Jill Abramson, left, a New York Times managing editor, during the announcement in 2011 that she will succeed Executive Editor Bill Keller, center, who became a full-time writer. Dean Baquet, right, became the managing editor for news. (Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/New York Times).
I’ll admit when I first caught sight of the headline on Twitter Sunday evening, which read: ``Bill Keller, Former Editor of the Times…..’’, my heart skipped a few beats-I thought, just for a moment, another former editor and prized journalist bit the dust.
Thankfully, the news wasn’t nearly as gloomy. The screaming headline was just an announcement, a stunning one at that, reporting that the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist was leaving the Times to become editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism start-up focused on the American criminal justice system.
Keller, 65, will remain at the Times through the end of next month.
In an article published on the Times’ website Sunday evening, http://is.gd/65p4p2 in expressing his reasons for leaving, Keller said, ``It’s a chance to build something from scratch, which I’ve never done before, and to use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and to present on a subject that really matters personally.”
In addition to earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his ``resourceful and detailed coverage’’ of events in the U.S.S.R., as a Times’ correspondent in Moscow, Keller served a tour of duty as chief of The Times bureau in Johannesburg from April 1992 until May 1995, where he covered the end of white rule in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as the governing party in 1994. Keller is the author of “The Tree Shaker: The Story of Nelson Mandela,” published in January, 2008, by Kingfisher.
Prior to being named managing editor in 1997, he served as foreign editor from June, 1995 through 1997; and for two years, beginning in mid-2001, contributed articles to the paper's Sunday magazine as a senior writer and also wrote a bi-weekly column that appeared on the op-ed page.
Keller first landed at the Times in 1984 and was assigned to its Washington bureau, where he covered labor, agriculture and military affairs.
The multifaceted journalist’s most profound impact on the Times clearly came when he was named executive editor on July 14, 2003 amid a tumultuous storm of embarrassing scandals which damaged the paper’s credibility and accuracy. Upon assuming the editorship, Keller said, ``This organization is a national treasure. I will do everything in my power to uphold its high standards, preserve its integrity and build on its achievements.’’
And that he did.
The California native introduced a public editor position in October, 2003 for the first time in paper’s history, with the independence to address readers' comments about The Times’ coverage without interference from the editorial division. Under his commanding leadership, The Times captured 18 Pulitzer Prizes, while he shepherded the paper through a difficult period of financial challenges, including expansion of the paper’s website as reader’s migration to the web picked up steam. Keller also introduced an editor’s forum in which a different editor would address readers concerns and questions about the Times’ coverage in a week long online Q & A forum.
Keller experienced a few bumps along the way during his distinguished reign as executive editor, the most biting criticism came when the Times learned, just prior to the 2004 election, that the U.S. government was secretly monitoring communications between Americans without a warrant, a surreptitious act in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), considered a felony. The Times was reportedly prodded by the George W. Bush administration to withhold reporting on it until December, 2005, more than a year after the U.S. presidential election.
Still, when Keller officially stepped down as executive editor in September, 2011 to return to writing as an op-ed columnist, Forbes Magazine hailed him as ``the man who rebuilt the confidence of The New York Times newsroom after the Jayson Blair scandal’’; sentiments echoed by Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, when he wrote of Keller’s legacy, ``the quality and quantity of Times journalism remain unsurpassed on Planet Earth.''
So while his new venture at the Marshall Project represents an ideal opportunity to focus on a raising public awareness of the state of the American criminal justice system (a sorely underreported topic), Keller’s departure has left a great many of his friends and colleagues stunned with their spirits downcast, even though wishing him nothing but the very best with the next chapter of his life.
What follows is a collection of reactions to the end of the Bill Keller era, at least at The New York Times.
- ``When reporters and editors say that Bill Keller is a journalist's journalist, the cliche understates the reality. He is not only a remarkable writer with a dead-on eye -- read his Mandela obituary from a few months ago. He is an editor with an understanding of how governments and the people who run them actually work, in all their absurdities and all their thinking patterns. He's the best at talking out a story with a reporters, mulling where it is going, helping maneuver you to be the best positioned to both cover the news and think about its meaning. There were mornings, when I was covering the Bush White House in the worst days of the Iraq war, when he would call just to get a sense of where the story was going -- and the result was always a better story.
He's also the best traveling companion a foreign correspondent can want. We've had days in Shanghai and Tokyo and Washington where Bill's dry humor, his refusal to take himself too seriously, and his sense of history made the travels more memorable than whatever story we were working on. He'll make this new venture a great success because everything he touches improves as soon as he puts his hands on it. I'll miss him at the Times.''
-David Sanger, New York Times National Correspondent.
• ``Brilliant job for Keller. Think Neil Barsky’s Marshall concept is inspired. Criminal justice reform is a really cutting edge issue now and recruiting Keller brings the launch immediate authority and heft.''
-Tina Brown, Co-Founder and former editor of The Daily Beast; currently President & CEO, Tina Brown Live Media Founder, Women in the World.
• ``Two reactions. As a Times person I'm truly sad. When someone like Bill leaves the paper we are diminished. As a friend of his, I'm thrilled. He will build something special on a big topic. And he will have much fun.''
-Dean Baquet, Managing Editor for news at The New York Times.
• ``Bet on Keller. He covered epochal shifts in South Africa and the Soviet Union, and he lived (and led) through one at the Times. The criminal justice system is on the cusp of such a moment. He's the right guy for the time and task.''
-Jim Dwyer, New York Times Columnist (``About New York'').
• ``The darkest period I witnessed at the Times was in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. Bill Keller inherited a newsroom that was reeling from management disarray, bitter morale and serious credibility issues. His calm, rational leadership proved essential to getting the Times through that time of crisis, when there was little room for error. Anyone who values the paper as a fundamental American institution owes him a debt of gratitude. ''
-Frank Rich, former New York Times op-ed columnist; currently Writer-at-Large for New York Magazine.
• ``Bill Keller is a towering figure in modern journalism and the template for the ideal editor, which is to say one with a deep reporting background, a prose style of exceptional grace, a wry sensibility, a mature temperament, moral courage, and a default mode of curiosity, skepticism and impartiality. He was once asked, in a casual conversation on an airplane, how long it takes to write a Times story. He had three answers: (1) very fast, if need be (2) thanks to a reporter's expertise developed over perhaps decades (3) informed by the culture and values of a newspaper that has existed since before the Civil War. His departure is a hard blow, but it is tempered by the point of what he said on the plane: he has shaped the place in ways that will linger for a long time. ''
-Adam Liptak, U.S. Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times.
• ``I'm not sure people appreciate what a brilliant job he did, stepping in as executive editor at a time when the newsroom was badly disrupted by the Jayson Blair episode and everything surrounding it. His intelligence and steady leadership restored stability and a sense of journalistic mission that was exactly what The Times needed in that moment.
I'm sure he would have been an excellent executive editor under any circumstances, but I'm not sure anyone else would have been better for that time.''
-Tom Jolly, Former New York Times' Sports Editor, currently, Associate Managing Editor at the Times.
• ``Great for Bill, great for the issue of justice, and pretty damn good news for those of us involved in figuring out new models for financing vital journalism.''
-Joe Sexton, former New York Times metro and sports editor, currently senior editor at ProPublica.
• ``Bill Keller excelled as a correspondent, editor and columnist, but many of us who have worked with him will remember him best for the decency and sure-handedness with which he steadied the ship as Executive Editor after the storm that battered us in 2003; and, beyond that, for the good stewardship that saw us through the worst of the economic crisis of recent years before he handed over in 2011 to Jill Abramson, his masthead partner through those torturous times. On a personal note, I'm indebted to Bill for the unfailing support he gave all of us who covered the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years when he was at the helm in New York. Here's a fare-thee-well for your new venture, Bill.''
-John F. Burns, Chief Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times
• ``I get it, and I love the fact that he's still looking for new things to do. I'm just really sorry to see him go; I was a big fan of his column and I thought he did a terrific job as executive editor, steering the paper through some really tough times. He should be awfully proud of his tenure here.
I can't figure out what's more challenging: To be an ex-president or to be an ex-executive editor of the New York Times. It's like, what do you do next?''
-Adam Nagourney, L.A. Bureau Chief for The New York Times
• ``In addition to being a great journalist (as everyone knows), Bill was also a great boss and manager (which may be less well known). More than once I've heard Jill Abramson say Bill was the model in many ways for her own approach to leadership. One more thing: Bill is a first-rate critic and literary writer, and we were always delighted when he accepted Book Review assignments. (Pamela Paul, the current Book Review editor, will confirm this.) Of the several fine essays he wrote for us, I recommend in particular his meditation on the late Christopher Hitchens.''
-Sam Tanenhaus, writer-at-large for The New York Times.
• ``An awesome journalist and guy. They're lucky to have him. The spirit of adventure he shows here is just one more thing to admire about him.''
-Jonathan Landman, former New York Times culture editor; currently Bloomberg View editor-at-large.
• ``Bill Keller is one of the great print journalists of our time. His reporting from Moscow in particular set a standard that has rarely been equaled and never surpassed. So we'll miss him here at the Morning Miracle, but I look forward to watching him apply his talents to criminal justice issues.''
-Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist.
• ``I’m a big fan. I look forward to seeing what Bill can do with this new venture. He’s always been a great supporter of investigative reporting and I have no doubt that he will turn this new venture into something formidable. It reminds me of the tremendous good fortune ProPublica had in landing Paul Steiger as its founding editor.''
-Stephen Engelberg, former New York Times Investigative Chief, currently Editor in Chief of ProPublica.
• ``The yardstick for determining greatness in journalism has always been, in my mind, "in whatever they wrote/edited/managed, did that person make the journalism better as a result?" During his distinguished journalism career, Bill Keller made it better. And he did it on his terms at the highest level--the New York Times. And had the integrity to match.''
-Neil Amdur, former New York Times sports reporter.
February 11, 2014