Editor’s note: The University of Arizona School of Journalism has awarded New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet its Zenger Award for Press Freedom. I spoke with Baquet a few weeks ago, and the following is our conversation, which I’ve edited and condensed for length and clarity. — Sarah Garrecht Gassen, Star editorial page editor
Has the past year affected your view of your role with the New York Times and the press in general?
Yes, in a very positive way. I think we went through many years — the press in general — of hand-wringing and wondering where we fit into this new media landscape. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-Donald Trump or anti-Donald Trump, I think suddenly in the last year the importance of journalism in its purest sense — which is honest, aggressive reporting and fact-finding and explaining — just became absolutely necessary. It was a reminder that for all of the hand-wringing, for all of the wondering about what the future held, if you stick to your roots, you do pretty well.
I think this has been an important year for me journalistically and an important year in which I think we all were reminded what people want from us is what they always wanted from us. That’s not an excuse not to change or to do things in different ways. It’s just a reminder what we do is really, really important.
Is that mostly digital subscriptions, are people finding you that way?
Mostly, mostly digital subscriptions. Print subscriptions have also held steady. They’re not roaring like the digital subscriptions, but print subscriptions have held steady, too.
The bottom line is that more people read us every day — an unimaginable number of people read us everyday. We have tens of millions of readers. That would be unimaginable in a purely print era.
What are they coming to the New York Times to find?
I think it varies widely. I think there are people on the left who come to us because they know we are asking hard questions of the new president, and they don’t like the new president. There’s that.
Then I think there are people in the middle who are coming to us because there is so much bad and fake information out there that they want to read something where people are really striving for the truth.
And I also think there are people who are probably conservative who, even if they think — wrongly — that the New York Times coverage is just tainted, they come because we cover business. I think it’s all of the above.
You touched on the whole idea of “fake news.” How do you define it?
It’s a term I’ve come to hate. I think that even honorable people use it too often. It’s a bad expression that is supposed to refer to journalism that is intentionally wrong, as opposed to the mistakes that comes with journalism. That is what I take it as: journalism that is intentionally wrong to sell papers or get eyeballs or to skew coverage.
The worst example of fake news are all the people that wrote stories that said Barack Obama was not born in the United States — that was completely fake and everybody knew it, but they were doing it to get eyeballs and to fit a certain world view.
I was having a conversation with a really conservative reader and we were talking about fake news, and she mentioned coverage leading up to when Donald Trump came to Phoenix and how Trump was coming to pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. She that that was fake news, and I thought, that’s speculation. Is there a difference?
He did end up pardoning him, right?
Yes, he did, but not from the stage — he said Joe Arpaio wouldn’t have anything to worry about.
I would say to that reader that Trump pretty much said from the stage “I’m going to pardon him, if not today.” So that’s actually accurate, accurate speculation.
There’s a difference between fake news, which again is intentionally false, and analysis, which sometimes can be wrong, and mistakes, which happen.
Fake news has got to be intentional. I hate the expression because it’s gotten too vague. And I think politicians, including the president, frankly, have destroyed it because they use it to say anything they disagree with is “fake news.”
Students are coming into this world of media not having the best sense of media literacy. What do you say to them as they enter this world where it seems that the hard-and-fast rules don’t seem so hard and fast.
First there are rules, and they should not dismiss them. I do think we are in a period of questioning what rules and are they there for the right reasons and what rules are merely things that were set in place 50 years ago and should change. For instance, the way we write news stories. It was merely done a certain way to close a paper on time.
Somehow we (in newspapers) have all forgotten that is why it was, that things have to be written in a certain way. And we don’t like first person and we don’t like experimental writing. When, in fact, the reasons we do those sorts of things, or not, are really not important parts of our tradition. They are just manufacturing processes.
I think it is good we are in an era when people are asking questions like that because the new technology demands that we wrestle with things like that. I manage a newsroom that has a pretty large video operation. I have to figure out how to manage that, too, and that’s part of telling stories.
All I’ve said — being truthful, being honest, being curious, wanting to understand every legitimate side of the story — those are important rules set aside for very important reasons. The press is extremely powerful, and if we didn’t stick to those rules we would do damage to ourselves, and to the country, and to the world. Those are very important rules.
I think those rules should be taught and people should learn them. People should understand the difference between those and mere traditions that can be tossed out the window as technology changes.
My belief is that no one is going to remember Breitbart News Network in 10 years. It will be gone. It’s a monstrosity masquerading like journalism and nobody will remember it. As soon as the country’s mood changes, they will forget it ever existed. ... Breitbart is trash.
Why do you think that?
Because they twist news to fit an agenda.
Do you think the agenda will change?
Agendas change. They always do, that’s sort of the very nature of history, agendas change. Some of our readers want the New York Times to be the main opposition to Donald Trump.
It’s why I believe we are supposed to push back. Because if you’re the main opposition to one party that’s in power, all it does is put you on the side of the party out of power. And then what happens when the party comes back into power? And all these things will happen. All these things are inevitable.
How has covering this president in this White House been different in practical terms than your experience with previous presidents and White Houses?
Well, first off, Donald Trump is very surprising. You never know from one day to the next what’s going to happen in a real, practical way. It is an extraordinarily open administration.
He talks more and says more to the press. He is quoted more than any of his predecessors. It’s not even close.
Is that because of the tweets?
Part may be the tweets, but he also gives a lot of interviews. We have talked to him may times, and so has the Washington Post. He is a pretty accessible guy, and the people around him are pretty accessible, too. So, some of it is on purpose.
I think he’s a guy that likes talking to the press despite the fact that he attacks the press. Some of it is because he clearly has a team around him that makes disagreements, arguments and fights that break out into the public.
But this is the most transparent administration I have ever seen. And by the way, I think that’s a good thing. I’m sure he thinks, or the people around him think, it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing to watch policy unfold. By the way, the Obama administration was extremely tight with information. It was not as transparent.
Is the accessibility and the transparency part of the way the administration views the world?
Well, in his case, no. I think in his case, he’s grown up in the public spotlight. He has grown up — I think he would even agree with this — manipulating the press. This is a guy who lived his life very large in the press. Wanted to be seen, wanted to be observed, wanted to be covered, wanted to be quoted. I don’t think he has changed that since he became president of the United States.
I don’t think he could write a 40-page paper describing his philosophy of dealing with the press. But he comes from a profession where dealing with the press and winning over the press is important from everything from getting zoning changes to getting PGA tours — selling yourself is part of it and I think that’s a big part of it.
I think Donald Trump became president with very little political experience and very few well-formed opinions.
By the time a George Bush had become president, he had opinions about a hundred things. Donald Trump does not, and some of these things are really complicated, you know. Whether to increase troop strength in Afghanistan — that has bedeviled Republicans and Democrats and nobody has a clean answer.
Because he doesn’t have completely formed opinions about these things and the people around him debate a lot, and it gets out.
I’ve noticed in New York Times stories the reporter will now include how many sources have verified the information, even if those sources aren’t identified by name. Why include those details?
When I grew up, with newspapers you had a monopoly and you had to read the newspaper. And you read whether it was good or bad. If you lived in Tucson, Phoenix or New Orleans you had one or two papers. You might pick one because the sports section was better or you liked its politics coverage better, but you had two choices. And if you didn’t like it, you still had two choices.
And I think we took a lot for granted. I think we took we were a little arrogant we assumed you had to read us, we didn’t court readers, didn’t try to woo readers and we didn’t try to convince readers that we should be trusted.
I’m using “we” loosely — places where I’ve worked that would’ve been true. I think we figured if we wrote it on the front page, it was true and you have to deal with it.
I think we are learning now that readers have many more choices. You could decide you don’t want to read the local paper and you only want to read The Guardian if you wanted to. I think we have to work harder to get people to trust us, to read us. I think the art of getting people to trust us is to be more open with what we know and what we don’t know and what our sourcing is.
How did you come to that conclusion?
That’s pre-Trump. I’ve come to that view powerfully in this job in the 3½ years of being executive editor.
I’ve been getting emails from people saying, why should I believe this?
You look at a story and it just says “sources said” and not explain who the sources are. And suddenly you say, “Well I get why people might not believe that.” And I think we will have to look a lot harder to be more transparent ourselves.
Is that something within the newsroom you’ve had conversations about?
Some of it’s obvious, we have had a lot of conversations about anonymous sources and how to identify them. And one of the things that I’m actually pushing reporters, I think we should tell them who our reporters are.
Is that difficult for you personally to be part of that shift?
Yes, it goes against everything — and it’s an example, by the way, of what I said earlier about some traditions we learn that are not worth holding onto, that they’re merely habits.
One of the hardest things about being a modern journalist is telling the difference between habits and traditions. Not writing news stories using first person was just a habit, but, truth be told, sometimes using first person, sometimes making it clear that you’re part of the story, is important.
By the way, if you go back and read the earliest great journalism — go read Nellie Bly’s serious reporting from inside a mental hospital in New York. It’s also in first person. Every other sentence starts with “I.”
I hate it when someone writes in first person when they are not actually witnessing anything, but if you’re witnessing something and it gives the story credibility or makes it more interesting, why not? There’s always a weird construct when you say, “something was witnessed by a reporter” and the reporter happens to be you. That’s weird.
I’ve taught at the University of Arizona for about 15 years, and more and more I hear from students who say “My parents aren’t sure I should go into journalism, I’ll never get a job, if I get a job I’ll never be paid well, everyone hates journalists and think it’s all fake news.” Do you have anything reassuring, or not reassuring, to tell parents?
I think this is the most remarkable period of journalism we will have lived through. And I think that it’s exciting. I think there will be institutions you would have never heard of that will survive and thrive. I have told you what I thought of Breitbart, but on the other hand I will tell you the Voxes of the world and some of what Buzzfeed does, some of that stuff is really exciting and different and we steal from them all the time.
I would say this, I grew up in New Orleans and had a choice of two newspapers. The same kid growing up in New Orleans now can read anything he or she wants to read.
I think you’re not going to get rich, but I think there are all kinds of creative jobs open to journalists. I would encourage people to go into journalism. It’s going to be harder, it’s going to be different. You might even find yourself working in technology, working on the product side of a news organization, but the jobs are there. They’re harder to come by, I’ll admit that. The jobs are there and they’re exciting.
For most of my career or until the last 10 years I mainly was maintaining the status quo. Now it feels like I’m doing some historic work. I mean, I’m going to leave a New York Times behind that’s very, very different than the one I found. And that feels like I’m wrestling with something bigger than me. And it’s exciting, exciting because I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
That’s exciting. I think things are going to be more diverse. I think we should not forget the newsrooms we came up in were mostly male, mostly white, and I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think there is going to be different kinds of people, different kinds of opportunities. I would say do it.
So looking forward, what do you see as changes that people should be on the lookout for?
I think the one question is I worry greatly about local news. I think that this is an unfortunate answer to your question, and the next two, three, four years will see a pretty big shakeup in local news, and I’m worried about it.
That scares me. And I don’t think that people quite understand how big a deal that will be for the democracy.
Good trends? I think there are a lot of opportunities for nonprofits that understand some of this and want to help local news. I think the phone is going to transform how news is presented and you’re going to see everything from artificial intelligence to you name it on the phone, and I think that’s exciting. I think journalism is going to get increasingly visual.
Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you want to say or you think people should know about the media or journalism?
I’ve been in journalism for 40 years, and journalists are the most honorable and hard-working people that I know. And they really try to tell the truth and to change and innovate, and are accused of making things up.
Anyone participating in fake news should be ashamed of themselves.
Why don’t we just call these fabricated stories fiction?
Because fiction is a well-regarded craft. I think author Salman Rushdie would probably be upset if you called “fake news” fiction — he works really hard to produce his fiction.
So what do we call it?
I don’t know.
“Fake news” makes it sound like there’s vanilla and chocolate and strawberry news – different kinds of news, and there’s not. It’s either news or it’s not.
That’s right, that’s right.