Baquet Talks Journalism at Blue Pencil

At the Spectator-sponsored Blue Pencil Lecture in Low Library Saturday night, New York Times Washington Bureau Chief and Assistant Managing Editor Dean Baquet encouraged a room of both seasoned journalists and novice reporters to continue pursuing a craft whose future many consider dubious.

“Your generation will get to reinvent journalism in a more meaningful way,” said Baquet, who left the Los Angeles Times in 2007 after a two-year tenure as the paper’s executive editor.

The first black editor of the California daily, Baquet rose from roots as a lowly beat writer at his local New Orleans rag to Pulitzer-prize fame—encountering false hope and a host of ethical challenges along the way.

The annual event, which attracted over 170, united Spectator editors from boards going back a half-century, and included Columbians now known for their careers at outlets like ABC and the Washington Post. Baquet’s link to Columbia was slight but telling, as he attended the College for only a few semesters before taking a job as a reporter back home.

This year’s Lecture also marked the end of a long reign by the chairman of the Spectator’s board of trustees, Richard Wald, CC ’52, who has served in his post for decades. Wald’s Contemporary Civilization teaching partner, Max Frankel, CC ’52 and former executive editor of The New York Times, roasted Wald for “residing over a fiscally precarious operation.”

“Wald has ruled Spectator only a few years less than Fidel Castro” has ruled Cuba, Frankel said. But he also extolled his colleague for transforming the paper from a school-funded to independent news organization. Once president of NBC News, Wald “taught us that the only free press is one you own without University subsidy,” Frankel said.

Among media giants who conquered the field during its golden age, Baquet inverted conventional fears about the role of journalism in the coming decades, as the power of print fades under a glow of increasing digitization.

Newspapers “are worth less than they were a decade ago, and readers can spot it a mile away,” Baquet said. A new generation, he explained, can revive journalism by “pioneering a new way of writing” that integrates media technology into written stories.

In addition—having won a Pulitzer for unmasking corruption in the Chicago City Council—Baquet urged reporters to keep an eye on the business practices of large corporations, as well as keep rooted in the rich fields of small-town, small-paper journalism.

“I’ve been a banker for 20 years,” said Mischa Zabotin, CC ’85, after the speech. “Now I want to quit and become an investigative reporter.”

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