NEWS

Bill Keller, NYT executive editor, on the print media’s challenges at home and abroad

What is your primary challenge at the head of The New York Times at this time of such ferment in the world and at the newspaper itself? The first challenge has been to restore morale and get the staff of the newspaper fully focused on coverage of the news rather than on our own internal angst. Joe Lelyveld began that process during his interim turn as executive editor, and the exhilarating effect of a few big stories – like the electrical blackout – has pretty much completed the job of getting our minds back on work. The staff of this paper always rises to a big story, and there is no tonic like competition. The second task is to repair the system in ways that will protect our credibility and restore a healthy professional climate. That entails restructuring the leadership a bit, instituting many of the reforms proposed by the Siegal Committee, and generally shoring up the management skills of the newsroom. And then the real job begins. Do you feel that the problem of credibility caused by the Jayson Blair affair will have a lasting effect and needs special medicine (as was proposed in the Siegal Committee Report), or will the paper right itself through the traditional quality of its procedures and the people it employs? Well, both. I don’t think of the Jayson Blair affair as symptomatic of how the paper operates. He was a single, cunning rogue reporter with a malicious agenda. And no institution can protect itself with absolute certainty against such a con man. The Siegal Committee recommended a number of safeguards aimed both at shoring up our internal standards and protecting our public reputation, and many of them will be instituted – including the creation of a public editor, or ombudsman, to serve as an independent watchdog over our standards and behavior. In the long run, though, the credibility of the paper will rise or fall (rise, I am convinced) on the strength of its reporting and the fairness of its presentation of the news. Rest assured, we will make mistakes from time to time. No system that depends on trust can be infallible. Has the public’s confidence in the paper been shaken in any way, or was the fallout from the Blair story more of an issue among your colleagues in the news media than among readers? I think the reaction was more obsessive and passionate within the journalistic fraternity than among the readership at large. Moreover, I think even among media critics there is a sense that we have moved aggressively to face the problem. But we cannot take such a virulent assault on our integrity lightly. «Jayson Blair» has become code for doubts about the trustworthiness of the American press generally, and The Times in particular. That must have some effect on reader confidence, and it is our mission to win that confidence back by doing what we have traditionally done: reporting the news aggressively, without fear or favor. What do you feel are the main challenges of the print media at a time when not only is there greater competition from other media (such as the Internet, specialist newsletters, etc.) but, because of political tensions, there is a greater ideological chasm between news media (between the jingoism of Fox News, for example, and the more traditional, or balanced, media)? Are you concerned by the increasing ghettoization of ideas, the growing partisanship of news media in the United States and elsewhere? I think the gravest danger in the media world is not partisanship but simple-mindedness. In Europe, many countries are accustomed to a press that is partisan (or at least partial), by tradition and design. Papers leaning to the left and papers leaning to the right report the news with their own perspective, and readers know what to expect. In the US, we aim for objectivity and balance. We don’t always achieve it, but I think the American media comes pretty close. Indeed, the evidence of growing partisanship consists mainly of the one example you cite: Fox News, which is by modern American standards decidedly partisan and ideological. My criticism of Fox is not that it is conservative, and not even that it pretends to be impartial, but that it presents the news with a pretense of moral clarity, as if every issue was black and white, right and wrong. To my mind, the threat of partisanship is small compared to the tendency to oversimplify everything; to fit complex subjects into nuggets and sound bites. I fear journalism retreating from its responsibility to explain the complexity of events, of politics, of policies. Are newspapers still setting the agenda for other news media? For the most part, yes. Certainly network television, news radio and the news magazines remain heavily influenced by what appears in the quality dailies. Internet news sites largely follow the papers or react to them. The influence is more mutual than it once was: CNN, for example, has the ability to raise the profile of a story by obsessing over it 24 hours a day, and some of the Internet blogs can prod an issue higher on the agenda. How have newspapers come out of the Iraq war, with regard to the debate before the war, their conduct during the war and the level of reportage, analysis and debate that has accompanied the story since? I think newspapers, at least the quality newspapers, acquitted themselves well in coverage of the war and issues surrounding the war. You can fault individual stories, I’m sure, but in general I think newspapers did justice to the complicated arguments for and against the war, the tricky situation on the ground during the war, and the intricacies of the postwar situation in a way that television simply could not. Can newspapers maintain their standards and still compete? Do papers need to look for new solutions or do they need to go back to old values and mechanisms in order to chart their course? I think newspapers make a mistake if they trade reporting for packaging, or if they forsake the basic mission of journalism – aggressive pursuit and fair presentation of the facts – in a quest to compete with TV or the Internet. Most readers may be attracted by glitz or screaming headlines, but they soon see through such artificial attractions. The Times has based its business, quite successfully, on the premise that we market quality journalism to discerning readers, and we will not dumb down or compromise in hopes of attracting less discerning readers. We’ve applied the same standards to our website, which is tremendously successful (and profitable), and to our newer ventures into television. Partnerships What do you think of the International Herald Tribune’s partnership with local newspapers in certain markets, such as the one with Kathimerini which publishes Kathimerini’s English Edition with the IHT? Do you feel this is a project with a future? The Times is still developing its plans for the IHT, but I’m confident the plans will be ambitious, and will take into account our valued partnerships with English language local newspapers. How are the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune going to share the US domestic market and the international market? We tend to think of the IHT evolving into an international edition of The Times – though it may or may not be formally called that. I mean «print edition,» of course, because The New York Times on the Web is already a global edition. Beyond that, it’s a little early to say how the IHT will evolve.