Thoughts of a New York Times journalist


Richard Fausset talking to Weber students about journalism (Rebecca McCullough / The Weber School).

Matthew Sidewater

On November 6, Richard Fausset, Atlanta Bureau Chief for The New York Times, visited the Journalism class at Weber, which publishes The RamPage, to speak to the students about his job.

Fausset, who is well-known for reporting on the American south, including the coverage of the Charleston church massacre, also recently co-authored many articles about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He has also written articles about the Atlanta mayoral race, police shootings and their aftermaths and civil right issues.

Fausset gained an appreciation for journalism at the age of 16 years old, where he found articles, in which writers such as Greil Marcus analyzed and decoded rock and pop music. These writers put the songs into context in regards to the current events in the United States, and even in the entire world. The authors were able to use pop music as a vehicle to write about culture, politics, class, and race in a larger context.

Searching for and reporting on topical stories can be difficult, and it is Fausset’s job to do this for all of the southern region of the United States, excluding Florida. In order to write these stories, Fausset establishes that he conveys information as accurately as possible, constructing “these stories out of pure fact.”

One objective Fausset sets for himself in his stories is explaining why people in the south do the things they do, thus helping Times readers around the world understand more about southerners. He wants to use his articles as a tool to do away with the stereotypes often associated with southerners so that they will be “less of a cartoon. To be of flesh and blood.”

It’s liberating to not have to take sides, in a way. Sometimes it feels constraining because I’m human and I have opinions like everybody else.”

— Richard Fausset

While speaking to the Weber students, Fausset answered important questions concerning the journalism world. First, Fausset explained the benefits and drawbacks of being a reporter who is required to be “a neutral and fair arbiter of the information” in their work, saying “It’s liberating to not have to take sides, in a way. Sometimes it feels constraining because I’m human and I have opinions like everybody else.”

He also stated that it is not his job to tell people how they should think, but to explain the ideas that other individuals express. Furthermore, he enjoys reporting on ideas that he disagrees with. However, he explained that there is still a role for asserting one’s opinions in the field of journalism, such as writing editorials.

Fausset also explained another important skill: the ability to find and have contacts. In order to find contacts, Fausset recommended finding someone who he referred to as a “guru,” a person who knows people with connections to those that hold valuable information regarding his stories. This person will not necessarily appear in his stories, but the information they hold is often significant because the information the gurus hold will “do your [a reporter’s] job for you [the reporter].” Fausset also has a small list of people from around the region who he often contacts for information for his stories.

One situation in particular is when a reporter needs to obtain information from victims of mass shootings, which Fausset had to do for the church shooting in Charleston in 2015.

I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face.”

— Richard Fausset

Fausset explained, “This is one of the hardest jobs,” and that this part of his occupation is often depressing. “I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face,” Fausset says.

However, Fausset explained that you cannot let despair overcome you in these situations, and that reporters who do this need to be “empathetic and human” in order to talk to the victims without making them too upset.

A helpful strategy Fausset recommended is to explain to the victims that his article is “not a sales job,” but a chance to bring to light the good qualities and stories of their deceased loved ones. While these difficulties complicate the life of a reporter, Fausset explained that “a lot of the time you [reporters] just have to be physically out there in the world and explain to people what you [they] need.”

While being able to write stories by oneself is an important skill that journalists require, journalists often co-author stories. According to Fausset, there are many ways journalists collaborate on articles together, such as when he and many other journalists worked together on articles about Puerto Rico. One way they do this is the same way the reporters at The RamPage collaborate: They all get on a Google document and author the article together. Fausset admitted that he enjoys this style because “You can see their ideas kinda coming to life. It just feels very magical.”

Another way journalists write stories together is by having all the journalists send in “feeds,” or small, related stories, to one person who is designated as the “rewriter.” The re-writer’s job is to combine small stories together to form a larger, more fluid story, omitting information along the way. Journalists occasionally just sit down together and talk about what the article should be and then write the article together.

Fausset also explained a huge problem in the news industry: a lack of funding. As a result of Google dominating the advertising market, many news organizations are trying to find new, innovative ways to survive.

On a local news level, this lack of funding is crippling, and many local news organizations have shut down as a result. In small local areas, journalists used to seek out and spot government corruption, as “a lot of times it takes reporters to ask questions.” But because there are now not enough journalists to discover this information, investigations do not occur and corruption goes unreported.

Another problem that Fausset covered is fake news. Contrary to what might be common perception, news organizations try to be as transparent as possible as to where they receive their information, and Fausset thinks there “is an unprecedented assault on media from the White House.”

Despite this, he thinks journalism will still live on, though he thinks there is a bigger problem at hand as a result of these attacks. “I’m more concerned about what that means when the State Department goes overseas and tries to convince other governments to respect a free press.” One such country is Cambodia, where the government is reducing the press’s freedoms.

Fausset also gave some advice that pertains to future journalists, as well as to the general public, saying that “people should take into account where they get their information, and need to be aware of the events occurring in the United States.” He said to be skeptical, and to not “just digest and digest [information].”

Although he enjoys being a journalist, he mentioned one drawback is the constant need to travel. “It’s hard to plan a dinner party,” he said.