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An Old-Fashioned Newspaperman Takes The Helm In A Digital World
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An Old-Fashioned Newspaperman Takes The Helm In A Digital World

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An Old-Fashioned Newspaperman Takes The Helm In A Digital World
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The media outcry that surrounded the firing of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson obscured the elevation of the paper's new top editor, Dean Baquet. On Morning Edition, Baquet spoke publicly for the first time about the circumstances of Abramson's firing in an exclusive interview with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Well, now David brings us the overlooked story of Baquet himself, an accomplished figure who leads The Times during an age of great challenges.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Dean Baquet took over just two weeks ago, yet appears perfectly comfortable in his new perch atop the Worlds of Journalism in New York. He smokes fine cigars, wears elegant loafers, and he excuses his decision to keep his suit coat on during our conversation by saying that's just who he is. But Baquet's identity is wrapped up in a city more than 1,000 miles away.

DEAN BAQUET: I did not grow up with a whole lot of money in New Orleans. It makes me really believe that even though The New York Times has a wealthy audience, it's really got to be a place that speaks to a whole range of people.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet's parents owned Eddie's, a famed gumbo place there, where as a kid he'd mop floors mornings and on weekends. While in college, he took an internship at the afternoon paper, fell in love with newspapering - he still uses the term - and ultimately dropped out of Columbia University to return to New Orleans.

BAQUET: This city's great fun. I believe in fun. I worked with people who were extremely eccentric, and you come to appreciate the eccentric characters in newsrooms. And my whole family's there.

REPORTER: Part of the Baquet family identity resides in his race. He is the first African-American to become the top editor at The New York Times.

BAQUET: Interesting. It's something I don't talk about a whole lot for tons of reasons. But I'll talk about it now. First off, I think it's got to be great inspiration for young African-American journalists all across the country. And I need to spend more time talking to them and talking about how I got here. My racial and economic background influences the way I think about coverage and news.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet won a Pulitzer Prize as a young reporter at the Chicago Tribune for exposing corruption of city official. Baquet says he was one of just a handful of investigative reporters at The Times when he joined in the late 1980s and that overtime he helped to build up a strong bench of reporters and editors. In our interview, he signaled he intends to make that a renewed focus.

BAQUET: I think that's what we can do that nobody else can do. We have the people. We have expertise. We're big enough, and we should be punching at our weight, if you will.

FOLKENFLIK: This story relies on interviews with more than 20 of Baquet's current and former colleagues at The New York Times, where he's held four senior news executive positions, and the Los Angeles Times, where he served in the top two. Almost all declined to speak for direct attribution because they work for Baquet or still have professional dealings with The New York Times. Marty Baron, a former colleague at The New York Times, is now one of Baquet's leading rivals as executive editor of The Washington Post. He's also one of Baquet's best friends.

MARTY BARON: Well, he just likes big stories, and he likes investigations. And he likes great lyrical pieces as well - big strong narratives. And I think that's what animates him. That's what gives them joy. That's what brings him to work every day.

FOLKENFLIK: But Baron warns that Baquet will have to confront seismic shifts in the industry due to both financial pressures and radical changes forced by the digital age.

BARON: That has changed the job of an editor quite dramatically. We've had to make very tough choices about how we allocate resources that can alienate some people in our newsroom. It can in fact alienate some of our readers.

FOLKENFLIK: Colleagues said Baquet comes off as a well-rounded figure. He's someone who delights in paintings and fiction. And he's an ebullient and affirming champion of top-notch journalism. As he also concedes, he's subject to the occasional angry outburst - something he says he's not proud of.

But overall, current and former colleagues on both coasts say he's proven a charismatic defender of traditional newsroom values. In 2006, after six years in LA, Baquet rejected orders from his corporate bosses at the Tribune Company to make more cuts. He was fired and soon returned to The New York Times to continue his steady rise.

But five former colleagues in Los Angeles said he'd really failed to become engaged in thinking seriously about the paper's digital future there. And Baquet says, you know what? They're right.

BAQUET: I think I was slow to the digital side of the newsroom. I mean, I was distracted. We had a very - to my mind - not particularly enlightened leadership in Chicago. But that's only half an excuse. I don't think I embraced it enough, anyway, and I learned from that.

FOLKENFLIK: There are echoes in New York. An internal review by publisher Arthur Sulzberger's son concluded that The Times needed to move much more boldly to address its digital future. Baquet says he's on board.

BAQUET: In some ways, I may be the last New York Times executive editor who was a police reporter. I'm 57. I covered cops and courts in New Orleans. I did trials - the whole nine yards. Something tells me that if not my successor, the person after her or him is going to come up in a digital world and will have learned journalism in a completely different world. When he gets excited, Baquet describes what he does as newspapering, then winces with a smile. On of the nation's top news executives says it's time for him to change, too. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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