October 26, 2023

LEVIN | The New York Times Managing Editor Marc Lacey Discusses Journalism in the Internet Age: Under the Sun, Ep. 2

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Segments of this opinion interview transcript have been edited for clarification.

Gabe Levin: Hey, Cornell. I’m your host, Gabe Levin. This is episode two of Under The Sun, a new video series from The Cornell Daily Sun where we talk to prominent alumni and ask for their expert views on topics in the media spotlight. Today’s theme is bolstering trust in the news and in democracy. But before we get to that, I’d like to introduce my guest who’s joining me remotely from The New York Times headquarters in New York City and ask him some questions about himself and his time here at Cornell. Mark Lacey’s career in journalism is the stuff of dreams for student journalists like me. He won a Pulitzer Prize at the Los Angeles Times. He served as a correspondent in Washington, Nairobi and Mexico City. In more than two decades at The New York Times, he’s risen up the masthead to become managing editor of one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. But it all started here at The Sun, where he served as editor in chief. Thanks for coming on the show, Mr. Lacey, and thanks for all the work that you do day in and day out, making sure the world is informed about the issues that matter most.

Marc Lacey: Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you. 

Gabe Levin: So let’s start with some questions about your time here at Cornell, specifically at the Sun. I want to hear more about that. Now, how did serving as editor in chief of The Sun prepare you for managing The New York Times? And how has newsgathering changed since you started out in journalism? 

Marc Lacey: Great questions. First of all, I would not be a journalist if I had not joined The Cornell Daily Sun. The Sun is what got me interested in this line of work. I actually entered Cornell as an engineering major, switched to arts and sciences, ended up majoring in biology. But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until I walked into The Sun, started writing articles, writing headlines, editing. And that’s when I sort of saw how exciting journalism can be. And I decided it’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So for me, I still get the same excitement I used to get when I went downtown to the Ithaca Commons. The Sun was in the colonial building, a different building back when I was there. I remember how excited I was every night going down there. And every day I come in through a back entrance to the New York Times; I have no idea what each day is going to bring, what news is going to break or what other drama is going to unfold. And, you know, I basically picked a line of work that never gets dull. It just cannot get dull because life itself is full of interesting developments. So how has journalism changed in the many years I’ve been doing it? I mean, here’s one way: When I started out at The New York Times, we were largely a newspaper. Let’s see, I have [a newspaper] around here somewhere. So we were this. We were a newspaper. This is like the way that most people got the news from us, by subscribing to this. And, you know, so much has changed that now far more people will get their news from this, from a phone, and they’re going to come to us on our app. They’re going to read stories by swiping. They’re going to watch videos. They’re going to listen to podcasts. And so I don’t even call us a newspaper anymore. We’re a digital news organization. We produce a newspaper, but we reach many, many more Times people than we ever have in the past. We’re growing rapidly, and we have people who are reading us all over the country, all over the world, and they’re coming to us, expecting us to make sense of the world in real time as developments are happening. So deadlines never stop — they’re 24 hours a day. So it’s an intense business and I think that’s kind of the biggest change that’s happened. 

Gabe Levin: Having seen all the changes that you have over the course of your career in journalism, what advice would you give a young Marc Lacey while he was editor in chief of the Cornell Daily Sun?

Marc Lacey: Well, I happened to have taken one computer programming class my freshman year: Intro to Computer Programming. And I didn’t really think it had anything to do with journalism back then. I did not make that connection, but I probably would have taken more computer science. We have coders who work in the New York Times newsroom. We have engineers. I think journalism these days is about great writing. It’s about editing, it’s about reading. But it’s also — I work in a tech company, and I think the more you know about the technological worlds that we live in, the better. But I think, you know, you want a broad education. I think that’s the best way to get into journalism these days. I never know what story I’m going to be editing next, what the topic is going to be. And you sort of want the sort of education that just exposes you to an array of topics. 

Gabe Levin: Now, aside from running The Sun, can you tell me about your favorite memories from your time here in Ithaca? 

Marc Lacey: Ah, great! I, you know, lived down in West Campus my freshman year. I remember riding on one of those lunch trays down through the snow down Libe slope. I remember that very well. I remember trudging up the hill from The Sun late at night up onto campus and just how beautiful — if you looked back, you could see Cayuga Lake as you hiked up. I just remember how beautiful the campus was. I remember the close friends that I had from all over the country, all with all different, you know, interests. I had a friend who was in the Ag College who actually grew up on a farm and had cows. I had friends from New Mexico and Los Angeles and places that I had not yet visited. There were people from all over the world that I met. So really, it’s like, it’s the personal connections. But I look back on that time as just, you know, an amazing four years that just flew by like this. 

Gabe Levin: That’s amazing. Now, you talk about meeting people from all over America, all over the world. You’ve traveled America and the world as a journalist. How has seeing different parts of the globe changed your worldview and some of your personal perspectives?

Marc Lacey: Well, I was based in Africa for five years. I was in East Africa, in Nairobi, traveled to dozens of African countries. I spent a bunch of time in Mexico writing about the drug war there, traveled all over Central America, the Caribbean. I’ve been in the Middle East. I covered the White House and traveled with the president all over the world. So really, for me, one of the best parts about journalism is, I’ve actually gotten a paycheck — and I’m sort of sometimes stunned by this — I’ve gotten a paycheck to travel the world and try to understand the world better and to try to give voice to people who could never imagine that their stories would be in an important publication like The New York Times. I’ve gotten to go places that I think probably no other New York Times reporter ever has been on that exact path, talking to that exact person. And I think the thing they say is that journalism is the first rough draft of history. And, you know, what that means is that I’ve been involved in historical events, a whole bunch of historical events as they’ve been happening, sort of writing them down in a way that future historians will come back and read my accounts of them. And that sort of is, like, a weighty thing when you think about that. 

Gabe Levin: I think you’re starting to touch on the worldly importance of journalism. So I want to move on to our topic for today, which is bolstering trust in the news and in democracy. Now, we’ve found ourselves in an age where lies often spread faster than the truth online and where fewer young people are reading the news. How can reputable news outlets like The New York Times hit back against all the lies and get young people engaged? 

Marc Lacey: Well, it’s one of our most important missions. And, you know, just in the last week, as the Israel-Gaza conflict has grown and become, you know, even more deadly, online there is all sorts of misinformation spreading. Now, the reality of the situation is horrible enough. The real images are horrible, but the misinformation is out there mixed in with the real stuff. And it’s just really hard for people to know on this conflict, on what’s going on in Ukraine, what’s going on the campaign trail for the presidential campaign in the US. Disinformation, misinformation is, you know, everywhere. And so how do you know? So what we have done is tried to sometimes not ignore those false claims, but actually draw attention to them, actually tell people what out there that you may be seeing is totally made up, because you look at this stuff and you see that tens of thousands, sometimes millions of people are watching videos, spreading videos, retweeting them, you know, sending them around. And they don’t realize that they are totally made up. And so we’ve done a lot of fact-checking. We do a lot of trying to point out what is spreading out there on the Internet. That is not true. And we dig in and try to find out who are the bad actors that are intentionally making this material and intentionally trying to affect discourse by spreading it. And, you know, you have a situation now where foreign governments are involved in trying to affect our political campaigns. You have a situation where warring parties are sending false messages through the Internet to try to affect public opinion. So it’s like an ugly, ugly world on the Internet. And we try to be a place where you can come and make sense of the world and you can kind of be — you can be reassured that we devoted a great deal of time — all day, all night — to try to get to the bottom of things and try to tell you what actually is going on out there.

Gabe Levin: You’ve talked a little bit about New York Times journalists fact-checking. I want to get more into that, especially in light of what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. Over the past week, we’ve all seen social media turn into a cauldron of high emotions and misinformation surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. With so many conflicting details emerging, how do journalists rapidly verify information for their coverage? 

Marc Lacey: Well, we have a team that we’re particularly proud of called our visual investigations team. And so these are experts in looking at video online, going deep into the video, finding out through all sorts of means where the video, the provenance of the video, where it originated, where it was shot. They’ll sometimes compile dozens of different videos and look at them side by side. They use satellite imagery and other techniques to really dig in and do, you know, forensic looks at the videos that are circulating. So, you know, they’re really, you know, detectives of a sort in trying to determine, you know, where this stuff originated and whether it’s true. But to be very honest, what separates us from a lot of other news organizations is the fact that we’re on the ground, that our first impulse when a big story breaks is to jump on a plane and go there and to get as close to the action as we can and to talk to the people involved face-to-face. That’s the best way to determine what has happened. It’s through online. It’s by being extremely well-sourced with officials. But it’s also getting there on the ground, seeing it through your own eyes and talking to witnesses face-to-face. And so we do all of those things. 

Gabe Levin: Yeah. And I feel like those of us in the know know that The New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post — these are publications of actual editorial integrity. Nevertheless, all over the country and even at Cornell, trust in legacy media is at a low. How has the fake news narrative that’s emerged in politics impacted The New York Times and newsrooms all across the nation? And how can the press maintain the public’s confidence going forward? 

Marc Lacey: Well, it’s a big challenge. It’s really a very difficult time to be a journalist at this moment. First of all, it’s dangerous. A number of journalists have been killed in the Middle East this past week. Mexico, where we do a lot of reporting on drug violence, is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist right now. Second only to Ukraine, where we have people on the ground. Just across America, journalists covering politics these days get a number of threats. They’re doxxed online. Their personal information is sent around. People go outside their homes. So it’s a dangerous time. And being a journalist is no longer sort of something that means you’re sort of immune to this violence. Sometimes, being a journalist means you’re a target of this violence and this wrath. And so what’s happened, and you know this as well as I do, is that certain political leaders, certainly Donald Trump, have, you know, driven into people’s brains, that everything the media says is false. “Fake news.” “Failing New York Times.” He would say that again and again. Each time that Donald Trump would denounce us and call our company failing, our subscriptions would rise even higher. More people would come to us as he was denouncing us and saying our business was failing. But that narrative that the media is taking sides and making things spread and other leaders around the country but also around the world picked up the same narrative. And the words ‘fake news’ are now used in languages all around the world. They’re understood in Brazil, in Russia. In all sorts of countries around the world, that same narrative is spreading. And many people nowadays doubt what they’re being told. They should doubt a lot of what they’re seeing on the Internet. They don’t necessarily, you know, doubt what’s coming into their feed on X or on Facebook. But they doubt the mainstream media. So we’re in this situation now where, you know, confidence in the media is at an all time low and where we have our work cut out for us in winning back that trust. You know, we’re trying to do a number of things to do it. I think one of the things is to just show our work a little bit so to speak, to tell people how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching, what sort of work, what sort of reporting went into some of the major projects that we did and not assume that people know that. And there is a time, you know, every November when election results come in that, you know, really sends a message to me that we’re winning people over. The New York Times on election night has become the site to go to get the latest results. And it’s true for Republicans. It’s true for Democrats. It’s true for independents. Across the political spectrum, our site has become sort of the authoritative place to go to see who’s up, who’s down. And on election night, you’ll see Republican lawmakers, even Republican lawmakers who denounce us, poring over our election results. You’ll see Democratic lawmakers, some of whom denounce us as well, poring over our election results. So I think we win back trust by sticking to the facts, by becoming indispensable to people, no matter their political persuasion, and by just dealing in essential information for curious people who want to know what’s going on in the world. And, you know, that’s our mission.

Gabe Levin: Earlier in your response, you talked about protecting journalists. And I think I want to kind of circle back to that. Now, Cornell is an international school, so I’d like to ask a question of international importance. With global authoritarianism on the rise, how can journalists in countries like China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — all places that Cornell has extensive links to — protect themselves in spreading the truth?

Marc Lacey: Yeah, I think it’s really, really challenging, as I said, to be a journalist these days. And there’s certain stories that all those countries and many other countries don’t mind at all if a journalist covers. If you want to write about sporting events in those countries, if you want to write about certain acceptable cultural stories in those countries, that’s just fine. But as soon as you cross a line, as soon as you focus on a topic that the country considers taboo, that’s when things get dicey. That’s when, you know, you’ll be called in by the government. You’ll be censored. You could lose your visa. You could be thrown out of the country. You know, and it’s true in many, many countries around the world. And so what’s my advice? I mean, it’s challenging, but I think journalists have to really come to grips with why they’re becoming journalists in the first place, why they’re doing it, what the purpose is. And it is to get to the bottom of things and tell the truth. It is not to make a particular regime happy. It is not to make a particular politician happy. It’s to get to the bottom of things. And so, you know, we operate in countries all around the world, but sometimes our reporting leads to us, you know, being thrown out. It leads to us being stripped of our press credentials. We had a Chinese language site that we devoted a great deal of resources to that is now blocked from access in China. So imagine we have a Mandarin edition of The New York Times that is blocked by the Chinese government. Now, many people in China still use VPNs to get around the blockade and get access to the journalism. But we continue to publish, and we basically do not allow any government in this country or in any country to tell us what we should or should not publish in The New York Times.

Gabe Levin: A big problem I think I’m seeing in my generation is not just the problem of censorship, but the problem of young people not even reading the news. What is your message to people my age, college students, who are only getting their news from disreputable sources that pop up in their social media feeds? 

Marc Lacey: Yeah. I mean, news literacy, sort of understanding how to consume news is essential. And, you know, there’s all sorts of programs to teach news literacy. I think they’re really important, but the bottom line is that we, big legacy news organizations, also have to find ways of reaching college students and others as well. So The New York Times is on TikTok. You know, follow us on TikTok. You can see some of our reporters who are on the ground in Israel, who are on the ground in Ukraine, who are doing some of our really substantive journalism through social media. So that’s important. But something else we’ve been doing: When I speak at college campuses, the two most frequent questions I get is when I say I’m managing editor, people ask whether I get the Wordle word before everyone else if I’m managing editor. The answer is no, I find out the word just by doing the puzzle when I wake up in the morning. The second question I get asked is, Do I know Michael Barbaro? I do know him, but Michael barbaro’s The Daily is so popular on college campuses and, for us, that is a way of getting the news that is reputable. It is something that you can, you know, pop in your earphones and you’re walking across campus. And probably from North Campus to the Arts Quad you can take in an entire episode of The Daily. It’s a way of getting the news in a different form. So it is true that more young people have to come to us, but I think we also have to find ways of getting our news to you, and we’re thinking a lot about that. 

Gabe Levin: Well, you heard it here first, Cornell: Follow The New York Times on Instagram, TikTok. But is there anything else you’d like the Cornell community to know in this period of real change? We’re at a real fork in the road in history in terms of disinformation, in terms of democracy. And a lot of people are really getting hopeless at Cornell and elsewhere. Is there any kind of message that you have to the Cornell community to sign off? 

Marc Lacey: Well, I guess I would just like to say that I do think that finding a news organization, a reputable one, and spending a little time with it is really important to everybody’s education. It’s a habit that you start early that you then carry on over time. And it is true that, you know, at a moment like this, you know — the images that you’re seeing on your feed, the images that are on TV, the images that are on newspapers are pretty grim. But there’s also, you know, if you read between the lines, if you read some of the other stories, there’s fascinating scientific breakthroughs. You know, some of our cultural stories are really, really fascinating. Some of the movies that are now rocketing to the top of box offices were not made in Hollywood — they’re made in places like Seoul and Lagos and other parts of the world. It’s like, this is a really, really fascinating world we live in. And I think the deeper you immerse yourself in the news, the more you’re going to find something that really fascinates you and could give you the, you know, idea for your next big thing and what you want to do in your life and how you want to change the world for the better. So I don’t think it’s a good idea to even in grim times like this, to sort of put your hands over your ears and sort of, like, just seal off everything from the world and just focus on your books. I think you have to be a global citizen, care about what’s going on in the world and work to do your part to change it. So that’s my message. 

Gabe Levin: I completely agree. We have to look towards what brings us together rather than what tears us apart. And on that happy note, let’s finish up. I think you’ve said everything my generation needs to hear. And I just wanted to thank you for coming on this show and thank you for all the work that you’ve been doing. 

Marc Lacey: Thanks so much. It’s so great to chat with you, and I miss my time there in Ithaca. 

Marc Lacey ’87 is a graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences. He is the managing editor at The New York Times and is a former editor in chief at The Cornell Daily Sun.

Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His column Almost Fit to Print spans issues in science, social justice and politics. He is the host of Under The Sun, a Cornell Daily Sun opinion podcast. He can be reached at [email protected]

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