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Q&A: Times Editor Reveals Journalism Secrets

Rick Berke, assistant managing editor at the New York Times, visited campus as part of the Rosenfield Program Monday. He oversees the Times’ political coverage and the feature sections, such as Dining and Home. He gave a talk titled “Behind the Scenes at the New York Times,” where he told stories from his days as a political reporter for the Times and discussed the state of journalism with students. Berke sat down with the S&B’s Peter Sullivan before he spoke.

Photograph by Emma Sinai-Yunker

A recent study by the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 64 percent of media coverage of the 2012 Republican primary was of horserace and strategy, while only 11 percent was coverage of positions on policy issues. Do you think this disparity is a problem at the New York Times and how does the New York Times balance covering horserace and strategy versus positions on policy issues?
That’s always a question and a challenge for every presidential campaign. We at the New York Times and other news organizations are always accused of playing up the horserace too much. And I think some people do play up the horserace too much. On the other hand, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a horserace. Especially in a primary season like we had, where one candidate was up one day and one candidate was up the next day, it was like a rollercoaster. You can’t pretend that this isn’t about a race. That’s what it is. That said I’m really proud of what we’ve done at the Times in terms of the combination of coverage of campaign tactics and strategies as well as issue stories and investigative stories. We’ve looked a lot at the impact of Super PACs this year and the impact of technology. So it’s not just the horserace versus issue pieces. It’s about all kinds of aspects of politics this year. And I feel really good about what we’ve done. And now that we’re down to two candidates, we’ll have a lot more time in the months ahead to really bear down in a deeper way about how the candidates differ on issues and we have many pieces and projects planned related to that.

Another part of political coverage is fact-checking. If Mitt Romney says something like, “President Obama doesn’t have a jobs plan,” which he says, you could argue that that’s just factually untrue, because he’s proposed something called the American Jobs Act, or you could argue well Romney’s just not counting that as a jobs plan. So how do you decide when to put after a quotation, here’s the fact, and when do you say we need to just report their opinions?
You always have the challenge of not taking what anyone tells you at face value. Whether it’s a politician or someone you’re interviewing, you have to always do your homework and try to know the facts behind what someone is telling you and put it out when someone is trying to obfuscate or paper over something. In the context of our pieces if we know something is wrong, wherever we point it out, that’s fair game. But there are always limits to how much you can do in any one story. There’s only so much space and so much time. So I don’t think we necessarily want every time we write about jobs and Obama or jobs and Mitt Romney to just stop in our tracks and do a whole long piece about who’s right and who’s wrong and who initiated what. These things are often gray and complicated. In general I think we the New York Times and other news organizations need to do more than we’re doing in terms of truth-squading and fact-checking. We’ve become really good at it with the debates on the web and really quick turnaround, calling people on it. We do it with the ads. We try to do it. We don’t do it enough. But you can’t always do it every time you mention something.

The Washington Post has a fact-checker that gives out Pinocchios. Have you considered doing something like that?
It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine. I’ve been wanting to do that for years. The problem is that it seems like it should be easy to do but it’s rare to find a reporter that is that well-versed, who can jump in and do that on a variety of topics. There are a couple people that could do it, but they’re such high-value reporters that we need them for other things too. It’s kind of harder than you think. So what we do on debate nights is take expert people in different fields that can help out on those nights. You want someone who understands the issues but who also understands the politics, who can write it in a very readable and engaging way. That all can be hard, and the Post does a good job with that. Part of it is just finding the right way to do it and the right person. I don’t know whether we’ll end up with one person or not, but we certainly want to do a lot more of that than we’re doing.

It’s a Republican cliché that the New York Times is really liberal. And you have Rick Santorum saying things like you’re not a true conservative unless you’ve yelled at a New York Times reporter. Does that bother people at the New York Times and do you ever take that perception into consideration when making decisions?
No, we’re kind of used to it, but it’s really unfair. Sometimes we’ll get attacked by both sides for whatever we write. Especially in the era of the web, people just pick at everything we do. Last time with Santorum, when he yelled at one of our reporters for asking a question about his questioning Mitt Romney’s fitness to be president, it was all out there. Our reporter didn’t ask anything that was off limits or untrue, but people like to sort of just blame things on us. Newt Gingrich attacked the press during the debates a lot, and used us as a punching bag. They live off the press coverage. A lot of it’s just being dramatic and trying to win over people. You just kind of get used to it.

How has new technology and things being instant changed things in the newsroom? Do you feel a lot more pressure to get things out than you used to and do you think that is changing what kind of reporting you’re doing in some way? 
Yeah, there’s less time to be thoughtful and when something breaks there’s less time to do reporting because you essentially have to put your first draft out on the web right away. There are certain advantages to that. People get information faster and you certainly can’t be lazy about what you’re doing, but it also comes at a price. Certainly the earlier versions of stories aren’t at the level sometimes that they should be.

The lead stories on the web on the homepage are changing all the time. Something I like about the print version is the front page is the top stories from all of yesterday. So do you think with the web you’re losing some of your ability to shape what we think is the most important story because on the web it’s changing all the time?
I’m still kind of a traditionalist and I like the printed paper because I think there’s some order to that process. I think people like to catch their breath and say, “what did the New York Times think were the six most important stories yesterday?” Not necessarily the most important news events, but of the things that we publish, what’s our mix of the six most interesting things that you’d want to read on the front page? With the web you lose that. You get more immediacy, but you lose that. The nature of the web is that you can’t be static and you have to update and get fresh things. At the beginning we might have been a little too reflexive in always trying to update everything. Now, if there’s a really good enterprise story that took like a year to do, we might leave it up for five hours instead of one hour. We’re trying to figure all that out.

I guess I have to ask about the future. It’s hard to predict, but how do you see journalism changing and how do you see the medium changing? Do you think soon maybe we’re not going to have a print newspaper and it will just be online?
I don’t know. I’ve been so wrong in all the predictions. I never would have dreamed that we’d be where we are with the web. It just hit us really unexpectedly and so fast. Some people say print is on its last legs. It’s so cumbersome and expensive. Young people today grow up with the web and they’re not used to print. That could be true but I still think people value the printed paper. I’ve talked to some younger people who say, “I prefer print” and some don’t at all. So I have no idea. There was a sense with radio and TV that radio would no longer exist. My guess is that there’ll be some kind of enduring print product for the foreseeable future but it will be more of a boutique thing. It will be less center-stage. Our news operation is still supported by the print paper even though ads are way down. It’s still because people are paying a real premium for the print paper. That’s what keeps us in business still, even with the web. So I don’t see it going away anytime too soon.

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