He’d been north to Russia and south to Johannesburg, and yesterday afternoon, the former executive editor of The New York Times added the Kelly Writers House to his checklist of destinations.
Bill Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and current Op-Ed columnist for the Times, shared with students his experiences as both a writer and an editor, as well as his thoughts on the future of journalism. Al Filreis, Kelly Professor of English and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, moderated Keller’s talk.
“It’s sometimes painful, and sometimes fun,” Keller said about the art of writing, “but when you feel that you’ve got to write, there’s just nothing quite as rewarding.”
After graduating from Pomona College in 1970, Keller wrote for The Portland Oregonian and other publications before joining the Times in 1984 as a domestic correspondent in Washington, D.C.
Keller continued as a foreign correspondent, covering the collapse of communism in Moscow and the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Although Keller enjoyed the thrills of traveling, reporting and writing, when he was faced with the opportunity to become the executive editor of the Times, he could not turn it down.
However, Keller ultimately did return to the world of writing.
“You cannot ask anyone to feel sorry for you as the editor of The New York Times,” he told the audience jokingly. “It is a great job, but I missed writing, and I knew at some point I would go back to it.”
In 2011 he stepped down from the editorship to become a widely read Op-Ed columnist for the Times.
After Keller’s talk, Filreis opened the floor to questions.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, who was also in attendance, compared large academic institutions like Penn with traditional news media like The New York Times and asked Keller his thoughts on the future of established institutions and how to sustain quality in both academia and journalism.
Although he qualified himself as “a chronic optimist,” Keller admitted he does worry about the future of the Times and other newspapers in today’s digital world.
But, he pointed to the success of the Times’ digital subscription model as a sign that journalism is still alive and well.
“People talk about the declining circulation of newspapers, and it’s true — in print,” Keller said.
In the realm of online journalism, however, Keller explained that the Times website currently has about 50 million unique users every month.
“Our audience is growing astronomically, and it’s global. That to me suggests demand … it’s just the transition that’s scary.”
For College junior Emily Brill, Keller’s lunch talk was an event she was sure not to miss. “I don’t typically come to Writers House events, but since he’s pretty notable, this seemed like such a rare opportunity.”
The audience enjoyed Keller’s talk, as they laughed at his witty jokes and concluded the event with enthusiastic applause.
“I’ve been really enjoying his column now that he’s stepped down from his editorship, and to be able to hear him speak about his opinions and experiences is great,” said 2011 College graduate and Kelly Writers House research assistant Kristen Martin. “It’s just really interesting to see someone of Bill Keller’s stature come talk to such an intimate group like this.”