NYT Editor Dean Baquet on longform’s future, the Apple Watch, sending reporters into war

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet spent Thursday, April 16, 2015 speaking with the School of Journalism at the University of Montana and the Missoula community. Students in our course “J494: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption” were honored to host him for a lengthy conversation about innovation and disruption at the Times.  Following are highlights of statements from his classroom appearances and from his lecture to the public, on creating quality journalism in a digital world. Please note that responses to questions from classes are paraphrased except where quotation marks are specifically used.

What has been the impact and aftermath of the Times Innovation Report?
[from video above] “I came away from that report saying this is a blueprint for how the New York Times newsroom can take its fate into its own hands. And it was a bit attitudinal change… That was the biggest change.” (More about the Innovation Report.)

How can you make sure that new technologies uphold your news values? 
Baquet recently tested the Times‘ app for the Apple Watch, which has a series of five swipeable headlines, and mentioned the concerns of some that this might not be “news.” He told them: look out the window of our offices, at the headline “zipper” in Times Square. That’s been around for decades. That’s news.

Is it a waste of time to study longform?
Baquet replied: “I’ll bet any amount of money that longform is here to stay. You may want to think harder about how to integrate visuals, but it’s going to be around.” He previewed a current Times longform project employing eight journalists from around the world that he looks forward to publishing in the coming weeks.

On the challenges of referring to transgender individuals in news coverage
[from video above, viewing time 1 min 42] “In the beginning with struggled with it and we’re now in a place where I think society has accepted that you don’t call the individual he or she, you give the individual the respect of calling them what they want to be called.”

What are the toughest decisions you have to make as a manager?
“Sending reporters into war zones.” It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and Baquet told our classes of the difficult conversations that impact the work roles and sometimes fates of full-time staff and freelancers. The practice of warfare is substantially different, and far more dangerous, today – especially in respect to how journalists are treated in the field – than it’s ever been in the past.

What are the most important things for student journalists to master? 
It’s very tempting to focus on technical expertise, but generally speaking, “the most important training for a journalist is to be broadly educated, be open minded, be humble in your decision making.” That said: “If I were to hire today, I wouldn’t look too much at someone like myself 30 years ago,” with little formal journalism training and a general education. I’d focus on someone with some expertise in an area like video journalism, because that’s where the needs often are.

How essential is it to master a variety of skills? 
“This is not particularly a new thing for journalism. Only during the period when we as an industry got really rich did we break specific crafts apart into isolated things, like copy editing.” Now, out of necessity, we all have to balance lots of different duties.

Why publish New York Times content on Facebook?
[from video above, viewing time 1 min 33] “You fail to go where your viewers are at your own peril, and some of the large hosts, whether it’s Facebook or others, have zillions of viewers, and it’s my goal, my public service mission, it to be read.” (More on the controversial alleged discussions with Facebook.)

As the news media move more toward digital, and video, how does the NYTimes stand out from, say, CNN? 
It’s hard, but above all we need to have expertise. We need to give reporters the time to do good work. There’s nothing like doing the reporting. (Baquet mentioned being an early skeptic about the importance of video at the Times, but “now, I can’t imagine The New York Times without video,” calling it tremendously better.

What do you love most about journalism? 
Investigative reports. Stories that make a difference. Scoops. Riveting pieces of writing.

What are the big stories of our day? 
Chimate change, the rise of technology and how it is changing the world, and the dramatic transformation of warfare.

What are your thoughts on native advertising?
[from video above, viewing time 2 min 08] “I wish I became editor of the New York Times in the years when we had 30% profit margins, when we said no to everything, but that was not my fate.” (More on native advertising at the Times.)

How hands-on are you in approving new Times products, or revamped versions, such as the impending remake of NYT Now? 
I have a beta version of the app that I check in with regularly, to see how it will look at launch, but I don’t want to micromanage the process. I have a great editor, Cliff Levy, and I don’t want him worrying about me breathing over his shoulder.

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