There is only one surprise in the news that Jill Abramson will succeed Bill Keller as executive editor of The New York Times. And that’s the timing.
Abramson, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, has been managing editor since the Howell Raines era came to a dramatic end in 2003. She has long been the heir apparent, and as trailblazing as her appointment is—the first woman to lead the newsroom in the paper’s 160-year history—it was widely expected.
There was a plausible rival in the person of Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, who moves up to managing editor. Baquet was a dynamic editor of the Los Angeles Times before resigning amid the wreckage of Tribune Co. budget cuts. He may still become the first African-American editor of The New York Times.
But while Abramson had the inside track before Thursday’s announcement, the Times is steeped in tradition, and most executive editors, if they haven’t screwed up royally, serve until they turn 65. By that standard, Keller, 62, is vacating the office a bit early to return to full-time writing, including a column in the paper’s new Sunday opinion section.
Times insiders say the blunt-spoken Abramson, who is greatly respected within the newsroom, was getting impatient with the long apprenticeship. They also wonder about her partnership with Baquet, given that the two sometimes clashed as part of the usual friction between the New York and Washington offices.
Abramson, coauthor of the book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, told her paper that getting the top job was like “ascending to Valhalla.”
"In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If the Times said it, it was the absolute truth."
Keller was a career foreign correspondent who never planned on becoming an editor. When he was named managing editor in 1997 after a stint running the foreign desk, he told me: "I'm embarrassed to admit I thought it was a lot of fun. The pleasures are much more vicarious than running around Russia or South Africa, but you can actually make things happen in a way you can't as a reporter."
Keller went into exile on the editorial page after Raines beat him out for the executive editor’s job in 2001, but publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. gave him the job two years later, after Raines was forced out over the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal. Keller told me then that “the healing has begun,” and he was a stabilizing force in the newsroom.
Despite the parent company’s financial problems, which caused a round of layoffs, the Times maintained and even boosted its journalistic quality under Keller and Abramson even as other newspapers were reducing their ambitions.
His rockiest period came in 2005, when Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify in the leak investigation involving CIA operative Valerie Plame. Keller, who had defended Miller, later wrote in a memo that she seemed to have misled the paper about her involvement and that “I didn’t know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the … whisper campaign” against Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson.
Keller recently launched a Times Magazine column that in retrospect looks like part of an exit strategy from the executive editor’s office.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.