‘The world turns on its axis’

Lunch With The Standard: Sarah Baxter, ASL Parent and Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, sat down with LEAD FEATURES EDITOR CLAYTON MARSH to discuss the past, present and future of journalism.

Finding a suitable place for an interview and lunch in St. John’s Wood is surprisingly onerous. Our original meeting place, Carluccio’s, is far noisier than either Sarah Baxter or I had hoped for our quiet Sunday afternoon conversation. Per the request of Mrs. Baxter, we make our way down St. John’s Wood High Street to Harry Morgan’s, where we settle into our seats at a table in a more tranquil atmosphere. From the outset, she controls the conversation, and I begin to hear the story of Mrs. Baxter’s rise to become Editor-In-Chief of the Sunday Times Magazine.

Mrs. Baxter dives right into the industry she has remained in since entering it at the “ripe old age of 27,” where she began as a news reporter for Time Out magazine before moving to the New Statesman as the magazine’s Political Editor. “I was fairly rare those days. It was the 1990s and there were very few women writing about politics,” she says.

Despite her calm demeanour, it is clear that the topic of women in the workplace is one Mrs. Baxter feels strongly about. “I haven’t found it difficult,” she pauses. “What I have found frustrating is that more women haven’t joined me. By now, I thought things would have changed and there would be more women at the top.”

In spite of her annoyance, or confusion perhaps, at the dearth of female political writers, Mrs. Baxter was able to shed light on the positives. “I think I benefited in my career from the fact that newspapers and broadcasters suddenly felt embarrassed by their lack of women at the top,” she says, half-jokingly. “But once there are a few women at the top, the tendency is to think ‘job done.’ But it isn’t job done. There aren’t enough of us. There is no real impetus once you’ve gotten a few women around to make it 50-50 or to change the kind of culture we have.”

In 1996, Mrs. Baxter moved to the Sunday Times. Still living in Britain at the time, she assumed the role of editor of the news review section. That’s where Mrs. Baxter’s first real roadblock in her career came about. “Then I had a couple of kids,” she remarks frankly. “I had two very young children and a very demanding job and I was thinking, what should I do?”
Her solution was to return to the U.S., where she would remain for the next eight years. This way, she could work from home and write her stories in the middle of the night before sending them over to London. By 9:00 a.m. GMT, her colleagues would be at the office waiting for her stories. “It gave me a lot of freedom as a mother of young children. It was a really great way to get around the problem of how to keep your career going while having kids,” she tells me.
Our food arrives, but that doesn’t stop Mrs. Baxter from continuing her story. She begins to tell me about one of the most memorable days of her life, and delves into where she was on September 11, 2001. I know I’ve hit upon a sensitive chord. I put my utensils down and pause for a moment. What she hadn’t anticipated about her move to New York was that six weeks after her arrival, on the day she was supposed to begin work on her new radio show, two planes would crash into the Twin Towers. “I was down at Battery Park waiting for the ferry to Ellis Island when the plane hit the World Trade Center,” she recalls. “I heard the boom of the first plane. Surrounded by skyscrapers, I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. I thought a massive bomb had gone off. In the end, I was there watching it all happen, and a tower fell and I had to run for it.”

Like so many others in the country at the time, Mrs. Baxter struggled to come to grips with the tragedies of the day, both as a journalist and a human being. But unlike so many citizens at the time, she had an outlet to her emotions. “I felt I was lucky to survive it. When you’re there, you never really knew which way the towers were going to fall,” she says. “There was a lot of talk about whether or not New Yorkers needed therapy. I never felt I needed it because I was always talking about it. I had an outlet, which was in my work and in my writing.
“As a journalist, you could tell it was one of those important moments in history when the world turns on its axis,” she adds.

After her time in New York, Mrs. Baxter moved to Washington, where she covered the campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The race, which was between potentially the first African-American president or the first woman president, felt very personal to Mrs. Baxter. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1960s, she witnessed the beginning of desegregation. “When Obama, in his 2008 victory speech, referred to ‘the arc of history’ and ‘the buses of Montgomery,’ it was a little electrifying moment for me personally because Alabama had been such a troubled place,” she says. “I’m not particularly partisan politically. But just the fact that something could have changed that much in my lifetime meant a lot to me.”

Following the race, Mrs. Baxter returned to London after being offered the position of Editor at the Sunday Times Magazine. “The purpose of the magazine is pretty much the same as the purpose of the Times Newspaper; to inform, and to entertain,” she explains.

Mrs. Baxter stresses the importance of remaining objective in reporting, but not in all facets of journalism. “Your personal enthusiasm shouldn’t let you lose sight of the actual story. Tell it as it is. But the voice of the newspaper should not be objective. The opinion columns should have attitude and so should the leaders,” she says firmly.

In fact, she was originally hired by the Sunday Times because, at a time when Tony Blair was about to come in, she had been at a left-of-center political magazine (the New Statesman) writing about the rise of new labor.

While Mrs. Baxter had nothing but praise for the newspaper scene in Britain, she was eager to express her thoughts on the current media situation in America. “Here in Britain, you have a wonderful array of newspapers; it’s a much more competitive market. You have conservative newspapers, you have liberal newspapers. In America, newspapers have gained a much more liberal consensus,” she remarks. She commended Fox News because it “gets up the mainstream media’s nose by pointing out that loads of people in America feel unrepresented by the media. Thats why it calls itself, with that wonderful slogan, ‘fair and balanced,’ because it feels it has provided a fair balance to the rest of the media.”

In regards to the future of journalism, Mrs. Baxter believes it is imperative that we refrain from any statutory regulation of the press. “I’d far rather have the First Amendment protecting freedom of the press than an ‘independent’ committee made up of the ‘great and the good’ members of the British establishment deciding what news is fit to print,” she says. “A robust competitive press preserves the integrity of newspapers, reduces the risk of corruption in public life and is one of the foundations of Britain’s much vaunted liberty.”

With the newspaper industry moving away from the print-medium, Mrs. Baxter believes that all newspapers are in transition and that the current “explosion” of online journalism is fantastic. “People have never been more interested in what’s happening in the world. That’s the lesson I take away from the proliferation and all the different outlets of reporting,” she says.

She recalls, with a chuckle, when Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) live tweeted from his house in Pakistan about a “heclicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM.” This was, of course, a casual play-by-play of the U.S.’s capture of Osama Bin Laden, provided by his neighbor, a member of the public.

Mrs. Baxter believes that the current generation who thinks that news is free needs to face a reality check. “Journalism took a wrong turn when a lot of the media fell in love with letting everyone have their stuff for free but, in the end, journalists have to get paid. It costs money to send a reporter to Syria or Egypt,” she pauses. “Right now, no one has quite figured out how to pay for it all. But they will, because the advertising is there,” she says optimistically.

After a full hour of conversation, we’ve both finished our food. We settle the check, and I revisit the question: Why journalism? “I was in South Africa for the election of Nelson Mandela. I went to Berlin when the wall fell. Journalists have a chance to cover the world’s great events, and it’s a privilege,” she says. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”