Alexander Burns is a political reporter for The New York Times, covering both New York politics and the 2016 presidential election. Prior to joining the Times, he was a reporter and editor for Politico, where he covered congressional and Senate elections and the 2012 presidential race. A 2008 graduate of Harvard College, Burns was editor-in-chief and United States section editor of the Harvard Political Review. He lives in New York City with his wife, MJ Lee, who is a political reporter for CNN. He graduated from Harvard College in 2008.
Harvard Political Review: You served as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Political Review. Do you have any particular memories of your time in the magazine?
Alex Burns: At my first or second meeting at the HPR, there was this debate between two editors about whether you ought to come up with the premise of your story and then go seek out quotes in support of that premise or whether you should go talk to people and then formulate your conclusion based on what they tell you. As a freshman who was really interested in politics but who hadn’t thought about the journalistic process, watching the debate play out was an amazing introduction to this world of political media that I had not experienced before. I had certainly been a reader of political news, but I hadn’t thought much about how it was produced. The HPR is really valuable for letting students at a young age wrestle directly with questions like how to choose article topics, how to ensure your conclusions are responsible, and how to discern what constitutes an interesting idea.
HPR: How was your experience leading the HPR?
AB: It was a great experience both in learning about journalism and also learning about management. One of the structural problems that exists in media is that people often get promoted within organizations based on their skill as reporters and their facility as thinkers even though they may or may not have management experience. So even the relatively modest management experience you get in managing a student organization is really valuable when it comes time to take on a larger role in your career. As Editor-in-Chief of the HPR, I learned about things like negotiating a budget and managing different members of the staff who may not like each other. For example, there was an elected member of the editorial board who didn’t particularly want to do the job. Figuring out, operationally and diplomatically, how to handle these types of situations has really stayed with me and I’ve thought back on this frequently.
HPR: Your first article in the HPR was about intelligence reform. How did you choose your article topics back then and how do you choose them now as a professional reporter?
AB: That was the first story that I did. I think of it as an interesting educational experience, but it was an unsuccessful story. Given the volume of coverage already in existence addressing that specific issue, I wasn’t really contributing something original. The big challenge for any reporter certainly at the professional level is thinking about how I can make my work distinctive and how I can tell my reader something he or she won’t already know. News is successful when it is original and gives people information they didn’t have before. While covering the presidential election, I’ve seen first-hand that the volume of coverage in national politics is extraordinary. And it’s very challenging to find a space that isn’t already occupied unless you are simply reciting the events that happen. It really requires a different level of sourcing, talking to people about what’s going on behind the scenes, getting out into the country and talking to voters about their experiences, and really mastering the subject matter in an exhaustive way. If all you’re doing is providing a slightly greater level of detail than what a casual news reader can assemble on his own, you’re not doing much.
HPR: What would you say was the most interesting article you’ve worked on?
AB: That’s like asking someone to choose among his children. There are a couple different types of stories that I find rewarding. There are scoops and breaking news that I find rewarding from a basic competitive standpoint. And then there are stories that I write and feel as though they were written for history–the kind of story people will read many years down the road. Personally I’m really proud of a series of stories that my colleagues and I had done about derailing Donald Trump in the Republican primary. Starting at the end of February and running through March, we did a series of deep dives on exactly what Republican leaders were saying behind closed doors. I felt that we captured, better than anyone, this moment of real existential chaos for one of the country’s two major political parties. I had the sense in the moment that I was covering an event that comes only once in a generation, and I really wanted to make it count.
HPR: You’ve worked at both Politico and the New York Times. What would you say are the biggest differences between the two? What do you look for when choosing a place to work?
AB: When I was graduating from college, what I was looking for in a workplace was anywhere that would hire me. People get lockjawed about a specific type of journalism they want to do, but in reality you just need a place that will give you the opportunity to write. Politico did that for me. Culturally and atmospherically the difference between working at Politico and at the New York Times is essentially the difference between working at a startup and at a long established institution. There are a lot of obvious things that go along with that in terms of the size of staff, the infrastructure, the hierarchy, etc. In terms of news content, at Politico the big political story is the biggest story of the day. That’s not the case at the Times. It’s a different kind of challenge figuring out how I am going to persuade a general readership that a big political story deserves the same level of attention as any other story.
HPR: Do you plan on staying in journalism? Do you have any plans to run for office?
AB: I plan on staying in journalism for the indefinite future. The industry has changed so much even in the seven years I’ve been in it. To embrace this as a path you have to assume at the outset that journalism is going to change in a lot of ways. If I can freeze this moment in time right now and work in this industry as it exists today forever, I probably would. If anyone tells you they know what news will look like in ten years, they are kidding themselves. One of the great things about journalism is that it exposes you to many parts of the world and it allows you to have an impactful and interesting professional career.
In terms of running for office, I believe that there are a lot of influential and meaningful ways to engage with the political world than getting elected. I believe that what I do is as important as what any politician does in terms of shaping the world that we live in. All the people who run for office are swimming in water–the media–and being a big part of that is as rewarding a level of political involvement as I can imagine.
HPR: How was your experience in the IOP? What was it like coming back for the IOP’s 50th?
AB: I was on SAC as the Editor-in-Chief of the HPR and also as Fellows Chair before that. The IOP was a giant part of my college experience, and it’s the part of my college experience that has meant the most to me. I learned a lot there, and I got a great tactile sense of what politics is actually like in the real world. This was not something I could get on an episode of the West Wing or on cable news.
Being back on campus was a rewarding experience. It was especially reassuring to see that the institutions that meant a lot to me while I was there are still successful. My conversation with you, Joe, about how the HPR chooses covers topics, how it does elections, its relationship with the IOP…I was so happy to have that conversation because there is something so rewarding knowing that there is a degree of continuity.
Image credit: MJ Lee