Photo from The Daily Beast
The Lion recently sat down with Dean Baquet, the first black Executive Editor of the New York Times. He studied English at Columbia from 1974 to 1978. In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on the Chicago City Council. He sat down with us to talk about how he became a journalist, what a typical day at the New York Times office is like, and more.
In the past, you’ve said that journalism was an accident for you. Can you tell us a little more about that?
First, I went to Columbia accidentally. I went to high school in New Orleans and I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college. One of my best friends applied to Columbia; I had never even heard of Columbia to be honest but he encruraged me to apply. So we both applied and I got in.
When I got to Columbia, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an English major. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a professor, but I had a vague sense that I might want to be a writer and it stayed that way for the first couple years.
The summer between junior and senior year, I got an internship at an afternoon paper in New Orleans, because I was looking for a job. It was easy to get internships then, because there were a lot more newspapers and I just fell in love with it.I just thought it was so much fun. That’s how I got into journalism. It was an accident, and part of it was that I missed home and wanted to spend a longer time in New Orleans, but it wasn’t because I set out to become a journalist.
I noticed that you really seem to target corruption as a topic when you were a reporter. What drew you to that topic?
I think that I’m one of those people who’s always a little skeptical of powerful people. One of the big roles of news organizations is to protect the powerless in the face of unbridled power. And if you’re a reporter in a big city, then those powerful institutions besides business are big government. That’s why I was drawn to investigating government and power.
You’ve said that you’re a reporter at heart. How do you bring that passion to your editing?
I’m happiest when I’m thinking about stories, when I’m thinking about chasing stories, and when I’m thinking about how to do big stories. That’s the reporter’s sensibility in me. And when I walk around here thinking about stories and talking to reporters about coverage and I think that’s the reporter in me coming out. That’s the part of me I like best professionally. It influences the way I think about the news, coverage, and how to run the newsroom because I’m drawn to the stories like the reporters are.
And that being said, can you walk me through a typical day at the NYT for you?
So my day actually starts at home, because I read the paper on the phone and in print in the morning when I get up at like 6:30 everyday (later on Sundays). I get into the office at about 9:15 most days. The front page meeting, which is the meeting that decides the course of the day, starts at 9:30. And at the 9:30 meeting, we decide how we’re going to cover the big stories of the day. That’s what I mainly focus on; the meeting goes from 9:30 to 10:00, 10:15. From then on, I often have meetings with the publisher and meetings with reporters where we talk about coverage.
I don’t really have a typical day; they’re just wildly different. Sometimes I get to talk a lot to reporters and editors about what we should be covering. Some days I don’t and I spend most of my time on budgets and non-journalistic stuff. I’m happiest when I’m spending my time on journalistic stuff. Like I said, there’s no typical day, but that’s close to being a typical structure of a day.
What’s the most important skill for a reporter to have, in your opinion?
Open-mindedness. Just being open-minded about stories, being open to the truth, and being open to hearing the other side of the story. And being open to the world. Being interested in the world and interested in people. Being sympathetic and empathetic to people and the things they care about. Not writing people off, not writing issues off, just sort of listening.
How do you suggest people work on their open mindedness?
Listen. Don’t talk over people. Listen hard. Get out of your comfort zone and go talk to people who you know are going to disagree with you. I find that people are remarkably close-minded, especially in the age that we’re in. Just remarkably so. People who support Hillary Clinton think that anything that’s negative reported about her is terrible and people who support Donald Trump are the same way. Listening and trying to understand the world is the main thing you can do. And reading a lot. Reading a whole lot. I mean, I read a lot.
Fiction or nonfiction?
Mostly fiction. And mostly contemporary fiction. Read a lot. I think that literature now not only soothes you, but brings you into a world in a different way. So I read a tremendous amount.
What’s your favorite book?
I have many. I really liked The Moviegoer by Walker Percy because it’s set in new Orleans. I really loved Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon. I like Song of Solomon better, actually. Those are the books that come to mind. There have been a lot of books that I’ve loved.
Do you still write? Maybe op-eds?
No. I run everything but the op-ed page. I run the magazine, the news reports, the front page, features, everything but op-ed is completely different department. I don’t write at all anymore. I’ve written very occasionally about books, but I don’t write at all.
Back when you did write, what was your writing process like?
I was an investigative reporter, so I mainly did a lot of deep reporting. I would take months on a story. And I was a very slow writer. I tended to organize my thoughts first. I did outlines and wrote from outlines. I’ve written so many stories over my career and life that it was ingrained in me that once you have an outline you can just sit down and write. Once you get past the lede, everything else sort of flowed pretty easily after that.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in a career in journalism?
I would say two things: First, though newspapers are having their economic trouble, it’s a great time to be a journalist. You have to learn a lot of different skills. You should be comfortable with video, multi-media, as well as writing. The journalist of the future is going to be able to do all kinds of different things. Also, be willing to work in places you wouldn’t have thought about. When you get out of college and you get offered a job at a news organization in upstate New York, just take it. Just work a lot. It’s a craft; work at it really hard.
What’s been your favorite moment at the NYT so far?
Being appointed editor. And every year, when we win Pulitzer Prizes, being able to stand in front of the newsroom because I always stand up on the red stairs with the whole room filled with hundreds and hundreds of people to announce the Pulitzer Prizes. Those are great moments.
What’s been the proudest moment of your journalistic life?
Winning the Pulitzer Prize myself.
What’s your proudest moment been in general?
The birth of my son. That was the proudest moment of my life period.
How old is he?
Twenty seven. He’s in grad school.
What was the greatest obstacle you’ve faced?
The easy answer would be to say being black and from the South, but that feels like so much a part of who I am, that I don’t think of it as an obstacle. Not at all. It’s who I am and it’s what defines me and it’s one of the things I think got me here. I happened to land in journalism at a time when big news organizations like the NYT were facing a financial threat and having to keep them managed and help them survive. I wouldn’t say it’s an obstacle, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do.
Speaking of being black and from the South, you’re the first black Executive Editor at the NYT. What’s that like?
I was the first black Executive Editor of the NYT and the first black Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Times, before that. I mean, I’m proud of it. It’s a source of great pride. It makes me feel good when I talk to kids who see my position as something they can aspire to. It’s a source of great pride for me.
And how did your experience at Columbia affect how you approach your job today?
Columbia opened my mind wildly. I’d never been on an airplane, I’d never been outside of New Orleans. Maybe I’d been to Mississippi, but I’d never really travelled. I met different people. I got introduced to different ways of thinking about books. I got forced out of my little parochial shell. I gained confidence because I realized that I could compete intellectually. Going to Columbia was the smartest thing I ever did. My life would’ve been completely different if I had not gone to Columbia.
And what’s your fondest memory of Columbia?
Drinking beer on College Walk in the first days of spring. I guess being in a couple of classes that stayed with me. I remember taking Literature Humanities, which was one of the required courses.And I just had a great professor. His name was Joseph Morello. He made literature sound fun and made the characters in the classics feel like contemporary people. He made you want to read the stuff and he made you see it not as a completely unapproachable distant world. He made it feel close and modern and I have great memories of that class.
If you could give advice to your teenaged self, what would you tell them?
If I had to do it all over again, I been much more creative in my choice of classes to take. I would’ve been much more open minded and taken different sorts of class. I wouldn’t have been intimidated. I would’ve taken classes about Chaucer. I just would’ve thrown myself into it even more.
What do you think that the future of journalism holds?
I think that the best publications like the NYT will survive and be great. I think they’ll be different: more video, more visual, and I think it’s going to be great. I think it’ll be more exciting and easier to read but serious and hard-hitting too. I think the big, hard hitting institutions like the NYT and the Washington Post will survive after the hard period. And I think a lot of the smaller ones won’t, unfortunately, because I want everybody to survive. That’s what I think.
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