Why Bill Keller Stepped Down As Times Executive Editor — And How the Paper’s Staffers Staged an Intervention Over His Column

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Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Today's announcement that Jill Abramson is succeeding Bill Keller as New York Times executive editor was, in many ways, expected. The handoff to Abramson had been long predicted by Times Kremlinologists, and Keller's moonlighting, highly controversial role as a Times Magazine columnist telegraphed his eventual return to full-time writing. But still, when Keller showed up in Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s sixteenth-floor office one day last month to tell him that he was stepping down, Sulzberger was shocked. "The only people I told were my wife and Jill," Keller told me. "He had no reason to see it coming."

"I want to talk to you about something," Keller remembers telling Sulzberger. "Come July, I will have been in this job eight years, and that's enough. I want to get back to writing."

Sulzberger couldn't understand why Keller was giving up his job. "Why would you want to leave when things are going so well?" Sulzberger asked. The Times has just rolled out its pay wall to encouraging numbers. Advertising is stabilizing and the paper has been flexing its journalistic muscles, garnering two Pulitzers, while The Wall Street Journal's much-ballyhooed foray into the New York market is widely perceived as a bust. It was this uptick that gave Keller the space to step aside. "I didn't want to leave my successor in the middle of a crisis," he said. "She would get plenty of her own crises to deal with."

If there was an awkwardness to the meeting, it was because Keller's relationship with Sulzberger, while improved, was never intimate. In 2001, when seeking to replace then-executive editor Joe Lelyveld, Sulzberger passed over Keller — Lelyveld's chosen successor for the job — in favor of Howell Raines. For Keller, the decision was deeply wounding, one of his first career setbacks. "Yeah, I was his second choice," Keller told me. "I wouldn't be human if that didn't enter into the relationship in the early days. I think we got over that ... It certainly complicated the relationship."

A year ago, Keller told his wife, the writer Emma Gilbey Keller, that he was ready to give up his post, though he won't be 65 till 2014. He told her he wanted to return to writing. Emma told him to stay. Then, last summer, Keller invited Abramson to dinner in the Village. After the two split a bottle of wine, he told her he was ready to move on. "At that point I thought it was ridiculous," Abramson told me. "At dinner, I spent 45 minutes to an hour really arguing against that."

He hadn't planned on starting his new job as columnist before his old one ended, but then Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren asked Keller to write for the relaunched weekly. Keller initially proposed mainly covering foreign leaders, but his column soon became notorious as an expression of old-media id. In March he wrote a piece about aggregation and the Huffington Post in which he called bloggers "media recyclers" and media reporters "oxpeckers." Of AOL's $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post, he wrote: "Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company's announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter."

Keller's columns infuriated some members of the newsroom, especially the Times' media desk, who felt that the executive editor should be a kind of impartial honest broker. Times media editor Bruce Headlam and media columnist David Carr had an intervention with Keller to explain how his columns were hurting their ability to cover the industry. "I heard from Bruce, Dave, and Brian [Stelter] after the Arianna column had complicated their lives, which it was not intended to do," Keller told me. "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."

Then, last month, Keller wrote a column critical of Twitter, calling it "the enemy of contemplation." Inside the Times, the column set off more alarms. Social-media staffers complained that Keller was signaling that he didn't like Twitter even as the paper was trying to encourage reporters to embrace the new tool. Keller met with them to clarify his views, and as a concession agreed to convince Abramson to join Twitter. "She has set up a meeting with one of the social-media people to get Twitterized," Keller told me.

A few weeks ago, Sulzberger invited Abramson to lunch at Le Bernardin. They discussed the executive editor job. After the meeting, Abramson wrote Sulzberger a long memo about her vision for the paper. Sulzberger reportedly talked to editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal and D.C bureau chief Dean Baquet about the job, but two weeks ago, while on a business trip to Europe, he called Abramson and offered it to her. "That was a good phone call," she told me. Last Friday, over dinner of soft shell crab and snapper in New Orleans with Baquet, Abramson asked him to be her managing editor.

I asked Keller how he'd sum up his eight years running the paper of record. "The whole concept of a legacy makes me wince," he said. He is proud of defending the paper's journalism, overseeing the integration of the print and web newsrooms, and protecting the newsroom from the savage budget cuts that have gutted many other major big-city papers. But ultimately, Keller seems to think of himself more as a writer. "I'd rather be remembered for a good story," he said.

Related: Jill Abramson, the Times' First Heiress Apparent [NYM]
The United States of America vs. Bill Keller [NYM]
Bill Keller Tries to Take Down Arianna Huffington [NYM]
The Twitter Trap [NYT]
In First Weeks, Times Online Paywall Earned Over 100,000 Subscribers [NYM]
Jill Abramson, Just-Named New York Times Editor, Ready To 'Seize The Future' [HuffPo]