Times public editor: The readers versus the masthead

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, was at home on Monday night—as was the rest of the paper’s senior leadership (referred to internally as “the masthead”)—when the next day’s front page was being composed. Soon, it would turn into a public disaster. 

At 9:13pm, Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, the statistical news site once published by the Times, sparked a social media furor with a tweet of the front page. A banner headline appeared over a pair of stories on President Trump’s White House speech addressing the weekend’s two mass shootings; Silver commented, “Not sure ‘TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM’ is how I would have framed the story.” Not long after, Joan Walsh, of The Nation and CNN, tweeted that she had canceled her Times subscription and urged others to do the same. “I know a lot of folks will tell me I’m wrong. I will miss it. But I can’t keep rewarding such awful news judgment,” she wrote. “‘Trump Urges Unity Against Racism’ is almost as bad as their full-page Comey letter coverage just before 2016 election. Nobody learns.” (A spokesperson for the Times declined to say how many cancellations the newspaper has seen, but acknowledges, “We have seen a higher volume of cancellations today than is typical.”)

Within an hour, Tom Jolly, the Times print editor, tweeted an image of  the second edition with a rewritten headline: “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.” But by that point, the firestorm had spread, with readers, journalists, and politicians taking to Twitter to attack the paper for failing to call out Trump’s racism and accepting “his narrative” that he opposes racial discrimination. 

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“People think the leadership of the New York Times sat down and tried to come up with a headline that mollified Donald Trump and that’s just not the case,” Baquet tells me. Trying to make the best of a social media dumpster fire, he goes on, “People think we are an important and necessary institution and they hold us to a high standard.”

There was a time when A1 of The New York Times was one of the most scrutinized parcels of journalistic real estate on earth; the process of choosing each word and image that appeared on it defined the daily rhythm of the entire news organization. But the old “Page One meeting,” in which the executive editor would hear pitches for the front page from various desk editors, was discontinued in 2015, and—in an effort to reorient the newsroom away from print and to its digital platforms—the entire function of producing papers was placed in a separate department, called the “Print Hub,” a 56-person team led by Jolly, which assembles and packages the stories produced across the newsroom into the editions the paper still prints each day.

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“The print hub is not right in the middle of the news desk anymore,” Baquet tells me. “I don’t lay out the page. I don’t pick the front-page stories. I don’t think that’s the role of the executive editor anymore.” Nevertheless, he says he does take responsibility for what he calls a “bad headline”: “It’s important for me to say, if anyone is at fault, the executive editor is at fault.” For that reason, he would not name the person who wrote the original headline. He says only that “It didn’t have enough skepticism of what the president said.”

As Baquet tells it, “the cascade of things that led to this headline” began with the layout that was given to the print hub to fill in. The space for the main headline could fit about two dozen characters, and that was not enough space to “allow for a subtle headline,” Baquet says. “We tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because it was too small a space. This is a story with some subtlety to it. It needed to do three things: convey what Donald Trump said, the reasons to be skeptical of what Donald Trump said, and white supremacy as an evident problem.”

While Baquet and the masthead no longer write or approve front-page headlines before they go to press, he says, “The masthead and senior leadership get the front page at night, and I think we’ve gotten casual about when we look at it.” On Monday, the uproar had already begun after Jolly tweeted the front page—at 9:05pm, just eight minutes before Silver’s viral tweet. “We would have recognized this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media,” Baquet says. After not very long, he and other editors began to write new display copy for the second edition, which he admits was also not perfect: “I think we came up with a headline that was better than the first one but didn’t capture the sweep of the day the way our readers expect.”

All of that is a fair explanation of how a bad headline happens. But it’s almost irrelevant to the bigger problem at hand, which is how reader expectations of the Times have shifted after the election of President Trump. The paper (a term I still use primarily due to the force of habit) saw a huge surge of subscriptions in the days and months after the 2016 election. Why that happened is still a subject of debate within the Times. I think that subscribing to the Times was something actionable for people who were afraid of Trump, much like signing up for email lists, volunteering for political campaigns, or donating to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Times has since embraced these new subscribers in glitzy commercials with slogans like “The truth is more important now than ever.” 

 

Yet there is a glaring disconnect between those energized readers and many Times staffers, especially newspaper veterans. Baquet doesn’t see himself as the vanguard of the resistance. He takes a much more traditional view of journalists as objective chroniclers of the news, leaving it to readers and pundits to decide what the facts mean. “I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” he says. 

He acknowledges that people may have a different view of what the Times is, but he doesn’t blame the marketing. “It’s not because of the ads; it’s because Donald Trump has stirred up very powerful feelings among Americans. It’s made Americans, depending on your point of view, very angry and very mistrustful of institutions. And some may think newsrooms like the New York Times and the Washington Post are supposed to be Donald Trump’s adversaries or the leaders of the adversarial movement to take down Donald Trump.” The loudest proponent of that theory is, of course, Trump—which, oddly, aligns the president with some of the people who are most opposed to him.

ICYMI: How a NYT article highlights how newsrooms are out of touch with the communities they cover

So how does the Times negotiate the disconnect? “It is difficult,” Baquet says. “I think the way you do it is you just keep working, you keep trying to break stories, you try to do analysis that explains the moment we’re in, you try to diversify your staff to include different viewpoints. You just try to work very hard.”

If that sounds unsatisfying, it’s because Baquet, the first African-American executive editor of the Times, doesn’t see this moment in American history as particularly aberrant. “I get that people see the phenomenon of someone who says inflammatory statements as a new thing,” he says. “I grew up in the South. I covered Edwin Edwards.” (Baquet was a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune when a candidate for Louisiana governor told him famously: “Only way I lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”) 

“Americans have a way of thinking that nothing like this has happened before,” Baquet says. “Picture what the newsrooms of the New York Times and the Washington Post were like when people thought the draft and Vietnam meant that they were literally going to have to fight a war. The New York Times has a strong view about its role. We are not The Nation, even though I have deep respect for them. I think it’s healthy for each generation to come in and discuss what the rules are. You have to accept that there’s something at the core of the New York Times and the Washington Post that won’t change, but there’s a lot that can change at the edges.”

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.