New York Times Editor Bill Keller Thinks He Is a Magnificent Rhinoceros

Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller warmed up the crowd at an address to the paper’s staff with an admonition:

One of the things that continually surprises me about this job is the fascination of those outside The Times with every micro-facet of our work. Recently I did an hourlong radio call-in show, and The NY Observer actually live-blogged it. Seriously, my own wife isn’t as interested in what I do all day as John Koblin, Michael Calderone, Jacob Bernstein and the rest of our obsessive chroniclers. These guys always remind me of oxpeckers, those little birds that ride on the backs of large African mammals and eat their ticks. Their attention has made me a little more guarded than I like at these sessions. But I will try to be as forthcoming as possible in answer to your questions, with the understanding that this is a family event, not for wider broadcast. Please, no live blogging.

Having edited two out of the three little birds Keller named, I’m always entertained by his belief (or his stated belief) that the reason news leaks out of the Times is because the paper is stalked by perverse obsessives. Confidential to Bill Keller: the call is coming from inside the house. (Text of Keller’s remarks was posted on the Times’ intranet.)

Also: many large African mammals are known for their tough, thick skin. Just saying.

At any rate, the executive editor sees the Times striding tall across the grassy savanna of 21st-century media, imposing yet nimble, even as other megafauna dwindle toward extinction:

Last week we took home three awards from the Online Journalism Association. Our oil spill tracker was honored as an outstanding use of digital technology. Our Toxic Waters project won the award for innovative investigative journalism. And David Rohde’s account of his months in Taliban captivity got the top multimedia award. It’s interesting to consider the list of the other prizewinners: ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Voice of San Diego, NPR Mobile Applications, and so on. Do you notice what’s missing? Not one of the big newspapers who were once our only rivals — not one — was represented in the list of winners. No Washington Post, no Wall Street Journal, no Los Angeles Times, no Chicago Tribune. There is a new competitive landscape of journalism, and we are not just living in it, we are thriving in it.

Many of our one-time peers continue to founder financially or slide toward mediocrity — or toward frat-house comedy, if you recall Dave Carr’s astounding account of life in the Tribune Company. At The Times, meanwhile, we’ve been doing a little building.

As the Washington Post completed its shutdown of all national bureaus, Rick Berke opened new ones in Phoenix and Kansas City. As readers around the country find it harder to get serious local news, we’ve added a third local edition following the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago — this time in Texas, in partnership with the Texas Tribune. As other weekly magazines wither or die, both the weekly Times magazine and T have new editors, who are gathering forces for relaunches of their magazines early in the new year. While the Wall Street Journal has been focusing on making itself a lite version of the NYT, we’ve hired an impressive staff to go after their core business with our Dealbook franchise and other sophisticated business journalism.

Keller also told the staff that, in defiance of the “myth…that people won’t pay for content on the Web,” the Times is still planning to bring out a “pay gate” in 2011. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Keller said, would explain the plan “when the time comes, and it won’t be long.”

Meanwhile, the Times will be creating a “sunrise edition” of its home page—a “fully refreshed” new product rather than an updated version of the previous night’s print edition. Instead of holding big stories for the print paper, Keller said, the Times will publish for “maximum impact,” putting pieces out online in the daytime to compete for immediate attention.

That online morning paper will be another step toward integrating and consolidating the online and print operations. Keller said that the Web and the paper will share a single morning news meeting, and that the afternoon Page One meeting will now include the planning for the sunrise home page. He also told that staff that editing will be reorganized and unified—and that management will be “proposing to merge the separate Web and print union contracts.”

“It is not a proposal to eliminate jobs,” Keller said. “We’ve done enough of that, in my view. The proposal does not envision anyone being laid off.”