The announcement that Jill Abramson is stepping up to replace Bill Keller as executive editor of The New York Times jolted the media news circuit yesterday. In a number ways, it wasn't all that surprising that Keller, a well-respected former foreign correspondent who'd admitted in the past that he'd never really wanted to be an editor, would bow out of the top job early and take a spot on the paper's roster of Sunday opinion columnists. As Keller's digital savvy number two, Abramson has long been the clear frontrunner candidate to run the paper. But what really came out in the volley of interviews the two gave yesterday, is that everybody is dying to peek under the Gray Lady's skirt and find out what's really going on in that newsroom.
There were a couple of points that emerged so often in the many interviews Abramson and Keller gave yesterday that they sound almost like a united Times editor policy, starting with Arianna Huffington's "damned annoying" habit of trying to lure away the paper's best journalists with big checks. Regardless, everybody seems happy about for change.
Bill has been planning on leaving for at least a year. Keller took Abramson to dinner last spring and told her he was thinking of stepping down, reports Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. Abramson evidently shot down the idea, telling Keller he couldn't "leave until the digital stuff is finished," and Keller listened. With the pay wall now built, pulling in new revenue and hopefully staving off the future layoffs (rumors of which Keller calls "ridiculous"), the paper is in good shape for a handoff. "I’m sure there will be messes in the future but I didn’t want to hand off the place in immediate crisis," Keller said. It's also worth noting that Keller knew he was going to quit when he penned that incendiary column aimed at Arianna and the aggregators. When the staff protested that column, Keller said, "Even though I knew I would cause a certain amount of consternation in the building, I decided that was okay because it was worth having a conversation about this."
Jill wants to win the morning. Having done a six-month stint focusing on the digital side of things at The Times, Abramson noted some of the paper's shortcomings in trying to compete with places like Politico and Bloomberg. "If breaking news had happened overnight, we covered it, but basically early in the morning we were an echo on the web of the six stories that were on the front of the print paper," Abramson told AdAge. Having spied on some digital newsrooms and realized that the paper needed to be more real-time. "I just want to make sure that we've got compelling stories, that we publish them when they're ready to be published and that we're not holding all of them back because editors are trying to game when it has the best shot of getting on the front page," she said.
Bill is proud of “organizationally, culturally, psychologically bringing us into the digital age.” Speaking of his Times staff, Keller said in a number of interviews that he was proud of his work on both the paywall and on being one of the first papers to begin integrating the print and digital newsrooms when he took over in 2003. Abramson echoed praise for Keller but noted how the paper still had work to do. "I think that in order to have an integrated newsroom, all the people who work on the news report have to feel that they have a real career track here," she said.
Jill is a big fan of the pay wall. If you thought the changing of the guard might get rid of that lightbox blocking you from unlimited access to The Times, think again. Both Keller and Abramson reiterated their commitment to the paper's new metered payment system, and Jill sounds devoted as ever to paying for good journalism. "Having spent all these years seeing the blood, sweat, tears and smarts that our journalists pour into their stories, I just felt like for the people who say they're addicted to our news report that it was only fair to ask them to pay," she told AdAge.
Bill is hoping for more bad news before he steps down in September. 2011 has been a year of nonstop disasters so far, but as the paper's congressional correspondent, Carl Hulse, points out, that's good for the news. Asked by Forbes he looked forward to a quiet summer, Keller replied, "No, god, I’m hoping for upheavals around the world. Carl Hulse, who covers Congress for us, has a saying when some scandal or mishap takes place in Washington. He says, 'Bad for America, good for Carl.' And I’ve kind of adopted that as my attitude toward the world. A lot of the stuff we write about is really bad for the world, but boy does it send readers our way."
Both are tired of fending of HuffPoaches. Abramson says it feels like playing "whack-a-mole" with other news outlets who are eager to snatch up Times talent. Keller is glad to have avoided further budget cuts and allow his journalists to keep their jobs during tough times but thinks it's "pretty damned annoying" how Arianna keeps coming back with big checks trying to take his best staffers. "She’s tried to hire a lot more good people and not succeeded. I don’t know that anybody’s actually keeping score around here but you might be surprised to know how many people have turned down big checks because they’d rather work here than there," he said. "But it’s probably also a really good thing for journalism that there are people writing checks," Keller concluded in a different interview.
Still unsatisfied by your peek inside The New York Times? You won't have to wait long for more. Page One, a documentary about what happens in that newsroom, is due in theaters June 24 and just got handed a whole new sense of relevancy.