Dean Baquet will return to The New York Times in March as its Washington bureau chief just in time for 2008 election coverage. He was a national editor for the Times when he left the newspaper in 2000 to become managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and later became the paper’s editor. He resigned in November 2006 after ongoing conflict with Tribune Co. over staff cuts. Baquet talked about lessons learned and his plans for Washington coverage in a phone conversation Friday with Poynter President Karen Brown Dunlap.
Are there lessons that other editors and other journalists should draw from your experience?
I’m not holding myself up as a poster child. I’m not recommending that everyone get into fights with their owners. I’m not opposed to cutting. John Carroll and I made significant staff cuts at the L.A. Times. Sometimes that’s necessary, but resist some cuts. Don’t blindly say yes or no. Think hard about cuts. Go back to your publisher and make the case for fewer cuts.
The case that I tried to make, and that Jim O’Shea continues, is that we don’t need to cut if we’re trying to produce two newspapers — one online. It’s a little odd to cut dramatically when you have a future to invest in that looks different and requires new skills.
If you lose, and you can live with the cuts, be honest with the staff. Talk to people throughout the newsroom. Let them know you care.
After each cut, I’d try to lead people on coverage.
That’s the other lesson. Get out of all the corporate meetings and get into the newsroom. Many editors have gotten caught up in the office spending time on budgets. Newsrooms want to be led. They want to be inspired about the next story. Sometimes you have to say, “Right now let’s go cover the mayor. Let’s talk about the next story.”
My advice to editors is go edit. If there was ever a time people want to be led on news, it is now. Take a day or two out the week and put a moratorium on the word “revenue.” Talk about the news. That’s how we got the job.
Structure your job so that you can get out into the newsroom just to talk about stories.
As you’ve thought about your return to a newsroom, what craft issues come to mind as especially important to the kind of reporting you’ll be seeking?
This will be one of the most dramatic periods that we will see in a while.
We have a presidential election and a country at war.
We will need to get a little faster.
We will have to work harder to make the country come alive because there is a debate in the country. I think the debate is about the war. Everywhere I go, at all levels of society, people are debating.
For the election we’ll have to work hard at understanding the candidates. There are a couple of side debates. We have a viable woman candidate and a viable black candidate. That will spark a debate on race.
If you had a few tips for Washington reporting, what would they be?
None of us was skeptical enough in the buildup to the war. All coverage in Washington should have a gigantic dose of skepticism and toughness.
While getting excited about the election campaign, we still have to fully cover the war.
So much effort has been on terrorism and the war that there has not been a whole lot of reporting on the rest of government. We need more on the administration’s energy policy and other areas that might have been covered sporadically. We have to put more into covering other areas.
Has the culture of The New York Times changed since you left?
When I walked into the Washington bureau it looked very much the same.
The reception was very warm. I liked the culture that was there before I left. I don’t know if that culture has changed. All I know is that from the e-mails I’ve gotten and the greetings, the culture is warm.
How are you different today from the editor who left the Los Angeles Times in November?
I’m more relaxed.
I’m not that different, a little sad when I think about the future of the L.A.Times.
It has a really fine editor, I just worry that Tribune will keep cutting back and they will. I wish Tribune would focus more on building.
Did you give much thought to doing something else or doing journalism in non-traditional media?
I only thought about getting a job in my family’s (New Orleans) restaurant, but they wouldn’t have me.
Somehow the conversation about the Web has gone askew. Working on emerging media is something we do. I’d say get ready for change, but the bedrock of what we do is finding the news, beating others on the story.
With so much talk about audience decline and media uncertainty, what’s your biggest concern about the future of newspapers?
I would challenge one thing. Is the audience really in decline?
I can only speak for the L.A. Times and The New York Times, but more people are reading than ever before. They read online.
Suddenly we have an audience that we didn’t have before.
I think that the whole debate about the decline of newspapers has become a financial debate. About market share. About fear of profit margin decline.
What’s missing is readership, audience, public service. We reach many more people than ever before, and have a much larger impact. We would have a different conversation if journalists took over this debate.
How would journalists take over the debate?
We are stuck in “woe is me” mind-frame. We should talk about what we write. Start defending ourselves. Remind people of what we do. My focus is that I want to break stories.
Are you confident about the future of public-service journalism?
I’m absolutely confident about the future of public service journalism.
I’m a little concerned that all the cost-cutting might make it difficult in some places, but public-service journalism is good business because people read it.
What encourages you about the future?
There’s no question that people are hungry for information. Newspapers are significantly better at news coverage than anything else.
What does that mean to you in leading coverage in other media?
My main goal is the same as 20 years ago. It is breaking big stories, coming up with stories that others haven’t come up with.
You were quoted as saying you’ve read most of Philip Roth’s novels, apparently in the months since you left the L.A. Times. What else have you been reading?
I read more fiction than I have since college. I also spent time with my wife and son. My son races carts so I spent time with him on that. He’s a senior in high school and we looked at schools getting ready for him to go to college.
Was there anything in the reporting about you that you found inappropriate or that just got on your nerves?
No. The reporting about me has been largely positive.
It’s not fun being written about constantly. I’d rather be reporting.