Former New York Times editor Bill Keller's announcement that he's leaving the paper for a news startup is a smart move. It's also the final act in Keller's long history of proving that the New York Times is not as important as it once was.
Bill Keller was the Times' top editor from 2003-2011. He was not a bad editor. He did, however, pick a shitty time to be editor. He got to preside over not only a good deal of quality journalism, but also the Judith Miller fiasco and the grim post-recession slew of layoffs and buyouts at the paper. His time at the top was interesting, but not altogether enjoyable. He will go down in history—through no fault of his own—as the man who guided America's greatest newspaper into the era in which newspapers lost their spot as the most important media outlets.
Bill burned out on the top job. He stepped down. By choice! Unfortunately for everyone, he decided to start writing a column again. He was... rusty, to say the least. On a good day, his columns were unremarkable. On too many days, though, they were old and musty, and infused all too often with an ill-concealed urge to be snide and hold grudges and generally comport himself as the Angry Old Establishment Man version of Gawker, without the sparkling wit.
Columnist is a traditional quasi-retirement gig for a top Times editor who's stepped away from leadership. It is a quiet and respectable place for these Wise Men to be put out to pasture. Bill Keller was never the worst columnist on the Times roster; likewise, the face is not the worst place to be stabbed. You could be stabbed in the balls. Do you see what I'm getting at, here?
Bill Keller was not a good newspaper columnist.
By plunging back into writing after a decent career behind the scenes, he damaged his legacy. But look on the bright side: those columns could have continued for decades. Instead, he is up and leaving the paper to lead The Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism startup focused on America's criminal justice system. The Times gets a graceful way to shed some dead weight from its institutional past, and Keller gets to start anew with a comfortable gig and a good cause. This is a smart decision by Bill Keller. Redemption awaits.
And what does this "say" about "the media?" It says this: the glory days are over for the old guard. The fact that a man who spent decades assiduously climbing to the top of an institution as hallowed and fusty as the New York Times would drop a cushy perch as a columnist to go join a startup is a great flashing sign that reads, "Newspapers are the past." Bill Keller has now willingly left what were until very recently considered the two most desirable jobs in journalism: editor of the New York Times, and columnist for the New York Times. Those are still good jobs. But they are no longer dream-jobs-for-life, like seats on the Supreme Court. The media world has grown up, up and away from its old gatekeepers. That's a good thing for everyone.
The only loser in this situation is The Marshall Project. Bill Keller, an old media man to the bone (with a pronounced distaste for "new media"), is almost certainly not the best man to lead an online journalism startup of any sort. But hey, he's a good journalist with a big name who can attract donors, so it's not all bad. This is just one more baby step in the ongoing slow-motion transition of yesterday's journalism world to tomorrow's. A former Times editor going to a news startup is a big deal. News startups realizing they shouldn't hire former newspaper editors to lead them will be a bigger deal.