In the past, Times editors have led revolts against the publisher over newsroom cuts. Now changes are frequently handed to Keller from the business side with little room for negotiation. Asked if he has less power than previous editors to resist the business forces at the paper, Keller says, “Sure, of course,” adding, however, that “it hasn’t really yet been tested. I haven’t been asked to do something I feel would seriously impair my ability to put out a great newspaper.” He says new economic realities require a less adversarial role with the publisher, and that “if Abe was running the New York Times today,” he would find himself “in the same predicament that I find myself in.” For the same reasons, he says, “Howell may have been the last gasp of the thunderbolt school of editor.”
Though Keller took over as executive editor to the great relief of the Times’ old guard, many of these people have begun to privately express frustration with Keller’s passivity. Even Lelyveld is said by friends to be critical of Keller’s job performance.
There is a collective belief that this is precisely the moment for a thunderbolt editor, perhaps even one like the venerated-on-his-passing Rosenthal, who saved the paper in another troubling time by marrying aggressive journalism with a vision for a four-section paper to attract lifestyle advertising that could pay for the reporting. No such vision is apparent now—the newspaper still runs outstanding journalism, but lacks an evident blueprint for the future, or even a leader committed to devising one.
Keller understands the perception and seems committed to changing it, even if it means undergoing something of a personality transplant. “I’ve come to realize, as much as I would like to think of the New York Times as a collective endeavor, at least in the public eye, a lot comes down to me,” he says. “And whether it’s caution or deliberation or a kind of instinct to avoid snap judgment, whatever that characteristic is in me, I think it may have been brought to the fore or exaggerated a bit by my determination not to be Howell in the early days.”
It’s a confession that Keller almost seems to choke on: “You know, over time, I’ve come to realize that, whether I like it or not, to some extent, it has to be about me.”
An optimist might say that if Keller has found his legs, perhaps the newspaper has, too. There are a few of those out there—Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate, says, “I can’t think of a better guy than Bill Keller to have at the top of the paper.” Investigative reporter David Barstow says, “Look, when you’re sailing through a shit storm, it really helps if the captain is steady and strong. You know, our ship may be leaking, but we ain’t going to go under on his watch.”
Where Keller and the paper are heading, though, remains anybody’s guess. With the daily financial pressures and arrows pointed his way, the exit is always a temptation. “Look, this is not what I went into newspapers to do,” he says in a long e-mail discussing the business challenges. “I’m a reporter at heart. I still regard my quality time as the time I spend with reporters and editors, and with stories. (Every time I send someone off to a new reporting assignment, there’s a little voice in my head that says, ‘Take me with you!’)”