David Shipley is executive editor at Bloomberg News and former op-ed editor of the New York Times. Below is an edited transcript from the public discussion Shipley had with Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and co-director of the Institute of Religion, Culture & Public Life (IRCPL), as part of the “Covering Conflict” series sponsored by the IRCPL.
Mark Taylor: I’d like to begin just by asking you to reflect a bit on your personal background. The trajectory that you’ve taken might not be an ordinary trajectory into the world of journalism, so I’d like you to reflect a little bit on how you got from the role of a liberal-arts education at a place like Williams College, to the position of considerable responsibility you have now in journalism.
David Shipley: I wish I could sort of pinpoint the epiphanic moment when I wanted to be an editor. It did happen some time when I was at Williams; I read Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins and began to think that this was something that I really might like to do. Most people in journalism know that it’s not something that you come to easily. At a place like Williams College, if you wanted to go into certain fields — certainly finance would be one of them — there was a clearly marked path. You could be flying through fog and the lights would come up, and you could land perfectly at career counseling when the investment banks came to call.
Publishing and journalism, it was really sort of self-selecting. There was nobody there to interview and welcome you and usher you into this business; it was something that you had to choose to do.
And so after Williams and after the Watson, I returned to Oregon for a bit, which is where I’m from. And it kept gnawing at me that this is something that I really wanted to try: I wanted to try to become and editor. So, I came to New York in 1986 and knocked on doors and went from one place to another. And finally, there was a noted Williams’ alum who was a big editor in publishing, who will remain nameless because he refused to see me, but he had an incredibly nice editorial assistant who told me about a job opening at Simon & Schuster.
And I wound up at Simon & Schuster, and I had the great good fortune to interview with a woman named Alice Mayhew, who is a legendary non-fiction editor: Woodward and Bernstein, Bill Grider, Taylor Branch, Doris Goodwin, James Stewart — the list goes on. And she took me in as her editorial assistant, which for the first year really meant that I filed or misfiled, in her estimation, made lunch reservations at all sorts of New York restaurants that no longer exist, places like the Chalet Suisse and all sorts of great old midtown haunts where people used to drink during lunch. I would type her memos, and I would watch what went into her office and I would look especially closely at what came out of her office. And I would see the way that she structured manuscripts and worked with writers and was, and remain, in awe of her.
And one day, probably about a year into my experience, she said, “Well, here’s a manuscript.” It was by an oceanographer who was searching for nautilus shells, so it was certainly not something that I had had a tremendous amount of experience with. But she said, “Give it a shot.” And I spent a couple weeks doing an edit, sent it to her, spent a couple more weeks doing another edit, and finally, she deemed it of a quality that could be sent back to the writer. And so, basically, in a very sort of old fashioned mentorship-apprenticeship, she gave me a chance to learn how to edit with her guidance.
After about a year and a half, I became an editor for her and stayed there for three years. And then after that, a guy named Mike Levitas, who was a wonderful editor of The Times Book Review, was taking over the Op-Ed page; this was about 1989. And Mike was looking for someone from publishing, someone he could find at a very low price, and approached me and so I had my first experience in newspapers. Never having written for a paper before — well, my fifth grade paper back in Portland, Oregon, but that was it — I worked at the Op-Ed page from ’89 to ’92, which was a tremendously exciting time. That’s sort of how that got launched
Taylor: Having given this sort of précis for young aspiring journalists, what’s the best advice to give them in terms of the kind of educational background or kinds of things they should be doing?
Shipley: Well, to get back to your liberal-arts question: be prepared to fail and be prepared to try a lot of things and learn from your mistakes. At Williams, my first year and a half there, I was absolutely lost. I felt I was working hard but nothing necessarily clicked. But having nothing necessarily click for a year and a half made it possible for things to really begin to click a year and a half into it. And I still remember the moment, it was — I didn’t have Mark until my senior year, unfortunately. And that’s another huge regret that I have: all the things that I didn’t take when I was at Williams because I was either too afraid to take them or not interested and aware enough to take them.
But there was a wonderful American studies professor by the name of Bob Dalzell, and it was his class that awakened me. It was the way in which he structured the class, which is that you would sort of walk down the path and he would lead you to believe one thing, and by the end of the class, in a very Op-Ed way, you would come away believing the exact opposite of what you thought you believed when you first went into the class. That, in a very personal way for me, was the opening up of my liberal-arts education and, I think, was superb training for finding what interested me most, which is journalism.
Taylor: Bobby is a superb teacher and wonderful writer. He is still teaching at Williams, and he and his wife have authored many very, very interesting books. So, even in this high-price neighborhood that we live in here in Manhattan, you preside over some of the most precious real-estate in the country, if not the world. So tell us a little bit about how the Op-Ed page works. Just walk us through what your day is like as you put together the page at The Times. You said that it’s close to — what do you call it?
Taylor: Closing time right now, and every night it closes. You know, you think about writing a paper or writing just one Op-Ed piece, and it’s a long process. These guys put you through the mill in terms of revising, and then you’re done. And you pick up the paper the next day and you think, “You know, they’re doing this every day, over and over and over again.” So, how does the day work in terms of putting it together?
Shipley: We’ll take tomorrow’s page as an example. Last night, before Obama’s speech [on the war in Afghanistan], we had a page that was in place. It had two pieces: one piece which will remain nameless because it will appear later, and another piece by Suketu Mehta, who’s a wonderful writer, which will appear tomorrow on the anniversary of Bhopal. But obviously, after hearing the speech last night, we thought that we should probably do an Op-Ed piece in reaction to it.
And the reason that we had sort of built the page to be completely off the news is that Op-Ed these days has a remarkable luxury of being off the news. I mean, Op-Ed has always been meant to be a place of surprise. And when it was created in 1970, there was far less analysis not just in the paper but in the world. Now, I think everybody here is well aware that people were analyzing the president’s speech not just the moment he finished but the moment he started giving the talk. And in fact, they were analyzing it before as the White House was sort of rolling out its speech advance work.
So in the same way that today’s page was completely off the news — with two essays on John Brown — tomorrow’s page could’ve been off the news unless we had found something that we thought would really add value to the discussion. And I’ll leave it to you to decide whether tomorrow’s page does add value or not. But the debate, the minute the president finished, was over timetables.
That seemed, to me, to be sort of the center piece of the discussion. And it quickly moved past timetable good, timetable bad so that it wouldn’t have really been a suitable Op-Ed piece because everybody already would have — John McCain would’ve expressed his view and someone else would’ve expressed their view. And you would’ve had the Republican supporting timetables, which would’ve been sort of the Op, or you would’ve had the Democrat opposing time tables, which would’ve been the Op. So, this morning’s conversation was, “What could we do that would add value to it?” And so then I began —
Taylor: Who’s in on that conversation?
Shipley: Who’s in on that conversation? The Op-Ed staff.
Taylor: And that consists of how many people?
Shipley: The number changes, but this morning it was about five people all gathered around at 10:15 or 10:30 a.m., once everybody had been caffeinated. Somebody brought cookies this morning, too, so that helped. But then we got to thinking about the nature of timetables. We were talking about timetables and deadlines and how do we react to them? And what is our emotional response to them? And it made me think back to pieces that Dan Gilbert of Harvard has done for us or Steven Pinker has done, which chart both the science and the emotional response to something that is happening in the world.
The timetable discussion to that point had been either political or strategic, but it hadn’t really been emotional or scientific. So that seemed, to me, something worth exploring, that maybe that would be sort of a direction that no one had gone yet in terms of reacting to the speech.
So, then I started by sending an e-mail to Dan Gilbert, asking him if he would recommend someone, calling a couple of other people, and discovered someone I’ve never encountered before, a man named David Eagleman at Baylor, who has done a lot of work on both our emotional and neurological response to time and to deadlines. In a fitting deadline way, at about 4:00, he filed a piece that will get on the page tomorrow.
Taylor: How common is it for you to initiate the contact? Because I’m sure you get hundreds and hundreds of submissions all the time.
Taylor: How common is it for you to do what you did today?
Shipley: Op-Ed is probably about, and the number goes up and down, it’s probably about 65 to 75 percent commissioned. That said, we get about 1,500 unsolicited manuscripts a week, all of which get read and read carefully. It would be sort of a dishonor to the founding principal of Op-Ed to do anything less. I mean, when Op-Ed was founded in the 1970s by John Oakes and Harrison Salisbury, it was a huge change in terms of the geography of The New York Times. I mean, Mark was talking about real estate, and anytime you give up real estate in the A Section, you’re giving away something important and something valuable.
That space had been occupied by obituaries, and it was incredibly hard at the time to create a new space within the paper and then turn that space over to the outside world. This was something that’s understandable given the cultural ferment in the late ’60s, early ’70s, but a huge change nevertheless. And so for us not to pay attention to the unsolicited manuscripts would go against the very nature of the reasoning behind the creation of the page.
On top of that, it’s in our self-interest because those are the pieces that you could never think of. Anything that we assign, by nature, grows out of our imagination. The truly exceptional pieces, the ones that you could never dream of, are the ones that show up in the unsolicited e-mail, which is why all the editors take a turn going through it.
Taylor: So, I want to ask you a question about titles.
Shipley: You mean headlines?
Taylor: Yeah, for the paper. Because one of the things that I didn’t know — and I’ve not had any experience in journalism until I started writing some of these things — is that the author doesn’t title the piece. So, I think it will be interesting for people to know, first, how that works just practically and sort of what’s the philosophy around the title? Because the title can completely transform the way in which the piece is read and received, so that’s a very interesting and important element in how that all works.
Shipley: And it’s also frightening, too, because you don’t want to put a head on the piece that in any way undercuts it. At the end of the day, your name is on the article, mine isn’t. And in the same way that you never sort of force a change on someone, you would never want to leave the person’s piece with a headline that he was uncomfortable with, which is a little tricky because we don’t offer headline consultation. So you just hope that the editors use sufficient good judgment in terms of finding something that will both make you want to read a piece — I mean, the goal of the headline is to make you discover this thing in this sea of information, not just in The Times but in the world around us — but to also accurately reflect at least one element of the piece and to be witty and concise and fun.
Taylor: Well, I mean, you guys do a great job. And in most instances you have a better sense of it than the author for that kind of thing, which is, again, not surprising. You just said a minute ago that the author’s name’s on the piece, your name is not. One of the things that I’ve learned from some people in finance here in the city over the past few years is that real power is invisible. I mean, it’s an obvious point until you really see it in action. It’s an odd position that you’re in. The fact of the matter is that you have enormous power in presiding over that Op-Ed page, and yet, there’s an anonymity about it in many ways, your name isn’t on that in —
Shipley: Nor should it be.
Taylor: I understand that.
Shipley: And it would be an enormous mistake if I ever confused the power of the page with me. Any power that I have is conferred on me by the institution. The minute I walk out that door, I’m David Shipley; I’m not David Shipley of The New York Times. I learned an interesting lesson very early on at the White House long before the gate crashers. It’s incredibly exciting when you get to work at the White House and to get to be a speechwriter. You stroll up and you’re dressed nicely and you wave to the secret service guards and they let you in, except when you don’t have your ID.
I showed up one day without my ID. And you know these guys who would happily wave me in every other day, acted as if I didn’t even exist. And they were perfectly right to, but it was a very useful lesson in being reminded that any of the glow associated with that is associated with the institution, it has remarkably little to do with me. And I feel the same way about The Times.
Taylor: You mentioned the speechwriting. So, how does that all work when you’re a presidential speechwriter? There’s input, I guess, but do you guys really write the whole thing and then Clinton just stands up there and reads it? What’s the dynamic of that, or what was it for you with Clinton? And I’m sure it varies from president to president.
Shipley: The way it was structured in the Clinton White House when I was there was that there was domestic speechwriting and there was foreign policy speechwriting. Foreign policy was associated with the National Security Council, and I was a domestic speechwriter. It is an interesting experience writing for someone who is capable of speaking in perfect sentences, paragraphs, and pages, and really doesn’t need a speechwriter.
Certain speeches would be collaborative, both with the president and a group of other people. Other speeches, you would write it and you would either give it or not, or you would have some involvement with the policy people. But speechwriting is actually closer, in my experience, to editing and to what I do now than it is to writing. You know, you are working under someone else’s name. You are synthesizing a tremendous amount of material and trying to at least shove it into a framework of comprehensibility.
Taylor: Is there sort of one turn of phrase or expression from all those years that you crafted that sort of got into the ether that you are most attached to? You can be honest with us —
Shipley: Yeah: “it was only reported.” [Laughter] You know, I’ve talked to old speechwriters who were amazed that the Clinton speechwriters and speechwriters in recent administrations actually got cards identifying them as speechwriters and you weren’t under a sort of MI6 cover, that you were actually identified as a speechwriter. And so I think part of the speechwriting code is not to associate yourself with a particular sentence. Like that piece you had done, Mark, whatever I may have done to be helpful, and the goal is to be helpful with your piece, I could never claim one of those sentences as my own. Those are Mark Taylor’s sentences. And I feel the same way about a presidential speech or anyone else’s Op-Ed piece.
Taylor: So, it turns out the speechwriting thing was not a sidetrack, but, in fact, there’s a very similar point that you’re making in both cases, and that is your attitude toward Clinton is very similar to your attitude toward The Times in terms of your role, that there’s a self-effacement that goes with that. Nonetheless, I want to press the issue with respect to The Times. Having said all of what you said, that is true. Nonetheless, you must have a certain kind of philosophy or set of values as to what you really want to accomplish on the Op-Ed page. What guides you as you exercise this responsibility that you have? What do you want to do?
Shipley: Reading is a voluntary activity. And increasingly, buying The Times, committing yourself to the information in The Times,is both a financial sacrifice and a sacrifice of time, and so I want people to feel that that sacrifice is rewarded. Now, it is by nature a wildly subjective enterprise. So, at the end of the day, what I can best do is try to be open to my reactions to an argument or to a piece. If it interests me, I hope it will interest someone else, knowing full well that I will often fall flat on my face.
Not everybody would’ve thought, “Maybe we should do two pieces on John Brown.” You know, it’s not something that a lot of people are talking about these days. But when the discussions around those pieces came up, both seemed like things like, “Wow, I learned something from Tony Horwitz about John Brown and terrorism, and I learned something from David Reynolds about John Brown and getting him a pardon.”
Taylor: If you have not read those, read them. They were brilliant today and it took me back. My mother was a high school English teacher, and one of the things she always taught was Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body. I hadn’t thought of John Brown’s Body since high school until I went and read those two pieces today. Only a former libral-arts student would have seen that kind of connection and relevance; I think it was brilliant. What’s the most difficult kind of dilemma that you face in making some of the decisions that you make?
Shipley: Choosing — and not just among the unsolicited manuscripts. You could easily put out an Op-Ed page with probably about a third of what we are not able to publish. And that’s really what I try and impress on people when I am in the unhappy position of having to turn down their pieces, which is far and away the worst part of the job. It takes a tremendous amount of work to write something. You have to sit down, you have to think, you have to commit time, and then you have to send it in. And that’s a real act of faith, that someone took time out of their day to write something and send something to us. So, at the very least, they, as often as possible, deserve a respectful reply.
Taylor: Do you have any control over the columnists? I mean, can you tell Maureen sort of to tone it down or —
Shipley: Columnists need to be viewed as sovereign nations, and maybe it would be useful here to explain the editorial landscape. The way The Times is configured, there are two huge worlds: there’s news and there’s editorial. Editorial is actually a very small world compared to news, but editorial comprises the Editorial page, which is run by Andy Rosenthal and the Editorial Board, which represents the views of the Editorial Board and that’s it — it doesn’t speak for the news side.
There’s the Letters page, which is really the venue for responses to anything that has appeared in the paper. And this is something that there’s some confusion about because often people will send in Op-Ed pieces that respond to material that’s appeared in the paper, and we simply don’t do that. It was a wise policy decision set early on, because otherwise you would’ve run the risk for a page that is just sort of an Escher-like drawing of responses and responses and responses and responses, so best of all of that to be in Letters. And Tom Feyer, the Letters editor, does a superb job with that.
Then there are the columnists, and while we share a page with them, they really are, as I said, sovereign nations. They are responsible unto themselves. They report to Andy Rosenthal and to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, but they do their own thing. And part of getting that job is because you’re sort of trusted to do your own thing. And then Op-Ed is the space where you kind of open up the window and let the intelligence of the world sweep across the page.
Taylor: So what editorial decision you have made that you most regret?
Shipley: Every day is filled with regrets, and I think it would be unfair to single out not having done a single piece or to single out a piece that we have done. For the end of the year, we’re going to pick pages that we especially like and pieces that we especially liked over the last decade. In going through it, I’m kind of amazed. You’re sort of astonished by how much you actually forget, but what a great experience some of those pieces were along the way. So, in terms of regrets, it’s really what we haven’t been able to run.
Taylor: I want to shift just a little bit to perhaps questions of ethics in some of this. I am sure that there are situations that arise in which you face decisions that have an ethical component in it, either in terms of what to publish or what not to publish. I mean, if we look back a few years, the very difficult time when Howell Raines was there and you had the whole Jason Blair kind of situation – are there situations where there are tensions between what might or might not be said in the Op-Ed page and the rest of the paper? You know, you’ve tried to deal with this through the public editor in certain ways, which is sort of an interesting way to try do that. But do you ever feel yourself caught in sort of ethical binds in terms of the kinds of things published, not published either for reasons internal to the paper or other reasons?
Shipley: No. I mean, I have to say the joy of my experience, my entire experience at The Times is that I’ve never felt that. I have never felt that I had to run an Op-Ed piece or that I should’ve run something that people didn’t want me to run. And that’s attributable to both Arthur Sulzberger and Gail Collins, who was my first Op-Ed boss, and Andy Rosenthal, who is my current boss, that there is the freedom to do what you think is best. Different Op-Ed pages have different philosophies. The philosophy of The Times page throughout has been not always but often to provide a counterpoint to the editorial line.
If you see the editorials, the columnists, and the Op-Eds all saying the same thing, then it’s not an ideally executed day. You want everybody to be saying something a little bit different from the other guy. There are other papers where there is more of a tendency to reinforce, for the Op-Eds to reinforce the editorials. That’s a perfectly sound editorial strategy, too, but it’s not the one that The Times has sort of built itself around.
So, the wonderful thing is that I never have felt that. The difficult thing or the thing that keeps me up at night is ensuring that we have done everything in our power in the editing process to ensure that people are getting something straight. We don’t do a lot of investigations on Op-Eds, we don’t do a lot of reporting on Op-Eds, because in reporting, you have to go to two sides.
And Op-Eds are really built on, to the extent that there is universally agreed-upon fact, on that fact and then arguing from that fact. It doesn’t do a very good job unearthing new material; that’s really the work of the news pages and the investigative unit. Because if you’re saying something inflammatory about someone, you really need to go to the other side to get their comment. And for Op-Ed, we simply can’t do that because you have one person making an argument, so you have to be very careful that the facts from what you are working on have already been sorted out.
The sort of most nerve-racking times in the last few years have been when we found that someone has an interest that they haven’t disclosed in the piece. And then the best thing that you can do is to run an editor’s note as quickly as possible to say, “Had we known this, we would’ve either put it in the piece or not run the piece.” I think it’s also important to make clear that a lot of people who write for Op-Ed do have interests, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having an interest in something so long as you’re clear about it. But when you aren’t, those are the moments of greatest terror for me.
Taylor: I want to ask a few questions now about the broader media-scape. The world has changed around you so much in the brief years you’ve been even at The Times. How are blogs and cable news and everything changing what you do and how you do it and the environment in which you work? One of the problems, it seems to me, is that the line between reporting and analysis and opinion all but disappears in many contexts. How does this affect what you do? How do you continue to differentiate yourself? You’ve alluded to something I had not even thought about that much: the way in which you are less daily news dependent. That must be an important issue for you as you sit around that table.
Shipley: It is, if you want to provide something surprising and different. I was first in Op-ed in the late ’80s. If you compared the front page today to, say, a front page in 1989, there is far more news analysis today than there would’ve been back then. And that’s not a judgment, it’s just a statement of fact. Back in 1989, we would’ve probably gone for sort of a straighter analysis of the president’s speech and that would’ve made sense because that wouldn’t have been in other places in the paper. Now that it is not just in other pages of the paper but in lots and lots of other papers, the incentive to do something like that to keep the reader interested is [less].
Taylor: Do your children read The New York Times daily?
Shipley: They read separate sections, and we won’t go into those sections for reasons of family privacy, but yes.
Taylor: I ask my students — they don’t always comply — but regardless of the course, I ask my students all to read The New York Times everyday as part of it. So, news accounts carry daily discussions about the end of newspapers and so on and so forth, and the climate in which you are working is extraordinarily challenging. I mean, looking at it from your perch, is The New York Times, in more or less the form that we know it, going to be able to survive? How do you see where we are?
Shipley: My experience at The Times has been one of tremendous growth. I think when I came to Op-Ed in 2003, Op-Ed was one page. I mean, Op-Ed now is a page every day, four pages on the weekends, and an entire online magazine with its own columnists and group blogs and multimedia and all manner of stuff. So, at least the world as I’ve experienced it, has only blossomed during this time. Whether what you see in 10, 15 years will be on a piece of paper, on a tablet, on a screen, I have no idea and I think that’s why journalism schools are actually wonderful places to hang out in now because people are thinking about these things as hard as people at newspapers are. And I’d be really eager when the conversation part of this expands to hear what people think about how they’re going to be reading The New York Times in 10 years or so.
Taylor: So, I have a question about your online policy. I personally no longer read the daily paper paper; I read it online now, partly because when I read the daily paper, by the time I get around to it, it’s been updated so many times in the course of the day that it’s old news. The value added that you have, especially with respect to The Sunday Times, is the non-time-dependent material, it seems to me. And yet, you guys give that away early in the course of the week, right?
The magazine is usually online by Wednesday. Half the time when I read the Sunday paper on Sunday, I discover that I’ve read a third of the articles in the course of the week not knowing they were Sunday articles. The Book Review comes out Saturday, and so I get the paper on Sunday, and I have nothing to do. The value-added stuff is the stuff that’s not time-dependent. And yet, you guys give away early, whereas, if I were to run it, I wouldn’t give that away until after you sold the Sunday paper and sell as many hard copies as you can before you put it online. I don’t understand the logic of that policy. Is there one?
Shipley: You know, when you have a representative of the news department here, I think that’s a superb question for you to ask.
Taylor: All right. So, what about Rupert Murdoch? You know, he lusts after The Times, from what everybody says. One of the things that it interesting about Murdoch — whatever you think of him, he’s one smart dude. There are those who argue that he really is, in his heart of hearts, a newspaper man. And while there are those who say that Murdoch is this demon that’s going to take us all down, there also are those who say, “The only hope that newspapers have is Murdoch.” And this whole recent deal — I don’t know if they’ve consummated the deal or not with —
Taylor: Yeah, Google and all that and Microsoft. As a counter to Microsoft, to try to get them to pay for content. So, how do you view Murdoch’s impact on the newspaper end of all of this? I don’t think it’s straightforward; I think it’s very complicated in terms of how to assess what he’s really doing. If he figures out a way to pay for content, that’s a golden ring, in some context. So it’s hard to sort out.
Shipley: I don’t have a good answer to that. He is in a position where he certainly has alternate revenue streams to support news-gathering operations in a way that The Times doesn’t have. The Post has Stanley Kaplan to help support it, but it’s also a smaller operation. But I would agree with you, from what I know of him, that he does have a profound love for newspapers, and I think someone in power who has the same love of them that the rest of us share is probably for the greater good.
Taylor: I want to come back a bit to some of the more personal questions. Again, from the perch that you have, which is really quite unusual in terms of being able to see what’s going on in the world and how people are responding to it: other than meeting your deadlines, what really keeps you awake at night in terms of the kinds of problems that you really think we’re up against?
Shipley: It’s really what doesn’t keep me awake, aside from garbage trucks. In terms of the page, speaking specifically, I think the issue of interest, which we were talking about earlier, is being fearful that we haven’t done a good enough job making sure that the reader knows everything he or she needs to know about a particular writer. This is what leaves me in absolute terror.
Taylor: All right, but push it beyond the page, in terms of the problems. Is it Pakistan, is it global warming, is it financial?
Shipley: It’s not just fear; it’s reality. There are huge things that we are missing each and every day that we simply can’t cover because on a day with two columnists and an ad, we have room for 700 words. So, at a certain point, you have to come to terms with the fact that maybe you’ll have one or two chances to have a unified field theory piece on a certain topic and that you will have the presence of mind not to forget too many things.
I mean, one thing that we do at our morning meetings is we print out a copy of the front page from the year before as an exercise to remind us of all the stuff that we’ve forgotten. You know, it’s been ages since we’ve done a sub-prime piece. We’re doing a lot of climate change pieces right now because Copenhagen’s coming up, but then that will go dormant again. The thing that I am most fearful of or the thing that I am very fearful of, personally, is that we lose track of the fact that we are forgetting. And if you lose track of the fact that you’re forgetting, you’re really kind of in for it. So, we have as many queues as possible to remind ourselves that, “Hey, this is the issue that seemed to dominate the world for very good reasons six months ago; we haven’t talked about it in ages; where are we with it?” Knowing full well that we have neither the space nor the luxury of providing the be-all, end-all answer on a regular basis.
Taylor: So, we started by charting your trajectory from Williams to The New York Times. What do you imagine yourself doing in 10 years?
Shipley: That’s a great question. Because so much of my life is really lived in the present. It’s lived in tomorrow’s page, which is actually today for me, so the timing is kind of screwed up.
Taylor: Do you want to write?
Shipley: I’ve never wanted to. As I said, the speechwriting was more of an act of editing than it was of writing. The book on e-mail, which I did with a coauthor, my wonderful friend Will Schwalbe, was, again, a collaborative effort. I just find that those are the enterprises that give me the greatest satisfaction, doing things with a team of people. So, my guess is that I might even still be at The Times. And if that happens, I think I’ll be very grateful both because it will mean the institution continues to thrive, also that I’d still be wanted there, and that the editors think I can find something useful to do for them.
Taylor: We would all be very fortunate if you were still there. Why don’t we open it up and ask whatever questions you’ve always been wanting to ask?
Audience Member 1: I would like to know if the newspaper has any ways of measuring the effect of a piece or the opinion of the newspaper?
Shipley: Well, you do. In terms of the online paper, there are lots of measures, all of which you need to take with absolutely an enormous grain of salt. You’ve got the most-emailed list, which is one sign that people are responding to stuff. You have page views on pieces, you have clicks, and you have all sorts of things like that. And those are interesting metrics, but, at the end of the day, you can really only pay a very small amount of attention to them.
Sometimes the metrics tell you what you shouldn’t be doing. If you see piece after piece on the same issue that makes the same argument, and that each one rises to the top of the list, maybe the answer is to actually publish a piece that makes the opposite argument — even if you know that, for example, my mom is not going to be emailing it to her best friends. So they both give you a sense of what people are responding to and what maybe you should do differently.
You certainly don’t have those measures for the paper. I mean, you can go to focus group things and everybody will have their favorite columnist. People seem to like opinion, and the opinion section is a very well-trafficked front in the paper. The display page, when you go online, is one of the main ones people go to. So we know that people like it or at least people want to interact with it and read it. But beyond that, I try not to focus on those things too much.
Audience Member 2: I think the perception is with cable TV and blogs, at least, that people go to that with which they agree. They want their own passionate opinions validated, or they want someone to tell them why they think what they do. Do you find that the same with your page? Do you think people want to be affirmed in their beliefs?
Shipley: I think people love to be affirmed in their beliefs. And I think that in not just The Times but other papers, you see who the most popular columnists are. And readers aren’t emailing those columnists because they necessarily disagree with them. It’s my sense that they’re often emailing them because they do agree with them. And I think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be reinforced in your opinions. I don’t see that so much in Op-Eds, just because Op-Ed doesn’t represent one consistent voice. You don’t turn to the pieces that we run to find your favorite columnist or the person with whom you identify, you sort of find them.
Audience Member 2: Do you think it would be a healthy thing in getting people to listen to that with which they disagree, and if so, how do you do that?
Shipley: Absolutely. I try to watch what they’re writing. In terms of our page, I try to see what the columnists are saying and I try to see what the editorials are saying and then I try to see if we can say something different.
Audience Member 3: We talked about the responsibility of your job. I was just wondering, how aware is The Times with international issues, that these pieces are seen as the American point of view? If you choose to publish a piece by a foreign leader, there’s obviously an agenda behind it. Can you talk about the international aspect of your job? How do you decide what to publish when it comes to leaders, when it comes to what issues you want to write about?
Shipley: That is actually slightly different with The Times now because there’s a global edition, which was really the Herald Tribune. Now you can get both pages when you go to the site, and you can click and go from the national edition to the global edition. But those editors are thinking it’s their job to think about how what we’re doing is seen. Not only are they far away from us in Paris, but they’re also spending their time looking outward. We certainly think about it at the paper, but we don’t have to think about it as much now because they’re doing that work.
Taylor: But it still would be the case that if The New York Times published the kind of articles she’s suggesting, it would have has potential ramifications. I mean, you can’t offload and say, “Well, they’re going to worry about that because” —
Taylor: Yeah. But I think the question is, when you sit around that editorial table, do you think and worry about what impact this is going to have in other countries and the like? Whether you have a global edition or not, your page still has enormous impact. Do you talk about that or worry about that?
Shipley: I don’t worry about that because, after all, it is an Op-Ed piece. I mean, I don’t see it sort of destroying or being powerful enough to unsettle things. In terms of publishing foreign leaders or any sort of leaders, we find that we’re doing that less and less because it’s so hard to get people to be forthright.
As Mark said, it is precious real estate, and I think it’s incumbent on people, especially people who have many different platforms, to say something interesting, to say something that’s not in the press release, something they wouldn’t say or something that’s not the equivalent of taking out an ad. And so that’s why you just don’t see a lot of foreign leaders on our page or even a lot of elected leaders here. It’s really incumbent on them to say something interesting.
Audience Member 5: I wonder if I can push you a little on the decision you made for tomorrow about the timetables, which strikes me as a great idea, timetables. And the way you’ve taken it toward the psychologist sounds very interesting, so I look forward to that. But I see one thing limited about that decision, and that is that to focus on timetables is to map onto the congressional array of opinion. We need timetables: the liberals. We can’t have timetables: the conservatives. And, certainly, you want the Op-Ed page to go beyond conventional mainstream opinion.
Audience Member 5: Now I’m of a certain age where it seems that the obvious thing is to talk about Vietnam. Obama talked about Vietnam last night. He made some good points about why this is not Vietnam, and I could not help but worry that he’s entirely wrong about that. So that would’ve been another option. How do you decide this?
Shipley: Well, it was one we actually pursued, but I think you’re absolutely right that you have to worry at times of being constrained by the debate. On the other hand, you want to be part of the debate to see if approaching the discussion from a fresh way somehow explodes the confines of the discussion. That said, we tried this one. I was sort of abbreviating the conversation, but we tried a number of Vietnam pieces. We wanted to see how close congressional Democrats came to pressing for a timetable in Vietnam. We talked to a number of military historians about past timetables or efforts to set timetables. So all those things and a couple of other ideas were explored between 10:15 am and 1:00 pm, when we got everything assigned.
I find the Vietnam discussion very interesting. We’ve done that a number of times over the course of the year with Gordon Goldstein had his book, and we had a couple of discussions on the page: “Is this Vietnam or isn’t it?” You’re right, it has a tremendous amount of resonance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see it again.
Part of the day is trying as many different things as you can. But then you come to the point in the day — and this is also a hard thing — when we stop and say, “O.K., here’s what we’re going to do.” And we’ll try to make is as good as we possibly can, knowing full well that we may fall flat on our faces but also being slightly reassured that there’ll be a paper the day after, even if it ends up that today is a really bad paper.
Audience Member 5: I’m sorry if I missed something. Apart from selection, do you do any editing to to the pieces? You probably said this, but I didn’t get it.
Shipley: Yes, we edit.
Audience Member 5: Even if it’s something that you assign very quickly and it has to be in by 4:00.
Shipley: Yep, absolutely.
Audience Member 5: You consult with the writer?
Shipley: Yeah. The writer sees everything. We fact-check. We now have a really fearsome contract that says just a little bit short of, “We will come to your house and throw paint on your front door if you are wrong with your facts or you have lied to us.” Nevertheless, people still get things wrong. So, fact checking is a tremendously time consuming part of the day. It’s a much bigger part of the day than it was when I was first at Op-Ed. The page is read with a microscope. And with so many people with microscopes now in so many different places where they can make the world aware of our errors — as they should — we try as hard as possible to make sure that everything is correct.
So, yes, it gets edited both line-by-line, if it needs it, for sense and structure but also for factual accuracy. But, at the end of the day, the writer has to sign off on it. And so, right now, they may still be there going back and forth with the scholar of timelines, because the deadline isn’t until 9:00 pm. But I hope they’re gone.
Audience Member 6: Mr. Shipley, I applaud your editorial selection for the John Brown stories. The other day, I struck up a conversation with a returning veteran from Afghanistan; he was wearing his camouflage fatigues. He saw me carrying my subscription copy of The New York Times, and he said he doesn’t see his voice in the liberal New York Times. I was wondering, is it possible to reach out to returning retired veterans who are coming from Afghanistan as we increase our troops and hear their voices in the Editorial page? Thank you.
Shipley: Well, it’s a great question, but, in fact, we do. We’re doing a group blog right now called “Home Fires,” which we started a couple of years ago and then started again three or four months ago. It’s basically veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan writing about reentry. So, yes, we do that. In fact, a lot of what we have now, too, is moving toward an integrated opinion page where our editors both work on the page and they work online and the other way around. A guy named Michael Jernigan, who is an Iraq vet who wrote “Home Fires 1.0” and now writes for “Home Fires 2.0,” did a wonderful piece on the page about re-entry for Veterans Day. So I guess I would contend that the gentleman you ran into should spend a little more time reading the paper, because he’d see that his voice is heard on the page and that his presence would be encouraged.
Audience Member 7: I guess in this age of ubiquitous opinion pieces, it’s become apparent to me that it’s quite easy to cherry pick a few facts and then put together a polemic of sorts, which often could be wrong even though you might have a few facts correct. But one might not know that it’s dissimulating unless you’re an expert. And my question is how you, as an editor or editorial team who are, I presume, mostly generalists, deal with trying to tackle the veracity or the theme of a piece if, in fact, you’re not experts and you’re going to offer it to a readership, which is a general readership.
Shipley: We try to be as careful as we can. One of the wonderful things about The New York Times is that you can call in a lot of experts both within and outside the paper. And so if there’s a piece that I’m particularly worried about, or one that I like but don’t feel comfortable enough with knowing the facts to make a judgment about, I’ll often call someone. When we were calling around about the timetables, there were four or five different historians we had conversations with, and I guess that’s an example of what we would do on any subject.
If someone is writing to us about cap-and-trade or bioengineering, for example, which is a vexed and complicated topic, and the question of whether or not we should seed the clouds to combat climate change comes up, we ask, is it sensible? Isn’t it sensible? I took freshman astronomy; I’m exactly the wrong guy to ask. But in our job, there are a bunch of people I know I can ask who would put me in touch with the person I can ask, “Are we on the right track? Is it absolutely insane to be running this piece?”
And this gets back to remembering that we forget a lot of stuff, remembering that we are generalists and we have to have the good sense to see to it that what we put on the page does make sense, remembering that it’s not just a few cherry-picked facts in order to make an intriguing argument. [Sometimes an intriguing argument] happens to be completely wrong. And that’s not to say we haven’t done it in the past — because I’m sure there are pieces where we’ve just made the wrong decision — but we do try. There are people within the paper we can talk to, and there’s a great Op-Ed Rolodex. You can look around and search for people who might be able to tell you whether you’re harebrained or whether you’re on the right track.
Taylor: David and others, I think it’s precisely the ubiquity of media and of opinion pieces that we’ve talked about that makes the Op-Ed page of The New York Times more important today than ever, and I’m sure I speak for myself and others when I say that we are grateful to have someone of your intelligence and integrity presiding over that. We’re all in your debt for that. Thank you very much for being here with us this evening.