How The New York Times is helping local journalists who have ‘tons of ideas and no time’

Former executive editor Dean Baquet talks about the paper’s new investigative fellowship for local reporters

By Kristen Hare, Local News Faculty at Poynter

*This article is a reproduction of the original article that can be found here.

When the former executive editor of The New York Times went to Jackson, Mississippi, it wasn’t for vacation. But he was on tour.

Dean Baquet, who led the Times from 2014 to 2022, spent time last fall with the publisher of the Jackson Advocate, the city’s Black-owned newspaper that dates back to 1938. Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, and Reena Evers-Everette, the daughter of civil rights leaders Medgar and Myrlie Evers, took Baquet on a tour of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. He visited Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom, and The Clarion-Ledger, the city’s Gannett-owned newspaper.

It’s easy to understand, intellectually, that there’s a crisis in local journalism, Baquet said.

It’s another thing to see it for yourself.

“So what I’ve been doing since I stepped aside is mainly I’ve been trying to spend time in newsrooms,” Baquet said in a call with Poynter last week.

The purpose of that call was to better understand a fellowship from the Times that could be significant for local journalists, local newsrooms and more importantly, local communities.

Baquet is now the executive editor of The New York Times’ Local Investigations Fellowship, a one-year reporting project that started out as an idea from Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger. The evolution of that idea came as Baquet started visiting local newsrooms and seeing the real challenges for himself, including overwhelmed editors.

“The biggest downside is something we already knew — yes there’s a crisis. Even in places that nobody would call news deserts, there just aren’t enough reporters to cover all the stories that have to be covered,” Baquet said. “The heartening thing — people really are working hard in local newsrooms.”

The Times’ fellowship, which has gotten more than 200 applications representing nearly every state, pays the salary of a fellow for a year (on the application $76,168.04 to $82,000.00) and provides them support for their work. Applications are still open and the fellowship itself happens on a rolling basis. The way investigations take shape depends on the work itself.

And this isn’t Pulitzer camp.

“You don’t have to produce a three-part series that gets nominated for prizes at the end of the year,” Baquet said. “The goal is to do hard-hitting, investigative reporting that has an impact in your community.”

The Times’ editorial team for this fellowship includes program and editorial director Sona Patel, deputy editor Chris Davis, and data and investigations editor Adam Playford.

Journalists pitch stories as part of their applications, and “the main thing is they’re terrific ideas,” Baquet said. “It just proves that the best ideas come from reporters on the ground.”

Baquet would love to see journalists apply from Black and Latino newsrooms, plus freelancers and traditional local newsrooms. The fellowship, he said, is built around a reporter and an idea.

While it’s not a requirement, “I like it when we get applicants who are clearly home and are going to stay home,” he said.

Themes of the pitches so far include criminal justice and local accountability reporting. It’s also clear, Baquet said, that for journalists in small newsrooms, it’s hard to get the time to do this work.

“A lot of the applicants we have are beat reporters who are sitting there watching stuff and have tons of ideas and no time.”

The fellowship, which would be a sabbatical for reporters already in newsrooms, offers that time, but also the full resources of the New York Times’ newsroom. What happens, I asked, when the Times publishes an investigation and the website of the local newsroom can’t co-publish because its website is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Times?

“If you’re part of this fellowship, the newsroom, (executive editor) Joe (Kahn) and everybody else are completely supportive of it. You’re a member of The New York Times family, so you can use The New York Times’ stuff,” Baquet said. “But I do find that local newsrooms have probably not kept up as much as bigger newsrooms in terms of data, technology, presentation, graphics. I suspect the Times itself will have to provide a lot of that.”

And what happens after that yearlong fellowship? That’s also evolving.

“It doesn’t feel right for The New York Times to whip in, let’s do a great story, and then, you know, give you a big hug in December and leave,” Baquet said.

The Times still needs to find a way to keep stories alive and figure out how to support fellows once they’re through the program, which could include outside funding, he said.

The Times’ approach to supporting local investigative journalism isn’t the first from a national newsroom. ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network is perhaps the most substantial national-to-local partnership. Another one-off example is The Washington Post’s recent continuation of an investigation after a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter was murdered.

I asked Baquet what role national newsrooms should take in the future local news. He thought the lessons the Times has learned, from presentation to editing to visual journalism, are lessons it could teach newsrooms without the same resources. And, like with the Post and the Review-Journal, when a national newsroom can help, it matters for more than just the newsrooms.

“It’s a way of saying to government and big business — we will try to figure out a way to try to hold you to account even as we wrestle with our own futures,” he said. “And I think that’s an important signal to send.”