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October 31, 2014

Dean Baquet: "This is going to sound arrogant, but....."

Ah, collaborative investigative journalism. Sounds noble.

The nation’s top investigative watchdogs convened last weekend to figure out how to better get the work of public interest, democracy-supporting news done, and I’ve covered that Logan Symposium 2012, over at Nieman Journalism Lab this morning.

Indeed, it was a power-packed — and collaborative — weekend, yet it got off to sputtering and almost jaw-dropping start.

Logan organizer Lowell Bergman, who heads UC Berkeley’s growing Investigative Reporting Program and is a longtime investigative producer and reporter (Frontline, CBS, New York Times+), led off with a Friday evening one-on-one interview with Dean Baquet, the New York Times’ managing editor. Baquet was subbing for Times editor Jill Abramson.

With a strong theme of collaboration — reporters sharing ideas and tips, TV and newspapers partnering, more is better than less — running through the conference’s schedule, Bergman tossed out an easy question for Baquet about collaboration.

“This is going to sound arrogant, but we need it less,” he said. You know, when someone starts off a sentence like that, he is usually right. Bergman gave Baquet a few more chances to explain himself….and sound less arrogant. Baquet whiffed, repeatedly.

His reasoning:

  • The Times newsroom of 1200 is large enough to do what needs to be done, “unlike the Washington Post which has given up areas of coverage.”
  • The Times seems like a more stable business now, with the fledgling success of its paywall — both making journalists feel their work is valued in the digital age and contributing to revenues. Baquet likened the paywall decision to the Times’ 1980 decision to launch a national edition, as milestones in the company’s strategy.
  • “Reporters blanch at having two sets of editors.”

Asked what he thought of the Times/local collaborations with Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen and the Chicago News Cooperative (the second and third having recently been terminated), his response: “We got some good coverage out it,” particularly Texas “for the 20 minutes that Rick Perry ran for President.”

The Times as “the center of the world” approach seemed a bit odd Friday night. One audience questioner, hearing the comments, did ask with a tone of incredulity, “Surely, you can’t cover the whole country with 1200 people?” Baquet did allow that there are big issues in the non-national press, “The dirty little secret of newspapers is that many aren’t that good. For every Philadelphia Inquirer, there is a dipshit paper.” Which is kind of a problem if there are only two serious national newspapers in the country and 1400-plus non-national ones.

As he I talked with participants over the weekend, the take was unanimous: Baquet hadn’t been merely arrogant, but extraordinarily and doubly so, given the conference’s reason for being.

Now, most observers were quick to point out that Baquet himself had proven to be a good — and collaborative — colleague in his years in journalism in New Orleans, Washington, L.A. and New York. Still his words seemed out of place. Let’s maybe blame it on the cold pills he may have been taking to soothe an ailment.

Whatever, the pose seems dangerous.

It’s wonderful that the Times still pays 1200 people, but how much longer will it be able to? In the depth of the recession, it cut more than 100 positions and as recently as last fall had to offer newsroom buyouts. Its financial future is far from assured, with its print advertising woes a great weight going forward. It is not out of the woods; it may simply be seeing a clearing.

When times get tougher, and they may well soon, the Times will need friends. You know, those people who are with you in the good, and bad, times. Talking like the king of the hill doesn’t win friends. Beyond that, even the Times’ 1200 staffers only provide limited capacity, and in the total distribution era of news, capacity counts. That’s one of the things that has made the the local collaborations of the Times such an interesting experiment. Could it generate more journalistic capacity — quality journalism that met its standards, though it was done by non-Timesmen and Timeswomen — with the local partnerships?

We’re left wondering what the Times learned from those partnerships, and where it goes from here. We’re used to not feeling warm and cuddly about the Times; arrogance has often walked hand-in-hand with its great journalism.

Yet, journalism, inevitably is a humbling trade, and even the Times is better off, for itself and for all of us, remembering that.

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