The silencing effect of journalistic virtue

by Divya Murthy

March 12, 2018

Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica, discusses his storied history in the world's most powerful newsroom, and the destructive power of self-righteousness in journalism

A photo of Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica
Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica Hanna Benavides

Exploring the evolution of newsroom environments and journalism through his personal experiences, Joe Sexton, senior editor at ProPublica, spoke with students and faculty at a Newhouse lecture about breaking rules that don’t exist and working in a newsroom driven by moral force.

Sexton, in a thinly-veiled critique of rules and regulations in newsrooms, took the audience through his journey of 25 years as metropolitan editor and sports editor at The New York Times and his transition to ProPublica, where he has worked for the last five years.

Sexton started by reading a poem written by his first newspaper boss, David Tucker, about a city editor finding stories. The poems Tucker wrote were the reason Sexton he got into journalism, he says.

“I never wanted to save the fucking republic or speak truth to power much; I didn’t burn with virtuousness; I didn’t see myself or what I might do as vital for democracy,” he said. “I loved stories and competing for them. Newspapers seemed like preposterous enterprises of curiosity, guts, daring, humor and deadline gumption that had ambition and agenda and carried grudges and exacted revenge.”

Making a point about the constraining effects of self-righteousness in newsrooms, Sexton also showed the room a clip parodying the trend of newspaper movies from NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Myers”Newspapers were “ballsy” and “imperfect” when he first entered the business and that changed after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, he said.

“What they most wanted to sell wasn’t a comic or a recipe or the gossip column, but their virtuousness,” he said. “Their distinctiveness and appeal wasn’t that they were interesting, but that they were somehow infallible and morally essential.”

Sexton described one incident during his stint at The New York Times when he worked on the award-winning multimedia story “Snowfall: the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” The night before the story was published, Sexton unveiled a preview of the story to people with large Twitter followings. By the next morning, the video had gone viral and nearly crashed the server the paper had set up for the video.

While the video went viral, Sexton said he was met by fury and people screaming at him, upset that he put something up before it was fully ready. “The New York Times doesn’t do that,” he remembered them saying.

“Twitter was still on fire; the newsroom had a little electric buzz to it,” he said. “And I just had the shit beat out of me. I might have pulled off a rare feat, created an online sensation that all but broke the fucking internet and paid for it with my job.”

Sexton headed toProPublica a month later.

“What has felt both clarifying and liberating at a place doing journalism with moral force is being free of the burden of trying to be both a business and a religion,” he said. “We’re a philanthropy. We don’t have to monetize anything, but we don’t have to pretend we’re above monetizing. We do stories and we give them away for free, we take money from people who’re interested in both seeing such work done and getting it to the widest possible audience.”

Sexton opened the room to questions about good journalism today, the newsroom environment at The New York Times and ProPublica and the work that young reporters should do.

He outlined the dynamics and differences between a newsroom like the Times and ProPublica: the Times puts out a hundred thousand words of print content a day and ProPublica does one story a day. But having the freedom and autonomy to pursue whatever stories that come to mind, he said, is challenging because coming up with that idea might take a while.

“No matter where it is, all newsrooms of whatever size or talent are driven by a single fucking force day in and day out, and that is desperation,” he said. “Whatever you can do to make yourself indispensable is the single greatest way of gaming the system or just getting ahead or actually pleasing your bosses.”

Sexton finished his lecture with a line from Jim Dwyer, a former colleague from the Times: “There are three great inextinguishable human desires: the desire for food, the desire for sex and the desire for stories,” Sexton quoted, adding for himself, “And I believe that.”

Divya Murthy is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.