By Katie Knight
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Joe Sexton had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
The ProPublica senior editor left the University of Colorado after multiple arrests. He spent time working for the Union Pacific Railroad and living in a boxcar. He spent a few months studying in Ireland where he wrote some bad poetry and polished his taste for stout.
But the 56-year-old is now an accomplished journalist. While he was an editor at The New York Times for 25 years, Sexton oversaw work that brought home four Pulitzer Prizes.
“I believe in the power of the accidental,” he said in a phone interview. “My entire career was a series of unlikely, but wonderful accidents. I never had a game plan. I never set out to do anything particular. But if you sort of trust the lack of certainty and say ‘yes’ as often as you can to as many different kinds of experiences, you’ll get there.”
Working for a world-renowned publication like The Times didn't come without its challenges. Time after time, the University of Wisconsin graduate had to deal with claims that The Times was biased. The Times was considered by many to be too liberal to do investigative stories on people and institutions affiliated with the political left.
But his staff investigated.
Sexton helped his staff break the news of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s penchant for prostitutes. During his time as sports editor, Sexton also watched his staff cover the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Pennsylvania State University.
“In some ways (covering the Sandusky scandal) was frustrating because it was a story that the essence of which was broken by a newspaper in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), and I think there had been a missed opportunity on our part -- my part -- to have gotten to it earlier than we did,” the lifelong Brooklyn resident said. “But that said, it was obviously a story that warranted as aggressive and comprehensive reporting as you could muster.”
That kind of restraint, he said, allowed his team more time to get its facts checked and talk to more sources. However, Sexton, who was an English literature major, disagrees with the idea that the nonstop cycle of journalism in the Internet age has lessened accuracy.
“The truth is that newspapers, when they were put out once a day with a certain set of deadlines, were every bit the flawed creatures that today’s Internet news sites are,” he said. “Whether you have 24 hours to put out a newspaper or 14 minutes, both of those exercises are going to be flawed with mistakes and problems.”
Sexton said it's "almost lunatic" to put out 100,000 words a day and expect perfection. But the effort to try for that is noble and thrilling, he said. Mistakes are part of it all, he maintains, keeping you humble and forcing a daily rededication to be better.
While Sexton loved reporting, he still felt that same joy as an editor. People asked him: "What was it like to give up your byline? You used to have stories on the front page of The New York Times."
He wound up not missing that for a second.
“The satisfactions of being an editor, of helping shape the coverage of a department or a staff or a newspaper, helping other people achieve the great thrills and humblings of trying to do good work is an enormously satisfying thing,” Sexton said. “Having some role in leadership of a news organization during a time of enormous tumult is both pretty challenging and rewarding.”
As it turns out, Sexton has a knack for editing. During his years at The New York Times, staff that he oversaw won four Pulitzer Prizes.
“It helps to have really fabulous f---ing reporters, and The New York Times has plenty of those,” he said. “So there are plenty of opportunities to do good, important stuff. And then it really just takes the willingness to say yes to some crazy ideas.”
Central to Sexton’s view on editing and reporting is the value of risk taking.
“My shtick at the time was ‘Do s--- you’re not supposed to do,'" he said. "If you do that, you’re gonna make a bunch of big mistakes, which is fine, but you’re probably going to create some magic, too."
Sexton doesn’t have a favorite type of story to edit. All Sexton looks for is meaning. One of Sexton’s friends and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, Jim Dwyer, has a saying that Sexton believes in: "There are three inextinguishable human desires: the desire for food, the desire for sex and the desire for stories."
“I love stories with a beating f---ing heart,” Sexton said. “You can find them in sports. You can find them in New York City. You can find them in West Africa or southeast Asia. But I have a great appetite for stories of all types. People want to tell stories. People want to hear stories. People want to sustain themselves in stories. People want to retell stories again and again. Journalism does that very well.”
Like all good things, though, Sexton’s time at The Times came to an end.
Since working for ProPublica, he’s experienced enormous change and relief, in addition to new challenges.
“I spent 25 years at The New York Times and I could have spent 40 there,” Sexton said. “And in leaving I like to think that I managed to pull off one of the greatest divorces of all time -- both parties still loved each other and felt that there were no hard feelings, and I remain friends with people there. I remain an admirer of what they do every day.”
But he needed a change of scenery. While he said the safe bet would have been to stay at The Times, taking a chance on the young ProPublica “required a little bit of balls,” which is part of what made it feel right for him.
ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom in New York City that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
“ProPublica had carved out its own little frontier in trying to help create a broader answer for preserving journalism into the 21st century,” Sexton said. “That felt invigorating and scary.”
No matter where he’s editing, Sexton knows how to work toward that success and satisfaction he seeks.
“It’s a combination of being willing and to act so daring and (having) curiosity, and with good fortune and hard work, crazy s--- happens,” he said. “I believe in that.”
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