Is the press really the enemy of the American people? That was the tongue-in-cheek question that kicked off a live interview with New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the big annual technology and entrepreneurship conference happening this week.
Several thousand people packed into the Austin, Texas, convention center early this morning to hear what one of the most influential figures in American journalism had to say about covering the presidency of a man who has not shied away from making blunt (and often factually dubious) attacks on his industry. Baquet didn't hesitate to call Donald Trump out for his flame throwing. "I thought it was an outrageous comment—of course we're not the enemy of the American people," he said. "That one is particularly troublesome, because 'enemy of the people' is a historic term in American literature and politics, and it implies a certain attitude toward us. Hopefully it does not imply a possibility that he would actually do things" to us.
But Baquet also pointed to a silver lining from the perspective of the much-maligned "mainstream media." In the days after the election, he said, the Times was "getting criticized from the left and the right" for not realizing that Trump might win. But rather than be gracious in victory, the president-elect went on an insult offensive, describing the paper as the "failing New York Times" in a tweet that weekend. "I woke up Sunday morning," Baquet said, "and I felt like the whole tone of my emails shifted dramatically. Suddenly I started to get really supportive messages."
And it wasn't just moral support. As Baquet's interlocutor, media columnist Jim Rutenberg, put it, "Every time Trump says 'you guys suck' or 'you're the enemy,' it's like ding ding ding ding, the subscriptions go up. Then we [in the Times newsroom] talk amongst ourselves and wonder if that's a job saved or can that stave off the cuts that are coming."
It's no secret that the journalism industry is in a tough place, financially. Advertising and subscription revenue don't go nearly as far as they used to. Many outlets have had to shutter bureaus, lay off staff, merge with competitors, kill their print products, and so on. The Times itself introduced a paywall a few years ago in response to those changes.
But Trump's attacks are, perhaps counterintuitively, breathing new life into the institution, Baquet suggested. "I will say that something amazing has happened—the rise in digital subscriptions, the rise in audience, the literal hundreds of thousands of people who have decided to pay for The New York Times after the election," he said. "It has changed our economics, and has made it so that we have to cover the stories that those people want us to cover, and that we want to cover too."
Repeatedly during the hourlong session, the newspaperman said the climate Trump is fostering of antipathy toward the press has redoubled his commitment to digging in and holding the president accountable. "We are preparing for the story of a generation," he said. "I think the next two years are going to be a historic moment in the life of news organizations. The combination of the economic realities that are forcing their way in, a president who's leading a revolution in Washington and makes this the most compelling political story since the way the United States changed after 9/11, mixed in with this whole debate about what is a journalist—there are going to be 20 books written about the next two years in American journalism."
"Yes," he continued, "I have to figure out a way to manage a changing reality in newspapers, which means The New York Times is going to be a little bit smaller. But we will do nothing to cut our ability to cover this presidency."
Baquet painted this as an almost welcome shock for an industry that has been floundering around, looking for a workable business model in the new digital age: "In comes the most compelling presidential election in a generation, and in comes the election of a president who, no matter what you think of him—and my job is not to judge his politics—is revolutionizing Washington, and is making changes that have the whole country just riveted," he said. "And suddenly our mission just got really clear. It is what it has always been…The one truly independent group that investigates the government without fear or favor is the press."
That doesn't mean the paper has to be biased, or even antagonistic, in its reporting, though. "Our job is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump," he said. "It's to cover the hell out of Donald Trump. We're supposed to cover the hell out of powerful people, and he's the most powerful man in the world."