Wick Communications

Habits, curiosity, elitism

In journalism on 7 Mar 2018 at 2:56 pm

Dean Baquet, courtesy Joi Ito from Cambridge, MA, USA (Dean Baquet) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet speak to a gathering arranged by the Brown Institute of Media Innovations at Stanford. Baquet is as important as any single figure in the journalism world, so it was comforting to hear that he has the same challenges that I face every day. The differences are just a matter of scale.

He indicated the same fiery competitive streak that marks journalists of a certain age. He talked about the paywall (saying it saved the New York Times) and how staff’s use of Twitter sometimes gives him heartburn. He admitted to just filling the paper with whatever he could get back in the halcyon days, when so many more ads were printed in newspapers. He seemed like a great boss who had a deep understanding and appreciation for work of journalists.

Three takeaways:

  1. Perhaps the most interesting admission he made dealt with the struggle between “bedrock principles and things that are just habits.” He was talking about the (perhaps) inexorable evolution from print to digital formats. He began by saying that he wakes up to read the New York Times on his phone. He wants to get the experience that most of his readers get. Then he looks at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal’s digital offerings, all before settling into the print NYT. It was a good reminder that the newspaper isn’t the end result or the most-perfect product in our portfolio. Then he started in on the inverted pyramid. No, Dean, please not the sainted pyramid! Yes, the pyramid, the very foundation of every journalism writing text for decades up until about 1995 or so. Baquet pointed out that the purpose of the pyramid was to get as much important stuff as possible high in a story because the bottom was apt to be sliced with an X-acto knife before the story was run through the waxer… Well, no one is sticking words to a board with wax and cutting them off with knives these days, and there is no need to cut off the bottom of a story that runs online either. If the stilted prose of the pyramid is merely a habit, what else might we change to benefit readers? For instance, our newspaper comes out on Wednesday. Why is that? Whatever the original reason, now it is simply force of habit and we should explore whether it makes sense to change.

  1. Curiosity was the word Baquet used to describe the most important characteristic of a good journalist and I’m absolutely sure I would give the same one-word answer. Curiosity is the difference between a writer who seeks to enlighten and a reporter who merely records. He added that a belief in transparency is important for modern journalists, as is a sense of honest inquiry. That is to say a rigor of thought that demands fair questions regardless of personal bias.
  2. And about elitism… Baquet was honest that most of his staff and readers lean left. Many of them live in Manhattan, and not the one in Kansas. They are likely more wealthy and educated than the average American. Stop trying to deny it. Seek other voices and amplify them so that there may be a true marketplace of ideas. But don’t pretend you are something you are not.
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