Off the Cuff: Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times


Yingran Nan Zhang

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times and former editor of the Los Angeles Times

Oliver Bok , Editor in Chief

Dean Baquet is the executive editor of The New York Times and the former editor of the Los Angeles Times. Baquet started his career as a reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, his hometown. Baquet later won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism with his reports on corruption within the Chicago City Council for the Chicago Tribune. Before becoming executive editor, Baquet worked at the Times as a reporter, managing editor, national editor and the Washington Bureau Chief. As executive editor, Baquet occupies the top position in the newsroom and oversees every aspect of the paper’s reporting. Baquet is the first African-American executive editor in the history of the Times. He sat down for a group interview with several campus news organizations a few hours before his convocation speech in Finney Chapel on Tuesday.         

You’ve put a lot of emphasis on making The New York Times ‘digital first.’ What does that mean and why is it important?

What it means is — and it’s hard to explain unless you see the way a newsroom works … [that] when newspapers like The New York Times first started building a digital report, we would primarily think about the print paper, writing for the print paper, what the stories and the coverage would look like for the print paper and then transferring that coverage online. And I think that fails to do a couple of things. First, it fails to take tremendous advantage of the differences and advantages that digital publication offers. It fails to take advantage of not only the real-time news, but [also] the things you can do with a digital report that you can’t do with a print report.

The example I always use is, if you look at our coverage of Ebola last year, if we were only thinking of the print report, we would have just done these very evocative stories from Africa. But I think what made that coverage special and different from any previous New York Times coverage was a couple of videos that would just knock your socks off. There was one video of a guy who was suffering from Ebola who was trying to get into a clinic funded by the Americans, and it was full and they couldn’t let him in, and he was just writhing on the ground.

Digital first means making sure — some people think it just means getting stories up fast, and that’s not correct — to take advantage of all of the things that a digital report can do that a print report cannot do, thinking about them in real time and making them your first priority. And then, at the end of the day, when it comes time to pull together a print paper, if you’ve done it right, you still have all the stuff you would’ve had anyway. My main goal is to be read because what I care most about is the public service mission of news organizations. And if millions and millions of people are dying to read The New York Times in the middle of the day, many more than [those who] read it in print, I’m an idiot if I don’t figure out a way to serve that audience and to make sure that they get to see the stuff we do.

You’ve introduced advertiser-sponsored articles. How do you do that without sacrificing The New York Times’ credibility with readers?

I think as long as it’s labelled and not produced by our news staff. It’s got to be clearly labeled. … In print we have something called “Paid Posts,” where if an advertiser wants a story — they don’t want stories about themselves, oddly enough, because they think people would recognize that — but if a watch company wants a story about how watches are made, the newsroom should not produce that. But there’s a group of people that report to the advertising director and their job is to produce that. It’s very clearly labeled advertising or editorial. That doesn’t bother me.

To be frank, we’ve always done that. When I started out as a reporter in New Orleans, we used to do something that I’m embarrassed to talk about now. Every year, we’d have to put out a section called “Pro South,” which meant positive things about the city. And really it was a special section, and you went to advertisers and you said, “Biggest local automobile dealer, come talk to a reporter about how great your new Ford is.” And in the 1960s and ‘70s, newspapers did that kind of stuff. And then a bunch of us, including me, rose up and said, “We shouldn’t be doing this,” and then we stopped. Newspapers have always struggled with this, and I think we’re more pure — and I intend to keep it that way — now than we ever have been.

What was your reasoning behind not publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the Paris shooting? Why did you call USC professor Marc Cooper an asshole on Facebook after he criticized your decision?

He was an asshole. [Laughter.] That was a really difficult decision. Some decisions I make I will stand here and tell you they were clean and easy. We were right; it was about integrity and anybody who disagrees can go jump in a lake. That was a really hard one, and the reason I got so upset with that guy is I think he made it seem like it was just a glib, easy decision. I sat in a room and I looked at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And I looked at many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And I sat with a Muslim staffer who helped me understand the cartoons. And I sat with a French translator who helped me understand the cartoons. And they are, by the American vernacular, truly insulting. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to do it. The newspapers that said, “Look, we ran a Charlie Hebdo cartoon,” and just ran the one of the prophet. To be honest, I don’t think that was a courageous act. … That was the tepid [cartoon]. The cartoons that really upset everybody are the cartoons [like the one with] the Pope with his balls in the air. That’s the kind of stuff that Charlie Hebdo did. Lewd cartoons. … a graphic depiction of the Virgin Birth. If you really wanted to give readers a sense of what the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are like, you would have to run those. And I don’t think that the readers of The New York Times expect to see that in The New York Times. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that I think there are ways, today, if you really want to see it, you can go online and see it. But that was hard. I’m not going to sit here and say that everybody who disagrees with me is a jerk. The editor of The Washington Post, one of my best friends, ran one of the cartoons — not the first time, but after they put up the cartoon of the new issue of the magazine, he ran it. Look, I get that. The reason I got so upset with this guy on Facebook is that he pulled out, and you will not go far as a journalist thinking like this. He begins with: ‘How many people have to die before The New York Times has to [publish the cartoons]’ — that’s bullshit. I worked hard at this decision. I might be wrong, but I wasn’t glib about it, and I’m totally tolerant of people who disagree. I get it. People in my newsroom disagreed with me. But I’m not very tolerant of the people who make it a glib, easy decision. That sort of minimizes what we went through in the newsroom to make that decision.

You’ve expressed regret that Edward Snowden went to The Guardian and The Washington Post to make his NSA disclosures instead of going to The New York Times. But looking at the Times’ history, when it sat on the warrantless wiretapping story during the Bush administration, and also during your career, when you sat on an NSA story at the LA Times, didn’t Snowden make the right choice? Why should the next big whistleblower come to the Times?

Was he right? No, I don’t think he was right. I understand why he made his decision. I don’t think he was right. First off — and I wasn’t at The New York Times for the [warrantless wiretapping] NSA story — it did publish it, it didn’t kill it.

But only after the [2004] election.

It had nothing to do with the election. If you read the accounts at the time, Jim Risen was about to put it in a book. It wasn’t because of the election; it was because Risen was about to put it in a book and that forced the hand of the editors of The New York Times. I wasn’t there, so I’m not going to judge how they made the decision. I was at the LA Times at the time, but they did publish it.

If you were to say one reason he didn’t come [was because] The New York Times screwed up in the post-war coverage before the US went to war in Iraq, he’s right, The New York Times did. So did the LA Times, which I ran at the time. Everybody did. … But I think that if he looks at our overall track record, we publish stuff very aggressively. We published the NSA stuff, we’ve published other Risen stories, we’ve published hard-hitting reports about the Obama administration that they hate, we’ve published lots of stories about drones [and] we’ve published other stories about surveillance. And it breaks my heart that he went elsewhere. But I think my appeal to him and future Snowdens would be, ‘we do publish.’ You’re isolating a couple of things where you thought we were too slow or did something off, but if you look at the whole history of The New York Times, you have to include the Pentagon Papers, you got to include coverage of Vietnam [and] you got to include our aggressive coverage of the world. I think our track record is really good.

The LA Times thing has always been misunderstood. The allegation was that when I was editor of the LA Times, an engineer in AT&T or an employee of AT&T became very suspicious about a room at the headquarters in San Francisco, where he was convinced there was some surveillance going on. Nobody could go into the room and the room was always locked. So he came to the LA Times and we reported the hell out of it. We went nuts to report it, but we could never prove it was anything other than a mysterious closed door. This is before people realized how much spying there was, before people realized what the NSA had become. So all we had, with all that reporting, was that there was closed door, it was mysterious, and the government wouldn’t talk about it. And I don’t think that was enough for a story. So we didn’t write a story. It wasn’t because the government told us not to write a story; it was because I didn’t think we had enough for a story. If you look at what people wrote at the time, because eventually The New York Times wrote a modest inside story about the guy’s allegations, all it said was that an engineer at AT&T thinks that there’s a door down the hall that’s locked, etc. So I don’t have any regrets about that one. It turned out it was part of NSA spying, but, jeez, if we published everything where people are concerned about closed doors and mysteries like that, mostly we’d be wrong.

Why does The New York Times use a paywall for its articles? Do you envision The New York Times of the future relying more heavily on subscription fees or advertising? Will it always be a mix of both?

The thing that people have to understand is, running a 1,200 or 1,300 person newsroom, maintaining bureaus all around the world [and] sending those reporters to Yemen, is real expensive. So when I hear people say they don’t want to pay for news, I don’t get that formulation. If you don’t pay in some way or another, what you’re going to get is a bunch of people sitting around in their underwear, writing stories from their living room. If you want people in places who have families to support, it’s going to cost. In print, the construct used to be [that] most of the costs of newsgathering and printing the paper came from advertising. That balance has started change, and now consumer revenue — people who pay for the print paper or subscribe online — has become a bigger part of our revenue. … We created a paywall because we needed to generate revenue to make up for the lost revenue as advertising started to go away in print.

I don’t know what the future revenue model for news organizations looks like. It’s going to depend on the organization. Smaller papers will not be able to charge as much as we do. Small regional papers, it’s harder for them to construct a paywall because you can find their stuff anywhere. What I have to do, my half of the equation, is that I have to work really hard so that we have a news report that you have to have no matter how much you pay for it. My calculation is that without The New York Times, you can’t be an informed citizen, that’s my goal. There are things in The New York Times, in print and online, that you will not find anywhere else.

The Guardian has had a lot of success expanding internationally and gaining a large American audience. How do you intend to grow The New York Times’ international readership?

We have a growing international audience. It’s the fastest growing part of our audience. It’s harder for us. The Guardian, which I respect a lot, had this big pool of people who spoke their same language: the United States. If you’re in the United States and you’re looking for a big pool of people who speak your language, it’s not so easy. There’s not a continent with 300 million people waiting to read The New York Times. On the other hand, the elites and the government officials and the business elites of most countries speak English more. So we’re actually growing. … We were making great inroads in China, until the government shut us down. That’s another thing I would say to Edward Snowden: We broke and won a Pulitzer Prize for the story about corruption in China and we paid the commercial price by the government shutting down our website. It’s still there, we’re working away, tons of people read the stuff by getting around the government obstructions, but I think there is a big international audience for us, and we’re working on it. …

The Guardian cracked the U.S. market with two things: First off, it’s very good. Second, it makes no apologies. European papers wear their politics on their sleeves, and it makes no apologies that it’s a left-leaning newspaper. So it gets a lot of well-educated left-leaning Americans. Contrary to what people think, I don’t think we have a political orientation; we’re straighter and that doesn’t sell in some places, and in some places it sells better.

Isn’t it also a philosophical question as well? Do you think there’s any journalistic merit in wearing your politics on your sleeve?

I don’t, actually. We have an editorial page. The only part of the operation I have nothing to do with is the editorial page. I think that the country is so divided now that there’s tremendous value in being one of the few institutions that’s trying to sort it out. I think the country is so deeply divided between right and left that I think you get points for going in and just trying to understand it, going into Obama’s healthcare plan and just trying to understand it, without a point of view because you’re seen as Democrat or Republican. So I think there are advantages to being objective.