AUSTIN — If you have an idea for a local investigative project but need some extra time or support to work on it, Dean Baquet wants to help.
Baquet, who served as the executive editor of The New York Times from 2014 until this year, will lead its new local investigations fellowship program. At the Independent News Sustainability Summit on Thursday in Austin, Texas, Baquet talked about his plans for the pilot program, which will launch early next year.
Baquet told the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith that he’s looking for “straightforward, classic investigative reporting.” (He also tweeted about the fellowship on Wednesday — the first tweet in eight years from a man who thinks reporters should, generally, tweet less.)
The fellowship is designed to help local outlets publish investigative journalism that they otherwise might not have the resources to do. The stories will also be published in the Times. Baquet said he’ll visit newsrooms to help the shape the proposals he’s interested in:
“Some of the editors we talked to said they don’t have time to come up with proposals. They’re overworked. The last thing they want to do is spend time on another thing. I also think, frankly, in some of the newsrooms we’ve talked to, the editors and the reporters — particularly the reporters — are not advanced enough to know what they have.
And frankly, some of this is selfish. I like being in newsrooms on the front end of stories. I like sitting down with a reporter who has a half-formed idea and trying to figure out what it could look like at the other end…I think that it’s been helpful for the newsrooms to just talk to editors who have a little bit of time. And for the first time, in my career, I have a little bit of time.”
How much pre-reporting should the applications include? “For somebody who’s already got a five- or six-part series reported out already, I’m not sure what we bring to the table,” Baquet said.
“If you have the smoking gun, that’s great, but we don’t have to have the smoking gun,” he added. “When we’re sitting down with editors and reporters, we may look at an application and try to figure out if the inkling is truly an uneducated inkling or an inkling based in reality. Some of the finest journalism I’ve been associated with started out as an inkling.”
Local journalists, both freelancers and staffers, can apply to spend a year working on investigations that hold power to account in their communities or regions. The stories must be local in scope, but applicants should think beyond local governments. Baquet:
“If you want a pitch for why you should do investigative reporting: First off, when we did the Harvey Weinstein stories, it broke the internet for us. The audience for investigative reporting is tremendous. I also think we should not just stick to government in investigative reporting. That’s started to change in the last decade. In a weird way, one reason people came to believe governments were inefficient and screwed up is because they didn’t get a look at bad businesses. Now we’ve gotten a look inside businesses, we get that maybe government is not as bad as we thought by comparison [laughs]. I would argue, if you’re a business publication, do investigative reporting on businesses. It’s harder. You can’t walk into a local business with a FOIA request and demand stuff. But they, too, have former employees. They, too, are regulated.”
Baquet and a team of editors will select eight to 12 fellows and cover their salaries for the year, though the application doesn’t specify how much the fellowship pays. Baquet also declined to share the budget for the program. (Evan Smith: “Well, that’s not very transparent.”)
The fellowship was Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s idea, Baquet said. As his retirement approached, Baquet said Sulzberger suggested that he lead an investigative journalism program.
“I immediately loved it. I grew up in local news. I’ve spent much of my career as an investigative reporter,” Baquet said. “And I actually feel like I owe something to journalists. I grew up in a working [class], poor neighborhood in New Orleans. I’ve seen so much of the world through journalism. I want journalism, and local journalism in particular, to survive and thrive. Anything I can do to contribute to that would make me very happy.”
Smith asked, “How much of this is about what’s lacking in local news, and how much of this is about what’s lacking at The New York Times?”
“If The New York Times just wanted to go do a bunch of local investigations, frankly, we could do it,” Baquet said. “I could send 20 New York Times reporters to do local investigations. But the reason you want to work with younger journalists is just for the reason we said — to teach the next generation.”
Smith also asked Baquet to list some of the ways the Times improved — and worsened — during his tenure. Baquet:
“It’s better than we found it in the sense that it’s a far better investigative operation. It’s better than we found it in the sense that it is no longer truly a print newsroom. It’s a newsroom that actually experiments. It’s got a ginormous podcasting operation, and is creating a whole world of visual journalism. It’s become a very large, modern organization, as it should be, and I think one of the results of that is [that] it’s much stronger financially than it was a decade ago.
What is not stronger? I don’t think we, or any other news organization, has quite licked the trust issue or has figured it out…[Trust] was something we focused on but we didn’t know fully how to do it. We still try. We have a whole group of people working on trust and transparency, but we just haven’t figured it out. Some of the questions of journalism that we face are really big and are going to take a long time to figure out.”
The Independent News Sustainability Summit is focused on financial health, journalistic impact, and operational resilience for independent news outlets. It’s organized by Lion Publishers, the News Revenue Hub, and the Texas Tribune’s RevLab, with funding from Knight and Lenfest. Find the full schedule here and follow along on Twitter Photo of Dean Baquet at SXSW 2017 by Ståle Grut of NRKbeta used under a Creative Commons license.