Read our virtual roundtable interview with ‘New York Times‘ reporter Brian Stelter, who writes about television and the web for the newspaper and its blog, Media Decoder. Before joining the daily newspaper in 2007, Stelter founded and edited the television news blog TVNewser. Stelter, who can be seen in the upcoming documentary ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times,’ discusses with us, among other things, how he reacted when he found out he was hired by ‘The New York Times’, and why he thinks using Twitter is so important for journalists.
Question (Q): How much of what you cover is determined by what you can write in ‘The New York Times’ versus Twitter?
Brian Stelter (BS): Everything I write about adheres to the standards of ‘The New York Times’, whether on Twitter or any other site. For me, Twitter is an early warning system for breaking news; a tool for interacting with readers; and a great way to promote and improve our work.
Q: You were hired by ‘The New York Times ‘ when you were featured on a first-page story for founding the blog TVNewser. What was your reaction when you heard you were hired?
BS: I thought they had made a mistake! Joking aside, I was thrilled to have a job right out of college, but I was intimidated at the prospect of writing for such a widely read outlet. When I arrived, I kept my head down and wrote as many stories as I possibly could — assuming that the more I wrote, the better I’d get. Thankfully, there was lots of space in the paper and even more space online for my stories.
Q: Has how your approach to a story or the people in a story changed since ‘Page One’s film release?
BS: I might be a bit more sensitive to the people who are on the other side of the camera. And I’m definitely a bit more interested in documentary film. Other than that, it hasn’t changed a bit. And since I cover television, not film, most of the time, it hasn’t been a conflict.
Q: Is what happened at the Tribune company common with other media organizations right now?
BS: Tribune is not the only media company to have suffered from managers who are tone-deaf to the needs of their journalists and their communities. Media companies are operating in treacherous waters right now as newspaper advertising continues to decline and consumers continue to gravitate to the Web. Local outlets have generally suffered more than national outlets like ‘The New York Times’. For newspaper owners, the proper analogy might be this: Although the patient is out of the emergency room, he’s still at the hospital.
Q: How do you go about picking the subjects you want to write about? Is that given to you or do you pitch them?
BS: Almost all of the stories I write are my ideas — but often times they are improved after my conversations about them with my editors. Bruce, who is seen in the film, is remarkably good at turning a story idea one or two degrees and making it 80 or 90 degrees better. Craig Hunter, the deputy media editor, who is not seen in the film, is equally adept at that. And some of the stories I write that get the most reaction – like this week’s front page story about the end of anonymity — start out as editors’ ideas. The anonymity idea was Craig’s. (That’s my favorite feature of the film, by the way — it shows editors and editing. In a world where everyone can be a publisher, we need editors more than ever.)
Q: Since you’re known for your television coverage, what attracted you to the WikiLeaks story?
BS: I covered the WikiLeaks story because it involved an arresting, frightening piece of video tape from Iraq that was leaked onto the Web. I try to think of my beat as “video” — encompassing television and Web video as broadly as possible, because “television” is too narrow a term these days. I hardly even know what “television” means anymore.
Q: You have 63,347 Twitter followers. Has your following grown much since ‘Page One’s film release, and is there an accurate way to measure your “following” at ‘The New York Times’?
BS: Thanks for noticing my Twitter followers. I take Twitter really seriously — it’s like a real-time broadcasting platform, and I especially enjoy using it in breaking news situations. I’m grateful for each and every follower. It’s taken more than three years to get to 63,000. My follower account has grown by 10,000 or so since ‘Page One’ started being screened at festivals, but I don’t know how much of that should be credited to the film. Is there an accurate way to measure “following?” I’m afraid not. We don’t see our page views metrics, and even that is an imprecise way to measure “following.” I wish there were more effective ways.
Q: What is your reaction to Randy Michaels’ return to radio?
BS: I haven’t been following that story. I’m sure David Carr — @carr2n on Twitter — has something to say about it, though.
Q: Isn’t the danger of using Twitter (and other social networking) as an “early warning” system making outlets become more reactive to news than proactively trying to break NEW information?
BS: It’s a danger of Twitter, but it’s not one that particularly worries me. Twitter doesn’t encourage group think anymore than traditional newsroom practices, in my view. I like being able to keep a close eye on my competitors on Twitter, because it makes it easier for me to zig when they zag. And that’s what journalism needs a LOT more of: zigging when others are sagging.
Q: Even if the financial situation is tricky, ‘The New York Times’ has put together a better web site.
BS: I’d second that, and I’d thank you for noticing. ‘The New York Times’ is fully engaged online, as we should be. To gain and regain the trust of our readers — job No. 1 for all journalists — we have to meet them where they are. They’re online.
Q: What is the obligation of news organizations: to simply tell us about puppies or to give us information we need but aren’t looking for?
BS: There should be no doubt: the obligation of NEWS organizations — as opposed to any old MEDIA organization — is to tell us what we need to know, hopefully in a way that we want to read/hear/watch/interact with it.
Written by: Karen Benardello