Dean Baquet is executive editor of The New York Times, a role he has held since May, when he replaced Jill Abramson after her controversial reign and equally controversial ousting. Previously, Baquet held several roles at the Times, including managing editor, Washington bureau chief, national editor and managing editor. He served as editor of The Los Angeles Times and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting when he worked at the Chicago Tribune.
Here, WWD talks with Baquet about the Times’ restructuring in light of its recent layoffs as well as his views on the state of media and the biggest stories of the day.
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: What do you make of The New Republic’s reorganization? Here is this new media owner and his chief executive officer trying to shake up a legacy publication to bring it up to speed digitally, leading to mass resignations of the editorial staff. Is this symptomatic of a broader theme in journalism?
Dean Baquet: I have to say, it sounded ham-handed the way the guy handled it. I wish I knew more. I think when all of your writers leave, you’ve done something really bad. I think [Chris] Hughes [the owner] went in and portrayed himself as the person who would protect what The New Republic was. This is the part that I don’t really know what was said, but every publication has got to change right now. We just do. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to change the kind of journalism you do. I don’t think The New Republic should try to be something that it’s not, nor should The New York Times, nor should The New Yorker. I don’t think that the digital expression of the journalism that we do should change the character of what we do. I think that’s, like, nuts. What I don’t understand with The New Republic is whether the new top person wanted to change the character of what they are. I can’t tell in the discussion. If he was, that’s a mistake. We’re trying to make significant changes in the digital life of The New York Times. We’re bringing in people in senior jobs who are unlike other people we’ve ever had in senior jobs. We’re trying to create different kinds of ways to read the news.
WWD: I wanted to get your take on The Rolling Stone campus-rape story. It was written by a freelancer — a lot of organizations use freelancers, including the Times. How do you hold those reporters to the same standards? Is there a point in this story at which there is too much piling on — where the reporter, not the publication, is taking the brunt of the criticism?
D.B.: A story of that enormity, whether it is written by a freelancer or not, we would hold to an incredibly high standard. If we did that story, I would have insisted that we talked to the accused. I just would have insisted on that. That’s sort of like rule number one in journalism: You go to the accused. That’s a gimme. It may turn out that this woman’s account is true. The numbers show that most women who assert they were assaulted are telling the truth. The percentage is overwhelming. I do not read anything larger into what happened with Rolling Stone the way I do think there are larger issues with The New Republic. I’d like to think we would have handled that very differently, but truth be told, every news organization screws up.
WWD: Let’s shift gears to the Times and the buyouts. Have you hit 100, and if not, how many layoffs will there be?
D.B.: I’m not going to go into specifics because I haven’t said anything to the staff yet. Also, we’re working our way through some of the numbers. I don’t mind talking about the process of layoffs or buyouts.
WWD: Generally speaking, are there any departments that are off-limits for layoffs?
D.B.: No. There are jobs that we have made clear — there are people that we have made clear that, if your job is vital, we won’t accept your buyout. When you do these things, you have to really protect the heart of what your institution is, and I’m not going into this shutting down of foreign bureaus. I wouldn’t say I put a wall around [any department]; I’d say almost every department of the newsroom has had some buyouts.
WWD: The media desk has had three big departures in Christine Haughney, Stuart Elliott and Bill Carter. Can you talk about how the department will be restructured under the business-desk umbrella?
D.B.: I’m not avoiding the specifics — I haven’t decided on the specifics. The people who took buyouts, we just found out last week, but one of the things that distinguishes The New York Times is very high-powered media coverage. We have the best media columnist around in David Carr, and it’s an important part of the paper. A large group from the media pod took the buyout, but I promise you that we are going to go into the media pod and make sure it is as strong as ever. How we restructure it — I mean, should we cover advertising the way Stuart [Elliott] covered it for many years? Probably not. The only good thing about departures — and Stuart is an institution — is that it forces you to ask the hard question: How should you do it differently? There’s no question that advertising is a hugely different story than it was X years ago. It would be crazy not to rethink that job.
Television, if you look at the departure of Bill Carter, is a very different story than just being about television news. The line between what’s a culture story and what’s a business story has blurred more. I think that the role of technology coverage [or] media coverage has become really trickier than it was. I mean, who gets Amazon? On the one hand, we mainly cover Amazon from the tech pod…but is Amazon a big publishing company to be covered by the media pod or is it a big, big tech company to be covered by the tech pod? I think those lines of coverage should remain separate, but we have to roll up our sleeves to look at the departures to see what we will do different. But we will be robust.
WWD: What about Styles and T? It has historically been regarded as more of a features section than a news section. Would that ever change, and what about buyouts there?
D.B.: I don’t think there’s any intention of cutting Styles or T. I think of a news report as a pretty broad thing. You have to have a big, robust foreign staff and a Washington bureau that kicks butt, but you do have to leaven that coverage with other things. It’s also in our economic interest. That’s part of the life of The New York Times. We did kill the autos section. There are other parts of the paper that we are thinking [about whether] we should do it differently, mainly because we haven’t looked at adding or subtracting from the features section in a very long time. The last section created was Thursday Styles years ago. We have made big changes in Food.
WWD: Would you ever combine T and Styles on the Web so they shares the same page?
D.B.: That’s an interesting question. It’s not anything I would consider doing right now. I think of Thursday Styles as largely a fashion section. I think of Sunday Styles, at its best, as a newsy features section. I think of T as something different. It doesn’t publish every week. The biggest divide to manage is between T and the Sunday magazine because they are both glossy magazines. I think they are different. I think T, by its nature, is more visual.
WWD: How has the job as the top editor changed? With the growing importance of sponsored and native content, do you think editors have been relegated to the kids’ table?
D.B.: Oh, no, to the contrary: I think that editors at the major publications have more influence and more responsibility. My main responsibility is to produce the best New York Times that I can every day. But I feel a responsibility to make sure that we’re read, that we have an audience. When I was editor of the L.A. Times, I met with the circulation director. I was the closest to the circulation director on the business side. Everybody thinks that what we do now is so different. If I was going to have a big hit on Sunday, I wanted the circulation department to know. I wanted that cardboard placement. I wanted to make sure that if it was an investigation that affected Orange County, that that was not a day they had low circulation in Orange County. I’ve always thought we have to care about that. We have to care about it more now because we have more competition for audience. I’ve always thought the editor’s responsibility was to care about if we were read.
WWD: What do you think about the idea that magazines and newspapers are becoming more like advertising agencies as they adopt and develop content-creation units for native advertising?
D.B.: I was skeptical in the beginning. I didn’t much like it. I’d have to say that Jill Abramson, Mark [Thompson], Meredith [Kopit Levien], who is the ad director, and Tom Bodkin, who is our chief design director, actually worked out a plan that I’m comfortable with that’s sort of a model. If you had asked me this before it happened, I would have said I hated the idea. But I think Jill, in her role also as the steward of The New York Times, green-lighted it and, I think, gets a lot of credit for making sure that it worked. I think it works. It is clearly identified as something different. The newsroom has nothing to do with it, which is, I think, the model for how you do it.
WWD: Is native the savior for publishing?
D.B.: There is no one savior. If you look at the history of news organizations and their troubles in the Seventies, it was the addition of print features sections, it was making the paper easier to read, it was the addition of food sections in certain markets — there is no one thing.
It’s going to be a combination of things. It’s making sure your digital business grows and holding on to your print business as aggressively as you can. I think native has had a big impact, and that’s great, but I think anybody who believes native is all of the future — I don’t buy that. I think it’s going to be a little bit of native, a little bit of events, and that mix is going to depend on that news organization. I think it’s going to be building enough sustained readership so that advertisers want to advertise. It’s going to be building a news report that’s strong enough, in our case, that people want to pay for it. It’s going to be making sure that print paper is as goddamn good as it’s going to be — which is, right now, the economic lifeblood of The New York Times — [so] that we hold on to that as long as we can.
WWD: What do you read in print and digitally?
D.B.: I read mostly fiction for fun, and I read it in book form. I have read books online and I have read books on the Kindle, but I’m 58, so I still love the experience of holding on to a book.
WWD: I like it, too.
D.B.: That’s good! I also read a novel a week. I don’t watch enough television. I don’t go to movies much. I read The New York Times in print and online in four different forms. I look at NYT Now and the primary app. I’m constantly reading different parts of the Times. I probably read the features section more in print, I read the book review in print, and I read more news online. I read The [Washington] Post online; I read The Wall Street Journal online. I think of them as really strong competitors. I think BuzzFeed is worth looking at. I look at The Atlantic online. In print, I read The New Yorker; I very rarely look at it online. I look at Vanity Fair in print, but not as religiously. I look at The Guardian online. The Guardian, the Post, the Journal and the FT [Financial Times] are the news operations that you have to read to see how you’re doing, how you compare to them.
WWD: What is the biggest story right now for the Times?
D.B.: I think there are two equal stories. One story is, I think, the country is going through a real reckoning over the things that were created in the aftermath of September 11. I think that’s what the torture report is about. I think the country is having a look at the militarization of police, which is, in part, a result of 9/11. The country is having to look at [increased] surveillance, which is a result of 9/11. The country is looking hard at the torturing, which the CIA did pretty aggressively, which is a result of 9/11. The country is having to look hard at how it engages in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria — all of those are a result of 9/11. I think one of the biggest issues the country is having to grapple with now is what the reaction to 9/11 wrought in foreign domestic policy, and it’s huge. It’s huge — everything from the budget to how people regard government — it’s huge.
I think the other story is the divide between rich and poor, which is not a new thought. That’s partly the story of Ferguson, that’s partly the story of race in America, that’s partly the story of how blacks and whites regard the police departments, that’s partly the story of how people interact with universities and get into universities, it’s partly the story of Detroit, it’s partly the story of what kind of city New York is going to be, as Manhattan becomes increasingly expensive. Those are the two uberstories. I think they are going to be indirectly or directly issues in the presidential campaign. I think those are the two big stories of our day.
WWD: What is the role of criticism and, in particular, the fashion critic at the Times? Is the fashion critic the same as an art critic?
D.B.: It’s a complete parallel. Fashion criticism has a long and illustrious history at The New York Times. I think the way museums interact with fashion — clearly the world of culture in America accepts the fact that fashion is art, and I don’t think there’s any question. I think that debate is long gone, whether fashion is art, just like the debate over whether art is commerce is long gone. I think both of those are long gone.
Jill hired Vanessa [Friedman] as soon as Suzy [Menkes] left, and that was a sign that we can’t screw around. People expect us to play hard — maybe not as expansively as you all do — but people expect us to play hard on it, and Vanessa plays as significant a role as our art critics and our movie critics.