“Be ruthless”: Thriving and Surviving as Told by the Times

Image courtesy of: Tanner Tait

By Tanner Tait

The New York Times held their annual Student Newspaper Editors’ Workshop on April 9, where both myself and my co-managing editor, Claudia Larsen, were invited to learn from the top editors and reporters in journalism.

Preparing us for the rigorous 9-5 work days that are in our near future, we disembarked our train in the early hours of the morning, fresh and prepared to absorb as much journalistic wisdom as we could from the finest minds of the Times. Our workshop was held up in the Conference Center, where dozens of chairs topped with NYTimes tote bags lined the room, each filled with journals, pens and other goodies. After settling in and making ourselves at home, Director Tom Glieden greeted and welcomed us officially to the New York Times.

The day was filled with lessons for getting noticed in the industry and how to perfect our writing, as well as some networking and marketing tips to aid all 90 of us student representatives in both the lives of our newspapers and our future endeavors. We heard from Ted Kim, in charge of internships and fellowships, on how best to break into the business. We learned from Publisher A.G. Sulzberger where ethics stand and belong in journalism. We even got to meet Kenan Davis and Mike Schmidt, respectively in charge of the various infographics found in articles and the Snapchat Discover page.

But rather than hoarding the wealth of expertise I gathered from the workshop, I thought it would be beneficial to share some key things I learned so my fellow journalists may reap the harvest, too.

Nicholas Confessore, political reporter
“Our right and responsibility as journalists is to examine and hold accountable powerful people and institutions.”

Confessore emphasized the importance of the first amendment, yet reminded us that powerful people do not have the same level of rights when it comes to their private affairs. If there is corruption behind closed doors, it is our job to expose it. “Don’t back down,” he said. “Publish the truth.” He advises to always probe and interrogate power structures. “Carry a bright flame of outrage. There are bad guys to hold accountable,” he said.

To get the scoop, Confessore says always meet people face-to-face. Build a relationship with your sources and get to know them, but also “be ruthless.” “Sources are not your friends. Be friendly, but don’t get too close,” he said. “Be a bulldog. Be polite, but keep coming.” He warns to never become their agent, and don’t ever lose your wits when you’re on a story. “Nobody can be believed when you are a reporter,” Confessore said.

Remember that you are writing for your readers, not other journalists. This will help your sources come out of anonymity, too, if they understand the role they have. In order to get your sources to this level, inhabit their world and become a regular face in their lives. “Pretend you’re cooking with six pots,” Confessore said. “Check ‘em every once in a while. Call your people, check-in – use that relationship. Every few weeks, plate some food, but keep checking those same six pots to make sure they’re still cooking.”

Mark Bulik, senior editor
“Focus on the big picture as well as the small, and devote the same time and effort to headlines as you do to leads.”

Bulik held an editing workshop with us, giving us a chance to pick apart an article and analyze what didn’t work in terms of AP style, concision and overall flow. He focused heavily on the power of headlines, and how they can garner a greater percentage of readership when written correctly.

Bulik’s lessons for headlines:

  • Use vivid language and be conversational in your approach
    • Avoid constructions like “Spurs Fear, Stirs Doubt.”
  • Big numbers and key data points will draw in readers
    • If it’s a massive, incomprehensible number, lead with it
  • Give readers an attraction: a surprising thought, a mystery or a powerful quote work well
    • Similar to a blind/delayed lead, draw the reader in before telling them what/who you’re writing about
  • Promise an explanation; explain the “WWWWWH” of something
    • “What It’s Like to Seek an Abortion in Texas These Days.”
  • Focus on the result, never the process
    • If you’re dealing with a federal shutdown, don’t focus on budget talks that led to it – save that for the story
  • Create an internal tension, and don’t be afraid to point fingers
    • “This Cuban Changed Baseball. Nobody Remembers.”

A.G Sulzberger, publisher
“We’re okay with doing a story second in order to never betray the trust of the readers.”

Sulzberger heavily emphasized accuracy over speed in journalism. Getting the story right is a top priority at the New York Times. “If we are 98 percent sure about a story, we are comfortable not running it,” he said. In order for people to feel that they can trust a news outlet, the outlet must be credible and its stories must be factual.

Ethically, journalists are taught to be flies on the wall, remaining objective and impartial. While Sulzberger agrees never to waver and fall victim to bias, he argues that we have a duty to the people. “Of course you give the person water when they are dying of thirst,” he said, “but the role you play is to shine light on their plight.”

It is the journalist’s duty to expose corruption and alert the masses, and this means writing the story exact as it is told without intervening. With that being said, if a human’s life is on the line, we know when to break the rules. Don’t alter the story by helping a source, but don’t let a person die just for the sake of objectivity.