'We Were Arrogant': Interview with New York Times Editor Baquet
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, is unusually self-critical. In an interview, he admits that it pained him to see Edward Snowden give his story to others and explains why his paper chose not to run Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Muhammad.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Baquet, your colleagues at the New York Times tell stories about you punching holes in the walls at the office when you get upset. Is this true?
Baquet: (laughs). Once was when I was Washington Bureau chief. I got angry at a decision made by New York not to put a story on the front page. I punched a hole in the wall of my office. Now that I am in New York, now that I'm the one who makes those decisions, I think I was obviously wrong and overreaching. The other one was after Jill Abramson, my predecessor, and I had an argument. I don't think I punched a hole in the wall, I think I only slapped it. That was also immature.
SPIEGEL: What did you fight with her about?
Baquet: I can't remember. We had a disagreement, but we had disagreements all the time. That does not mean that we fought a lot. The number one and the number two editors have disagreements.
SPIEGEL: Your colleagues say it was about buzz; about the New York Times needing more popular stories to capture attention on the web.
Baquet: Jill did like for stories to capture a little buzz, and I don't disagree with that. But for news organizations like the New York Times and SPIEGEL, there's always a tension between the most serious journalism and journalism that is just fun. I wouldn't deny that sometimes we are too serious. But we write much more about popular culture than we ever have. The Style sections are not the most serious parts of the New York Times either. I think we have a lot of buzz, sometimes perhaps too much.
SPIEGEL: Digital competitors like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post offer an extremely colorful mix of stories and have outperformed the New York Times website with a lot of buzz.
Baquet: Because they're free. You're always going to have more traffic if you're a free website. But we've always admitted that we were behind other news organizations in making our stories available to people on the web. BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post are much better than we are at that, and I envy them for this. But I think the trick for the New York Times is to stick to what we are. That doesn't mean: Don't change. But I don't want to be BuzzFeed. If we tried to be what they are, we would lose.
SPIEGEL: In May, your internal innovation report was leaked along with its harsh conclusion that the New York Times' "journalistic advantage" is shrinking. Did you underestimate your new digital competitors?
Baquet: Yes, I think we did. We assumed wrongly that these new competitors, whether it was BuzzFeed or others, were doing so well just because they were doing something journalistically that we chose not to do. We were arrogant, to be honest. We looked down on those new competitors, and I think we've come to realize that was wrong. They understood before we did how to make their stories available to people who are interested in them. We were too slow to do it.
SPIEGEL: The report was disillusioning for many newspaper executives because the Times is widely seen as a role model when it comes to the question of making money on the web. The report, instead, pointed out that the Times lacks a digital strategy and the newsroom is far away from a "digital first" culture.
Baquet: First, the Times is and has always been a digital leader. The report only cited some areas where we fell down. Second: Half of the report is critical, and half of it has ideas for things you can do to fix the problem. A lot of things have been done already.
SPIEGEL: What has changed?
Baquet: We have, for example, built a full-bodied audience development team that engages with our readers through social networks. The team has been in operation for three months now and we already have a pretty consistent 20 percent increase in traffic.
SPIEGEL: How does this influence the work of your journalists?
Baquet: It used to be, if you were a reporter, you wrote a story and then you moved on to the next one. We were used to people coming to us. We waited for them to turn on our website or to pick up our print paper and see what we have. We now understand that we have to make our stories available to our readers. A lot of people get their news from Facebook or Twitter and we want to make sure that they see some of our best stories there, too. We do this more aggressively now than we did before.
SPIEGEL: You personally have posted exactly two tweets, both in June of last year.
Baquet: (laughs). I know this is going to get me in trouble, but I'll say it: The whole notion that I am supposed to constantly tweet is ridiculous. There are a lot of journalists at the New York Times who tweet. I am not opposed to it. But I don't have enough time. And editors don't have much to say. My world consists of this office, this floor, my apartment and wonderful conversations with our reporters and correspondents -- all of them know a lot more about the world than I do.
SPIEGEL: Print still accounts for three-quarters of your revenues. How can you establish a "digital first" culture in the newsroom when your balance sheet demands "print first"?
Baquet: I always thought that digital first was a simplistic notion, and I am not even sure quite what it means. It should be stories first. Let's take the Paris story: We covered it all day, we held nothing back. Everything we learned, we published online. Then, when you approach your print deadline, you have to do two things. You have to polish those stories that are online because print is less forgiving of mistakes. Secondly, in an ideal world, you pick one thing that will feel fresh and compelling to people in the morning when they pick up the print paper.
SPIEGEL: The newsroom of the New York Times costs some $200 million a year to operate. Will digital subscription revenues ever be sufficient to sustain it?
Baquet: I don't know. But I think we need a newsroom that's the size it is now. We'd be making a big mistake if we shrink it. I also don't think all of the revenue will come from digital subscriptions. We have a mix of revenue sources and it will continue to be a mix for quite a while. What makes me more nervous is that we built this newsroom on a really high profit margin that has eroded significantly over the last years. I'm nervous that we won't continue to have the profit margins that allow us to have a big, robust newsroom.
SPIEGEL: The New York Times has cut jobs over the last few years, with the elimination of 100 positions during the last three months. You left the Los Angeles Times in 2006 because you were not willing to execute a massive savings program. What makes you so sure that this is not going to happen at the New York Times?
Baquet: I've never said nothing more is to come. But there are two big differences. When I got there, the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times had 1,200 people; when I left, it was 900; and now, it's less than 500. I did not believe that the people who controlled the paper cared enough about the quality of the L.A. Times. The ownership of the New York Times, the Sulzberger family, has proven over generations that they care about its quality. Every other news organization in the United States has gotten significantly smaller over the last 20 years. Until this last round of cuts, we have 1,300 people. That's why I'm more trusting.
SPIEGEL: The Times has 875,000 digital subscribers. Are you getting closer to the ceiling?
Baquet: I don't think so. We have not yet figured out how to grow our international readership. We started a website in China, which the Chinese government has blocked, but it has a pretty healthy readership. The Guardian, for instance, has gotten tremendous growth through its website in the US. We have to figure out how to go after readership in different parts of the world.
SPIEGEL: The Washington Post is expanding under its new owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Profits no longer play a big role there. Does this make you nervous?
Baquet: Half of me is really nervous. The Washington Post is and has been our greatest historic competitor. Half of me, though, the unselfish part of me that is just a journalist, is thrilled. I want newspapers to succeed. Let's take the Guardian, which is a new competitor in the digital age. Does it make me nervous that they compete with us and in fact beat us on the Snowden story? Yes. The part of me that's a competitive journalist and wants to fight and play says: bring them on! It's more fun that way.
SPIEGEL: That's a very competitive approach.
Baquet: I grew up in the traditional American newspaper world with a morning paper and an afternoon paper competing with each other beat by beat by beat. It was the most fun I've ever had. And it was great for journalism.
SPIEGEL: How painful was it as an institution that Edward Snowden didn't approach the New York Times?
Baquet: It hurt a lot. It meant two things. Morally, it meant that somebody with a big story to tell didn't think we were the place to go, and that's painful. And then it also meant that we got beaten on what was arguably the biggest national security story in many, many years. Not only beaten by the Guardian, because he went to the Guardian, but beaten by the Post, because he went to a writer from the Post. We tried to catch up and did some really good stories that I feel good about. But it was really, really, really painful.
SPIEGEL: One of the reasons Snowden didn't approach the New York Times was that the paper had refused to publish the initial research about the NSA's bulk collection in 2004. The story was only published almost a year later. Was it a mistake to have held back on that reporting?
Baquet: I wasn't even at the New York Times then and I don't know what the discussions were like. It's easy to look at it now and say, "how could the New York Times not have published the story," but I won't judge them because I wasn't here, and I don't know what the discussions were like. Bill Keller, the former editor in chief, has said the story was not as good as the one they published.
SPIEGEL: There are other cases where the New York Times showed a lot of consideration for the US government. In 2011, for example, you didn't print a story about drone bases in Saudi Arabia. Can you give us an insight into what your criteria are for not publishing those kinds of stories?
Baquet: It was my decision not to publish the drone research -- and it was a mistake. The circumstance was that the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed by a drone strike. We were writing a story on deadline. A high-ranking CIA official called me up and made the case to leave out where the drone base was. It was Saudi Arabia. I accepted it. And I was wrong. I made a decision on deadline that I regretted almost the next day. We then published the information later. It taught me a lesson. But there are instances where I think you do have to hold things back, and I can think of some instances where I don't regret it.
SPIEGEL: For example?
Baquet: During WikiLeaks, there was one specific instance in which there was a really remarkable cable. Moammar Gadhafi was still in power and it was a greatly detailed cable, which clearly came from somebody with firsthand knowledge of Gadhafi's activities. It felt like a great thing to publish, but the government made the case that if we published it, it would be very clear to Gadhafi where it came from, and that the source would be killed. Once I reread that cable in light of that, I think it was pretty clear that the government was making a compelling case not to publish it. As I recall, everybody involved agreed not to use that particular cable.
SPIEGEL: including SPIEGEL
Baquet: and also WikiLeaks. That's one I don't regret.
SPIEGEL: How often does the government approach you?
Baquet: It depends on the news, where it seems like every two or three weeks, and then it will drop off, and you won't have any conversations with the government for six months. We recently ran through a period where it was pretty frequent. I almost always say no. But there are instances like the Gadhafi case in which it's very clear that a very specific person would be at risk if we published something. Many people have this image in their heads that the press is sort of somehow cowering, and the government calls up and says, "Don't run that," and we don't run it. That's not the reality. The reality is that the government makes the case 70 percent or 80 percent of the time to hold something for reasons of national security if it protects somebody's life. We weigh it and we discuss it. Most of the time, we run it anyway.
SPIEGEL: In the case of Gadhafi, WikiLeaks published that cable almost a year afterwards and nothing happened. Were we too careful in not publishing these things?
Baquet: I think that's true. I think we have been too shy.
SPIEGEL: Who changed your perspective? Snowden? Wikileaks?
Baquet: It was a lot of things. It was the Snowden revelations. It was WikiLeaks. It was making some mistakes and coming to regret them. It was the whole understanding of how much the country had changed through the War on Terror. For me personally, the Saudi Arabia example was really powerful because it became so clear to me. When I reconstructed for myself how I made the decision, I remembered how I'd called up the reporters and they disagreed with me. I made the decision without really talking to them enough. I think I did everything wrong. And then Snowden sealed the deal.
SPIEGEL: You also decided not to publish the Muhammad caricatures from Charlie Hebdo. Why?
Baquet: That was really difficult decision. My initial gut reaction as a journalist was to show solidarity with the journalists who were killed. So that morning, I made the decision to do it, but then I stopped myself and thought harder about it. And I thought in the end, it was putting aside the tragedy and just looking at the cartoons themselves. So I sat in the room and actually looked at a bunch of cartoons. That particular brand of humor is sort of a gratuitous insult and I'm not criticizing it. That particular brand of humor didn't meet the standards that we've established for the New York Times. I didn't think we had to show them for people to understand what happened. We can describe them but I don't think we have to show it in the end.
SPIEGEL: But the cartoons were precisely the reason the journalists were attacked.
Baquet: That's right.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it have been a message of solidarity to show them? Defending the right to be able to publish even tasteless things in a free society doesn't mean that you are embracing that content as your own.
Baquet: I think there are ways to defend the right to publish while holding onto your standards. As much as I love showing solidarity, that's my second or third most important job. My first most important job is to serve the readers of the New York Times, and a big chunk of the readers of the New York Times are people who would be offended by showing satire of the Prophet Muhammad. That reader is not a member of the Islamic State (IS). That reader is a guy who lives in Brooklyn and is Islamic and has a family and is devout and just happens to find that insulting. We would be making a really big mistake, journalistically, if we forgot those readers. One exercise I did was I went out and looked at the most insulting cartoons that were aimed at other religions, and I realized that I wouldn't run them. So if I'm not going to run the one of Jesus, why am I going to run the other one?
SPIEGEL: The global slogan has been "Je suis Charlie," "I am Charlie." Could you use that slogan without publishing the cartoons?
Baquet: To take a position like "We are Charlie" is an editorial board position, not mine. My job is to cover the hell out of the story, very aggressively. The real place to be courageous if you're a news organization is where you put your people to cover the story. It's making sure that you have people covering IS. It's making sure that you have people going to Baghdad. It's making sure that you figure out how to cover the war in Afghanistan. While the journalist in me completely stands with them, the editor of the New York Times in me thinks my job is to figure out what the hell happened and cover the hell out of it, and that's more important than some symbolic drawing on the front page.
SPIEGEL: In August, you announced a major shift in the New York Times coverage of the CIA scandal. You began calling some interrogation techniques "torture". For years the newspaper had used terms like "harsh interrogation techniques". Why did it take you so long to make that decision?
Baquet: I wasn't here when the original decision was made not to use "torture," but I understand the decision. At that time, we didn't know much about what was done to these guys. Nobody knew how many times Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded. We then waited too long as we started learning more about what was done. As soon as we learned that, we should have said: Let's start using the word "torture".
SPIEGEL: Was that because you followed the government's definition, which did not view it as falling under the legal definition of torture?
Baquet: The government shouldn't get to define what "torture" is. We should have started using the word a long time ago. I started using the word a few months ago, not long after I became editor. Mark Mazzetti who covers the CIA for us, called me up and he said, "This report is coming out in a few months. We should revisit the New York Times' policy on using the word 'torture.'" I got him and a couple of the reporters on the phone, and they said, "Okay. Here is what we now know and what we have reported," and they recounted things we have reported before. And I said, "Of course, this is torture." Sometimes we make decisions, because we're too slow, we're human, we don't think of things in time, things fall under the radar. Sometimes we're really dumb, to be frank.
SPIEGEL: One of your best reporters, James Risen, said in a speech that the mainstream "failed after 9/11." Do you agree?
Baquet: Yes, absolutely. The mainstream press was not aggressive enough after 9/11, was not aggressive enough in asking questions about a decision to go to war in Iraq, was not aggresive enough in asking the hard questions about the War on Terror. I accept that for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
SPIEGEL: Give us one reason why the next Edward Snowden should approach the New York Times.
Baquet: We would show the next Snowden that we're more willing than any news organization to cover the story. And we have the bodies, the brains, and, I would argue, the guts to publish it.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Baquet, we thank you for this interview.
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