Ask A Pro
Q. Hi, Bill Keller. I'm Shelby Lageson, and I'm a journalist at Albert Lea High School in Minnesota. You're going to get a lot of questions from my classmates, and I hope that you answer at least one. It'd make our journalism teacher, Mr. Worth, quite ecstatic. But anyway, my question for you...
I've always thought the editor was the most important part of any newspaper. I also think it is the most enjoyable. Why, specifically, did you become an editor? And, also, why The New York Times? It's impressive. Congratulations on doing so well.
Q. I was just wondering what it feels like to work for one of the most renowned newspapers in the world?
Q. We just finished watching the movie "Shattered Glass." What are the most important traits needed to make sure that fabricated stories do not get through?
Q. I know that your newspaper is the best in the world and every story I've ever read in your newspaper has never been boring, which leads me to my question.
Have you ever been handed a story, which seemed almost too good, too interesting to be true? Say for instance when Jayson Blair was there. Did you ever once think that the things he was writing about were untrue? How about some of the reporters you have now? Do you ever think that about them?
I know that I said I had one question and that was about four. If you could take some time out of your busy day to answer them that would be greatly appreciated.
Q. We were wondering how stressful your job is and what causes this stress?
Q. The two of us are aspiring editors and we are wondering how stressful your job as editor is?
Q. We were wondering, what do you think is the most important thing to get right in journalism?
Q. We finished learning about Stephen Glass and we were wondering if you were in his editor's (Chuck Lane) shoes, would you have done anything different about the articles he made up?
Q. What are the different jobs in a newspaper and what are some challenges reporters face?
Q. What are the pros and cons of your line of work? If you could reply, that would be great. Thanks.
Q. What was your first inspiration in life to become a journalist?
Q. What college(s) did you attend and do you have any suggestions of colleges that would be great for possible future journalists as ourselves?
Q. What are the steps we must go through to publish a solid, factual story and know it is not inaccurate?
Q. We have been studying a former journalist named Jayson Blair. I have been wondering if, with our economic situation and money being rather tight, there have been any cuts in the area of fact-checking the stories that are "fit to print." If you could answer that for me, I would be very happy and proud.
Q. What is the hardest but most beneficial factor of journalism?
Q. Hey Bill, my name is Daniel Edwards and I live in Albert Lea, Minn. I am a sophomore journalism student at my high school. I have the opportunity to ask you a question or two about anything I want, as long as it relates to journalism of course!
What did you do, or sacrifice, to get to where you are now?
How did you make you way up the ranks in journalism, from a nobody, to a somebody?
Do you have a car space with your name on it?! With a nice car in it?! = D
Q. I was wondering what you think is the best new catchy design element that would be cool to use in our school paper.
Q. I am just wondering, did you always know you wanted to be a journalist? Also, what kind of preparations did you make in your life to get where you are now? Thank you for taking time and looking at this and I appreciate it!
Q. I was watching old "Daily Show With Jon Stewart" clips when I came across one that caught my attention. Jon Stewart was doing a piece about newspapers and their plummeting popularity. So, I thought to myself: "Why not ask someone on the inside what the situation is like?"
Opportunity presented itself perfectly. Today, we were assigned to submit a question for "Talk to the Newsroom." My question for you is: What is it like to be on the inside while newspapers are becoming more and more outdated? Do you think they can make a comeback?
Thank you for taking the time to read my e-mail.
Q. I was wondering if you ever caught any of The New York Times writers who fabricated their stories and if you have what did you do about it? Thanks for your time. I appreciate what you do.
Q. Our question is, "What do you do when someone on your staff has nothing to write about?"
Q. My question for you is, how do I know if I should give up all my other dreams for something so unstable as writing?
Q. We were wondering what your favorite moment in journalism has been over the years?
A. Shelby, I can't pass up the opportunity to make Mr. Worth ecstatic. Anyone who has 35 high school sophomores reading newspapers and thinking about journalism is a hero in my book. So here goes, a lightning round for the Albert Lea High School Tigers.
Many of you (Bethany, Brooke, Sila, Caleb, Zach, Alyssa, Natasha) wonder about journalism as a career mine, or in general. Like you, I first got hooked on journalism in high school. Working for the school paper gave me a chance to stand a little apart from my teachers and fellow students, ask impertinent questions, and occasionally get away with writing something that tweaked the establishment. (Did I mention this was a Catholic boys school in the 1960s?) I took journalism more seriously at my college paper, where I was lucky to encounter a few student editors who understood that the most important thing, Dyllan and Josh, (and the hardest thing, Alik and Callen) is not the writing or the sense of independence. Both of those matter a lot, but the most important thing is the discipline.
Discipline, Alex and Tanieka, is the prerequisite for accuracy and fairness, which add up to integrity. To make sure you've got the story right, you learn to report against your own story. Check your facts, not only with the people who are likely to agree with the premise of your story but also with the people who are likely to disagree. If you're unclear about what someone meant, never be too timid to call back and clarify. To make sure you've got it fair, you learn to set aside your personal opinions, the way a judge does in a courtroom. If you're writing a profile, imagine the person you're writing about is you. Discipline applies to the writing, too. Get to the point. Be as clear as possible. Cut out anything that doesn't serve the piece. Write every day. Rewrite. Then rewrite again if you have time.
People are drawn to journalism for many different reasons. Some simply love to write. Some are curious. Some want to change the world. Some seek adventure. Some like seeing their names in print. Some want to witness history. I plead at least a little guilty to all of those motives, but what has always appealed to me most was puzzling things out taking a complicated situation, investigating and studying it until I thought I understood it, then explaining it as best I could. If I hadn't been a journalist, I'd probably have been a teacher.
It may be true, Shelby, that the editor is the most important part of a newspaper, but when I was your age I sure didn't think so. In fact, I spent 25 years as a reporter, swearing I would never become an editor. Sitting at a desk, watching other people go out and find the story, and then fussing with other people's words I just didn't get the appeal of that. Then as I was finishing up a reporting assignment in South Africa in 1995, my boss at The Times asked if I wanted to be the next foreign editor. It's one thing to say you don't want to be an editor. It's another thing to be offered a chance to lead the most impressive team of foreign correspondents in the world. It turned out that editing was a variation on the figuring-things-out function that most appealed to me about journalism. Except that as an editor I can deploy a staff of reporters and, working with them, try to figure out a whole lot of things at once. These days, besides trying to figure out an assortment of world conflicts, a global economic meltdown and a new administration in Washington, we're trying to figure out the future of our own business. (Nya, you'll find my thought on that subject at the beginning of this Q&A.)
Yes, Aaron, Chris, Shalin and Kaila, the job comes with stress. Some of it is just the hard labor of making sure we've got stories right often on a tight deadline. Some of it comes from competition. Some of it comes from people who don't like what we write. Some of it comes from the pressure of a sour economy. And then there are stresses you can't imagine when you sign up to be a newsman. People who work for you get sick, or their spouses or children or parents get sick. Reporters working in dangerous places get arrested, or kidnapped, or even killed. (I've experienced all three.) The way you get through it without a broken spirit or a hardened heart is by surrounding yourself with good people and leaning on them. Thanks to them, Jackson, most of the time this job feels pretty great.
Luke, Jon, choosing my favorite moment in journalism would be like picking a favorite among my children. I can't pick one favorite. I was lucky enough to cover the end of communism in the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa. How's that for starters?
Some of you (Marc, Marley, Allison, Amy and Lynzie) asked about episodes of gross journalistic malpractice: Jayson Blair, who fabricated a number of stories at The Times before he was caught, and Stephen Glass, a serial makeup artist at The New Republic. While newspapers can and must take strong precautions, there is no absolute fail-safe device against a rogue reporter. You can't eavesdrop on every phone conversation, or send babysitters with reporters when they go on assignment. Here are a few things you can do all of which we do with greater rigor at The Times since the embarrassment of the Jayson Blair case: Take the time to carefully vet people you hire. Train and retrain your staff in the techniques of fact-checking. Monitor corrections, and home in on people whose work has to be corrected too often. Assure that when reporters submit work based on anonymous sources an editor knows the identities of the sources. Assign people to monitor the integrity of our journalism (at The Times, we have a standards editor and a public editor, discussed here.) Create a culture in which our credibility is valued above all, and someone who is suspicious of a story feels a responsibility to mention it. Own up to your errors. (The most thorough examination of Jayson Blair's fraud was in The New York Times.)
Maintaining a high level of accuracy and fairness is harder these days. Budget cuts don't help, Elisha, but a more important factor is the growing pressure to get information posted quickly on our Web site. It's one of the biggest challenges we wrestle with how to satisfy the constant appetite of the Web for news right now without sacrificing the careful reporting, fact-checking and reflection that readers expect in a Times story. We have tried hard to inculcate an ethic that prizes being right over being first, and I think we've been pretty successful at being nimble on the Web without being sloppy. But it requires constant vigilance.
Holly and Meghan ask about colleges that create possibilities for future journalists. There are many, many paths to journalism, and they are not by any means limited to studying journalism as an academic subject. The essential skills of journalism gathering and checking information, organizing it in ways that make sense, putting it in context, writing it clearly and fairly are applicable to many fields, many careers. A good, rounded liberal arts education is a fine launching pad into a journalism life. So is concentrated study in any field that excites you: science, history, literature, law, philosophy, computer science. If you think journalism is your passion, it's not necessary to pick a school with a strong classroom program in journalism. You may find it more rewarding to pick a school with a good newspaper. Check the newspaper Web sites of schools that interest you, or have someone send you a few issues of the college paper. When you do a campus visit, drop by the newspaper office.
If you want to pursue advanced or specialized studies in journalism, there is a lot of ferment in the field. Schools as disparate as Columbia, Stanford, the City University of New York and Texas Christian University have been rethinking and replenishing their journalism curricula and those are just a few that have come to my attention. Go forth and report!
Jessica seeks a catchy design element for the school paper. I'll ask the aforementioned Tom Bodkin, art director extraordinaire, to recommend some Web sites that might give you inspiration, and I'll insert them in this Q&A when I get them.
Tom Bodkin said: This posting on Smashing Magazine shows a selection of pages from some of the better designed newspapers around the world.
This is a sometimes interesting blog on the subject of newspaper design.
Jasmine and Alissa want to know what to do when a reporter has nothing to write about. Tell him or her to get the heck out of the office. Walk the halls. Wander the campus and beyond. Call up a member of the school board and ask what's on his or her mind. Keep your eyes open. Ask dumb questions then ask smarter questions. Troll the city Web site. There are 18,000 people in Albert Lea, and every one of them knows a story, if you can just get it out of him or her.
The question that made my heart sink a little was yours, Victoria: "How do I know if I should give up all my other dreams for something as unstable as writing?" I don't know your other dreams, but if journalism is one of them it does not have to exclude the others. Journalism is compatible with many lines of work and many other pursuits. I know journalists who are also lawyers, concert-level pianists, poets, novelists and medical doctors. I know people who have jumped from careers in journalism to careers in teaching, diplomacy and investment banking. (Speaking of unstable career choices!) If you know how to gather information, test it, organize it and interpret it, if you can share it in language that is clear maybe even beautiful at times if you can do that, the world has a place for you even if, God forbid, newspapers all die.
And, finally, no, Daniel, I do not have a parking space. Like most people in New York City, I take the subway to work.
If I overlooked anyone, I apologize. Thanks for your interest.
Copyright 2009, The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.