The NYT’s new leadership

By Felix Salmon
June 2, 2011
new executive editor of the NYT. And congratulations are in order too for Arthur Sulzberger, for orchestrating this necessary handover in a very smooth and professional manner.

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Many congratulations to Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the NYT. And congratulations are in order too for Arthur Sulzberger, for orchestrating this necessary handover in a very smooth and professional manner.

Bill Keller had one main job when he became executive editor in 2003: to restore morale to a newsroom which had been hit hard by the Jayson Blair scandal and to eradicate the antagonism engendered by his predecessor, Howell Raines. Keller did that job very well, and now it’s time for someone with a different skillset.

While Keller’s job, in 2003, was largely inward-facing, Abramson’s job is going, perforce, to be much more outward-facing — an area where Keller has been weak. Rather than pick fights with Arianna Huffington or the Twittersphere more generally (spats which, in hindsight, look like the actions of a man losing the burdens of high executive office), Abramson will be expected to raise the reputation of the NYT among its most vocal and influential readers.

One way to do that will be to build more transparency and webby DNA into the newsroom as a whole. Yesterday, for instance, a lot of people — not just me — were were asking questions about the incredibly bizarre sourcing of the NYT’s story on Fabrice Tourre and his defense. A laptop found in the garbage, complete with emails which “continued streaming into the device”? The questions were obvious, and when asked those questions, the NYT retreated into an unhelpful shell, going into no helpful detail at all, and indeed confusing matters even further by saying that the laptop was not the source of any of the emails in the story after all. At one point, I was half convinced that the laptop wasn’t even Tourre’s, but had belonged instead to one of his lawyers.

In the end, the mystery had to get cleared up by the NYT’s named source, since the NYT itself clearly wasn’t going to explain anything. And the question of why the NYT even mentioned the source and the laptop, given that they didn’t quote any of the emails they received, remains wide open.

All of which is symptomatic of a newsroom and a culture which is reflexively opaque when it comes to sourcing and primary documents. I don’t expect the NYT to suddenly switch to the way I wrote about the NYT yesterday — out in the open, updating as new information emerged, incorporating and linking to the best reporting done not only in-house but by everybody else as well. That works some of the time, especially on blogs, but not so much for a newspaper of record where anything in the printed version, especially, has to be nailed down before it’s published.

On the other hand, more engagement and transparency about how the NYT does what it does can only be a good thing. When your public statements are lawyered-up, cryptic, and defensive, people are going to trust what you say much less than if you’re open and accessible.

I’m hopeful that, in Abramson, Sulzberger has found the right person to help the NYT evolve into a 21st-Century news organization. She’s good at encouraging those members of the newsroom who intuitively understand and use the power of social media. And she also has the respect of more old-school reporters who are mistrustful of new media realities and who need effective leadership on the part of the executive editor before they change the way they work.

The good news is that Abramson has the winds of inevitability behind her. Keller spent far too much time tacking against those winds and sailing into unnecessarily choppy waters as a result. If Abramson just opens up the NYT’s social sails and steers with a light hand on the tiller, the Grey Lady is more than capable of taking its rightful place as queen of the new journalistic seas.

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