‘We have to speak truth to power.’ Four questions for Lester Holt and the chairman of The New York Times Co.

The NBC anchor and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. spoke with the Tampa Bay Times before the Poynter Institute’s Bowtie Ball on Saturday.
Published December 9 2018
Updated December 9 2018

ST. PETE BEACH — A few hours before dinner was served and the free press was feted at the Poynter Institute’s Bowtie Ball on Saturday, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with two of the gala’s honorees, both major names in American journalism.

Lester Holt, anchor of the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and Dateline NBC, had come to receive a lifetime achievement medal. And Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the New York Times Company and former publisher of the New York Times, would receive an award for distinguished service to journalism.

The two leaders agreed that, in an era of untruths and half-truths and shrinking newsrooms, doubling down on journalism's core mission — to reveal “why things tick and how they tick and who’s making them tick,” as Holt put it — remains the path forward.

The Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times. This interview has been condensed.

Given these chaotic times for journalists, from viral misinformation to attacks on the press to outright violence, such as the killing of journalists in a newsroom in Maryland, how do you stay focused on your mission?

Sulzberger: The mission has to come first. That’s the core of what we do as journalists. We have to speak truth to power. We have to stand up to it. These are times when our mission is more critical than ever, so the people can make smart decisions.

Holt: This is, in my lifetime, the most amazing time to be a journalist. The nature of the stories, the environment that we’re in, the political division, make it an interesting time to be a reporter. At the same time, it’s more challenging. Nobody likes to take low blows from high places, as we have. But my advice is always: No fear. You can’t retreat. We want to be liked, and papers want to have more subscribers, we want to have more viewers, but at the end of the day, the core mission of being a reporter is not a popularity contest. You’re going to do things that are going to make people mad. But what you hope is that they’ll still respect you because they understand that you’re pursuing the truth. The way that we overcome all this is to get it right.

Is this era of disinformation the new reality, or can we forge past it?

Sulzberger: We really have been here before. Think about the Joe McCarthy era, or the Nixon administration, and many times before that. There’s a wonderful book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian, called The Cycles of American History, and he writes about how this country divides and comes back together. And sometimes it’s very painful, like the Civil War. What’s changed in our generation is the speed of the divide and the coming back because of social media. But I have great faith that yes, we will come back together and that we just have to stay true to our mission.

Holt: There’s just more tools of communication right now. Everybody is in some form or fashion a citizen journalist, and we have to understand that’s not a level playing field. We (journalists) hear something happen and we’ve got to make some calls: the who, what, why and so on. But not everybody with a cell phone feels compelled to do that. So we’re competing in an environment in which (we) will be reporting something out 20, 30, 40 minutes before we get it on the air, which is a lifetime. But as the saying goes, better to be last and right than first and wrong. It’s important for us to be more transparent with folks and help them understand that process, that we don’t just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. We do it the old-fashioned way.

Amid this avalanche of constant breaking news, how do you decide where to turn your attention?

Holt: A lot of things revolve around the president and the way he communicates right now. We’ve adjusted to that reality — and this is not a criticism — and learned to filter through what’s important, what’s not, what’s a policy statement, and not jump at everything that’s tossed at us. It’s a daily process. I say there’s no more 24-hour news cycle — it’s down to about two hours.

Sulzberger: That’s just the challenge of our time. It’s relentless. We now have news hubs in London, in Hong Kong, and obviously in New York. As the sun is going down somewhere, it’s rising somewhere else, and we pass the baton. There’s always key journalists focused on: What are we doing at this moment?

I’m curious about what role, if any, local journalism plays in your work, and if you feel a sense of responsibility in a time of aggregation and local news deserts to lift up local newsrooms.

Holt: We depend mightily on our local affiliates, because they set the tone for the day. We work together seamlessly. I worry more about the state of print than I do broadcast.

Sulzberger: Print has been under siege and we’ve all seen the results of that. My biggest concern is not The New York Times, it’s not the Washington Post, it’s not the Wall Street Journal. My biggest concern is local journalism because if you don’t know who to vote for — for city council, for mayor, for state senator — we’re going to be in a not-great place for democracy. I don’t have an answer, but it’s interesting to see so many news organizations trying different models, including the philanthropic model. But we’ve got to find a way to keep the journalism good enough where people see the value of supporting it. We’ve actually been able to grow the number of journalists we have because more people now are paying for us than we ever imagined. We have 3 million digital subscribers and 1 million print. That was unimaginable 10 years ago.

Holt: Viewers and readers are still out there. Where are they going to be five years from now? To be able to do what we do we have to have an effective business model. That means constantly looking around the corner. That’s going to be the challenge for local newsrooms as well. People are always craving information. They still want to know why things tick and how they tick and who’s making them tick. And we’ve got to be there for them, but we’ve got to stay ahead.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

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