Dean Baquet’s ‘Charting the Future’ letter to Times staff

Much has been written about Dean Baquet’s letter to Times staff last week. As an aspiring newsroom editor/manager, I thought it was a fascinating read. While a memo seemed like an odd medium to provide reassurance to a staff hurt by buyouts, I appreciated his candid tone.

Here were some of my favorite parts of the memo:

We will fix the things the buyouts broke. We will look internally to fill important jobs. We will carefully and judiciously make a few outside hires. I know it seems incongruous to hire after reducing the staff. But if we stop bringing in new talent we run the risk of missing a generation of future stars.

Sometimes the constant desire to cut costs could cause a manager to miss out on a money-making opportunity. This was a good reminder to newsroom leaders to never let belt-tightening get in the way of a newsroom’s future, especially when it comes to hiring.

As a journalism student who will graduate in May, I see the potential of so many of my peers. We’re constantly told there are no jobs for us in journalism, so it’s good to know there are editors with the foresight to search for the talent among our ranks.

Amid the turmoil, the newsroom made a crucial decision — it would play a leading role in charting the future. Despite some jeering from those who believed The Times was abandoning its ideals, the newsroom created the feature sections that saved the paper, set it on the road to its most prosperous years ever and made our report richer for readers to this very day.

The idea that people were first critical of The New York Times’ features section is completely ludicrous to me. I’ve always found The Times features enlightening; however, I can see how a section that deviated from the newspaper’s dedication to hard news might puzzle some at first. This made me question what sections/topics I’ve avoided covering during my time as a student journalist that might be widely popular (and profitable).

This is why we are creating an audience development department. Its purpose is not to chase clicks but to expose as many people as possible to our finest work, and to connect us to readers in new and deeper ways. If we are aggressive in making our journalism widely available, and resolute in doing unmatched coverage, we will have more impact on the world, and draw new subscribers and advertisers. We don’t know what audience number The Times should achieve. But if you want a glimpse of the possibilities, consider the fact that in the two months since we began a sustained effort we have seen a consistent 20 percent increase in the number of people who found our journalism — a far more dramatic increase than anyone imagined this early.

Because it’s The New York Times, I’m sure Dean Baquet will have offers from many leaders from top media organizations across the country to run audience development. However, I hope The Times also takes a chance on a few journalists under the age of 30 to lead this department. It takes a millenial to know a millenial. If you want to know how to get me to pay for more content, ask my friends. If you want to know how to reach me, ask my friends. If you want to know what I’m already reading, ask my friends. I might not be able to articulate the answers to each of these questions very well, but my friends would.

Finally, I’m working with the business side to see if there are steps we can take to attract more ads without compromising the line between news and advertising. For instance, can an advertiser sponsor a regular feature? Yes, so long as it does not make readers question our objectivity. This is tricky territory, but some of the best news organizations in the world have already navigated it.

This seems like something The Times is already doing, albeit not regularly. The most notable case I can remember is the post titled “Women Inmates: Why The Male Model Doesn’t Work,” written by Melanie Deziel and sponsored by the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The post was clearly labeled as sponsored content and had a clear bias toward providing better care for female inmates — an issue regularly highlighted in the television show.

The story was widely read and raised awareness about an issue that is likely deserving of attention in American society. It seemed well-reported and it had all the flair and flash of a New York Times story. In other words, it seemed like a story that The New York Times would have written with or without a sponsor.

So Baquet’s proposition was welcome news to me. The idea that The New York Times could get sponsors to pay for specific stories the newspaper would likely write anyways and that money could help fund those stories that needed to be told but didn’t (or shouldn’t) have a sponsor to pay for it sounds like common sense.

Obviously, it’s easy for lines to blur. But it’s Baquet’s responsibility to uphold the integrity and the ideals of The New York Times. From his memo, I’d say he’s committed to doing just that.


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