Abramson and Keller, NYT's Incoming and Outgoing Top Editors, Talk Challenges and Changes

Winning the Morning and Fixing Things Before They're Broken

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Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson, the next executive editor of The New York Times, and Bill Keller, who's stepping down in September after eight years, talked Thursday about the state of the paper and what's ahead.

Ms. Abramson focused on digital operations last year and found more than a couple ways it had to improve.

Advertising Age: What did you learn during your six-month stint last year diving deep into the online side? Was anything surprising?

Jill Abramson: It was somewhat surprising, but not completely surprising, is that although we felt we had integrated our newsroom, there was still basically something that everyone here called the web newsroom. The more I submerged into the web newsroom, I was some combination of surprised or worried that Bill and I were not really invested enough in the direction and news rhythm of our digital news report.

One thing I tried during the six months was to only read online. As I read more and more early in the morning I felt like everyone else was playing to win the morning, and we weren't enough. Many sites, whether Politico or Bloomberg or another site, by like 6:30 in the morning were full of fresh stories. 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.

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. I think for our digital employees, especially web producers and some of the web editors, they felt like they loved their work but where were they going to go? They'd never covered cops for metro, that sort of thing. In the end my plan for the newsroom was that we dispersed the web producers and web editors and put them on the desks, so web producers that were working on business news now work for Larry Ingrassia, the business editor, after they had worked for a web editor.

Part of what I did was I went and visited a lot. Bill Keller came up with a great word -- neo-competitors. That's what he thinks sites like Politico and Huffington Post are. I went and spent a day at some of those. I guess it shouldn't have been surprising but the largeness of the competitive field came to surprise me.

Our night note, the competition report which has been put out forever, would only mention what was on the front page of the Washington Post, maybe something from the Journal's website, but never any mention of a Politico or a HuffPost or a Bloomberg. That has changed.

Ad Age : So you are also now trying to better win the morning?

Ms. Abramson: 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. That's a culture I'd like to break down, without diminishing the thrill of having their story on the front page of the paper.

Ad Age : You were involved in developing the pay meter on the site. How conflicted were you, if at all, about putting up some kind of barrier?

Ms. Abramson: I wasn't too conflicted. I was for it. 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.

And for a vast majority of people who are mainly snacking and looking at the home page we're still very much part of the open web. So I felt the metered model -- and I had nothing to do with designing it -- was a brilliant approach that allowed you to have the best of both worlds.

Ad Age : How important is it for The Times to finally have its first female executive editor, and where is it not going to be important?

Ms. Abramson: It's not important in the news report itself. It obviously is an important breakthrough, just from my inbox, that has made a lot of my women colleagues very happy. It's meaningful to them. But I've also gotten fantastic notes from my male colleagues.

Bill Keller
Bill Keller

Mr. Keller was still enjoying his job but had already outlasted his recent predecessors and didn't want to risk staying too long, he told Ad Age .

Advertising Age: Why did you decide to step down and become a full-time writer?

Bill Keller: There's no simple answer except that the time really felt right. Eight years is longer than any of my three predecessors did the job. I started thinking about it maybe a year or so ago, talked about it with my wife, then talked to Jill, and pretty quickly realized I couldn't really see myself going before we got the digital stuff in place, meaning both the reorganization of the newsroom and the paywall. That was just too much unfinished business to leave behind.

But I kind of had the sense that once we had those done, the place feels strong, stable, and that 's the right time to go; you don't want to leave your successor in the middle of a crisis. But eight years is not only longer than any of my three predecessors but longer by three years than any other job I've had. Like many people in this business my life has been three years of this, three years of that , and I've got a little of the ADD that comes with this line of work.

I've taken my pulse a couple times of day ever since I decided to do it and it still feels right.

Ad Age : Does that mean your pleasure in the job, the satisfaction you got from it, had really dropped?

Mr. Keller: No, I was enjoying it a lot. There've always been periods when this job was less fun than other times. I've had to go through rounds of staff cuts. I enjoyed it a lot less during those periods than I did last week or last month.

But no, I don't at all think the fun had gone out of the job. But one of my mantras around here has been "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway," meaning it's better to change something before it needs changing than wait until it's too late.

No, the job's still fun, we're still putting out papers and covering stories and that 's what I really love.

Ad Age : You didn't face anything quite so acutely disruptive as the Jayson Blair crisis while you were executive editor.

Mr. Keller: That's true.

Ad Age : When did you and the paper face the greatest stress or challenge?

Mr. Keller: How do you choose from a smorgasbord of distasteful dishes? Doing this job is like standing in the batter's box with one of those pitching machines. It just keeps pitching hardballs at you.

Early on I had the aftermath of the criticism of our pre-Iraq coverage, which I think I would probably list at or near the top of the list of my greatest mistakes -- waiting too long to address that and admit that we'd written some bad stories. It was unpleasant to do it and it was unpleasant to realize I should've done it a year earlier.

The confrontation with the White House over the NSA stories was no fun, but in that one the real importance looking back on it was not I think the run-in with the administration. Those are going to happen from time to time. Sometimes they're going to be really severe, and other times they'll be annoying. But what really happened with the NSA eavesdropping story was that a lot of the readers didn't understand why we were doing it.

We were hearing from a lot of readers, "Aren't you spilling national secrets to bad guys?"

We learned something important in that time. You've got to not just deliver the news and say "We're the New York Times, eat your spinach," you've got to bring people along and explain it.

We've learned over the last eight years that you can't just be the voice of God; you have to engage readers and explain why you do things the way you do them

It started with the NSA eavesdropping story, which we wrote an explanation to readers for and then went online and answered questions from readers, and then in the case of Wikileaks and that story about John McCain and the lobbyist. One thing that we've learned that 's really valuable is that the relationship with readers goes both ways. You have to re-earn your credibility over and over. You won't always convince them but first of all I think readers appreciate the respect that it shows and second of all a lot of times when you lay out your case I think they get it.

The staff cuts -- I think they're an awful lot better than a lot of other places on that front but still there's nothing quite as awful as sitting in a room with somebody you've known as a colleague for a long time and telling them they don't have a job any more. That's horrible.

I sort of divide the eight years into journalism stuff -- big stories we covered, things we broke, conflicts related to stories we broke -- and on the other hand things that are more related to business-slash-management, how you run the place.

On the business-slash-management front I think the two things that will have the most lasting impact are that we avoided the kind of deep cuts in staffing that a lot of other places went through -- The New York Times newsroom I would say is intact -- and the other one was we figured out earlier than most places what it means to be digital. It doesn't mean you create a sort of digital subsidiary or something separate; it has to be the same newsroom. We started six years ago or so merging the digital and print operations in the newsroom, which was hard organizationally and culturally and psychologically. But in the end the newsroom is intact and the newsroom is digital I think that equips us really well for long term strength.

Ad Age : You wrote in March that when aggregation means "taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own website and harvesting revenue," that 's piracy. Is there a solution to the problem? Do you want to see tighter copyright laws, for example? Or just more restraint practiced by , say, the Huffington Post?

Mr. Keller: Obviously I took a swipe at the Huffington Post, because although it's true that they're now hiring journalists and doing original content, they were built on aggregation.

I think we've learned stuff from them. I have a lot of admiration for the biz that Arianna has built there. And everybody aggregates. We aggregate all the time. It's one of the services you provide. We say "Here's what my reporting shows, and, by the way, here's some other stuff you might want to look at."

My point was, A: Aggregation is not the same as boots on the ground, and B: There is a difference between sending readers off to somebody else's content -- where they have some chance of reaping the benefit either through advertising or some other form of monetizing -- and either excerpting or summarizing it so extensively that you're telling people not to go look at the other content. That I think is stealing.

What is the solution? I wish I knew. I'm not a lawyer. I know it's something our legal department thinks about. You don't want to go around willy-nilly suing news organizations. That's probably self-defeating. But I certainly would endorse the idea of making an example of people who are serial offenders.

There are probably technological fixes of some kind. And some of it can probably be negotiated. I don't think serious news sites want to be regarded as pirates. So I think there's a fair amount that can probably be accomplished by reasonable negotiations.

These conversations have been lightly edited.

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