Way ahead for the New York Times: 10 million online 'not unreasonable'

Dean Baquet

Whither the New York Times? Liz Spayd, public editor of the Times, quizzed the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, in an interview published in the Sunday edition to see how he believes readers might feel the impact. of another year of rapid-cycle innovation - and the big political story in Washington,

With the paper reaching vastly more readers online, he agreed there was a possibility the the Times would actually get to 10 million online,

Spayd said there was a a highly anticipated internal report due out soon that will set the future path for New York Times innovation. Spayd asked Baquet :How do you suppose forthcoming changes will actually affect readers? Will new features be added? Or current ones eliminated? Will The Times tell stories in ways it doesn’t now?

Baquet said he thought readers would continue to see more exploration of ways to tell stories, a continuing emphasis on video and multimedia online, and more of an effort in which we acknowledge the phone is a completely different medium than print.

“We’re going to think harder about how we’re going to edit The New York Times. Trying to edit The Times the way we edited it in a purely print era is unreasonable. The layers of editing, the number of people who touch a story. The fact is that we now write so much more.

“Right now, as we talk, there’s a hearing on Russian hacking. I’ve been in meetings all day, but we’ve probably written 10 posts. All of those posts, and the large print stories done at the end of the day, cannot be edited in the same way. The challenge is how to still be fast and give people a story in a form that is accurate. But it’s hard. If we succeed, readers won’t notice most of these editing changes.

“Also, I think people will see more changes in the print New York Times. We just redesigned Culture. I’m not sure yet what redesigns of other sections of The New York Times will look like, but we’re looking at how we produce the print New York Times.

Are we going to see less space devoted to metro coverage?

“I’m not being coy. I don’t think so, if you think past the actual desks. I think of Metro as everything from local investigative reporting, which we do a lot of, to local culture reporting, which we do a lot of, to local business reporting, which we do a lot of. So I’m not sure people will see the word “New York” appear less in The New York Times. I think they will see less — and I have already seen less — incremental New York news coverage.

“I think you will always see The Times deeply invested in covering the mayor and governor of New York. I have no intention of pulling back any of that coverage. But I think you will see less incremental coverage of New York, without question.”

You’ve spoken about buyouts and other newsroom cuts, said Spayd. How might those impact readers? Will readers be notified if favorite bylines move on.

We will have a smaller newsroom, said Baquet, “ but I don’t know what that means yet because there’s so many factors. Print advertising, which was one of the things that most sustained our newsroom, and all newsrooms, for a long time is dropping significantly — and more this year than ever before.

“The election of Donald Trump also changes the calculation, for example. We went from three to six people covering the White House. We have to think harder about how we cover agencies in Washington, because it’s going to undergo a dramatic transformation. My goal is to keep as many people as we can whose work is to gather news. Who write stories, cover the world, take video.

Mark Thompson, the C.E.O., recently raised the possibility that The Times could reach 10 million digital subscribers, which could really be a game changer.

Spayd boldly asked: “Is that a number pulled out of a hat or do you think it’s realistic, and if so by when?”

Baquet responded, “Well, I don’t know by when, but I certainly did not expect the dramatic rise in subscriptions that The New York Times has seen. I don’t think the industry’s seen anything like it — and that was before Trump. I remember going to a celebration not that long ago when we crossed a million. And that seemed like such an elusive, big thing.

“And if we have more years like the year we just had, I don’t think that’s [10 million] unreasonable. I don’t know when that will be, but it’s not unreasonable. And, by the way, we’re just starting our international expansion, because most of our audience is still domestic. I think that there’s a big audience for New York Times coverage;

" I think a lot of people don’t know what we do. It’s always surprising when we talk to readers — they don’t know how much video we do. We did an experiment in which we showed them some foreign coverage — and readers assumed it was Vice. We do more adventurous foreign reporting than anybody in the world. Oddly enough for an institution that people think of as overconfident sometimes, we’re not that good at tooting our own horn.”

Spayd said she did a call-out to readers earlier this week asking what questions they had for Baquet . Many, not surprisingly, asked about politics.

“They seem to be in two camps. One complains that opinion is bleeding into news stories. Another worries that The Times will “normalize” Trump and fall prey to his manipulations. Does one of these sides better represent your concern?”

Baquet said he thought this was this was an extraordinary presidency. “And the reason that we’re putting more energy into covering it is not because we have this goal of taking Donald Trump down. It is because he literally has placed people in positions of power who by the standards of Washington, whether you like them or not — and I’m using this as a neutral word — are revolutionary figures.

“The secretary of state is unlike any we have ever had. He ran the biggest corporation in the world. The head of the E.P.A. doesn’t necessarily think we should have an E.P.A. So this is an extraordinary moment in the life of Washington. And we will cover that very, very aggressively.

“I do not believe that opinion has seeped into the pages of The New York Times. I think some who think that do so because of my decision to use the word “lie” [in stories that refer to Trump’s bolder falsehoods].

“Some of it is, to be frank, because some of our competitors have accused us of that and I think that resonates with people. I really don’t buy it and we work really, really hard to not do it.”

Our writing is more relaxed than it used to be, said Baquet. “That’s intentional. I actually think some newspaper writing of a generation ago was too stilted, was too hard to follow, too hard to understand. And I think that I’ve tried really hard to push us to loosen up language.

"I think there was something elitist about coverage of Congress 25 years ago that assumed people knew how a bill became a law. And I think the one thing we’ve been smacked in the head with in recent years is that people don’t understand that stuff. And the most non-elitist thing we can do is to assume people don’t understand it. To relax a bit in forms of storytelling, to tell people when we witness things and observe things. To be transparent.

“Of course, does that mean that sometimes we may have slipped in a way I wish we hadn’t? Yes, of course. But I think the alternative, which was to keep telling stories in this sort of made-up newspaper language that I grew up on, I don’t think that’s a good alternative.

Did he think reporters and editors at times injected opinion?

“You and I could probably go through The Times every day and come up with a couple examples where they do. But I think mostly they don’t.”

Another political question from a reader, on the topic of Trump’s crack-of-dawn tweets: “For the love of God, can The Times stop treating Trump’s tweets as front-page news?” In essence, plenty of readers ask, why does The Times give so much attention to his tweets, even some that are misleading or inaccurate?

Said Baquet, “I think we need to devise a way to more quickly put them in perspective and call them out, if they’re exaggerated, and more quickly try to figure out their meaning. But I don’t think we could get away with not covering them. He’s the president of the United States. They’re not press releases. They’re his utterances at six o’clock in the morning. You wanna talk about a slippery slope?

“Picture the scene: six o’clock in the morning, The Times looks at a tweet he makes about ISIS, and we say, “Eh, that one doesn’t feel important, we don’t believe him.” That’s more injecting opinion into coverage than an occasional slip in language.

“I agree. If he’s going to tweet, like when he chastised his own Republican Congress this week, how is that not news? Context is important, but so is how he wields influence.

“And learning how to balance them. It’s a new phenomenon. And making sure his tweets don’t necessarily set the cycle of the day if they’re not important. But not covering them, I don’t think that’s an alternative.”

Baquet said if he had a do-over it would be about anger in the country — that we, the press, did not quite have a handle on during the election.

“The good thing about being an editor of a news organization is that you get a do-over. You just say: We’re going to do it better from now on. I think we struggle because of our location in New York. I’ve asked the national desk and others to get better at countering that.

“Also, it is unfortunate that with the weakening of local news organizations, the most powerful and significant news organizations in America are in New York and Washington. That means whole parts of the country don’t get the best coverage that would help us understand the rest of the country.”

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