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Former NYT editor Dean Baquet on the future of the industry: 'Good journalism always wins'

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Jake Chessum
/
The New York Times
Dean Baquet, former New York Times Executive Editor

In April of 2022, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet announced his retirement after eight years of unprecedented growth and ambitious reporting. When he took the job in 2014, he was the first African American to hold the position in the paper’s 163 years. But the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist has a lifelong career, one that started in his hometown of New Orleans.

Since stepping down as editor, he plans to lead a new investigative journalism fellowship at the Times, where he hopes to engage young journalists with backgrounds often underrepresented in newsrooms.

For more on his storied career and where he is headed next, WRKF’s Adam Vos spoke with legendary journalist and editor, Dean Baquet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Adam Vos: I'd like to start at the very beginning with your growing up in New Orleans. What was your first exposure to journalism there? When did you know that this was the field that you wanted to pursue?

Dean Baquet: I did not think of journalism as a field to pursue when I was growing up. I read the paper, I read the State's Item and the Times Picayune every day, particularly sports. But I didn't realize that I wanted to be a journalist, frankly, until I got my first job at the State's Item when I was like 19 or so. I mean, I was the editor of my high school paper, but that was frankly just something to do. I didn't think of journalism as a career actually until much later in life.

That's interesting. What was it about the State's Item that made you think about journalism? Other than the fact it was a newspaper.

I was homesick. I went to Columbia University in New York. I missed New Orleans, I missed my friends, and the State's Item had a fellowship program.

It was a pretty well paying job and I could go home and have something to do for the summer and maybe even for a little longer. And I just sort of fell in love with it. I fell in love with the characters. The people in the State's Item newsroom were just interesting glimpses of different parts of New Orleans. And I fell in love with the urgency of news. I think within a couple of days, I figured I'd finally found something that I wanted to do for a living.

In New Orleans, at the State's Item and the Times Picayune, what did you learn about the importance of the nuances of local journalism and investigative reporting? 

First off I learned there were huge parts of the city that I didn't know at all. I'd grown up in Treme and the Seventh Ward, and I really didn't know Uptown. I didn't know Algiers. I'm not even sure I've been to Algiers. The New Orleans I grew up in could be parochial. I remember the first time I covered a fire, I couldn't find it. This is the city I had spent my whole life in, but it wasn't in any of the neighborhoods I grew up in. So part of it opened up this whole new world in the city I grew up in.

But I also think that one reason I got so interested in investigative reporting is I do think that I've always been interested in power imbalance. And as you know, cities have power imbalances. Whether it’s the relationship sometimes between police and their communities, whether it's politicians who care more about getting reelected or big businesses that care more about their bottom lines.

Those came to be things that I cared about and wanted to understand and investigate. And I think one of the jobs of journalism should be to investigate that, understand that, and explore it.

After New Orleans, you spent some years in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, among other places. What were some of the changes in the field of journalism that you saw during that time?  

The biggest change of course is the arrival of the internet. And it's been pretty transformational for the newsroom. It's not the only reason, but it's one of the things that contributed to the decline of local journalism, frankly. I I think there's one very powerful positive, and then one very powerful negative.

If I can oversimplify the changes, the very powerful positive is that the best news organizations are better than they were before because they're just different disciplines. All we could do was write stories and take photographs when I started. Now we have video investigations and giant audio operations.

We write better because computers allow you to write better and clearer and go back and make changes without having to take it out of a typewriter. All that's better. But I think the business model for local news has been blown up. And I think local news is in big trouble. So that to me is the biggest downside, even though I think journalism overall is significantly better.

Of course, when you became executive editor, you were the first African American to hold that position. Why do you think it is that people of color have been historically underrepresented in newsrooms? And what can we do to diversify? Not only to diversify the staff, but also the kinds of stories and communities that are reported? 

Well, people of color have been locked out of a lot of important professions for generations, including journalism. I don't think you can accurately cover a community if you don't look like the community. And that's not only race and ethnicity, it's politics, political background, and the part of town you're from. I don't think that you can truly cover a city unless you sort of represent the community.

The New Orleans I grew up in was, I don't know, 40% Black. And there were only a couple of Black reporters on the staff of newspapers, which meant that you couldn't be in touch with the community. And I think the only way to do that is to have a staff that looks like the community.

In the ideal world in a local newsroom, your kids go to the same school as the kids of your reader. If your school system is in a crisis, you know that because your kids go to those schools. You are represented by the same politicians as everybody else. You understand and appreciate economic uncertainty. You eat at some of the same restaurants that the people you cover eat at. And if you do all those, you're gonna understand more about your community.

I want to pivot to the 2016 election under Trump. The relationship that readers had with news outlets sort of changed. We saw an era of fake news and Trump attacking reporters, including yourself, by name.

What were the big changes you saw in journalism during the onset of the Trump years? 

Trump threw us for a loop. And I think he showed a weakness in journalism. We were not frankly close enough to the community to realize that he was going to win. I don't think anybody, frankly, including Trump and the Republican Party thought he was going to win.

Trump set out to undermine independent institutions consciously. He literally set out to undermine journalists and journalism. He set out to the federal government the Supreme Court until he changed the Supreme Court. I think that we've never had a leader who set out to undermine the institutions whose job it was to scrutinize him and ask hard questions.

And that included the press. I think it was an appalling abuse of power and it is. But our readership kept growing. In fact, in the beginning of Trump, we gained readers who suddenly wanted to know more about the news. And we've continued to gain readers.

I don't think that's because of Trump. I think that's partly because the world has become more connected. But I don't think that you could have a president who routinely attacks the press with falsehoods and not have that contribute to people's distrust of the press. Of course that's gonna have an impact on how we're regarded among readers. It has not hurt the economics of the New York times, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's hurt the economics of other news organizations.

I'd like to dig into your next venture, a local investigative fellowship program for young journalists. Can you tell us more about what that is? 

I've spent a big chunk of my career thinking about investigative reporting. It's the kind of reporting I did. It's the kind of reporting I've tried to lead at The New York Times, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or other stories like that. And I think that many, many news organizations have gotten too small to do it themselves. So my goal is to put together a group of editors at The New York Times and seek out reporters across the country who have real investigative ideas and put them on salary.

The Times will pay for them, edit them with a team of editors and publish on The New York Times site and whatever local site. I'll be looking for freelancers, people just out of college, as well as people who work in newsrooms.

One goal is to do the work. To do the exposing that news organizations don't have the wherewithal to do as much as they used to. And the second one is to teach people how to do the work and hopefully have them stay in their communities and do it afterward. And the third one frankly, is personal, which is that this profession has given me a life that would've been unimaginable for me and I feel like I owe it something,

What do you hope the fellows will gain from this experience?

Well first off, I hope we do some big important journalism that changes the world. That's my first goal. My second goal is that they'll learn how to do it. They'll learn investigative reporting. It’s not easy. You have to be a sort of a rigorous, sophisticated thinker. You have to be highly accurate. You have to have good ideas. You have to be really fair. You have to not jump to conclusions. You have to have some balance and understanding, and that's tricky stuff. So I'm hoping they learn and continue to do the work.

There are a variety of business models for making local reporting a reality now, which I think is good. I think there's gonna be a lot of different models. My prayer is that there are profit models and nonprofit models, and new organizations that start and do different kinds of journalism. Historically America had lots of news organizations. I'm not just talking about newspapers, I'm talking about the whole run of news organizations, websites, radio and television.

That seems counterintuitive to what we've been witnessing in the media ecosystem with corporations and news outlets merging, local newspapers are left standing. There’s less competition. With that context, that sort of doesn't seem like there's a greater level of diversity popping up in journalism.

In the history of American journalism, newspapers didn't start consolidating until a couple hundred years ago. But if you look at the history of it, there were tons of news organizations that would just cover the waterfront, just cover the Irish community, just cover the Italian community, just cover the Black community.

My hope is that there could be more diversification, more small news organizations. My hope is that the big ones also survive. My hope is that The Times Picayune is around for another 200 years, because I think you’re going to need all of that. I think you're going to need both.

Smaller news operations are going to have to work harder to decide what's important to them. What's our core? Everybody's gonna have to say, what is my core? What am I gonna cover? And what's gonna distinguish me from everybody else?

Before we go. I'd like to talk a little bit about the future of journalism. What do you think are some of the leading issues affecting journalism today?

Well, I think the biggest one is going to be local news. One of the biggest questions is gonna be, how do we recreate the good things about the gigantic newspapers? How do we make sure that places that are not covered get some kind of scrutiny? How do we make sure that we are covering the things that the government does? And then frankly, how do we make sure we're covering the things big companies do?

So how do we do that? I don't have the answer to that. But I think those are like the biggest questions. As an institution my philosophy has always been, good journalism always wins. Whether that's in covering politicians, businesses, or just covering the world. So just good, honest, aggressive, thoughtful journalism that people have to have. I think that's what it’s going to take.

Today’s episode of Louisiana Considered was hosted by Adam Vos. Our managing producer is Alana Schreiber and our digital editor is Katelyn Umholtz. Our engineers are Garrett Pittman, Aubry Procell, and Thomas Walsh. 

You can listen to Louisiana Considered Monday through Friday at 12:00 and 7:30 pm. It’s available on Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Adam is responsible for coordinating WRKF's programming and making sure everything you hear on the radio runs smoothly. He is the Baton Rouge-based host for Louisiana Considered, our daily regional news program, and is also frequently the local voice afternoons on All Things Considered.
Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WRKF from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.