Keller Won the Job, But Lost a Bet

By: Joe Strupp

Bill Keller may have won the most coveted job in newspaper editing, but he lost a bet in the process. Keller, who was named the next executive editor of The New York Times on Monday, said he was so sure that former Executive Editor Howell Raines would not be fired, he bet a colleague dinner that Raines would be on the job until the end of the year.

“I thought the three of them would find a way to fix things,” said Keller, referring to Raines, former Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “What I didn’t understand was the internal dynamics of all of this — the velocity of internal recriminations of all of this.”

Keller, 54, said he made the bet with a fellow editorial page employee following the town hall meeting newsroom leaders held with Times workers in May, shortly after the now-famous four-page article was published on Jayson Blair, detailing the fired reporter’s many instances of plagiarism. Keller said he believed the approach taken by Sulzberger, Raines, and Boyd would allow the paper to come back from the Blair scandal without requiring a leadership change.

“I knew there was a lot of legitimate unhappiness, but on top of that there was a feeding frenzy,” Keller said in an interview late Monday. “Once blood was in the water, everyone had an opportunity to let loose.”

Keller, an Op-Ed columnist and a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine for the past two years, had served as managing editor between 1997 and 2001 under former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld. When Lelyveld retired in 2001, Keller and Raines were considered the top contenders for the post, which Raines took over in September 2001.

Although he was disappointed he did not get the job then, Keller said he understood why Sulzberger chose Raines the first time and held no grudges. “When he made his choice two years ago, I thought it made a lot of sense,” Keller said. “When the paper performed so well after Sept. 11, I don’t recall anyone asking if he had second thoughts then. I don’t have a sense that this is a sign of failure on [Sulzberger’s] part the first time around, I’m happy I’ve got this shot.”

Keller said he did not hesitate in accepting the executive editor post, despite the baggage that is being left behind from Raines. Although he described his current position as a dream job, he believed taking on the responsibility of executive editor was worth the challenge. “I paused to ask myself if I just wanted to be offered the job or if I wanted the job — I decided I wanted the job,” he said. “It’s like being handed the keys to a Ferrari — why wouldn’t you want to take it for a ride?”

Still, the incoming editor, who formally takes over July 30, said the paper had a lot of work to do and faces major challenges in the future. “We have to win over a lot of new readers,” Keller declared. “The Internet and TV are going to loom larger and we’ve got to do all of those things without compromising the integrity and quality of the Times. I think we can do that and it’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

When asked if he thought the Blair scandal could have occurred under his watch, Keller declined to speculate. “Everyone says if JFK had lived, we would not have gotten into Vietnam,” he responded. “That question is just too hypothetical.”

He also declined to compare his management style with his predecessor’s, although he told staffers late Monday that he would not embrace Raines’ view of journalism as “an endless combat mission,” urging them to seek more interests in their life than just competitive news battles. “That is for other people to do,” he said about comparisons. “I don’t want to start out in my new job with an argument with the guy who used to have the job.”

Keller added that he would not name a managing editor or other top editors for at least several weeks. “This is an amazing assembly of talent,” he said. “There is no end to what you can do.”

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