Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of The New York Times, spoke on campus Tuesday evening about the current state of news and editorial journalism. He spoke to The Daily Princetonian about his career and the future of the field.
Daily Princetonian: What was your vision for the editorial page, and how has the page changed since you took over?
Andrew Rosenthal: My main mission was to take the whole opinion report, including the editorial page, onto the Internet, to bring it into the digital age, and that’s a continuing thing that I’m doing. And that means trying to react a little more quickly to things, finding new forms of expression for the editorial board. That’s why we started a blog called Taking Note, where people can respond with their own name in a more conversational and interesting way … The other thing that I wanted to make a really big issue out of was one of the things that I saw as one of the last big civil rights issues of our time, which is marriage equality.
DP: What do you think is the role of the opinion pages, especially at a time when the line between opinion and news can often be blurred?
AR: Without accepting the premise of the question? I think people often don’t see the line; I mean, I think people are very confused. I think online in particular because there’s no geography online — it’s often hard to distinguish at first glance whether something is an editorial or news article because they look exactly the same, and people don’t necessarily get the difference.
I think [the role of the opinion pages is] basically what it always was, which is to educate in a sense. I think you tend to educate the people who already agree with you, but we can perform a real function in that we can provide a very tight, focused summary of events along with our opinion, which I think is a service, and I think if there’s a big complicated story, we can give people a digestible way of approaching it, always with an opinion.
That we can provoke debate and argument, I think that we perform a civic function in that we believe very much in voting and in elections. Elections are about choice, and so we make our choices — not in every single election obviously — and I think that provides value for some of our readers. Now, again, these are going to tend to be like-minded readers, probably, who don’t have the time to read every ballot measure, and so we give them what we think, and they’re free to disagree with us, but we offer our opinion.
I think we also strive to influence policy. We try to influence what lawmakers and holders of public office say and do. Whenever we write about Supreme Court cases, our audience includes the Supreme Court. Whether they pay any attention to us or not, I don’t know. When we say that President Obama is doing something wrong, we’re directing that message to him as much as anybody else. He’s more likely to care than President Bush was because of the ideological divide of this country, but I think we strive to influence and we do that even more in local issues. We just did a big editorial about how we think the new mayor should negotiate the teacher contracts that’s gotten a huge amount of attention — a lot of people are angry about it, some people support it. I’ve gotten more emails on that than anything recently because education is one of those things that everybody cares about but nobody knows anything about.
DP: Do you ever feel conflicted when writing an opinion because you support a politician or policy but not the way something is being handled?
AR: No, because we just say that. One of the things that I really like about the way that we do our editorial writing is that its still journalism. And we’ve done this … We’ve supported the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — but we’ve been extremely critical about aspects that we think don’t work; we’ve been extremely critical about the way the rollout was handled. President Obama, even though we endorsed him for president, we didn’t join his team. Our job is not to promote his policy or to worry about his tax considerations in journalism. So, yeah, you may feel conflicted about it because you feel like maybe you’re going to have an influence, but I think sometimes it’s harder than news reporting because you have to take a stand. You can’t just hide behind “he said, she said,” which is a comfortable place to hide sometimes. So you have to think you’re right, you have to base it in reporting, you have to base it in principle, and if you disagree with the politician, even though you like him, you have to disagree with him, and I think that the burden is even greater on us when we think Obama is doing something wrong, then we say so. And there are other organizations and editorial boards that don’t do that. I’m not going to say which ones. There were editorial boards that never wrote a critical word about George Bush, who made a lot of mistakes. We don’t join the campaign, even if we endorse somebody. We endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008, and the very next editorial we wrote about her was extremely critical because we felt that her campaign was pushing racism. And so we said so.
DP: How did you become interested in journalism?
AR: I was born into a journalistic family. My father was the editor of the Times. And so, until about age 18, I was determined to do anything except journalism. Because all good children want to do something different. I had a lot of experience with it. You know, obviously I grew up around the Times. My dad used to take me on these trips every year to different parts of the country with New York Times correspondents. I got to see an Apollo launch, and I met Alan Shepard. It was very exciting. You know, I met governors. I met Arthur Miller. It was amazing. But I didn’t want to be a journalist. I was a straight-A student in high school. I went to the University of Chicago after I’d been rejected by Harvard, Yale and Princeton. And I finished my freshman year with a 1.3 average, and I dropped out of college. I was 17; I wasn’t prepared for college. And I needed to get a job. My parents were not going to allow me to just hang around at home. And I ended up going to work for the Associated Press as a clerk. And my second week there, it was just like a blinding light went off in my head, and I thought, “This is what I’m going to do.” I just felt like it was the right place for me. Like I knew the answers to the questions before the questions were asked. I found the whole thing just incredibly exciting. And it played to my strengths. I’m a generalist. You know, I know a little about a lot of stuff. I have the kind of temperament and attention span of a journalist. And I had this amazing professor in college named John Livingston, who was an American history professor who really changed my life, as I said here in my talk tonight. I remember he told me it was a good thing I was becoming a journalist because I had a real paranoid conspiracy dream of history, and that that would suit me well as a journalist. I was really good at it. It was exciting, and it just was everything that all these other things were not. You know, I thought I was going to be a lawyer; I was never going to be a lawyer.
DP: You’ve had many different positions at The New York Times. Which position gave to you the most valuable experience, and what did you learn?
AR: As a reporter, the place where I learned the most was covering the George H. W. Bush presidency with Maureen Dowd as my partner. And I learned more about good writing from Maureen that I ever could have imagined. I was always a fast news reporter. You know, I could write really fast. But she helped me learn how to do analysis and how to write feature stories and how to cover politicians. And it’s an art form. I learned a lot as foreign editor, because you have to learn about 8 trillion countries that you never heard of before. But then the next big, big leap for me was going to become deputy editorial page editor and moving into opinion. That’s also just changed my journalism in a huge way. It’s changed the things I write; it’s changed the things I write about. It’s also just allowed me to express my opinions in the way that the news writing camp doesn’t necessarily allow you to do.
DP: What do you think is the future of journalism?
AR: Just put down a long, puzzled silence. I don’t honestly know. I mean, I like to think that we’re going to meet our current challenge, which is to find new ways of earning the money that we need to do our job. And running The New York Times is incredibly expensive. And there’s not profit to be made in the Kabul bureau. But we’re in Kabul. And we’re the only ones left … For a while, The New York Times Baghdad bureau represented, like, 70 percent of the foreign journalism in Baghdad, and that’s a dedication and commitment that’s really expensive, and I’m hoping that we’re going to find a way to get through this period. And this period is two things: One is the transition from paper to screens; it hasn’t happened yet. Most of the money that we make is on paper, which is overwhelmingly from advertising and subscriptions. But that change is going to happen because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rationalize the cost of printing. You know the New York Magazine went every other week — they just announced it — purely cost-cutting. I think they’ll still be a good magazine, but there’s a certain wistfulness to that. There are these towns where they have one paper, when they used to have two or three. Did you know there used to be, like, six morning dailies in New York? It’s unbelievable, in my lifetime! And now they’re just gone. A lot of them went — there was a round of deaths of newspapers in the ’70s and ’80s, but, you know, it’s so hard to stay a newspaper anymore in a medium-sized city … It’s a real shame because it means that local government operates with total immunity; nobody’s paying attention to what they’re doing, and it’s a great loss. So the two transitions are the actual, literal change of the medium from the paper to the screen, and the other is the economic transition we’re going through. I think the first one we can manage easily because that’s aesthetic, and we’re great at that. We’re great at presentation; we’re great at design; I think we’ve done stuff online that’s just breathtakingly beautiful, and online is now becoming just as beautiful as paper. But the other is the economic one, and it’s really tough. You know, we’ve had success with subscriptions online. Everyone said that was going to be a disaster, and it wasn’t. We should have done it way earlier. But it was not a disaster. It was really successful. It kept us going. But there’s a limit to it. At a certain point, it starts to plateau. And the advertising thing is just a huge, huge conundrum, in that the kinds of advertising that advertisers want to buy is just a challenge for us. So-called native advertising is a real challenge for us, and we’re trying to figure out how we can take advantage of that market without sacrificing who we are. Because, at the end of the day, if we sacrifice who we are, no one’s going to want to advertise in us. We are still the premium newspaper. So, I think the future of journalism is on screens, not in paper. When that happens, I’ve got no idea. Because the screens are still not as good as paper. Not even close. Not as cheap, not as versatile — you don’t have to download your newspaper; it’s right there on the page. But it’s stayed alive through that transition. And hopefully what we can do is, we can get all of these people that are willing to pay for us on paper and move them over time to the web and other devices. And they’ll still be willing to pay. We do have a very loyal audience, and it’s growing, which is good news for us. The trick is to get people like you to pay for the Times. Young people don’t subscribe to papers. And they didn’t grow up reading them.