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.

Digital Guru Clay Shirky on a Newspaper Plan B

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First, the bad news: Print newspapers are in “mechanical hospice,” with 2011 revenues on a par with earnings from the last quarter of 2006.

Then, the, um,  good news (sort of):

It’s Plan B time.

Time for some come-to-Jesus innovation. Those of us who still believe in the power of newspapers to bring people together, enlighten and entertain need to face the fact that right now we have nowhere to go but up. (more…)

Nicco Mele on why papers like The Roanoke Times should thrive

On a good day, technology increases people’s engagement with each other.

On a bad day, it’s all about the digital me. “It’s narrow-minded and parochial, and people only read what they already agree with,” said Nicco Mele, the man Esquire magazine dubbed “one of America’s best and brightest.”

The technology guru and Harvard media professor spoke to a smallish group of Nieman fellows this week, thanks to Chilean Nieman Fellow Alejandra Matus (who was just named a 2011 Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; we’re so proud!)

Among Mele’s advice for journalists:

• Remember, it’s not about technology; it’s about people. “The Internet allows people to transact directly with each other and to bypass institutions.” Social media is king.

• How will newspapers fare? “I don’t see the large institutions existing in their current form in five, 10 years.” Accountability journalism — 80 percent of which has historically been done by newspapers, according Web guru Clay Shirkey — will instead be undertaken piecemeal, with no dominant model leading the charge. Damn the digital me.

Mele foresees enterprise journalism being funded by a cadre of foundations, old media, new media start-ups, and, gulp, corporations. “I think we’ll struggle with accountability journalism for 10, 25 years — but eventually it’ll get sorted out because hard news is important.”

• It’s 24-hour pajama time: Journalists should prepare to become freelancers mainly working on their own. “It’s the 1,000 true fans theory: the idea that if you have 1,000 fans who subscribe to you for $100 a year, you can live off that.” (See Paige Williams’ astonishing profile on Dolly Freed and her efforts to crowd-fund the story after it was killed by The New York Times Magazine.)

Mele told an interesting story about how he self-published the lesson plans of his grandmother, a retired middle school teacher — and sells 400-500 copies of it a year via amazon.com.

• Forget institutions; it’s all about people and social networks. “I don’t trust The New York Times. At the end of the day, the people I trust are my social network. They’re my old college roommates — the people whose faults and biases I already know!

“Large institutions to whom power is important will struggle and struggle and struggle with the Internet.

• • •

Just as I was beginning to get totally depressed (again) about the state of the print media, someone asked Mele to forecast the fortunes of medium- and smaller-market newspapers — and the picture brightened. Mele is a big fan of putting local news on the front page, even when there’s big news happening elsewhere.

Papers the size of The Roanoke Times should strive to become the “google groups” of their communities, offering hyperlocal news and connecting readers with one another in new and innovative ways. (Kevin Myatt’s fantastically popular weather blog came to mind here, as did the diehard followers of Doug Doughty and Randy King on all things sports. And I’d put Tad Dicken’s local music reporting up against anybody in the country’s; Tee-man has definitely helped turn our town into a happening music scene.)

In other words, forget trying to be sophisticated, big-city wannabe papers and embrace the local. “I don’t get the Boston Globe putting the Taliban on the front page instead of the major local story of the day,” he said. “They’re not going to be the international news source, and they shouldn’t even try.”

The Internet is about relationships — whether it be professional relationships via Linked In, or Facebook for socializing, or specialized networks that connect local chefs to local organic farms.

“The problem in the U.S. is that we’ve gone mass. And the Internet in my mind is lethal to anything mass.”

Get busy and get creative — not depressed, he added.

“I see lots of opportunity for hope, as long as you get back to the local and build it out from there.”