New York Times Reporter Brian Stelter on Whether He's a Robot, Whether I'm an Idiot, Whether His Paper Can Survive the Digital Era, and Whether Blog Commenters Are Worse Than Documentary Filmmakers
Brian Stelter, left, claims he's not a robot. David Carr, right, is not so sure.
Brian Stelter, 25, covers television and digital media for the New York Times. He's also one of the stars of a fantastic documentary now playing at SIFF, called Page One: Inside the New York Times. I spoke to Stelter by phone on Friday.
Eli Sanders: You've warned me that you're having the worst cell phone week of your life and I might get dropped. What kind of phone are you using?
Brian Stelter: An iPhone 4. But it's been so beat up, the back is falling apart. I've been waiting for the new ones to come out.
I’m still using a Motorola Razr. Do you know what that is?
How fucked am I?
[Laughs.] You’re not in the best shape of your life, let’s put it that way.
Are you really a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to replace media writer David Carr?
I have not found a good, funny answer to that question yet. But I would point out that robots come in peace, unlike aliens. Robots are here to help… But, you know, that line was actually added real late in the movie. The filmmaker actually came back in, like, February and recorded that line because David had started using it at conferences. So it’s a late addition, but it does get a good laugh in the screenings that I’ve been in.
If a robot were to replace David Carr, what kind of fuel would it run on?
Well, clearly, Tweets. Carr is a prolific Tweeter, that’s one of the amazing things about him. He has at least 300,000 followers. I have about 60,000.
I don’t have a Twitter account, and I know in the film you said every journalist should have a Twitter account or they’re an idiot. How much of an idiot am I?
I don’t think I used the word idiot, did I?
I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I came away with.
They called me at an unguarded moment, and I was probably more blunt than I should have been. But I believe it. For me, Twitter’s an early warning system for breaking news. And I find that it’s also a way to talk to readers. But what’s probably more important than Twitter is just to have some online presence. Because depending on a person’s beat, Facebook is much more powerful than Twitter. And blog commenting software is also much more powerful than Twitter. The main point I’m trying to make in the movie is that we should be embracing the web in a way that some of my colleagues still have not. Most of them have—and please make this clear—most of them have embraced the web. I learned how to use Tumblr from my colleagues. I didn’t know how to use it before. But for me Twitter is just a lifeline. It is like water or blood for me.
So you are a robot.
[Laughs.] I guess.
Now, I use Facebook, and we have a popular blog here at The Stranger, and I’m there in the comments, so I’ve got two out of three—am I OK?
Well, actually, I never engage in the comments, so we both have two out of three. I wish I did, but I don’t.
This brings up another thing I was going to ask you. Which is worse: Dealing with blog commenters or having a bunch of people follow you around all day with cameras for a documentary?
[Laughs.] I have a feeling that blog commenters are a lot worse. I purposely avoid blog comments... It just seems so bloody awful sometimes in those comment threads. Maybe if I made a better effort to engage the community they would be more excited to comment and more thoughtful.
Do you actually believe that?
I’m being hopeful. I’m not being realistic, probably.
The Times is reputed to be a kind of imperious place, but in the movie it comes off as just about the least imperious of all media lairs.
When I arrived there four years ago, it felt to me like a fortress. And it was built—like a fortress—to keep people out. When you make a phone call from The Times, the number comes up 1111111 on the caller ID. Like we’re the CIA. Literally, if a reporter calls someone they cannot call back. It’s that bad. But I do think the walls have come down in the last four years. I’m sure they were coming down already before I got there, but when I got there the walls were still pretty thick.
You got your start at The Times based on a blog you were writing?
Right. I started a blog called TV Newswer my freshman year of college. I sold it at the end of freshman year to MediaBistro, this company in New York. And by "sell" I mean I gave it away. I sold it for $500 and a salary, and the salary was basically beer money. But it was perfect for me at the time. It was the perfect college job, and the real payoff was The Times hiring me when I graduated. And, you know, they’ve hired a lot of 20-somethings since. I wasn’t the first, but I was one of the first to be hired in the web boom.
So: Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, The New York Times, rolling deadlines—does your brain ever just explode from information overload?
I actually sleep really well at night, and I usually sleep 8 or 9 hours. I hibernate quite a lot. The only times it gets stressful is when I’m juggling multiple stories at once. But it doesn’t happen all that often. To me, all this digital media is like swimming in a river. I think it gets pretty comfortable pretty quickly.
The underlying tension in the movie is this question: Can The New York Times survive? Do you think it can?
Not only can it survive, it’s proving that it can survive every day. What we see in the movie was a much more perilous time than we are in now. In a way, the film was able to show the bottom. And what’s happening now is an—admittedly slow—but a real recovery. We have hired people since the layoffs we see in the film. Hired a lot of people, actually. We’re not on a hiring spree, but when there is talent out there we go out and take it. We have grown so much online since the period you see in the film. And, of course, most important of all, the paywall is now up. We don’t have data about how well it’s going, but we have been given the thumbs up from the management. And this film, I think, indirectly, helps to show why the paywall is necessary. We’ve never given away the newspaper in print, so it makes sense that we’re not completely giving it away online anymore.