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Oct. 6, 2016, 12:42 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The New York Times’ Dean Baquet on calling out lies, embracing video, and building a more digital newsroom

“I think that [Trump] challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have…We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle.”

How long is two years in editor years?

Leading any daily newspaper in this age is challenging, but leading The New York Times is an exercise unto itself. As the country’s and the world’s most influential newspaper, the Times requires a pace of chance that keeps up with the global cratering of the print business. It bears not only the burden of figuring out its own sustainable future — publishers and editors around the world are always watching it, anxiously, to see which of its innovations they may be able to borrow.

In May 2014, Dean Baquet became the top editor of The New York Times. It was a typically ungainly Times transition, as executive editor Jill Abramson’s own two–and-a-half year tenure ended noisily.

In September, Baquet — one of the country’s most experienced top editors, with stints at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and early on at his hometown Times-Picayune in New Orleans — turned 60. We recently had a free-ranging talk in his office at the Times about Trump coverage, the paper’s pace of change, his newfound commitment to video, managing a mix of veterans and digital natives, and what he wishes he knew when he headed the L.A. Times. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Baquet now leads a newsroom of about 1,300. It’s seen buyouts and layoffs, but its trimmings pale in comparison with dailies overall. As it has reduced cost and workforce, the Times also has “reskilled,” with complements of data science, audience, video, and visuals staffing tucked in here and there. This isn’t the 2006 Times, and we have a good notion that it won’t be the 2026 Times.

No matter who’s in charge, Times journalists occasionally ask me of management: Do they really get it? The Times is a much more confident place that it was in 2010, but the creeping doubts about its ability to fully make the transition in the post-print age meander around the building. Its current headquarters is the sixth the company has occupied since its 1851 founding, and we can bet that its journalists have been questioning their leaders since those earliest days.

Just within the last year, the Times literally reinvented itself on mobile with a model-setting news app, well suited to take advantage of all the attention smartphones drive. With more than 55 percent of its digital audience now coming from mobile, it seems to have left the disappointing desktop era behind, with its own website still a less-than-satisfying representation of the printed Times. But its 2016 progress must only serve as prologue, as CEO Mark Thompson has laid out a fast march to 2020, including the doubling of most things digital. With Times readers now supplying nearly $6 of every $10 in Times revenue, the company’s bond with its audience gains even greater importance. And that makes Dean Baquet’s strategic editorial leadership all the more essential.

Make no mistake, it’s still what’s underneath the Times’ hood — that mighty daily news report of 150 original daily stories, and 350 on Sunday — that counts most. While we focus lots of attention on business models and audience change, it’s the journalism here — still the gold standard — that provides the Times its greatest chance at making the business transition to a mainly digital news world.

One other notable development this year: The nouveau Washington Post, led by owner Jeff Bezos, contesting seriously the Times’ perhaps-retro billing as the “newspaper of record.” Bezos provided reinforcements to Post executive editor Marty Baron, a long-time Baquet friend, in the form of more than 100 new journalists. In that soft battle between the Times and the Post, and in a recent accounting, we can see an enduring power at the highest level of American journalism.

This year, the Times and other outlets have seen unprecedented challenge to their aggressive journalistic practice. Media, long a convenient foil for politicians, has now been cast as the constant enemy, high on the list of Trumpism’s foes, from the banal (“They don’t write good“) to much heavier accusations of bias. Remember when Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” was fun? Now, John Oliver’s outrage best symbolizes this year, as fragile democracy assesses the real impact of fact and lie. What has this age of Trump wrought? In short, its challenge has forced Baquet and his journalists to reconsider the basics of the craft. The Times has responded to this challenge on many fronts.

Consider that the Times employed 18 of its journalists as realtime fact-checkers during the first presidential debate. Consider Baquet’s own public clarity about calling out Trump lies. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Times featured on its homepage a review of a new Hitler biography by book critic Michiko Kakutani, whose Trumpian analogy may have remained inexplicit, but nonetheless spoke loud volumes about a newfound Times confidence in squarely taking on the issues and fears that consume its readers’ minds.

All that, of course, has turned out to be prologue for the Times’ recent publication of just three pages of Donald Trump’s 1995 federal tax return — and its 2,000-word-plus interpretation of it. I talked with Baquet about how the age of Trump has spawned a new courage for the Times, how it has rise to a unique moment in American political life.

Because the Times itself is the most watched of American news institutions, each internal shuffle draws lots of attention. Such was the case, in September, when Baquet named Joseph Kahn as his first managing editor, the newsroom’s second-in-command. Upon assuming the top editor position in 2014, Baquet had eliminated that job — which he had most recently held — in favor of three deputies. I updated my end-of-summer interview with Baquet with a couple of questions about that appointment. Let’s start there.

Ken Doctor: The Times story on the appointment said: “In his new role, Mr. Kahn will be in charge of putting into effect changes proposed by a group that is working to prepare and transform the newsroom for a digital future.” What does it tell us about the phases of change at the Times, and what that next phase looks like?

Dean Baquet: I think we’ve moved unbelievably fast in the last three years. It is a very different newsroom, in terms of culture and coverage. But we have to move even faster because the world is shifting so quickly. And we have to make these changes while also putting out a great report. It was becoming clear that I could not do both — help lead the report and help lead change — without a lot of help. I might even go so far as to say I was becoming a bottleneck and slowing down changes I feel are necessary for the future. I put Joe [in that position] so that there would be someone with authority who saw it as largely their job to drive change across the Times.

Doctor: You made the point that your role as a strategist is taking more time, or is more demanding, than it might have appeared two years ago. What’s been the toughest, most time-consuming part of providing that editorial-plus-strategic leadership?

Baquet: The hardest thing about driving change at the Times is that we have two enormous jobs. We have to change — relentlessly. And we have to put out a great report. I don’t think every news organization in the middle of great change has to do both at such a high level.

What Trump hath wrought

Doctor: Let me ask you about Trump. I have a nice big iPhone, and I do screenshots ever once in a while to remind me of what I’m seeing. There was one evening when I opened up the Times home page and there were five Trump stories, rat-a-tat-tat, one following the other. None of us has ever covered a story like this, and I’m wondering what kinds of challenges the conundrum Donald Trump has caused. It’s so far beyond normal fact-checking. How have you come to peace with how you cover Donald Trump?

Baquet: I thought Jim Rutenberg’s column nailed it, about the struggle over how to cover. I think that everybody went in a little bit shell-shocked in the beginning, about how you cover a guy who makes news constantly. It’s not just his outrageous stuff…he says things that are just demonstrably false.

I think that he’s challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have. I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false…We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, “This is just false.”

Doctor: We struggle with that.

Baquet: We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.

Doctor: You see that in other parts of your coverage. I’ve noticed that…he gave you courage.

Baquet: He gave us courage?

Doctor: I think. Courage to assert what seemed to be factually correct.

Baquet: The dirty secret of news organizations — and I think this is part of a story of what happened with Bush and the Iraq war — [is that] newspaper reporters and newspapers describe the world we live in. We really can be a little bit patriotic without knowing it. We actually tend to believe what politicians tell us — which is a flaw, by the way. I’m not saying that with pride. The lesson of the Iraq war, which I think started us down this track, was that I don’t think people really believed that the administration would actually lie about the WMDs, or that they would say the stuff so forcefully.

Who really believed that Colin Powell would get up in front of the United Nations, a guy who was known for integrity? I think that was a shock to the system. Then comes a guy — there’s this great moment in one of the debates where Trump says something…and Megyn Kelly asks him a question and he says: That’s just not true, I never said that. One of our fact-checkers went to his website, and it’s like: No. I think he gave us courage, if you will. I think he made us — forced us, because he does it so often, to get comfortable with saying something is false.

Doctor: Where else are you seeing that in your coverage this year?

Baquet: Where else am I seeing it in my coverage? Other than with Trump? I think I see examples of it in foreign coverage. Also, look at the writing in the story about Cuomo’s plan to build the film industry in New York [“Cuomo’s $15 Million High-Tech Film Studio? It’s a Flop”]. The third paragraph just comes right out and says, ‘it didn’t turn out that way.’

It seems like a subtle difference, but when I think back to editing those Swift Boat stories at the L.A. Times, it took me a long time to just get [to this point].

Moving beyond manufacturing

Doctor: How have you figured out to do that? I think you’re exactly right, but it’s a very difficult thing. Were there epiphanies you had?

Baquet: I think for me, there wasn’t any one epiphany. I’ve always had the reporter instinct where I listen. There were a lot of people — the three cousins, A.G. [Sulzberger], Sam [Dolnick], and David Perpich [the three Sulzberger family members who have been moving up in the company as the Times contemplates who will succeed 64-year-old publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.], and Cliff Levy. I started listening to people who came at it from a very different way, and it just slowly unfolded in my mind. It wasn’t like a moment.

Maybe a year ago, I started to see that not all the things that I held dear were worth holding dear. People have heard this a lot: The pyramid style, the basic structure of a news story, is not the mission. I’m convinced that what happened was, in newspapers 50 and 60 years ago, when you had 50 stories coming in on deadline, [was that] you could not have a situation where you wrote yours in iambic pentameter. You had to have uniformity.

Doctor: Manufacturing.

Baquet: Yes. Manufacturing. I was an English literature major with literary aspirations, and I joined a newsroom and had to learn to write a whole different way.

Doctor: Today, young people are out solving different manufacturing issues. Just yesterday, I was talking to a 21-year-old CEO who founded Fresco News. He’s essentially Uberized the process of taking basic news footage for local broadcast TV and getting it on the air. John Meyer, the founder, essentially said: It’s amazing, we have these devices, people can shoot all kinds of stuff, but there are a lot of problems. They spent two years taking almost all the friction out of the process. How do you begin to envision what you can do using the technology of the day, in Cooking, in Watching, in health, all the areas the Times is refocusing on?

Baquet: I don’t know that all the answers are going to be in features, but I’ll use video. Let’s use video. When I first became managing editor, I foolishly looked at video as this new thing that we were doing — that I guess we have to do video to make money. It is unimaginable to me that The New York Times would not have video now. I now have video ideas. I’m as much of a pain in the ass to the video department as I am to foreign.

Doctor: I heard that, yeah. Do you remember any of those this week?

Baquet: Yeah, I shot them a note saying we really have got to do — it turned out they were doing it already — a video montage of everything Donald Trump has said over time about immigration.

I think video has tremendous economic possibilities and huge journalistic. Now we’re at the point where if Arthur [Sulzberger] came down here and said, “We’ve just decided we’re never going to make a nickel from video,” I would say, “Well, I have to figure out how to keep doing video.”

Doctor: That’s a really big change.

Baquet: I think that the arrival of something like video making it work, learning to think about it differently, understanding it has economic possibilities, understanding it has huge journalistic and audience possibilities — is in a weird way, the equivalent of the kind of thinking that Arthur Gelb and those guys must have gone through 40, 50 years ago [when the Times began developing arts, culture, and wider features coverage that well beyond straight news]. Here’s a new thing that we can embrace — make it Timesian, if you will, by that I mean, high-quality, thoughtful.

Our foray with the public editor [Liz Spayd]: They beat us up a little bit for Facebook Live. I pushed for Facebook Live.

Alex MacCallum [the Times’ senior vice president for video] came to me with the proposal and she said she thought it was important. I became convinced, not only because of the economics of it [the Times gets paid by Facebook to produce videos], but also because I thought it would it would educate a whole bunch of people in the newsroom about a different way to tell stories.

Look, I knew some of the early stuff was going to be sloppy…I’m not knocking Liz. My response to Liz, though was, if I had to have a bunch of meetings, that’s not the way to do it. We have to have people in the newsroom — and we do, it’s happening — really willing to try new stuff.

Doctor: You have profoundly changed as a manager.

Baquet: Yes, I have, as a leader. Well, I mean a leader and a manager of resources — but as a leader.

Doctor: I remember I wrote — when you took this job and I talked to a bunch of people — they said, “Well, Dean’s a great editor, great guy…not particularly digitally savvy.” I heard that from a whole bunch of people.

Baquet: That would have been accurate.

Doctor: So you’ve learned and changed. There aren’t a lot of people, even at your young age, who will continue to change their leadership and management style. That’s not how a lot of us were trained.

Baquet: That’s right, but I was always somebody that owned up to what I didn’t know. It’s just that I happened to land as executive editor of The New York Times in an era where the list of things I didn’t know was huge.

We have to understand that the unforgiving nature of print — print was the least forgiving thing there is. You have a typo, it’s there in a million papers. [Digital] is looser. And I don’t mean that as inaccuracy or sloppy, but it allows for risk taking that I think we should revel in and not try to squash under the system.

I think that there’s a generation coming up that didn’t come up the way I did, who have really thoughtful ideas about how to make The New York Times better and different. I can’t let the hierarchies and traditions of The New York Times keep them from sitting at the table. We weren’t going to succeed.

Doctor: Tell me something about these younger people and the Times’ “mix.” Ideally, if you drew this out on a whiteboard, you’d say: The New York Times has a great tradition, and some of the best experienced reporters and writers in the country. But the world is changing so rapidly and being a digital native, or close to it, is very important. What have you figured out about that mix you’re working with? You’ve got the beginnings of an interesting mix of younger people, who are Times-smart, and a core of older people. What does that feel like to manage?

Baquet: It’s the trickiest part of leadership right now. Tricky because, I also see it as the most rewarding. Tricky because I think…One thing that makes it easier by the way is that the younger journalists, who see the world differently, actually see the world with the same traditions of The New York Times. They believe in The New York Times. They believe in The New York Times just as much as my generation does. They want it to succeed. When the big issues come up, like, are we a watchdog?

They just have different notions and ideas — and they’re right — about how the paper is being read, how stories are covered. They understand more intuitively than my generation about how. The fundamental question I would have asked 10 years ago is: Is it a news story? Is it a feature story? Does it have an angle, a lead? What’s the color story? What’s the analysis piece?

The fundamental question I think I ask now in leading the newsroom is: What’s the best way to tell the story? We did a video a month ago in which we collected all the video from the Trump rallies. I don’t know if you saw it.

Doctor: I did. I was actually going to compliment you on that. It was a three-minute video and it was jaw-dropping.

Baquet: It was stunning and you can’t tell me that that wasn’t the best way to tell that story.

You asked about my epiphanies. One of them was during the Ebola coverage and part of our Pulitzer entry was video. I sat in the room, and we were looking at this awful video of this man who took a teenager to a hospital in Monrovia [Liberia] to get treatment, and they didn’t have room. They would open the door and the kid is writhing on the frigging ground. I looked at that and I thought: Man, I thought of myself as a good writer, but I can’t write that. I can’t do that.

I think Facebook Live to me — the reason it was so important was it was a way to introduce a generation to just thinking a different way, to trying something different, to being more comfortable with getting something a little bit off — even feeling a little bit.

This is going to take time. This will fix itself over time, because eventually the people, the most traditional journalist and the people who are coming in new, are going to all come together. Some of it is to make sure people get trained. It helps that I’m a traditional guy. I suspect somebody who didn’t grow up working out of Washington doing investigative reporting would have a harder time. When I go in — I was a reporter here before I became the editor — and say, “I think this is the best way to tell the story,” I think I have more authority.

Doctor: In a sense, here you are after decades in print, in essence, running a TV station too.

Baquet: Isn’t that exciting though? My only regret is that I’m not like 25. I took the elevator up with the young woman who is the equivalent of the city editor for video, Quynhanh Do. We were talking about the political coverage and I was telling her, “You guys have nailed it. You’re nailing it with stuff that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.” It’s like mind-blowing. I think people who don’t embrace that and don’t get that are so insular.

“The biggest crisis in journalism is local news”

Doctor: I’m reminded of the rant John Oliver did a couple of weeks ago. In that, he played, a clip of [former Baltimore Sun reporter and later The Wire creator] David Simon testifying before Congress, saying: It’s a great time to be crooked in America. We know that everyday in New Orleans and every other city, there are things that the city needs. Look at the education problems, the health problems, corruption problems. Newspapers used to take on those problems — haphazardly, very haphazardly, as we know, but they were the only ones that did. Do you think there really is a decline of civic life that you see beyond newspapers? What happened to our sense of local?

Baquet: This is a theory. I think the sense of local started to change before the decline of newspapers. I think it started to change when Americans started moving around. I remember having a conversation with Jim Squires at the Chicago Tribune, who is a smart guy. He said, “You know, you counted on everybody in your city loved the Cubs and loved the Bears. That’s not true anymore. You now have people in your city who left Cleveland and love the Browns and left L.A. and love the Dodgers.” I think that was the beginning. I think that was starting to pull apart even before. I actually think the biggest crisis in journalism is local news.

There’s no way the Times-Picayune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or the Miami Herald can cover as much government and economics as they could when their staffs were three times bigger. That’s just not possible. I don’t know what the answer to it is.

Doctor: Well, if we can figure out a model where The New York Times could improve the local press in the country, that could be your side job.

Baquet: I would be game. It’s a crisis. You can’t convince me — I think Simon is right, that in St. Tammany Parish, St. Bernard Parish, places that have no coverage, there now must be public meetings all over the country that nobody [journalists] attends.

Learning from the L.A. Times experience

Doctor: Let’s talk a little about L.A. You worked there [2000-2007] in what now seems to be, historically, a more benign administration, a less irrational ownership. Who knew? When we look at the L.A. Times, we still see still the third largest newsroom in the country.

Baquet: They are still quite a good newsroom. Davan [Maharaj, the Times’ editor and now publisher as well] has held that place together in some really interesting ways…That story isn’t really told because you can look at the numbers and say they’re down to whatever number, 500 or something. They got forced to do what nobody wanted to do, what I didn’t want to do. They got forced to do it, and they did it well. They got forced to become a purely regional newspaper. I resisted that.

Doctor: And you left when you wouldn’t make more job cuts.

Baquet: I remember seeing Davan a couple of years after I left and said: I hate to say this, but you can’t hold onto every foreign bureau, you can’t hold onto your giant Washington bureau. I tried to do that, but at a certain point, that battle got lost. I have to say they made themselves into a really fine regional newspaper. They probably cover California as well if not better than they did when I was there, because everybody’s attention is so focused on California.

Doctor: Why was it important to be more than a southern Californian and a Californian paper?

Baquet: Part of it was the tradition of the institution. Part of it was, I thought then — and still think — that there was a way to craft an international or national reporter’s forum. A California paper that felt larger. I think I put five people in Mexico.

Doctor: Turns out Mexico was a big story.

Baquet: Yes, that’s right. I put a cultural reporter in Mexico. I doubled down in Asia. I thought we would be a less Euro-centric and more Mexico, Asia. Remember, a lot of this was happening pre-September 11.

September 11 changed the way American news organizations covered the world. Before September 11, the whole world was talking about making an Asian pivot. It was a lot easier to double down in Mexico City, before the Middle East became the story that was unimaginable to us. I had a fantasy of a Washington bureau that had two immigration reporters and two environmental reporters. Then September 11 created a situation where you had to go back to a traditional structure.

Doctor: It’s amazing it’s been 15 years now.

Baquet: We forget how it transformed so many things. Nobody covered Afghanistan. Iraq was a sort of occasional story…When I was a reporter doing a lot of reporting in Washington, the CIA was sort of a second- or third-tier beat. You covered the CIA by covering, sort of, almost covering a law enforcement agency. It just wasn’t a glamour beat. Now it’s the beat. The biggest stars in journalism over the last 10 years are people that came from that period.

Doctor: So where was the L.A. Times in that transition?

Baquet: I thought it had potential to still have been one of the last national papers. Not national in circulation, though I think digitally, it could have been.

When you look at what Bezos has done with the Post, the L.A. Times could have done that. The L.A. Times could have done that with a base of immigration, Asia coverage, entertainment coverage, and covering a state legislature that’s the most important in the country. We could have done it. The mistake I think I made, I don’t think I engaged enough as an editor — partly my fault, partly the company’s fault — with trying to build a truly powerful digital report.

I think the Tribune Company controlled the digital report of all the Tribune papers, but that would be a cop out if I said it was just that…I didn’t quite understand all the possibilities.

Journalist, African American, father, husband

Doctor: I’ve got one last question for you, my Mike Pence question. He said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” If you summed up three things that you are, what might they be?

Baquet: This won’t be in order

Doctor: You can change the order, or they can be unordered, or whatever.

Baquet: I’m a journalist. Journalism changed my life. I grew up poor in New Orleans, in a place with no books. The first time I got on an airplane was when I went to college at Columbia. I only applied to Columbia, because one of my best friends applied and he didn’t get in and I did.

I met my wife in a newsroom. Journalism has transformed my life and I’m now a 60-year-old guy who has been all over the world, who has pushed back at very powerful people, and now sits in arguably what’s the most significant newsroom in the world. I’m a journalist.

I’m an African American. I think deeply about the world I grew up in. It influences my almost zealous belief in mission.

What am I third? I guess as a person, I’m a father and a husband.

Photo of Dean Baquet at the Nieman Foundation’s Pulitzer 100 celebration by Lisa Abitbol.

POSTED     Oct. 6, 2016, 12:42 p.m.
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