In a wide-ranging and sometimes intimate conversation with 500 of his closest professional colleagues — close because they’ve been meeting in his building all week — New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet confessed Friday about what keeps him up at night.
He also confided to the INMA World Congress of News Media audience how (in)capable he is at producing news video, the significance he attaches to datelines, what worries him about the loss of local media outlets nationwide, and where he feels the Times has improved since miscalculating online publishing in 2014 and misjudging the election in 2016.
One thing he declined to reveal, though, is what U.S. President Donald Trump wanted when he called once to personally complain about something.
“I’m trying to decide whether I can say … I think I’m going to save what he exactly said for my memoir, if I ever write one,” Baquet said.
The 62-year-old career journalist and New Orleans native has been leading the Times' news operations through what must be one of the most challenging periods ever in the 167-year history of America’s flagship broadsheet. His newsroom has not been entirely spared the financial ravages of the global decline in newspaper readership and advertising, and his editorial staff is attacked almost daily by a much-aggrieved, name-calling leader of the free world.
“We’ve evolved,” Baquet said of how he’s handled Trump’s bashings. “I remember the first time he attacked us. It was shortly after the election, the first time he attacked very powerfully. ... We had never had a president attack us in such a public way. And we responded, forcefully.
“We also started to understand in the days afterward that our readers were also responding. And that there were a certain number of people who so powerfully believe in the importance of The New York Times and its existence and power that they started subscribing. And they started subscribing for their friends. And I felt like that was an inspiring cheering section that said: Carry on, push forward, and do what you do. That gives me strength.
“We don’t respond every time now. We only respond if he lobs something that’s so forcefully aimed at our integrity.”
Asked about the kinds of interactions his office has with Trump, Baquet said they vary: “On the one hand, he talks to us. ... On the other hand, he complains to us. He feels somehow spurned by us. And I’m not sure I can help him with that.
“I also don’t think he quite understands us. Remember, this is a guy who grew up in the world of tabloid journalism — New York, American tabloid journalism — which is fawning, isn’t always questioning. I’m talking about The New York Post, for instance — and gave him the headlines he wanted. And he could sort of trade off a little bit of gossip for a little bit of this.
“Then suddenly he’s in a world where, when he tries to do that, he’s talking about trade policy that affects trillions of dollars. It’s a different world, and the press has a different role.”
Despite the president’s repeated references to the “failing New York Times,” Baquet said his news brand remains successful and influential.
“Our influence is outsized. But I want to be read by a lot more people. I want to be read by a more diverse audience. I want to be read by conservatives. I want to be read by liberals. I want to read by people who can’t afford to pay the full freight. I think it is perilous — probably for the business, but more for journalism — if, as other news organisations die, the news is dominated by a handful of very elite institutions on the coasts, driven by the coasts. I think we have to work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I grew up in a working class community in New Orleans, in an all-black neighbourhood in New Orleans. I would hate it if the kid that I was does not have great news to read. I would argue that kid now has more news to read than I did. I had two so-so print newspapers. That same kid can read The Guardian for free and can read a lot of The New York Times. But I would hate it if that kid did not have access to quality news.”
Asked about the letter to Times’ readers that he and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote immediately following Trump’s surprise election, Baquet said it was appropriate at the time.
“That letter was an acknowledgement of something important. I didn’t regard it as an apology. It wasn’t. It was an acknowledgement that the American press … did not quite understand the Trump phenomenon. Nobody in my newsroom — nobody in front of me — said that they thought Donald Trump could win. ...
“I don’t think we got how much the American economic crisis and its repair had left people behind, freaked people out, and made people feel like they had lost their access to the American dream. I don’t think we quite understood how much anger there was in the country. My goal now is to understand that. And I already think we’ve done a better job. I think we’ve come a long way.”
Since Trump took office, the Times has been a constant thorn in his side, regularly reporting on the often unflattering inner workings of his administration with the help of anonymous inside sources.
“This is a White House that leaks like crazy,” Baquet said. “I was the Washington bureau chief for most of the Obama years. It was watertight. And for the last year of (George W.) Bush, which was also pretty watertight in its relationship to the press.
“My own analysis is this was a president who was elected without a core, fully developed philosophy about most of the giant issues of the day. Barack Obama, George Bush, and the others had profoundly developed philosophies about the Middle East, about trade, and about other things. And they picked people who understood those issues and could get them what they want.
“I think Donald Trump, because he's not been a politician, came in with, like, ‘I don’t know what my policy should be on same-sex marriage or this or that.’ So all of these people who wanted to influence and create policy on the fly came in. And when they didn’t get what they wanted …"
As for Trump’s use of social media platform Twitter to communicate his unfiltered viewpoints, pronounce his policies, and rally his supporters against his perceived opponents, Baquet said the Times has had to adapt its coverage.
“It’s now so frequent, mostly we don’t cover the Tweets. Mostly the Tweets are repeats or baits. We cover the Tweets when he says something that affects policy, or when he says something outrageous. If he just criticises, you know, a political candidate, it doesn’t feel newsworthy.
“By the way, it took us a while to get there. In the beginning, we never had a president who Tweeted two or three times a day. It took us a while to get past the point where I’d be on the phone with the Washington bureau and they’d ask: What about this one? And I would say: He’s the president. He uttered something. We’ve got to cover it. Right? Well, that doesn’t hold true when the president Tweets pretty constantly.”
In holding the president accountable for routinely making claims contrary to facts, the Times, unlike some other news brands, will call out instances it considers to be outright lies.
“I am reluctant to use the word ‘lie,’” Baquet said. “If you get loose with the word lie, you’re going to look pretty scurrilous. Right? It’s going to be in every story. … So I have to sign off on use of the word ‘lie’ because I don’t want it to be used loosely.”
Beyond Trump and politics, Baquet also responded to questions about:
Harvey Weinstien sexual abuse scandal: “This is not a good reflection on society, but those stories had huge impact because there were movie stars in it. Because we wrote similar stories about Donald Trump when he was running for president … I got e-mails from people when we did the Donald Trump stories, literally e-mails from people who said: Oh, those women threw themselves at him; he was a handsome billionaire. Something changed the argument when suddenly there are people you can identify with. And when it’s Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow — that moved the story. It affected the whole debate.”
Datelines and reader understanding: “One of the most shocking days of my career as an editor was when I was the editor of the L.A. Times and we did a survey of our readers and we showed them datelines, and our readers thought that that meant the reporters were in Los Angeles calling to those cities. So that meant one of the great givens of journalism, which is that if you see somebody and there’s a Kabul dateline, you know they’re there. Our readers didn’t really understand that.
“And then in comes an era when people don’t trust the press. So I figured the way for people to trust is if they know us better, see us, know who we are, know a little bit about our backgrounds. If they make mistakes, I think they’re more forgiving.
“Alissa Rubin, who’s been covering wars from the very beginning for The New York Times and who won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago for her coverage of Afghanistan, I don’t think our readers knew, when she writes a story, she is writing as someone who has spent a huge chunk of her life living in danger. And if the reader doesn’t know that, of course they don’t trust us — especially if we have a White House that’s saying it’s all bullshit. So I think we’ve got to let people know who we are. I think we have to be transparent about how we do our work.”
Digital innovation: “The original Innovation Report essentially said we didn’t think about our audience, and it was right. Now we talk about our audience every day in our daily meeting. Does that mean we chase clicks? No. It means we want to understand what people are reading. We want to understand what time we should publish to make it to them. ...
“I think that it is a very different newsroom. We take risks. We screw up. We try stuff. But I think the boldest things we’ve done are to openly embrace our audience, to openly move away from just writing traditional news stories, to openly embrace having a television show, a podcast, and to say: We can tell stories many different ways. Let’s try it.”
Safety concerns: “The safety of correspondents keeps me awake at night. I’m so confident in the business, to be frank, especially from The New York Times’ perspective — not so much the local news — but I’m so confident now that The New York Times will survive and thrive. But I worry about the safety of correspondents.”
The future of journalism: “I do think it’s an attractive profession. It may be a more attractive profession because there are so many more things to do. There’s video — I’m probably the first executive editor of The New York Times who cannot do the job of half the people in the newsroom. When I started, I could be a reporter, I could be an editor, I’m a lousy headline writer but I could try. But I have no idea how to do video. I know it when I see it but I have no idea. I find that exciting.”
Newsroom technology: “I think technologists should be an important part of the discussion in the newsroom. But at the end of the day, the newsroom should be led by the people who, when they get called by the CIA and say, ‘Don't report this,’ who understand why the reasons should almost always be we’re going to do it anyway. Those are journalists.”
Trust in media: “I honestly believe that our power as a news organisation rests in the fact that people know we try to get it right and that we’re not advocating. The story we did about Donald Trump’s taxes, the two stories we’ve done, my honest belief is that, even if you don’t like us, you believe those stories. I think if those stories had appeared in The Nation, which is an openly left publication that I happen to admire, it would not have had the same impact. One of my jobs is to protect the view that, if you like us or not, we try to be fair and we try to get it right and we’re not influenced by political perspective.”
The future of newspapers: “The greatest crisis in American journalism is the death of local news. ... I don’t know what the answer is. Their economic model is gone. I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire. ...
“I don’t know what the answer is, but I think that everybody who cares about news — myself included, and all of you — should take this on as an issue. Because we’re going to wake up one day and there are going to be entire states with no journalism or with little tiny pockets of journalism. … I’m not worried about Los Angeles and New York. I don’t know what the model is for covering the school boards in Newark, New Jersey. That makes me nervous.”