Three months into his tenure as chief editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet sat down on the black leather sofa in his third-floor office within the newspaper’s glass-and-steel headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
It was a dramatic day in a career that has been full of them: Reporters and editors working under Baquet were putting the finishing touches on an exhaustive investigation into Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.
This story first appeared in the September 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The article told of how this domineering politician had established an ethics commission to examine the corrupt practices of New York legislators, only to undermine it whenever it ventured too close to Cuomo himself.
Calls were coming in from people close to the governor. They were understandably concerned. Metropolitan editor Wendell Jamieson, who was handling the piece, knocked on Baquet’s door and entered. “They want to know whether the story’s running tomorrow,” Jamieson said, referring to Cuomo’s aides.
“I sent them a note,” Baquet said in a soft voice, glancing at Jamieson through rimless eyeglasses.
He had done more than send a note, in fact. Earlier that day, he had spoken on the phone with an anxious Cuomo. He had even gotten a quote from him.
“I told them I read the story and that it was very fair and that it might be running tomorrow,” Baquet went on. “I told them that it might change if something changes at 7:00, though.”
“But I feel like we should say it’s running,” Jamieson said.
Baquet agreed that the governor’s people should be given a more definitive heads-up, and the story ran in the next edition, jumping off page one and spilling across the news pages for a glorious six thousand words.
In the name of fairness, Baquet also ran the entirety of Cuomo’s lengthy response, alongside the article, on the Times Web site. This extension of journalistic courtesy, however, did not dampen the impact of the piece—the facts of which were damaging to Cuomo, a Democrat with ambitions for higher office, whose abrasive New York bearing has kept him just beyond the embrace of the national Democratic Party.
In some respects, though, the Cuomo takedown was nothing special for Baquet. He has consistently been a part of such stories, having made his bones as an investigative reporter before becoming an editor. Since taking over as The Times’ top editor on May 14, he has overseen similar investigations, targeting abuses at New York City’s Rikers Island correctional facility and going after the plagiarism habit of Senator John Walsh, Democrat of Montana (who withdrew from a reelection campaign about two weeks after the Times article ran).
If every Times editor creates his or her version of the newspaper of record, then a hard-hitting, long-in-the-making article like the one that jabbed the governor is a cornerstone of Baquet’s. “Dean was built for this story,” Jamieson said. “This is what he loves to do—this sort of big, juicy piece that gets the attention of the whole world the next day.”
But lately, for Baquet—the first black person to serve as The Times’ executive editor (which is the formal title of the paper’s editor in chief)—the journalism itself has been the easy part. In the past few months, he has been through a lot: undergoing cancer surgery, for one; dealing with questions concerning the sudden firing of his predecessor, Jill Abramson, who was the first woman to run the editorial side; and facing doubts about whether or not he, a creature of the print age, can lead a powerful news organization at a time when journalists ill at ease with the digital sensibility have begun to resemble flood victims who squat on rickety rooftops as everything they knew and loved disappears beneath murky water.
It hasn’t helped that Abramson became something of a cause célèbre within certain media circles after it was revealed that she was reportedly paid less than Bill Keller, the man she replaced as executive editor. While Baquet was dealing with Cuomo, Abramson was on a media tour, discussing her ordeal with the likes of Katie Couric, Greta Van Susteren, and Cosmopolitan magazine.
At 57, Baquet finds himself in the very same spot that his predecessor occupied, listening to the clamoring voices inside and out as he tries to determine which stories to pursue and what shape The Times should take.
“There is a lot I don’t know,” he said in his office. “The digital operation has changed every two minutes. So I am learning more about that. What all executive editors in this era have to do is balance the demands of being a little bit of a business executive with the most important demand—which is to lead the newsroom. That is the hardest day-to-day job. There are demands on me, as there should be, from the business side of the paper, but I am the leader of the newsroom. Executive editors who stumble, stumble in managing that balance.”
Even in his own reading habits, Baquet finds himself caught between The Times’ past and present. After waking up each morning around 6:30 at his home in Greenwich Village, he reads the print edition as thoroughly as he can while checking his phone at the same time. He likes the NYT Now app for the latest news but prefers to read the culture sections on paper.
He arrives at the office by 9:15 a.m. For the next forty-five minutes, he focuses on The Times’ online coverage, nudging it to advance the stories that have already appeared in print. He tries not to be one of those editors who is a stranger to the newsroom, seen only at large-scale meetings or retirement parties. He knows the staff wants to have him around—not just in page-one meetings but in the cafeteria, where he eats almost daily. If he wants to gush about the prowess of a particular reporter or editor in a more private setting, he takes them to Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. On evenings when he isn’t dining with staff members, he is home with his wife, Dylan Landis, a writer, by 8:00 or so.
Unlike the stereotypical big-time New York City newspaper editor, Baquet does not have a cocktail as part of his nighttime routine. After having seen his eldest brother, Edward, struggle with alcoholism and die young of heart and lung disease, he decided he didn’t need that in his life. Baquet hasn’t had a drink in more than twenty years.
A small pleasure he picked up somewhere along the way, though, was an evening cigar. It was not unusual for Greenwich Village residents to see Dean and Dylan having one of their “cigar walks.” But those came to a halt because of “the Big C.”
Baquet’s cancer story began a few weeks after he got the new job. He was in the gym, trying out a new weight-lifting routine, when he felt a sharp pain in his back. He thought he had pulled a muscle, but a series of scans revealed a cancerous mass on his left kidney. “I don’t know what your plans are,” surgeon Dr. Michael Grasso told him. “But for the next month, you belong to me.”
Without an immediate, drastic act, doctors cautioned, he would die. On the evening of June 12, he checked into Lenox Hill Hospital for a surgical procedure to remove the kidney altogether. For a little more than a week, he stayed away from The Times. After a few weeks of partial days, he returned full-time.
Landis was with him when he heard the news, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for her. On May 20, her father, Bernard (“Bern” to all who knew him), a psychoanalyst who spent his last years painting, died of congestive heart failure. Landis said she sensed no fear emanating from her husband. That was her department, she decided—the fear.
The fact that Baquet returned to work so soon after the surgery surprised no one who knows him. Idleness has never suited him, according to his brother Terry Baquet. Even when he returns to his hometown of New Orleans, Baquet goes to museums, reads extensively, and hits the gym. A trip to the city of his birth is less a vacation than an extension of his normal life.
Landis sensed Baquet’s drive when she met him, in 1983, back when he was a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, covering crime and politics. She was hoping to be hired as a Times-Picayune medical reporter, a process that included a peer interview with Baquet. A graduate of Barnard and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she was a little out of her element in the Big Easy.
She remembers Baquet rising to meet her in the newsroom and extending his hand. This was what she calls her “Mr. Darcy moment”: She knew he was the man she was going to marry. The peer interview included dinner at Galatoire’s and a stroll through the French Quarter. They didn’t want it to end. Landis got the job, and within months they moved in together. They were engaged not long afterward.
They lived in the French Quarter, a part of the city that was never really his. His New Orleans was the one experienced by a great many of its black citizens, especially those of Creole descent. His city was Treme, where he was one of five sons born to Myrtle and Edward Baquet. His father worked two jobs—one as a mailman, the other for his brother, who owned a restaurant. Then Edward Baquet Sr. opened his own place, a Creole restaurant called Eddie’s.
The restaurant became, quite literally, home for the Baquet family: They squeezed into an apartment in the back, which was actually a step forward. Having resided in a rough part of the city, they were now part of the slightly more middle-class environs of Gentilly. Life could be hard, but there was always gumbo in the pot.
“I think it made him understand that certain races and classes go uncovered,” Landis says of Baquet’s upbringing. “It brought out a striving for excellence in him, because it can be a very hard climb.”
His parents, while busy, were always around, and two of the Baquet brothers ended up in the restaurant business. But Dean and his younger brother Terry, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner and now the editor of the print edition of the The Times-Picayune, had other ideas.
Dean had an eye on college, on a life away from New Orleans, as he moved through grade school (where he was friends with Ray Nagin, the former New Orleans mayor now serving ten years in prison) and the halls of St. Augustine High School—the city’s preeminent all-boys, all-black Catholic academy.
Baquet served as editor of the St. Augustine paper, The Knight, but he had no real interest in journalism at the time; newspaper work was merely part of his exit strategy, he said. At the time, he had never been outside Louisiana, except for a single trip to Mississippi, and he longed for a challenge, for something different.
He found both in the New York of 1974, when he entered Columbia University. It was a city steeped in a fiscal crisis, a maze of filth and violence ready to give birth to punk and hip-hop and the Burning Bronx; a New York that elicits nostalgia from certain people who still inhabit the cleaned-up town of 2014, with its bike lanes, chain drugstores, and countless bank branches.
He experienced culture shock on his first day on campus. Baquet had spent his whole life among black kids, in black schools, with black neighbors…and now this! In those first months at Columbia, Baquet, an English major, spent his time at the gym or reading alone. He wasn’t much of a student, with haphazard study habits, but he calls his decision to come to New York “the best thing I ever did.”
By 1978, however, without enough credits to graduate, he had had enough. He was homesick. He signed on as a summer intern at The States-Item, the New Orleans afternoon daily that later merged with The Times-Picayune, and for the first time he experienced the thrill of competitive daily journalism, with the two rival papers scrambling to out-report each other every day. He never went back to school. He had found his place in the world.
But with each passing year, he felt a tug. “I was—without bragging—one of the best reporters at the paper,” he said by way of describing what led him to leave New Orleans for the Chicago Tribune, in 1984. “And I was too young to be one of the best reporters at the paper.”
For her part, Landis—whom Baquet married in her parents’ backyard, beneath a chuppah, in Larchmont, New York, in 1986—had no problem with the move to Chicago. She found her niche writing about interior design at the Tribune, a subject on which she has written six books. (She has also published a collection of interrelated short stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and a novel, Rainey Royal, which is just out.)
At the Trib, Baquet won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, in 1988, for his work heading a team of three other reporters with whom he produced a series of articles that unearthed corruption within the machine-run corridors of Chicago’s City Council.
The New York Times took notice. Joseph Lelyveld, who was then the paper’s managing editor (and would go on to be its executive editor), desperately wanted to sic hard-charging reporters on the suspect dealings between New York politicians and private business. In 1990, Lelyveld hired Baquet away from Chicago and teamed him with Martin Gottlieb, to expose the machinations to the public.
For roughly a year with Gottlieb, Baquet mined journalistic gold in the dirt. In 1992, he joined the business desk, where he widened his scope: He looked into price-fixing in the dairy industry, the now-forgotten BCCI scandal, and the loopholes used by companies to sell their wares in Libya and Cuba. In 1995, he was named national editor—and stayed in that post for five years.
But like one of his favorite fictional protagonists, Binx Bolling, of Walker Percy’s great New Orleans novel The Moviegoer, Baquet was always searching. In 2000, he listened to an offer from John Carroll, who had become editor of the Los Angeles Times. The L.A. daily was in big trouble at the time: Three hundred of its editorial employees had signed a petition protesting its business practices after it came to light that the newspaper had shared profits from a special Sunday magazine devoted to the newly built Staples Center with Staples itself.
Carroll hoped the addition of Baquet would bring credibility to a newsroom in revolt, and his sales pitch was very much a Los Angeles pitch—a chance to live in a new world, to start something from scratch, to be part of something great. Baquet was sold. With his wife and their son, Ari, they left their 1,200-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side for a house in Santa Monica.
“I wanted someone to communicate with, without having to argue it out each day,” Carroll said. “As it turns out, we were very much alike and complemented each other. It worked so well that I felt we could finish each other’s sentences.”
The Los Angeles Times won thirteen Pulitzers while Baquet served as Carroll’s No. 2; it was beaming as The New York Times dimmed under the authoritarian rule of executive editor Howell Raines, who lost his job after it was discovered he had published numerous stories by a rising star reporter, Jayson Blair, that were fabricated or plagiarized.
“There was a period where it felt like we were going to take over the world,” Baquet said. “The New York Times was struggling. The L.A. Times was hiring. John and I both wanted to build it into the same thing and make it a great investigative paper. We were winning prizes. It already had huge talent. Nobody should ever think it was a turnaround mission. It was a great paper, and I think we made it better.”
It didn’t last. The paper’s ownership, the Chicago-based Tribune Company, demanded budget cuts. The paper stopped hiring and started to offer early retirement packages. But soon Carroll ran out of volunteers and had to fire people outright, cutting for cutting’s sake.
“Whenever I questioned what their strategy was, they’d say they’d figure it out—but not yet,” Carroll said. “It’s very disconcerting to be inflicting harm to your newsroom with no real plan and no idea where it’s leading.”
Carroll quit in July 2005, and Baquet assumed the editor job. “Dean had a lot of reservations about staying,” Carroll said. “We had a lot of long talks when I decided to go. I thought the reality was that I would get fired if I didn’t go, and that if I got fired, they wouldn’t promote Dean. My hope, which was naive, was that the leadership in Chicago would come to their senses and reverse course. I thought my time had run out, but Dean would get a fresh clock.”
Baquet soon learned that the Tribune Company was not going to change its strategy. Now he was the one pressed to lay off newsroom employees. “I think it pained him incredibly,” his brother Terry said. “It pained him to let folks go, and it pained him to cut his staff and threaten his news report.”
A month into the job, Katrina hit his home city. Both Dean and Terry (who was then page-one editor of The Times-Picayune) were too busy to escape the tumult of their newsrooms, especially at the time of such a story; so Baquet’s wife, Landis, rushed into the storm’s aftermath to help Dean’s mother, Myrtle, and Terry’s family in their temporary relocation to a relative’s home in Conyers, Georgia. Terry’s house in New Orleans had been flooded and looted; Myrtle’s was swept away.
Dean Baquet lasted in the top job at the Los Angeles Times for all of eighteen months, and his tenure was like something out of a Frank Capra movie. A year into it, he openly attacked the Tribune Company—in the pages of his own newspaper. Backed by the publisher, he also defied orders to let more people go. In October 2006, during a speech he gave at a journalism conference in New Orleans, Baquet stressed the importance of staying strong against the corporate overlords. The editor’s job, he said, was “to put up a little more of a fight than we’ve been willing to put up in the past.” His brother Terry was in the audience. That took balls, he thought. A month later, Baquet stood on a desk in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, announcing that Chicago had had enough of his insolence. He had been fired.
“You can’t take a public posture like that and expect to still be editor,” said Martin Baron, the editor of The Washington Post. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Even if Baquet knew his quixotic stand would cost him his job, it still hurt. “I loved that paper, and I loved that city,” Baquet said. “It was painful.” For the first time in his adult life, he found himself unemployed. He stayed around Los Angeles for a time, hoping a new owner might wrestle the paper away from the Tribune Company, but it never came to pass. In 2007, he headed back to The New York Times—this time as its assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief.
While Baquet thrived as a D.C.-based Times man, the new setup was perilous for Landis, who had also loved L.A. She even stayed behind for seven months while their son finished high school, which was the longest she and Baquet had been apart since they had met.
Their five years in Washington included Landis’s undergoing and recovering from breast-cancer surgery, in 2008. She watched her husband flourish, as he always had, but, for her, the city wasn’t the greatest fit. It was more difficult for her to find a community of writers than it had been in L.A. and, only toward the end of their time there, did she develop strong friendships.
New York had always suited the Baquet family. They returned to the city after Baquet was named managing editor in 2011. It was a promotion but perhaps not the one he had sought: Following the retirement of Bill Keller, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. had considered Baquet for the top editorial position—only to give it to Abramson, an editor so fused with The Times that she had a tattoo of a T, in black Gothic script, on her back.
While Baquet has maintained that he and Abramson were friends, reports that have emerged since her firing tell a different story—one of a fractured relationship that includes Abramson’s having attempted to hire another managing editor without running it past him (not to mention Baquet slamming a wall).
This May, following Baquet’s ascent, it took only one day for an in-house report on the digital future of The Times to be leaked to the press. The document had been prepared over a series of months by a crew led by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, son of the publisher (and now the paper’s senior editor for strategy); as if to salt the wound, it appeared on that harbinger of journalism’s odd future, BuzzFeed, where advertisements and editorial content sometimes live as one. The report scolded The Times for being neither smart nor nimble enough in its digital expansion. Among other things, it called for deemphasizing not only the front page but the print product as a whole. It also made the case for easing the separation between the business and news operations and likened The Times to Eastman Kodak, whose attempt to modernize itself, with the production of digital cameras, was crushed by the advent of smartphones.
“The biggest takeaway from that report is actually something that report didn’t say,” Baquet told me in his office. “I think reporters and editors have been chomping at the bit for years to take hold of their future. Everyone has been like, ‘Tell us what to do. Tell us. We are game.’ And I think everyone has been waiting for some magic from the business side, because that often happened in the past, like the creation of the national edition. But I think what that report really said is that you can take your future in your own hands. You in the newsroom can lead and decide your own fate.”
Those who worked with Baquet in Los Angeles question whether he has the vision needed to push the paper forward. At his core, he is very much a newspaperman—someone who focuses on the page-one meeting and the decisions on which stories should go above or below the fold. For this, he has no defense.
“It should have been more of my focus,” Baquet said, recalling his time as editor of the Los Angeles Times, when the web was taking on greater importance. “A lot of the digital leadership came from Chicago. Tension between L.A. and Chicago was great, and I probably didn’t feel like fighting it out. But I think I was slow. I was slow for generational reasons. Almost every editor of my generation was a little slow. I would own up to that. All that said, I have actually come to believe that a big chunk of journalism is journalism. I think I am good at some of the things that are involved in building a good Web report. And I’m not slow anymore.”
Of all those who have run the Times newsroom before him, Baquet feels the greatest kinship with Turner Catledge, who served as executive editor from 1964 to 1968. That was a period not dissimilar from this one: The Times had to adapt to the threat posed by the rise of television news while staying true to its journalistic traditions.
“I would like to transfer all that creativity and energy that goes into creating print to the digital New York Times while also maintaining it in print, because I care about print,” Baquet said. “I would like to not spend my whole life on rethinking platforms. My personal goal is to make The New York Times the best investigative-enterprise news organization in the world. That is what I care about. I would like us to be a great, hard-hitting, enterprise-driven news organization, day in and day out, that people have to read, that really pushes powerful institutions and asks them hard questions. That is my journalistic goal. We are good at it.”
Because of the circumstances under which he got the job, there was not much of a celebration. “Everyone has said to me, ‘Do you feel bad that there wasn’t more of a ceremony and more of a coronation?’” Baquet said. “Sure, that would have been nice. But, my God, I was named editor of The New York Times! Someone gave you the greatest job in journalism, but the circumstances weren’t ideal, and you didn’t have quite the coronation you would have liked—but you got the greatest job in journalism. I can handle that.”