Bill Keller to step down as New York Times executive editor

June 2, 2011

Among the bookcases and posters in Jill Abramson’s office at the New York Times is a blown-up black-and-white photo of the newsroom, circa 1895, in which a group of men huddle around a desk occupied by a woman named Mary Taft.

“She looks like the boss,” said Abramson. Not quite — Taft was the paper’s second female reporter. On Thursday, the 57-year-old Abramson was named the first woman to head the Times’ newsroom in its 160-year history.

Abramson’s appointment was part of a sweeping and symbolic series of changes at the newspaper, which is both a journalistic leader and one that reflects its industry’s deepening financial crisis.

She takes over a newspaper that has doubled down on its journalism in tough economic times, resisting the cuts to staff and budgets that other papers have chosen as advertisers and readers migrate to other, mostly digital sources of news.

Abramson, who had been managing editor, the No. 2 position, will replace Bill Keller, who is stepping down as executive editor after eight years in a move that caught many inside and outside the Times newsroom off guard. In turn, Abramson named Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet to replace her as managing editor.

The shuffle creates a vacancy in the Times’ Washington bureau, where the chief is arguably one of the most important and influential figures in American journalism. Keller, Abramson and Baquet said they have not had formal discussions about who might replace Baquet in the job.

A widely respected investigative reporter who also formerly ran the Times’ Washington bureau, Abramson is frequently described by friends and colleagues as “tough.” She proved just how tough in 2007, when she recovered from serious injuries and returned to work after being struck by a truck while walking in Manhattan.

Abramson said Thursday that her elevation to the top job “says if you set your mind to something and if you have the experience and the talent, you can get there. And you can have a family. I have two kids and a dog.”

In comments to her newsroom colleagues Thursday, Abramson said she “stood on the shoulders” of men who hired and promoted her, including Keller and former editor Joseph Lelyveld. But she also mentioned a different set of shoulders, such as those of Janet Robinson, the chief executive of the New York Times Co., and an earlier generation of women at the Times, “who had to fight battles just to get in the door.”

Abramson’s ascension comes at a darkening time for newspapers. Industry revenues have fallen for six consecutive years, with no signs of a turnaround in sight. The Newspaper Association of America reported this week that print advertising revenue fell 9.5 percent in the first quarter, pushing industry sales to their lowest level since 1983.

The Times’ parent, the New York Times Co., has not been spared from the industry’s fate; the company said in April that its net income plunged 57 percent from January through March, mostly as a result of sluggish newspaper sales. The company earned just $5.4 million in the quarter, down from $12.8 million one year earlier.

But Keller has largely resisted the deep staff and budget reductions taken by competitors, maintaining the paper’s journalistic muscle while others are losing theirs.

The paper eliminated 100 newsroom jobs in late 2009, or about 8 percent of its total, but has not had another major cutback since, even as the industry’s problems have intensified. Its newsroom staff of about 1,200 reporters, editors, photographers and digital journalists is the largest, by several hundred people, of any newspaper in America, and one of the largest of any news organization. Non-newsroom positions at the Times have been harder hit.

Abramson and Baquet will oversee a newspaper that has 917,000 daily print subscribers and a Web site that draws nearly 33 million unique visitors per month, one of the highest among news sites.

In a closely watched experiment that Keller instituted and Abramson has partly overseen, the Times instituted a “paywall” on its site in late March, charging subscribers fees of $15 to $35 per month after they view more than 20 articles for free. The paper said it has signed up more than 100,000 subscribers so far, a level analysts have called a promising start to a business model that could fundamentally change the news industry’s financial base.

In interviews, both Keller and Abramson said they believed that the newspaper could hold the line on future cuts. But, Keller said, “you are really sort of asking, ‘Do we have a business model that will support [the same level of news-gathering]?’ and no one can answer that question with absolute certainty.”

Abramson said Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his family “want desperately to keep the newsroom strong and intact, and I believe they will. And in far bleaker times than this, they resisted the kinds of cuts our competitors made.”

Newspaper analysts said Abramson could face a broader set of challenges than Keller, who helped steady the newspaper’s reputation after it was sullied by a 2003 plagiarism scandal involving reporter Jayson Blair.

“Her job is going to be the same but different,” said Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor who now blogs about the business. “She’s going to be dealing with all the problems he dealt with but at an accelerated pace and with less resources. . . . He had the problem of rebuilding morale and credibility. . . . She has the problem of a broken business model.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the nonprofit Poynter Institute in Florida, said the digital challenge for newspapers such as the Times will grow with time. “There’s this sort of clock ticking,” he said, as advertisers and marketers abandon print and seek ways to reach customers directly.

Keller, 62, said that he began thinking about leaving the editor’s job last year and that he told Abramson of the possibility, but he held off until the paper implemented its digital paywall. He will continue to write for the paper’s Sunday magazine. “Personally, eight years is longer than any job I’ve ever held in my life by probably three years,” he said. “ . . . Obviously it will be a long time before anyone wants to hang up a ‘mission accomplished’ banner, but it felt like a good time. I wanted to hand off a place that felt solid, stable.”

In the months leading up to his announcement, Keller signaled his impatience, if not outright crankiness, with the changing digital media landscape by writing columns for the Times assailing new-media darling Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post as well as Twitter and other social-media outlets.

A clue that Keller’s decision was long in coming came from an unlikely source Thursday: his wife, Emma Gilbey Keller. She tweeted a link to an Esquire magazine interview her husband gave before he announced his departure. “So proud of my husband @nytkeller today,” wrote Emma Keller, an author. She added, “(And [proud] of myself for not tweeting this secret for so long . . . )”

People at the Times suggested that Keller’s decision was heavily influenced by his wife. They noted that the couple are still relatively young and have two daughters, one still a teenager.

Several Times insiders said Abramson had assiduously courted Sulzberger over the years with her eye on the top job.

Instead, Baquet focused on Abramson, who offered him the managing editor job over dinner last month in his native New Orleans.

“I wouldn’t say that she was chosen because she’s a woman,” said Baquet, who is the second African American journalist to become managing editor of the Times, “but I still think it’s a big deal. It just so happened that the person best positioned to be executive editor of the New York Times is a woman. . . . I believe other women who aspire to jobs in journalism will see this as a statement about how far this profession has changed.”

Farhi reported from Washington. Staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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