Keller on public editors: 'Even proctology has its good results'

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum

In an hourlong-plus conversation with Texas Tribune's Evan Smith, Bill Keller acknowledged he's still making the transition to former New York Times executive editor:

I'm trying to wean myself away from the temptation to say, you know, 'That story shouldn't have been on the front page.' Or, 'why did they lead with that?' Or, 'Why does the Journal have that story and we don't?' ... It's a process. ...

Keller, who reads the paper in print and on his iPad, remembers a column by Dan Okrent, the Times' first Public Editor, who describes the paper as "liberal in the sense that liberal arts schools are liberal. We're an urban newspaper. We write about evolution as a fact, we don't give equal time to creationism." Keller, who's now an op-ed columnist for the Times, said:

We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense. Socially liberal. ...

While individual journalists may have liberal views, Keller likens the discipline of unbiased journalism to legal discipline:

I know every judge sitting on the bench has some strong opinions that probably enter into his feelings about defendants and prosecutors and defense lawyers. And judges know that their job is to interpret the law. Maybe they don't do it perfectly all the time, maybe their biases creep in, but there is a discipline; there's an expectation as a judge that you're supposed to set your personal biases aside and go by the law.

And there's something comparable in journalism. You may or may not like a particular politician. You may or may not agree with a particular policy. But you not only are disciplined to try and suppress that, you're actually taught to report against it. If you have a going-in point of view, the first person you talk to is the guy who's gonna tell you that point of view is nonsense.

Speaking of public editors, Keller does not regret adding the position, however "my enthusiasm for this exercise has diminished over the years," he said:

I obviously haven't loved everything the public editor has ever written and I haven't hesitated to say so. The job doesn't come with a promise that the editor of the paper will always be nice to you. ... When I've disagreed with them it's been a matter of interpretation or judgment, but I don't question their good faith. ... [Evan Smith: It's a proctological examination of your work.] Even proctology has its good results too, as uncomfortable as it may sometimes be.

Here's how he sees the news ecosystem:

Newspaper editors are foolish if they make predictions. I'm quite confident that -- obviously not every newspaper, a lot of them are dying off -- but there will be good journalism produced into the foreseeable and maybe the unforeseeable future. And the future will be a combination of survivors.

I expect The New York Times will be one of them, The Wall Street Journal will be, NPR, you can pick the places that seem stable, relatively well-financed and truly committed to what they do. And the ones that can adapt technologically and adapt the business model will survive. And the rest of the field will be startups. They will be online news organizations of various kinds, some of them will be dreadful. Some of them will be like the Texas Tribune, quite good. It's a painful period, like any transition. I have a lot of friends who either aren't working or aren't working at the same kind of impact they once had.

A lot of communities don't have newspapers. A lot of communities that have newspapers don't have reporters doing vitally important business like covering the state capitol. That's tragic, but I think it's temporary. ...

In the end, the law of supply kicks in. There is absolutely a demand, a need for good journalism. There will be a supply.

Keller also answered questions about why the New York Times introduced a pay wall. "We were convinced that was the only way the paper would survive and grow again in the long-term," he said. And while he believes in the future of journalism, he could envision five or 10 years from now a time when "the paper may become a kind of boutique product. You go and pay $50 for your Sunday New York Times because you love it so much. And we sell a very limited quantity of them. I do think that there is a lot of affection for the print paper that would keep it alive for a considerable number of years."


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