chateau, raising a glass of expense-account champagne to Adam Nagourney, and telling the angelic hosts: "Great kid. I taught him everything he knows."

The Baghdad bureau is another source of pride. I never tire of repeating this mind-boggling statistic: When Saddam Hussein was overthrown, more than 1,000 Western reporters were roaming Iraq. Today there are about 50. It’s dangerous, expensive, complicated work — two of our Iraqi employees have been murdered — but our reporters are on the streets and on the battlefields every day. Frankly it’s hard to imagine how the country would know what’s going on there without the NYT.

Our business reporters were early to identify the underlying dangers in the home-lending market — ahead of certain other publications that pride themselves on their business coverage. That’s just one example of how we make ourselves indispensable both to general-interest readers and a hard-core business audience: we’re outnumbered, but we’re smart and nimble and aggressive.

We have outpaced everyone else in the news business in recognizing and exploring the impact of immigration on our world and our national temper. This past year, in addition to covering the demographics and politics, we took our readers inside a Pentacostal church in a moving series by David Gonzalez — which has won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award, by the way — and we shone a bright light on global migration through work by Jason DeParle. And we gave it all a human face — to cite one memorable example, in Warren St. John’s heart-lifting story about a kids’ soccer team in Georgia made up entirely of refugees from horrific civil wars in Iraq, Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan.

We have, of course, continued our examination of how the war on terror has been waged. Few elements of the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism were more carefully shielded from public scrutiny, or more controversial, than the CIA’s secret overseas interrogation program for al Qaeda operatives. Last year The Times disclosed two startling new chapters in this narrative: We revealed that soon after Alberto Gonzales became attorney general, the Justice Department issued secret opinions justifying waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, even though the administration had publicly repudiated them. Then in December we disclosed that the CIA secretly destroyed videotapes of interrogations.

We mobilized all five of our China correspondents, plus an outstanding multimedia team, for our series detailing the vast scale of China’s environmental problems which, by the way, are our environmental problems, too. Then we translated some of the project i
nto Mandarin and circulated it widely in China. That was so successful that we now plan to translate articles on Russia into Russian and post them on a special Russian-language NYT Web site.

We published Charles Duhigg’s vivid series on the financial exploitation of the elderly, including a piece showing that private investment firms were buying nursing homes by the thousands and cutting nursing staffs to increase profits. (One major award for Charles’s work is to be officially announced next week.)

Alan Schwarz exposed the devastating effects of concussions in sports:
legendary players reduced to infantile babbling, teenaged boys dying on the football field, girls sustaining head injuries in surprising numbers.

There’s been a lot written in recent years about convicts exonerated by DNA evidence, but Fernanda Santos and Janet Roberts were, I believe, the first to take a deep look at what happens to dozens and dozens of wrongfully imprisoned convicts after they are vindicated. It turns out the punishment continues, in the form of an unending struggle to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild families and overcome the stigma. The accompanying multimedia presentation — combining pictures, audio, text and statistics, proved — if proof were needed — how well we’ve learned to use the new tools to increase the power of our narrative storytelling.

Walt Bogdanich’s investigations revealed a "toxic pipeline” through which China supplies dangerous medical ingredients worldwide. These investigations — laid out in print and Web video — enlightened our readers and, in many cases, led to government investigations, Congressional hearings and significant reforms.

We have a picture department that has won The Times overdue recognition as a great showcase of photojournalism, and a multimedia staff that enriches our website every day with audio, video and slide shows that are self-contained gems of journalism. We set the journalistic standard for design and graphics. We have built, from scratch, the finest computer-assisted reporting team in the business.

We have, in the T magazines, a high-quality franchise that everyone in the world of style and fashion follows, and everyone in the business of style journalism envies.

I could keep this up all day — Amy Harmon, humanizing the dilemmas created by genetic testing, culminating in a tour of her own genome, or David Pogue serenading our web audience with a mini-musical about the iPhone, or our world-class critics who illuminate the worlds of fashion, the serious arts and popular culture, or Bizday’s Murderers’
Row of unmissable columnists (in order from Sunday to Saturday:
Morgenson, Carr, Sorkin, Leonhardt, Pogue, Norris and Nocera.) I’ll stop now, knowing that I’m leaving out many, many examples of splendid journalism.

You pour your talent into this great miracle, and I am proud to be part of it.

In 2008, the newsroom’s central job, of course, will be to continue to cover the world with the depth and insight our readers expect. That includes the most interesting presidential race in two generations, an Olympics being staged by the new Asian superpower, an economic meltdown in our own country, two wars and the continuing threat of terrorism.

On top of that, as I see it, we have three particular challenges ahead of us.

One is to adapt to what’s happening in the broader economy. You don’t have to edit the newspaper — you just have to read it — to know this year will test our courage and confidence severely. Over the past four years we have managed our money with great care, hired even more selectively than usual, gone through some modest but unpleasant buyouts, shrunk the size of the paper a little — and shouldered a lot more work for not much more pay. The cost-cutting on the business side of the company has been even more severe.

You would think we’d earned some relief, but fate instead has dealt us a recession, or something that looks very much like a recession. So this year we will be cutting again. And this year represents a new degree of difficulty, because the low-hanging fruit is gone, and so is some of the higher-hanging fruit.

At the end of the year, the newsroom staff will be smaller than it is today. By exactly how much, I can’t say yet. That depends on a variety of factors, including how much more we can wring out of the budget in other ways, and how much new investment we get to nourish our digital ambitions. But I won’t sugarcoat the news: by not filling jobs that go vacant, by offering buyouts, and if necessary by layoffs, we expect to reduce the newsroom staff by approximately 100 employees from what it was at the beginning of the year.

This is an auditorium full of journalists, and you will have lots of questions about our economic prospects and the consequences for the newsroom. I will answer them as best I can, but much is still unresolved.

Here’s what I can tell you now:

First, while this will be painful it should not be crippling. We do not face the kind of cuts we have seen in rival newsrooms around the country, where staffs have been slashed 10 percent, 20 percent — at the Los Angeles Times, 30 percent — where bureaus have been closed and investigative reporting all but abandoned. At the end of the year, our newsroom will still be larger, by about 150 people, than it was ten years ago — and that’s not including about our merger with the digital newsroom. We are distinguished by our ambition, by our range, and I believe we can get through this without significantly trimming our ambitions, cheating our readers, or losing our competitive edge. We will do everything in our power to assure that whatever cutting we do, we preserve our ability to compete across the board.

Second, we will make every effort to achieve the cuts through voluntary buyouts and natural attrition. That rough estimate of 100 people includes about a dozen people — secretaries, clerks, the recording room staff — whom we let go in December. We will get more slots through normal turnover and the hiring freeze that has been in effect. The Guild currently has a buyout offer outstanding, and I anticipate that there will be a buyout offer for excluded employees.
The more people who take these offers, the smaller the prospect of layoffs, but we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that there will be some layoffs.

Third, if it comes to that, and I hope it won’t, we will work closely with the Guild and corporate to make sure there are severance packages, as our contracts require.

Fourth, we intend to move quickly, to get any cuts past us so that we do not spend a year bleeding slowly, and so that we are not distracted from the momentous news stories that await our attention.

Fifth, I promise you this: when there is sacrifice, the leadership of the newsroom will share in it.

Thankfully we are heading into this tumultuous year in a far better position than many of our competitors, because we have held firm against the panic in our industry, because the company understands that what we sell is journalism, and you can’t make good journalism without journalists. It is also some consolation that this company has always believed in investing during a downturn. I anticipate some fresh investments in the newsroom — including reporting and editing jobs — to expand our Web journalism. That will offset some fraction of the budget cuts.

That leads me to a second major challenge of this year, which will be advancing a digital strategy that builds on our strengths.

The future of The New York Times is not a mystery. It is the delivery of authoritative news and information to discerning readers. The traditional means of delivering it — that daily bundle of cellulose and ink — is still a profitable venture, and is likely to remain so, even in a recessionary year. The printed paper has hundreds of thousands of loyal subscribers who have continued to find us indispensable through price increases and format changes. They will sustain us until the d
ay when our digital revenues are growing faster than our print advertising revenues are eroding. That’s the magic moment, the point when total revenues, which have been in slow decline, level off and start to grow again.

We should be careful about predicting exactly when we will reach that magic moment, but everything I’ve seen indicates that we will reach that point — when our total revenues level off and begin going back up — much sooner than the industry pundits predict. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe the tunnel ain’t all that long.

Our job in the newsroom is to make an irresistible lure to people who want to know what’s going on in the world, and who need to make sense of it. It turns out, we’re extremely good at it. In January, 20 million people visited our website — and that’s the Neilsen rating, which is pretty conservative and includes just the domestic U.S. traffic. That puts us well ahead of all other newspaper sites. Our readers generally stay longer than at other websites — and they keep coming back. On the day of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries we set a record for traffic on the site — and then we broke that record the next day, because when there is news people keep returning to the place they trust.

The integration of our print and digital newsrooms has given us a leg up on the competition, by assuring that our online audience benefits from the creative energy and high standards of the world’s best corps of professioonal journalists. I think of 2007 as the year when we crashed through a psychological barrier, when the newsroom embraced the web and began to treat it as a wonderful toolbox for the making of great journalism.

Yes, the integration has also confronted us with big questions about how we do our jobs: When do we break exclusives on the Web, and when do we save them for print? How do we keep the website replenished with fresh material, but still allow our correspondents the time for the deep reporting and reflection that distinguish the best journalism? If a story has been up on the website all day, how do we prevent the printed paper from feeling stale? How do we maintain Times-level quality control in a medium that never stops? Most important, how do reporters balance the demands of print and Web without wearing down — or cracking up?

I do understand the stress this puts on all of you. But, day by day, we are figuring it out — and the best proof that we ARE figuring it out is that, in print and online, we are superb.

A third challenge of the year is the promise of intensified competition, especially from the Wall Street Journal. It’s always a mistake to underestimate your rivals — especially rivals who don’t care if their newspapers lose money. But it’s equally foolish to overestimate your rivals.

My own view, from having participated in a couple of newspaper wars in my career, is that, first, they can be exhilarating, and, second, you win them by playing offense — not by attempting to copy your rivals, not by hunkering down in a defensive posture. This news organization — again, because it has not succumbed to panic — is ready to go up against any rival in the world. In fact, we already do that, every day. We break major stories that become part of the agenda, we offer our readers a depth and breadth and sophistication of coverage that other papers cannot match. This is what we do, and we’re really good at it.

If somebody thinks they can compete with the NYT by building a replica of the New York Times — I suspect they will find it’s not so easy. If they think they can compete with us by building a stripped-down version — New York Times Lite — I believe they will find our readers are not so easily fooled.

You will have noticed that our most important objectives for 2008 — cutting costs on the one hand, and strengthening our competitive position on the other — seem to be at odds with one another. This is especially true because our main competitive advantage is, simply, our ambition, our comprehensiveness. We compete across-the-board — on coverage of world affairs, politics, business, culture, science and health, education, sports, fashion. To meet our budget goals, we will have to do a little less; and every time we do less, we cede a bit of advantage. Our challenge will be to set our priorities in such a way that we do less in the areas that damage our competitiveness least — by improving our efficiency, by targeting our cutbacks carefully.

When I stand here next year, I expect to have a list of journalistic accomplishments as least as long and impressive as the one I recited at the beginning of my remarks.

The NYT will survive this era of upheaval and prosper. It will do so partly because the people who run this company, and the family behind them, believe that what we do is both a public service and a sound business. It will do so mostly thanks to all of you who believe in our common mission. You make me proud to work here.

And now, I expect some of you will have questions. I invited e-mail questions, and I’ve got a few of them here, but the first crack goes to those of you who sat through the speech. I also have a top-notch supporting cast here to help out with any questions that require specialized expertise.

Bill Keller's Speech to the Times Staff