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Media Interviews
In their own words

Bill Keller: 'The New York Times Is Not Immutable'
The executive editor of one of the world's premier newspapers observes that the Web audience is "growing at a great clip." If trends continue, he says, "there's little doubt that online becomes the main business."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 07/16/07

It's a summer of change at The New York Times.

In June The New York Times Co. moved into a new, technologically advanced, 52-story office tower two blocks south of its longtime Manhattan headquarters building, aiming to boost print-digital integration and cost efficiencies.

In July the company's flagship newspaper is raising its cover price 25 cents to $1.25 and its home-delivery rates up to 4 percent, which is forecast to result in additional revenue of some $16 million annually.

In August the paper will reduce the width of its print edition by an inch and a half -- a move expected to eventually save more than $10 million a year.

The Times, like many U.S. newspapers, is making efforts to respond to a changing and challenging media environment, let by upheavals from the growing omnipotence of the Internet.

But Internet search engines, blogs and RSS feeds won't satisfy the huge consumer demand for quality journalism, according to Bill Keller, The Times's executive editor, in an e-mail interview with I Want Media. "We will continue to refine the paper," he says of the changes underway, including an increasing focus online. "Our ambitions are still large."

I Want Media: How will The New York Times's new headquarters building benefit both the newspaper and the staff?

Bill Keller: Remember that the decision to build a new headquarters was born of necessity: the old building was inadequate for the news organization that had grown up since we moved there in the last century, and it was technologically obsolete.

According to the early calculus, renovating 43rd Street to meet our modern needs would have cost about as much as a new building, without really solving the fragmentation of print and digital. This was not an act of corporate vanity or executive whim. We just couldn't do the job to the highest standards in the old place.

Being here is already a lift. It's still a little like living in an apartment under renovation, with individual work stations being adjusted and some important features -- the Times Center auditorium, the atrium garden -- a couple of months away from completion. But the reaction from the staff has been overwhelmingly positive: the profusion of natural light, the sense of space, and the clear message about the company's commitment to the future.

How does this help the newspaper? A lift in morale and energy presumably has some effect on productivity, which is hard to measure but not insignificant. Moreover, the new building is configured to put our digital operations in the thick of things, which already seems to be facilitating the functional integration of print and digital. And the large number of small conference rooms and portability of phone and computer access gives us a great deal of flexibility to assemble project teams across departmental lines and across platforms.

After the old newsroom on 43rd Street was vacated, we threw a party there. There was a bit of nostalgia, especially among staffers who more or less grew up there and former staffers who had retired from that building. But I didn't hear anyone yearning to move back.

IWM: The Times is raising its price while reducing its paper size by 1.5 inches. Won't readers think that you're asking them to pay more to receive less?

Keller: I don't think the change in format will be that noticeable. The new configuration is what has become the industry norm. For us, it's an 11 percent reduction in page width (compared to 20 percent when The Wall Street Journal downsized its trademark 15-inch-wide page). We will add pages to partially compensate for the slightly narrower width.

Readers seem to understand that The Times is not immutable. Over the past few years we have added new sections and supplements (like the succulent T Style magazines), we have expanded some important journalistic functions (such as creating a computer-assisted reporting team), we have redesigned section fronts and tinkered with the front page, and we have cut back on things that seemed redundant in the digital age (like those voluminous daily stock tables). We will continue to refine the paper. Our core purpose remains great journalism, and our ambitions are still large.

I hope most readers will agree that The Times is still an incredible bargain. We offer the collective labors of a world-class corps of journalists for less than the price of a cup of fancy coffee.

IWM: You're reportedly asking your editors and reporters to write shorter stories. Why?

Keller: Stories have grown significantly longer over the years. Stories that once would have been told in 1,000 or 1,100 words now often land at 1,400 or 1,500. That imposes demands on readers' time and attention, and crowds out other stories.

Some stories deserve to be longer, and will continue to be. The length may be necessary to do justice to a complicated subject. Sometimes fairness demands that we provide detailed evidence backing up an allegation. (Although for extensive documentation, it makes more sense to use the website.) A powerfully written narrative can justify more space.

But length is not a virtue unto itself. Too often the length reflects a lack of discipline, or a reflexive inclusion of background material that -- on a routine, running story -- will already be tediously familiar to most readers. I don't favor arbitrary cuts or mechanistic formulas -- just a bit more rigor for the reader's sake.

IWM: Several U.S. newspapers are letting go employees. Do you anticipate any staff cuts at The Times?

Keller: I'd be foolhardy to say The Times newsroom will never face staff cuts, but none are currently on the table. We have, as you know, had two rounds of voluntary buyouts, and the business side of the company has undergone more drastic staff reductions.

Over the past two years we have been even more selective than usual in our hiring, and we have been constantly on the lookout for ways to manage newsroom costs and re-engineer the flow of copy for greater efficiency. But maintaining a strong, global corps of journalists is not only essential to sustaining the news report we produce now, it is -- and increasingly will be -- the foundation of our growing presence on the Web. I'm lucky enough to work for a company that realizes that.

IWM: Why did The Times's two-part exposť of Rupert Murdoch and his media holdings in June merit coverage on Page 1, rather than in the business section?

Keller: Murdoch's pursuit of Dow Jones is a big story -- a business story, yes, but a subject of broader interest than many other corporate acquisitions: One of the most powerful, interesting and controversial media tycoons in the world seeks to buy one of the great treasures of American journalism. Murdoch's bid for Dow Jones was a front-page story in The Times and elsewhere when it broke in May, and has been on Page 1 or in the front-page "refer" box several times since.

A better question is, why would it NOT be on Page 1?

IWM: In a statement, News Corp. described The Times's Murdoch exposť as a "malicious assault" and says it was "designed to further The Times's commercial self interests." What's your response to the charge?

Keller: That's nonsense. Like many other publications, including the Journal itself, we assigned reporters to take an in-depth look at a man who had thrust himself into the news in a big way. It's what serious news organizations do. The result in this case was meticulously reported, fairly presented, and fascinating.

William Powers had an interesting take on this question in his June 29 column in National Journal.

IWM: How would a potential Murdoch ownership of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal impact The New York Times?

Keller: If he does what he has stated is his intention -- that is, invests in good journalism -- that will create stronger competition in the journalistic marketplace. I welcome that, first, because it confirms my own conviction that good journalism is a business worth investing in and, second, because competition energizes us and makes us better.

If, as his critics (including some within Dow Jones and the Bancroft family) fear, he diminishes the Journal by taking it down-market or by using the news pages to serve his own commercial interests, he will drive away his best talent and represent less of a challenge for us. Personally, as a Journal reader and a believer in the civic value of good journalism, I would be dismayed to see that happen.

IWM: What is your opinion of Rupert Murdoch?

Keller: I've never met the man.

IWM: NYTimes.com is the most visited U.S. newspaper site, with an audience of nearly 13 million unique users. Are you happy with its performance?

Keller: Happy, yes. Contented, never. I think the quality of the website is very high, and with the continuing integration of our print and digital newsrooms we now have the creative energies of the whole New York Times enterprise serving our digital readers. You can see the results in timeliness and depth, in the variety of formats and features.

The videos and slide shows are much more professional. The Topics Pages are starting to get close attention from reporters. The blogs are well-informed and literate. The visuals are outstanding. More and more, we are finding opportunities to marry the depth and authority of The New York Times with the capabilities of the Web.

A case in point: In June the CIA declassified hundreds of documents known as the "family jewels," records of past abuses by the agency. The documents were dumped on the Web around noon. By 3 p.m. we had a panel of top intelligence specialists -- including two staff correspondents with many years of experience covering intelligence agencies -- poring over the material, pulling up interesting specimens, and commenting. For anyone interested in the subject, it was the place to be.

There's a lot more we can do, across the board. To cite one example, we're working on ways to take advantage of an extraordinary asset -- our audience, which tends to be educated and engaged. We expect to make much greater use of their comments and their recommendations, while keeping the conversation to a high standard.

IWM: Is the Web becoming the best way to reach The Times's audience?

Keller: That sounds like an advertising question. I don't do advertising, and in any case I think we should be a little humble about declaring what will be in the future. But at this point print and the Web are both great ways to reach our audience. I think that for an advertiser there are advantages to each. In print, you get a loyal readership, you get them in a more reflective mood, and they tend to linger. Online, you get a larger volume of traffic, and they are within a few clicks of a purchase.

IWM: Will the paper edition of newspapers eventually become secondary to online?

Keller: At present, the print edition of The Times supplies most of our revenue and profit. I don't expect that to change in a hurry. We have a variety of levers we can adjust to keep the print newspaper healthy. We can add features that attract new advertising. We can reorganize for greater efficiency. (One major example: consolidating New York area printing into a single, modernized plant.) We can raise prices. We can trim costs. And so on.

But the Web audience is growing at a great clip, while print circulation is not. And online revenues are growing faster, too, albeit from a smaller base. If the trend continues, there's little doubt that -- "eventually" -- online becomes the main business.

IWM: Will newspapers on paper disappear eventually?

Keller: Eventually covers a lot of future. I think newspapers on paper will be around for a good while yet. They may in time become niche products -- like vinyl LPs -- for a particular loyal audience.

IWM: The Times continues to launch blogs, such as City Room, a news blog from the Metro staff. How do such blogs benefit The Times?

Keller: Blogs benefit The Times to the extent they benefit readers.

News blogs, as opposed to opinion blogs, are essentially surrogate readers. We take smart, curious journalists and assign them to forage aggressively, find things out, post them, and, in a kind of collaboration with the audience, make sense of them.

Blogs give us room to work in and experiment with journalistic forms that exploit the advantages of the Web. They allow us to work in a more conversational style, and to include more of the outside world by incorporating links and feedback. On a running story, they can be an appealing, lively alternative to the tradition of wire-service-like news updates.

IWM: During a staff meeting in May, you reportedly said: "We can't let our reverence for quality become a straitjacket in new media. The Web environment is different. ... We can offer guidance but we cannot insist on the same control we exercise over print." Can you elaborate on those remarks?

Keller: I have yet to come up with a short answer to that question, so I'll give you the long one.

Quality -- by which I mean adhering to high standards of detection and verification, skepticism and fairness, clarity and insight, independence and intelligence -- defines The Times and gives us authority. It is how we earn trust and loyalty. If we get sloppy or tendentious, we put the franchise at risk. That's my starting point, whether we're in print or online.

But those standards are aspirations, not absolutes. Journalism is a constant struggle to unearth buried nuggets of information, to get things just right, to steer a course between cynicism and credulousness. We battle deadlines, secrecy, unreliable sources and our own human limitations. That, too, applies regardless of platform.

A story that breaks right on the print newspaper deadline is likely to be rougher than one that breaks early in the day, because we have to work in a rush -- but we do our best job, and then we improve on it the next day, and the next. The Times is respected not because every story is perfect, but because we have excellent people making their best effort. And in print we have developed elaborate systems to police our standards, checks and double-checks, filters and guidelines.

The Web environment is different in several respects. It is more immediate; the deadline is right now. It is more responsive; if you get something wrong, you will hear about it quickly. It is more fluid; you can adapt rapidly to new information. It is more open; you share your space, with linked material, with feeds, with readers. It speaks a different language. And readers, for the most part, understand all of this. They bring different expectations to the Web than they bring to print.

That does NOT mean the Web is a lawless frontier, or that you cannot aspire to high-quality journalism on the Web. It just means you cannot apply the same formal editorial bureaucracy to the Web that works in print. Because the deadline is constant, more stories will be posted on deadline -- and necessarily be less polished -- but they will be improved more quickly, too.

Because the Web is more open, you will often link to things you cannot vouch for -- and, while you try to give readers some informed guidance about what to make of the material at the other end of the link, you expect readers to understand what is presented in the name of The Times and what is to be viewed more guardedly.

The balance we have to strike, and it is a real challenge, is to continually establish ourselves as trustworthy on the Web without paralyzing ourselves by insisting that everything accessible on or through our website pass precisely the same tests we apply to journalism in print.

IWM: How will The Times make money on the Web?

Keller: First and foremost, through advertising. That's where the overwhelming majority of our online revenue comes from now. More and more, it will be contextual advertising. But I think -- I hope -- we will continue to experiment with other ways to support our online journalism.

The Times Reader, for example, offers an extremely pleasant newspaper-reading experience in downloadable form. It is still very young, but the technology and especially the user interface have won considerable critical acclaim. I use it (on a tablet) when I travel. Is this a viable subscription service over the long run? Quite possibly.

IWM: Do you read blogs (besides The Times's)?

Keller: I have a couple of dozen non-Times blogs bookmarked -- media blogs, political blogs, music blogs, food blogs, etc. The lineup changes, and includes a pretty wide spectrum of opinion. (Why read only things that confirm what you already think?)

I visit them less frequently than I did a year ago. In part that is because, surrounded as I am by journalists, I usually hear about anything interesting without having to spend my time browsing. Also, some blogs I used to enjoy seem to have said everything they had to say.

IWM: How do you start your news day every morning? Do you first read news online or in print?

Keller: Neither. I start the day with radio. I listen to "Morning Edition" on NPR while I run, before the papers come. Then I read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal in print over the breakfast table. I look at the Los Angeles Times news e-mail on my Blackberry. When I get to the office I look at the Washington Post and Financial Times in print.

I use a range of news websites to track news during the day -- and to watch what the competition is up to. Perhaps my most dependable source, though, is the group of news-obsessive colleagues around me, who monitor a vast range of sources and keep me posted through the day.

IWM: People keep saying the newspaper industry is in bad shape. What do you say?

Keller: Sure it is. The travails of the newspaper industry -- and other industries whose business models have been upended by the Internet -- are undeniable. However, I don't believe they are cause for panic, for the kind of desperate cost-cutting or dumbing down that tempts so many in the industry.

There is, and will be, a huge demand for quality journalism, which depends on a deployed network of journalists operating according to high editorial standards. And there is a diminishing supply. Nothing else -- not blogs, not RSS feeds, not Wikipedia, not search engines -- comes close to satisfying that demand. Econ 101 tells you that the marketplace will figure out a way to value the supply of a product that people want. The danger of panic is that by the time the marketplace has shaken out, some news organizations will have hollowed out their capacity to produce good journalism.

I admit that The Times, with its lucrative national audience and global potential, with its high-end reputation, and with the protection of family owners committed to good journalism, has advantages over many other papers reeling from the turmoil in the market. Twice in my lifetime, The Times was supposedly in dire peril -- in the mid-70's, when the New York fiscal crisis hit, and in the late 1980's during a national recession. Both times, the company succeeded by investing in new and better journalism (in the first instance, by developing specialized feature sections, in the second by expanding into a national market).

I believe we'll do the same this time, by expanding digitally while holding onto a loyal print readership.




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