Advice From Some Journalism Supernovas: Robert Caro, Anne Hull and NYT Managing Editor Dean Baquet

I’ve just spent a week feasting on a serious journalism smorgasbord, beginning with the 75th reunion of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Among my favorite parts was Jane Mayer’s I.F. Stone award acceptance speech. She reminded all the journalists in the room that our sole loyalty should be to our readers, not our sources — advice I personally can’t hear enough in this era of government obfuscation and what I call the P.R.-ification of everydamnthing, from schools to cops to the local chamber of commerce. (Even in Roanoke, you have a better chance of getting a doctor on the telephone these days than an official source who will actually come right out and tell you what’s going on.)

Publishing stories the federal government does not want out in the public realm can be quite scary, the New Yorker writer conceded.

But, quoting Lord Northcliffe, Mayer said: “The news is something someone wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.”

Mayer talked about what it was like working under the clamped-down authority of the Obama administration. LBJ biographer Robert Caro took the audience back to an earlier media landscape that was different but no less clamped down. It was a thrill watching Caro being interviewed on stage by another of my reporting superheroes, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull.

With her hands perched together in a cool triangle, Hull asked Caro how he uses email, knowing the answer before she asked it and letting the pause linger for effect.

Robert Caro, one of the greatest reporters living, doesn’t use e-mail at all.

Instead, at his Columbus Circle office, to which he wears a coat and tie every day, he picks up the telephone. Better yet, he returns to his subjects — in person — again and again. He’s turned just about every page of some four stories’ worth of documents in the LBJ presidential library. To understand Johnson’s Texas Hill country, Caro literally dug his hands into the shallow rocky dirt because it represents the very fiber of the 36th president’s being: In politics as in farming, you’re dead if you make a mistake.

When Hull asked about his belief that “truth equals time,” Caro spoke of the luxury he has in getting to know his sources deeply over the course of writing his four-going-on-five LBJ biographies. His editor doesn’t give him a deadline, he said — to an audible gasp in the hall — and each book typically takes seven to eight years.

Which is why he wears a suit and takes the phone off the hook when he writes — to remind himself that this is serious, important work.

“You just keep going back to people,” he told Hull. “The luxury of time is, you can become friendly.”

And, if dinner and wine are involved, maybe even a bit sneaky — as long as the truth is your aim.

Caro confided that when he was trying to get one LBJ colleague to open up, Caro and his wife, Ina, took the interviewee out to dinner with the man’s wife. Ina would distract the wife so she wouldn’t hear her husband spilling the beans to Caro and remind him that some things might be better left unsaid.

For a recap of other speakers at the Harvard event, some of the videos are posted here. For narrative junkies, here’s an awesome list of 75 tips culled from Nieman Storyboard, along with a trove of Nieman “moments” posted here, including my own.

Then Came Smorgasbord: Part II. . . .

After spending a weekend with some of journalism’s heaviest hitters, I spent three days getting to know the profession’s burgeoning stars. A speaker at the Foster-Foreman Conference at Penn State University, I read from my forthcoming “Factory Man” and talked about the importance of getting on the ground with every subject you can find — in the Caro mold.

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I love how the AWSM (young women sportswriters) wanted to know about the perils of trying to balance home, kids, marriage and journalism. Tough questions!

Here’s the news coverage of my talk, along with an honest-to-goodness handwritten thank-you note that arrived in today’s actual mail. (Megan K. Flood, your mama raised you right!)

Several other students e-mailed follow-up questions, and one asked if he could get his picture taken with me after reading my entire blog, though he scolded me for being a social media slacker: “Ma’am, you haven’t tweeted since Sept. 23!”

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“What’s up with the dearth of tweeting, ma’am?”

I also brought back some inspiration from Pulitzer-winner Dean Baquet, the managing editor of The New York Times and the keynote speaker of the conference. Baquet, 57, began by cautioning reporters not to take the cliché way out, as he had done once early in a career.

He called out his own coverage of a rape trial in New Orleans, a story in which he’d described one of the witnesses as a “two-bit actor.” It was a biased story that made even the prosecutor in the case embarrassed for him — and one that still makes him cringe.

Now, Baquet spends his days going head-to-head with CIA and NSA officials, navigating some of the most ethically fraught situations in journalism today: Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Chinese officials’ blocking of The Times’ website in China.

A self-described workaholic, Baquet spent a lot of time checking his phone last Monday evening — his i-Phone happy newsroom makes fun of him for his old-school Blackberry addiction, he said — to see if the government was still shut down. Alas, it was.

Baquet was refreshingly humble about mistakes he’d made and how far he’d climbed to achieve the pinnacle editing position he holds now. His mother had a third-grade education, and the first time Baquet flew on an airplane was for his interview at Columbia University, where he majored in English.

He encouraged students to read, read, read, especially books about history and politics — from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, to the intricacies of how bills turn into laws, to why relations between India and Pakistan are forever strained.

To fully grasp the war in Afghanistan a few years ago, he recalled e-mailing one of his correspondents to ask what he should be reading in order to better understand — and edit — the stories his reporters were filing from the field. The answer surprised him: Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat,” a novel about betrayal and revenge.

Baquet, whose wife is a fiction writer, said novels are his favorite after-hours reading, though he regularly takes dozens of news stories home with him to review.

“Don’t get so caught up in ambitions and aspirations that you miss the process of becoming a journalist,” Baquet told the students. “And always take the job that will teach you something you don’t know.”

The Grey Lady may still be copy-heavy, but Baquet seemed to hold the greatest optimism for the future of multimedia narrative journalism, citing the Times’ recent projects, including “Snow Fall” and “The Jockey.”

“I think the best journalism is actually being produced right now,” he said. “You’re coming into a great profession that deserves to survive and thrive, and you’re gonna have an absolute blast.”

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It was pretty cool sharing a billing — as well as a poster — with Dean Baquet.

Searching out change lessons from the center of the storm

For a Kennedy School class I’m taking called Public Narrative, today I was tasked with presenting a paper about continuity and change as it affects the journalism industry — and what leadership lessons my peers and I can take from it. As I was writing this yesterday, I learned that one of my dearest reporter friends was laid off from the Associated Press. Talk about a reality check. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial fish who has no idea he’s in water — because that’s all he knows. It’s hard to sort out the lessons of this journalistic storm when you’re still stuck in the eye of it. But here’s one rambling attempt. . . .

Last year was the worst year ever for journalism in general and for my newsroom in particular. While we didn’t suffer layoffs at my paper (a rarity in the industry), we have had furloughs and buyouts. Our staff shrank mightily, with so many empty desks that the bosses finally had the maintenance guys rearrange the furniture — adding a red couch and a seating area to camouflage the loss. It didn’t work. The truth is, the few of us remaining are so busy that nobody has time to actually sit a spell on the couch.

Morale, as you might guess, is at an all-time low for journalists everywhere. As veteran journalists, we’ve all had several choices presented to us: Do we join the hundreds of other journalists who have jumped ship pre-emptively, getting out of the business before they’re forced? Or do we stay and fight? If we do stay, how as a reporter do we continue doing what we love as the industry shifts from old media to the new? How do we embrace change when we can’t even count on having a job from one week to the next?

Last week, I wrote about my attempt to turn the story of my industry’s loss into a story of redemption; how I’ve tried to reframe the dread-filled conversations that dominate newspapers across the country by inspiring other reporters to remember why it is we were originally called to tell the stories of the downtrodden and the corrupt; how to make the public’s business known. Some call me a Pollyanna, but I’m trying to convince the naysayers in my industry that we can reinvent ourselves but only if we invent new ways of working — and of working better together. That we have to change is evident; what’s less clear is whether we can hold onto our core journalistic values as we commence the metamorphosis. In this age of politically leaning blogs and shouting cable TV hosts, remembering our values of fairness and civic responsibility may be the only thing that saves us. Waving the white flag of surrender sure won’t.

I’ve come to Harvard this year to learn more about families, immigrants and the elderly, which are my specialty areas. I’ve also begun to study theories of collaboration, because I believe that journalists are going to have to learn to share their toys. Papers that used to compete vigorously are already starting to share resources; TV, radio and print are beginning to form unprecedented partnerships. I’ve also decided to use this year away as a time to learn new skills in radio, video and Web design — something few reporters have the luxury of doing because of all those empty desks I mentioned at the start.

The reporter who outlasts the apocalypse, I predict, will be the one who trains herself, in effect, to be a multimedia producer but still knows how to tell the hell out of a good story. She’ll also learn to give younger, Web-savvy readers a reason to go to newspaper Web sites — by offering personal commentary and by interacting with readers/viewers.

It’s an awkward time for journalists: We’re trying to prepare for a Web-based future — but we’re scared because we don’t know exactly what that future is, or whether there’ll be a place for us in it. And oh-yeah-by-the-way: We still have a little thing called a newspaper to put out every day.

Honestly, I don’t know how this narrative will end, or what leadership lessons, if any, we will have learned. I attend at least one “future of news” panel discussion a week, and — reading between the lines spoken by the smartest people in this business — it seems like no one knows.

But if we retain our core values of fairness and public responsibility, I think it’s possible that we’ll look back on this tumultuous period as a time when our century-old institutions kicked it into high gear and birthed a new kind of storytelling — one that still helps people understand their world and each other. Instead of writing our narratives as obituaries, I hope we’ll look back and tell a story about how we changed so much on the surface — but how, down deep, we didn’t change at all.

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