AUSTIN, TX. — Dean Baquet is gearing up for what he believes will be a historic few years for the journalism industry — in large part thanks to President Donald Trump.
The New York Times executive editor sat down with NYT columnist Jim Rutenberg for a fireside chat on Sunday morning at SXSW, the annual tech/film/music conference in Austin, Texas.
Part of the conversation focused on what has changed for the Times since Trump was elected and what that means for the future of the American journalism industry — one that has newspapers around the country slashing staff and reducing coverage as traditional advertising and subscription revenue streams become obsolete.
On election night this past November, Baquet said he “levitated” after realizing how important independent media coverage will be over the next few years.
“The next two years will be a historic moment in the life of news organizations,” he said. “It’s a combination of the economic realities forcing their way in, with a president who is leading a revolution in Washington that makes this the most compelling political story since 9/11, mixed in with this whole debate over what makes a journalist … there will be 20 books written about the next two years in American journalism.”
Baquet said the Times has seen “hundreds of thousands” of new subscriptions since Trump was elected and that the company has been “hiring like crazy.”
“We are preparing for the story of a generation,” he said.
The additional subscriptions won’t completely fix the Times’ bottom line, Baquet said. But there’s an underlying movement that leaves room for optimism.
“The harsh reality of newspaper business is … that advertising, which has sustained us for a long time and enabled us to build big powerful newsrooms, is disappearing,” he said. “But something amazing has happened. The rise in digital subscriptions, the rise in audience, it has changed our economics.”
Baquet noted that the Times will be cutting some its staff to save costs — revenue and profit dipped year-over-year for 2016 — but the newspaper “won’t be smaller in the areas where we have to cover Donald Trump, the country, and the world.”
Baquet also addressed some of Trump’s comments about the “failing Times” and other media companies, particularly his “enemy of the people” tweet that caused a firestorm. The editor called that comment “outrageous” and “dangerous.”
“Of course we aren’t the enemy of people,” Baquet said. “We have a role in society, which is to ask tough questions of the president.”
Added Baquet: “Our job is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump — it’s to cover the hell out of Donald Trump.”
On the topic of covering what Trump tweets and deciding what to ignore, Baquet said it’s a balance.
“We don’t cover his frivolous tweets,” he said. “But when the president of the United States accuses his predecessor with no evidence of wiretapping him and calls him a bad guy or sick, that’s a big story. That’s a story we have to not only cover, but keep coming back to until it’s resolved.”
Asked about ignoring a statement from Trump or his press secretary that is “patently false,” Baquet said it needs to be written about.
“I think it’s more important to cover this stuff and say that it’s false when it’s false than to ignore it,” he noted.
Baquet also touched on the fake news environment and how seemingly anyone with an internet connection can be a “journalist” in 2017 given how people get their news today.
“That may rock my economic world,” he noted. “But that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to journalism and the country. The fact that five people can get together and create journalism about a very specific subject — that’s terrific. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
But Baquet said he’s nervous about how the definition of “journalism” is changing. For example, he’s not convinced Breitbart News is “journalism” because “they are sort of propaganda and they look for ways to twist the news to match their view of the world.”
“We make mistakes, but that’s not what we do,” Baquet explained. “The Washington Post makes mistakes, but that’s not what they do. BuzzFeed makes mistakes, but that’s not what they do. You have to be — and you can do this from the left or you can do this from the right — you have to be in some pursuit of the truth, and do it honorably. To me, that’s the closest I’ve come to the definition.”