Dear Bill Keller

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, gave an interview to TIME magazine that showed a total lack of transparency, a fear that journalism itself was under attack, and a disturbing amount of the 'old media' mindset. This is a look at what he got wrong, and how to fix it.

heads up: this is a pretty old post, it may be outdated.

Dear Bill Keller,

You’ve got to be kidding me. I had hope. I’ve been to the new Times newsroom, I’ve seen your awesome web infographics, I’ve talked with your developers, I’ve watched videos of your futurism department. There are many, many, smart people working for you. When I asked one of your employees, why he had given up a well-paying job to come work for you he told me “…when the Times calls, you answer.” I was emboldened when I read your byline from Iran. You, a manager, reported from the heart of what continues to be the world’s biggest story. You sir, are in control of one of the finest journalism producing institutions in the world. Yet, people like you are pissing it away. I was heart broken when I heard that the New York Times, which I have a deep respect and love for signed it’s intent-to-file-chapter-11 forms.

Nonetheless, I have a deep appreciation for experimentation, and I hope that your endeavors will teach the rest of us a thing or two about how to make money on the web.

Then, I read a Q&A that you did in TIME magazine. Even though the copy had to fit on one page, and your answers are brief, **I’ve never seen a journalist sound as much like a politician as you did in that article. **(And I use the word 'politician' that in the out-of-touch, slimy, refusing-to-be-held-accountable sort of way.)

Apologize for your mistakes. Transparency is all it’s cracked up to be.

You admitted that journalists in this country had failed as the Fourth Estate. The flat-out bad reporting when ex-President Bush took this country to war against Iraq was in-excusable. The argument for war was based on lies. To this day, the media hasn’t made a resounding statement saying as much.

You didn’t apologize. You blamed us, the people, for creating “conventional wisdom” for you to ‘float along’ with. If you want us to trust you, we’ve got to have an honest relationship! Tell us when you get something wrong. We’ll be mad, but we’ll trust you more because you came clean.

The smell of ink doesn’t justify its cost.

You said that print still has “a lot of life left in it.” I’m not sure if that was the diplomatic answer but I think most of us would have been more impressed to hear that you were actively looking for ways to move your operation digital; that print was on its way out as the foundation of your business.

Make a commitment to doing journalism online because the myth that, “the best of online journalism is rooted in mainstream media,” won’t last long. I’m not sure what you define as “mainstream,” but you ought to consider re-evaluating your premise. The MSM isn’t the only group of people capable of doing journalism.

You’re not the last bastion of resistance. Stop resisting.

The Daily Show segment ‘End Times’ that made you look “faintly ridiculous” according to your wife should be the last time you try to look like an arrogant douche, not the last time you try to be a good sport!

Let me give you a clue: depicting The New York Times as, “the last ship afloat, we [at the NYT] have all these lifeboats floating around underneath us and people dying to clamber aboard,” does not make it sound like you ‘get it.’ It sounds like you believe your own hype. There are plenty of other companies out there doing journalism. And frankly, some of us are pretty sure that your ship has been left behind. “The people who are eager to dance on the grave of the times and other major news organizations” aren’t eager, just willing. We wouldn’t “feel a profound sense of loss if suddenly there were no organizations that were sending reports to afghanistan or policing Wall Street or Washington,” because we’ll still have that. Journalism isn’t being threatened Mr. Keller. Just your business.

I do have a bureau in Iraq. You would too, if you were actually listening.

I'm totally lost on your obsession with foreign bureaus. Your report from the ground in Tehran, during the recent Iran elections was little more than a summary of events. There was nothing in that piece I couldn’t get elsewhere.

Again: there was nothing in that piece I couldn’t get elsewhere.

Please don’t insult my intelligence by saying that bureaus are necessary for reporting. The number of stories about Iraq as dropped off drastically in your paper. Having people on the ground there isn’t helping. If you’d drop your idiotic social media policy, you might be able to present new information, instead of simplistic anecdotes that I can just as easily find on twitter.

Please don’t fail your job as a our watchdog again because you lacked a bureau. You may “think there is a little bit of a sense of war fatigue… while the country is going through a bit of a transition.” But, I think that sounds like you’re worried about selling papers. Trust me, every family with a solider over there grasps for any information they can get. You can’t stop being a public trust because its inconvenient for your private shareholders.

So… what’s the difference?

The Times had no problem leaking state secrets, claiming the truth required that they be published. Yet it had no qualms lying about the kidnapping of one of its reporters to protect his safety. What is the difference?

Bob Dame,

Yes, that’s an inflammatory question. But, I’d still like an answer. What is the difference?

Not all of us are convinced that withholding information from the public is the journalistic thing to do. Please don’t skirt the question by saying that you save lives.

ALL Iranian journalists are being oppressed.

Yes, Iran’s policy toward journalists is “self-destructive.” Glad we agree. But, if you recall, Iran of all places, is a perfect example of Iran oppressing all journalists. We’ve proven that the random guy on the street with a cellphone camera can show live video to the world. That’s faster reporting than the New York Times has ever delivered. Let’s not just worry about Iran oppressing journalists. Let’s praise the Iranian people for picking up the slack.

Okay, so do we have a free press?

“Do you think there should always be freedom of the press?” is a bit of a weak question. But, telling us that libel laws mean we don’t have “absolute freedom of the press,” misses the point. Again, Mr. Keller, you’ve not answered the question. Yes, absolutes are impossible. Yes, the press is regulated, but jeebus man! How about a resounding, “YES! Journalism will always be here!” Is your faith that shaken?

Mr. Keller, answer the question please.

“One of the most important disciplines in journalism is to challenge your working premises,” is not an answer to: “Do reporters avoid writing un-flattering things about sources?”

It’s a cop-out. It’s avoiding the question. It’s horribly non-transparent. The sheer number of times you quote from a “high-ranking administration official,” in your paper is ludicrous.

The answer you were looking for was a simple, “yes.” The correct answer ought to include phrases like “we’re a part of the community we report on,” and “people know they’re always on the record when they talk to us,” and “yes, it does happen, but only for really good reason.”

Sir, you’re right, objectivity is impossible. So stop trying!

It’s amazing the pains you go through to remove yourself from your own articles. Stop that. I have no problem with knowing that you were, ya’ know, actually there. I forgive you. Really.

Stop worrying about The Gray Lady having a liberal tint. As you rightly imply, most of the folks calling you liberal likely think creationism is science. The rest of us are perfectly willing to accept you for doing a the best job you can. Be honest, and we’re willing to accept that you're just as human as the rest of us.

Society’s relationship with journalism has changed.

“Quality journalism not the quite the same as info, it is in greater demand than it’s ever been and it’s in shorter supply than it’s ever been.”

Bill Keller,

I’m sorry, what!?

Yes, information is in greater demand than ever before, and yes, journalism isn’t the same as pure information, but to argue that supply of either has gone down shows a level of ignorance I didn’t think possible for a man in your position. We have more of both than ever before. Don’t go insinuating that your poor newspaper is society’s last hope for useful information. That’s at best disingenuous, and at worst, wrong.

Mr. Keller, I’m calling you to account.

I tired of seeing an older generation of managers ruin this business for the rest of us. I’m not waiting to dance of the grave of the New York Times.

I hope that the institution continues to exist for a long time to come. For that to happen, you’ve got to re-learn your entire industry. This is not the industry that you grew up with. We’re experiencing the greatest change to information distribution since the invention of the printing press 500 years ago.

Your 40 years of experience are nearly irrelevant in this new business. Take the time to re-learn and re-think everything you thought you knew. ‘New media’ is a bit counter-intuitive. Take the time to think about the new rules of the road. And, perhaps consider a hiatus from giving interviews until you can be a good sport again.

Your heartfelt supporter,

—Joey Baker

I hit the publish button on this post knowing two things: 1) Interviews are damn hard. It’s near impossible for a journalist, who is used to asking the questions, give the right answers all the time. 2)I will never be asked to work for the New York Times.
Update: I've tweaked this post for typos and added a few links to provide more examples.
Update: Apparently, calling the NYT social media policy, "idiotic" might have been premature. According to Jacob Harris, the social media policy that Poynter reported is wrong. I've asked if the correct policy is public facing, and haven't yet received a reply.

@joeybaker One thing I will correct. The social media policy is not idiotic; you and Poynter are wrong on what the internal policy is.

Jacob Harris (@harrisj) July 13, 2009