Bill Keller assumed his captaincy of the New York Times in the wake of a mutiny that was among the most painful episodes in the history of the paper, leaving a deeply dispirited staff and a humiliated institution—and then the ship began to sink. Advertising disappeared; a newspaper seemed a doomed idea. Keller was an unusual person to be leading the paper at this moment of existential crisis. He’d always been a little ambivalent about the executive-editor job, viewing it as a senior newsman’s obligation rather than an abiding passion. Reporters and editors did not want a tyrant, having just deposed one. But Keller’s hyperintelligent, understated approach did not appear to square with the heroic necessities of the moment. Might saving the paper require a leader with a bit more aggro in his makeup? Keller’s response to this contradiction was to burrow in and do his job. In the darkest days, which were pretty dark, he never panicked. Instead, he repurposed the Sulzberger family’s annuities to double down on the kind of expensive journalism the value of which cannot be measured simply in terms of page views. As most of America’s other great papers withered, he invested in essential coverage of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped to bring down two New York governors, and published high-stakes journalism like James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s piece on warrantless wiretapping.
The Times’ paywall, erected in 2011, was an act of faith. And it turned out that people, even those switched-on online folks who were said to be over newspapers, were willing to pay for the paper that Keller led. The Times had been buffeted, but it was still afloat.
And a strange thing happened to Keller on his way to saving the paragon of dead-tree media: Somehow he became a paradigmatic new-media figure. He did this in two ways. Keller realized that, unlike in the Times’ mandarin era—almost all of its history—the Times editor couldn’t hide. So tentatively, and then more full-throatedly, he took to the blogs, explaining his choices, making his arguments in public, and developing a kind of crackling, occasionally confessional webby transparency. In his last year as the paper’s executive editor, in a column for the Times Magazine, he took things even further, taking combative stances in ever-more-pointed prose (he called aggregators “flocks of media oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms”) against some new-media principles. The columns functioned as mesmerizing tutorials in the values of traditional journalism—and, of course, the new media eagerly devoured them. If sometimes his rants could seem a bit loopy, a media version of the movie Bulworth, they were also a great show, a perfect prelude for his current role, having stepped down as editor, as a columnist. If we could only figure out when his column actually appears, he would be one more reason the New York Times is worth paying for.