New York Times' Keller in Denial Mode

Succession politics plays out like palace intrigue at the New York Times and questions about how much longer executive editor Bill Keller plans to stay in his job are already stirring. Keller says, "Bullshit."

Keller will turn 60 a week from Sunday, well shy of the typical 65 retirement age. But newsroom sources say there's been plenty of talk of Keller stepping down well short of that. Keller's been the top Times editor since 2003, came in as a calming influence after the turbulent two-year tenure of Howell Raines — which included a shower of Pulitzers, Jayson Blair and Judy Miller — to put a newsroom at war with itself back at ease. But these are hardly calm times for the newspaper business and there are rumblings in his newsroom that he doesn't want to stick around too much longer.

"Those rumors have been around pretty persistently," a veteran Times staffer told us today. "I heard on Monday that he's stepping down sometime by the end of the year. It's been a parlor game for months." Another Times source had told us he'd heard Keller was out sooner than that. So we called Keller up to ask.

A mensch (I mean that!), he called back: "Where do you get this bullshit?" We said his newsroom; he guffawed that we'd rely on such characters, and suggested we call publisher Arthur Sulzberger instead. He was adamant that he wasn't stepping down, he then added, "I think 2009 is going to be the most interesting year in newspapers and I'd like to be here for it." When we pointed out that that sort of gibed with what we'd been hearing, he said he didn't mean he was giving himself an exit date.

Since we had him on the phone, we asked about the rumblings — first floated here — that 20% cuts were coming to the newsroom. In October, Keller refuted that by telling his staff "I do not see another round of newsroom reductions on the horizon," leading the newsroom to wonder what kind of horizon he was looking at.

One of us is wrong, right? Here's what we think is going on: the business side is looking at revenue trends, like the 21% drop in advertising in November, and is drawing up a cost basis that will keep the paper afloat. Editorial costs are going to have to go down. And pretty much anyone in the newsroom is anticipating big cuts in the near future. "I agree it's coming," said another Times source, "but (top editors) are not talking about it."

Keller started out pretty definitive — "I don't see us doing significant staff cuts" — but immediately hedged by adding that nothing can be certain: "I can't tell you a meteor won't hit the earth." "You don't know if you're going to live for two more years" "I don't know if an earthquake is going to swallow Manhattan."

So, there you have it. Everything is status quo at the New York Times. Unless something goes spectacularly, incredibly, catastrophically wrong.