Eleven journalism students gathered around a pair of tables in the St. Augustine High School library Monday afternoon, making the most of their chance to grill New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet about life atop one of the most prestigious news organizations in the country and how he got there.
“Mostly, it’s a blast,” said Baquet, an alumnus of the 7th Ward Catholic boys school where he will deliver the commencement address on Wednesday.
The question-and-answer session lasted just over an hour, covering the obligations that come with being in charge, the importance of truth in storytelling and the value of travel in broadening the mind.
“If I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be that you can never listen too much,” Baquet said of the decisions he has to make at The New York Times, where he took charge of the newsroom last year.
“I want to hear people who might disagree with me,” he said.
Baquet started his journalism career at The Times-Picayune after attending Columbia University. He left New Orleans in 1984 for The Chicago Tribune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
The son of a New Orleans restaurant owner, Baquet said his years at St. Augustine taught him ethics, loyalty and the importance of caring about other people. An avid basketball player at age 17, he said the school gave him the confidence to know he could succeed, even among people who might be smarter or more athletic.
He told the students that he’d never been on an airplane until he left New Orleans to go to college. After a brief period of holding too tightly to the comforting confines of the friends and food of his youth in New Orleans, he began to broaden his horizons in New York City, developing a love for museums that would have shocked the teen of only a few years before.
“If you can put yourself in a position to travel the world, you should do it,” he said.
Asked if he thought he had ever let personal bias into a story, Baquet said he has always worked to counter a natural inclination to identify with victims by putting a strong emphasis on getting the whole truth.
“The goal is not to just tell somebody’s story,” he said. “It’s to come as close to telling the truth as you can.”
Baquet told the students that even when, as a young reporter in New Orleans, he found himself covering the murder trial of a man who had once beaten him up in a schoolyard fight, he covered the man’s story fairly, “the way he deserved it.”
Asked if he’d ever been star-struck in an interview, Baquet said only once, during a meeting in Mexico City with the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Powerful people, he said, “are not, for the most part, any more interesting than anyone else. They’re usually (just) dressed better.”
When it comes to politicians, Baquet said a level head is the only way to approach the job.
“We have to ask powerful people hard questions. If we don’t do it, nobody else will do it. It’s not my job to be friends with them,” he said to nods of understanding.
Baquet said other tough decisions at The Times include sending reporters into war zones, as when he signed off on a 2012 trip to Syria by reporter Anthony Shadid.
“It still broke my heart,” Baquet said.
He also mentioned foreign correspondent Alyssa Rubin, who was critically injured in a helicopter crash while reporting in Kurdistan in August.
Rubin is recovering, slowly regaining the use of her hands.
“Sometime in the next months, she’s going to ask me to go back,” Baquet said.
“If I say ‘no’ to her, is that the right thing to do? I don’t know. It’s going to be a hard conversation. It’s going to be a hard decision.”
Baquet said staying ahead of the competition often comes down to recognizing a big story before other news organizations do and “asking the right questions first.”
Asked by a teacher to talk about networking, Baquet told the students about a court reporter in another city whom he idolized as a young reporter. He read everything the reporter would write, and one day called him and found him eager to teach what he knew.
“It’s important to find people who know how to do things you want to do,” he said.
As the session drew to a close, Baquet felt the need to add just one more thought before joining the students for a quick photo in front of the school that helped shape him.
He said he is asked all the time about what it takes to get to the top, but that he wants young people to keep in mind that they will spend most of their career not at its conclusion, but on the path that leads them there.
“Just be sure that you have fun all along the way,” he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.