An interview with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller

Bill Keller has spent the last eight years as executive editor of the New York Times. He recently announced he will step down from his post in September and hand it over to Jill Abramson, who will become the first female executive editor in the history of the paper. I asked Bill about his transition and some of the controversy around his statements regarding aggregation and Twitter.

You’ve been doing more writing as of late. Do you miss having the time to devote your energies to that entirely?

I spent the first 25 years of my working life swearing I’d never give up reporting for editing. But while it took some doing — Joe Lelyveld says it took him two years — to talk me into trying it, I’ve found it hugely rewarding. Sure, I’ve missed reporting and writing, and I’ve had some reminders along the way of how much I missed them.

I had a two-year involuntary break from editing in 2001-2003, my blissful exile, which I spent writing an op-ed column and pieces for the Times magazine. In 2009 I was on one of those hang-out-with-the-correspondents missions in Iran when all hell broke loose and I reenlisted as a notebook warrior. It was thrilling. But stepping down as executive editor is not about missing writing, except in the sense that I suppose it’s easier to give up a great job if you have something else you want to do.

Stepping down is about wanting to hand over the newsroom when it’s in good shape, when it’s on a journalistic roll and feels financially more secure, when there’s a strong bench to take over, and while I’m still enjoying it, before I burn out or wear out my welcome.

You clarified your position on social media in response to what Nick Bilton wrote. What is the biggest misconception people have about your view of social media?

I think there’s a misconception that I’m opposed to social media. Some of it comes from people who haven’t paid close attention to what I’ve said on the subject, and some of it, I think, comes from people who know better but who have made a reputation for themselves by being digital evangelists and cyber-puritans, who treat any hint of skepticism as heresy.

My view of social media is that it is a set of tools, not a religion. Twitter and Facebook are brilliant tools, the journalistic uses of which are still being plumbed. They are great for disseminating interesting material. They are useful for gathering information, including from places that are inaccessible. They provide a kind of serendipity, a sense of discovery, that some people thought would be lost as print periodicals declined.

At the Times, we embrace social media, we use it, we experiment with it. We have a staff dedicated to figuring out new ways to make the best journalistic use of it. We have staff seminars on social media. I encourage reporters to look at Twitter and Facebook and to figure out if there’s a way these services can be helpful to them. Like many tools, Twitter will fit some people’s toolkits more naturally than others, and will be used more skillfully and creatively by some people than others.

None of this should be a revelation to anyone who has paid attention, but Twitter is not always a friend of paying attention. I’m pretty sure that a fair number of the people who joined the buzz about my column, and a more-than-fair share of those who retweeted it, didn’t actually take the time to read it. Which kind of confirms my point about Twitter not being a great medium for serious discussion.

The point of my column was that most technological progress comes at a price, and it’s okay to consider the price along with the progress. For some people, Facebook is a way to engage more openly with the world. But there’s an opportunity cost. The time you spend keeping up with your 200 Facebook friends is time you are not getting to know someone really well in person. Twitter is all the wonderful things I said above and then some, but Twitter is mostly reductionist. It does not lend itself to deep, rich conversation, with context and persuasion. It CAN be a stimulus to serious discussion, but that is not the nature of the tool, which is reach rather than depth.

In case you’re wondering, by the way, I do not believe that Twitter literally makes people stupid. If you read the column, you know that I posted a hashtag — #twittermakesyoustupid — followed, please note, by the word “discuss.” The point was to throw out a subject for discussion, and see how the medium dealt with it, which was pretty much the way I expected. (A hashtag is a topic, not an argument. ) I think Twitter can encourage distraction, superficiality, short attention spans, bumper-sticker-level discourse. It can make you SOUND stupid. But, no, I don’t think it makes you stupid.

People go to the Times for great original reporting, but increasingly people also want to be able to go somewhere that synthesizes all the news around different subjects. Personally, I think Huffington Post tries to do this but is very disorganized and difficult to follow. More of a marketing mousetrap than an actual news service. I get the sense you don’t believe in aggregation but if done properly and presented in a clear and ethical way, would you encourage the Times to do more of it?

Ah, aggregation. You apparently missed this. In our newsroom, I’ve been an enthusiastic promoter of aggregation. I think readers come to us not just for our original reporting, but for our judgment. So they want to know not just what we’re reporting, but what we’re reading and watching, and they want us linked to sources that back up our reporting or enlarge on it. My caveats are a) aggregation is not a substitute for original reporting. If you don’t have original reporting, you’re aggregating smoke. And b) a business model built on excerpting or rewriting other people’s work at length in order to keep the traffic and reward for yourself is stealing.

You don’t seem to engage much on Twitter, I was the only non-New York Times staffer you ever replied to in over two years over Twitter. I happen to think one of the most useful things about Twitter is how you can interact with people, especially those who read the New York Times. What has prevented you from doing so and would you consider doing more of it in the future?

I follow Twitter and pay attention to it, but I rarely Tweet because I have a rather large platform here, called The New York Times. If I run across something interesting, or have a thought that might merit reporting, my instinct is to send it to an editor or reporter, in hopes it grows into a story — not to share it first with a Twitter universe that includes most of our competitors. (Or I might save it for a column of my own.) I’m sure I could do a better job of responding to Tweets about the Times, but that takes time, and mine is usually fully booked.

What would you like to do as you transition out of your current role, what are you excited about devoting more time to in the future?

I look forward to surprising you, and to being surprised.

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as Executive Editor of the New York Times?

We’ve had a multi-course menu of challenges. How do you choose? Maintaining and expanding our journalistic ambitions (and sustaining morale)  through all the recessionary pressure and Doomsday talk? Defending and explaining our decisions to publish articles based on classified documents? Trying to uphold high standards of fairness as the public debate grew more polarized? Coping with crises in the field — reporters kidnapped, arrested, injured and killed for doing their jobs?

We — and I do mean we — had enough challenges to fill a crisis management handbook. I suppose if I had to pick one challenge we met with lasting impact, it would be our successful adaptation to the digital world. Over the past six years or so the newsroom has forged an integrated, Web-savvy newsroom that wins prizes for innovation and quality online without sacrificing the depth of reporting and reflection people demand of the Times.

We also had a hand in retooling the company’s business model to create a digital subscription system that shows great promise. A lot of people made this happen, starting with a publisher who was alert early on to promise of the Web and the danger of complacency, and including a successor who has immersed herself in digital strategy. But I’m proud that The New York Times newsroom became a thriving digital venture on my watch.