Farewell, New York Times columnist Bill Keller! You will not be missed, for the most part, except by people who reliably find material in your columns.
Keller, the former editor of the Times, is leaving the paper to be the editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to criminal justice that sounds very responsible and do-good-y, if also slightly sketchy. ("We're still in the process of raising the money.") Sketchy or no, Keller intends to engage in activist journalism, for a very good cause. It is nearly, but not quite, enough to get me to lay off Keller for his last few years of work.
As editor of the Times, the former reporter frequently expressed a desire to return to writing. Unfortunately, he seems to be bad at it. At least, he is bad at this one particular form of writing, the newspaper opinion column. Because it turns out that the skills that allow one to be successful in reporting and editing may not actually guarantee success in opinion writing! Sometimes even a decorated foreign correspondent and successful newspaper editor will, when given the opportunity to say what's really on his mind, simply express terrible opinions in stultifying prose.
The Times, and America, did not need yet another white boomer professional centrist using one of the most influential platforms left in print media to repackage Third Way talking points as sober and serious commentary. And yet, when Keller was done editing the paper, they simply handed him a column as something of a retirement gift. (He'd actually begun columnizing earlier, in the Times Magazine, while still editing the paper. In this test run he managed to infuriate many of his reporters with his flaccid attempts at Hot Takes on new media.)
As I wrote in Keller's entry in the 2011 Hack List, his columns tended to be dull and pointless, except when they were obtuse and offensive. Like, for example, the recent column (a follow-up to a piece by Emma Keller, Bill's wife) attacking a cancer patient for trying to stay alive, and tweeting about it. His political opinions could be found (for free) on any Sunday show -- paying someone for them seems inexplicable.
Granting an editor a prestigious column simply because he was the editor, and he'd therefore somehow "earned it," was a terrible decision. Keller proved quickly that he had nothing at all to say. Give most people in journalism and plenty of people outside of it 10 minutes and they could name you a hundred people who'd have put that position to more interesting, enlightening and useful ends. But I will say this: If giving the old white guy a column was a terrible decision, his deciding to leave it to do something else after a few years is a good precedent. Maybe all the other useless longtime newspapermen with nothing original or interesting to say will follow suit! (They probably won't.)