Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bill Keller:NYT "Our Stories Are Too Often Too Long

Bill Keller: "Our Stories Are Too Often Too Long"

Today the New York Times held its "Throw Stuff at Bill" (that would be Keller!) meetings—one this morning and two this afternoon. We got a report about the early afternoon session, and learned that the future of the Times is all about Sewell Chan, among other things.

The bulk of Keller's presentation (which was followed by a Q&A) had to do with the Times' transition to "journalism on the web" and the evolving "web-print relationship." Newsroom editors, he said, "need to be better informed about features that appear in their sections. They don't necessarily have to know how to put up a slide show or put up a graphic, but they need to know who does what." Excellent plan!

He also spoke about the "gradual reallocation of resources from print towards digital" and copy editors being moved to the day side, so that there could be a "greater flow of fresh quality edit material." We imagine a chill swept quickly over the room! Then he brought up two of the Times' stars: Sewell Chan, who has become a "full-time, online Metro journalist"; and the comely Ariel Kaminer, who—assuming we heard this correctly—is becoming a "cultural impresario." Snarf.

"We can't let our reverence for quality become a straitjacket in new media," he warned. "The web environment is different... We can offer guidance but we cannot insist on the same control we exercise over print."

That, it would seem, might be a difficult lesson to absorb. But Keller hurried to make his charges feel better! "Online and in print, we are the New York Times," he intoned, not entirely convincingly.

He spoke of the new building: "Pioneers have already settled in our gleaming frontier." He brought up some of the complaints that the "pioneers" have had, including fire alarms having a mind of their own and motion-sensor lights not working. "There have also been reports of a rat sighting," he said, though he hurried to say that it was unsubstantiated. "The mice aren't scheduled to move in until June 15." Laughter! Relief!

"I implore you to be versatile," he implored. "It's an immense improvement over our venerable, but cramped and deteriorating, building on 43rd Street. The company is heading for a long future."

Part of the future includes a reduction in the size of the paper at the end of the summer. "Folks, it ain't that different," he said. There's that warm Bill Keller we all know! "It's an inch and a half narrower. There's no dramatic makeover of our design." In contrast to the Wall Street Journal's redesign, he said that the Times would "absorb the change without a great deal of fanfare." He said the changes include a display page for the foreign desk, and limiting the jumping of A1 stories to other sections.

While the paper will be adding pages, the "actual reduction of the newshole is about 5 percent," he said, which will give editors "some incentive about being a little more ruthless about throwing stories back for cuts. Our stories are too often too long... The 1200 word stories could be 800 or 900. There are editors at a Page 1 meeting boasting that a story is only 1400 words." (Good thing Sewell is only writing for the web, then.)

Then it was time for questions. Someone asked how the Times plans to make money off the web. "I heartily believe we will," Keller said. "How, is a lot more complicated." He talked about Wall Street, and doing PowerPoint presentations. "There's a phrase they use in drug and alcohol rehab—'fake it til you make it.' That's basically what we're doing."

Another person asked about Rupert Murdoch's bid for the Wall Street Journal and how that might affect the Times. Keller seems to think that if Murdoch wins the bid for Dow Jones, he will invest in Bloomberg-type news. "I don't think we want to go into the newswire and business newswire service," he said. "It's not our strength. We can respond in a smart way by providing more of what we provide now, which is stuff that if you're interested in business, you have to read. Smart analysis, columns, news of that kind." He speculated that Murdoch might be interested in starting a magazine to go with the Journal. "He doesn't seem to like the Saturday Journal," Keller remarked. "We're pretty good at magazines. I'm quite confident that if he comes up with something we will be able to respond. There are a lot of people at the Wall Street Journal wondering if we're the last lifeboat in the ocean."

Someone asked whether the hiring of online staff would affect hiring or staffing the paper. "Mostly, no," Keller said. "The web creates openings for very specialized jobs. Sometimes you have to go out and hire them from other places. But in the reallocation of resources from print to digital, we're not talking about closing down print slots and opening up web slots."

And then someone asked about City Room, which is Sewell Chan's new project, and is basically a mini-New York Times, but online and only about New York. "The idea is that the New York Times is not giving up New York City... We're taking one of our most inventive and productive journalists and setting him loose. He will do all different kinds of news without any narrow portfolio." God help us

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