Questioning: Diane Brayton ’96

Portrait of Diane Brayton

In pursuit of the truth.

Interview by Sydney Jean Gottfried ’25

Nebraska-raised and Texas-educated, Diane Brayton ’96 is a senior executive for The New York Times. With millions of subscribers, the Times is a massive, global enterprise and Brayton is its Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer. This January, Brayton met with Sydney Jean Gottfried ’25, the incoming Editor in Chief of the Texas Law Review, to talk about journalism, media law, and Brayton’s experiences. 

The New York Times is at the heart of the most important issues of our time. What is it about your work that drives you?

An important driver for me is the company’s mission, which is to seek the truth and help people understand the world. And that mission directly underpins our strategy, which is to be a digital-first, subscription-first business that’s centered on journalism worth paying for. Another driver is the people. I’m fortunate to work with a terrific team of smart and committed colleagues.

Where do you get your news?

The New York Times, of course! But I do try to read a variety. There’s so much excellent content. In addition to the Times, I would add The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN. There are also some more relatively recent digital brands that I read, The Information, Axios, Puck. In terms of legal news, I follow legal reporters from those various outlets and specialty publications like Law360 and 

You were named executive vice president and CLO in January 2017, a time when people across the political spectrum were questioning, often in sharp terms, the role of the media. How do you view those debates?

I would say in many ways there’s been a wakeup call that press organizations have needed to do a better job of explaining what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. The Times has some of its own research that suggests that readers did not understand that our journalists, who in a normal year report on the ground for more than 160 countries, often in difficult and dangerous conditions, actually go to the places they’re writing about. Over the years, we have sought to be more transparent at explaining how stories come together. Recently, the Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger had an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review that explores the history, meaning, and importance of an essential value to journalism: independence. It makes the case that in an era of misinformation and polarization, independent journalism is the greatest service that media outlets can provide to the public and our democracy. And that “a fully informed society not only makes better decisions, but operates with more trust, more empathy, and greater care.” That is clarifying and to me a really powerful perspective. 

How do you approach protecting the press?

Well, we’ve grown our media law team, which advises our newsroom, defends the company, and seeks access to information through Freedom of Information Act requests. But an important shift over time has been to broaden our focus beyond the law to address online attacks and even physical threats. The increase in online threats and abuse over the last few years can be shocking in its scale and in the vitriol levied against journalists and even their families. So, we’ve invested in digital safety resources and experts to support our colleagues. We’ve also invested in physical security resources. Our lead newsroom lawyer oversees our international security efforts and coordinates protection for our journalists working in war zones and on other risky assignments.

I’m excited to hear about your work on the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

It’s a remarkable nonprofit organization, and it’s a privilege to sit on the board. Going back to our discussion about safety and protecting our reporters, every year, hundreds of journalists around the world are censored, attacked, imprisoned, or killed by authoritarian regimes and repressive governments. The Committee to Protect Journalists documents these attacks, provides lifesaving support, conducts research, and advocates for changes. There are many representatives from media outlets who sit on the board because of the importance of press freedom to the way those companies operate. I was invited to join as a representative of The New York Times.

How do you balance being the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, reporting on matters of public concern, with the needs of a publicly traded company?

I think they power each other and are complementary. The foundation of our mission and our business is providing the most authoritative coverage of the most important and interesting stories. I’ve mentioned our mission. Our strategy is to become the essential subscription for every curious English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world. To my mind, our mission and our business strategy are aligned and empower each other. For example, in addition to news, our products provide a broad range of other information and guidance that allows readers to engage with their interests and passions. Games, cooking, The Athletic, Wirecutter, these are all parts of our subscription bundle. Growing our business and the market for paid quality journalism will allow us to continue to invest in hiring and supporting more journalists, offer more journalism that illuminates and interrogates the forces shaping the world and help instill healthy news habits in future generations of news consumers.

Let’s talk about law school. If you could design a course on an emerging legal issue, what would it be and why? 

One of my favorite law school classes was a seminar on the Supreme Court that grappled with emerging legal issues of the time: business, intellectual property, antitrust matters, employment, and much more. Today, there are still fascinating issues in all of those areas, including many new issues, and so much else as well. Certainly, if I were to design a course I would replicate that approach. And I hope students still have an opportunity to take that seminar.

There is a Supreme Court seminar in which the students act as the court and must write a decision coming from the court as the product for the class. Was the Supreme Court Clinic offered when you were a student?

The clinic is new, but the seminar you describe is very much the model of the class I took, a small class in which everybody had to play the role of a justice and inhabit the opinions that particular justice had authored.

If you could travel back to the day you graduated from Texas law, what advice would you offer your younger self?

To actively seek out new experiences and be willing to take on opportunities as they arrive, even if they don’t necessarily match your vision of how you want your career to play out. I think there’s just an enormous amount of luck and serendipity that informs our careers. Being open to new experiences provides you with a real opportunity to grow and develop.

Is that the philosophy that helped you end up in the role you’re in today? 

After college, I worked at The Corpus Christi Caller Times in South Texas—that’s what brought me to Texas many years ago—and that background was a motivating factor when I saw that there was an entry level job available in the legal department of The New York Times. My appreciation of the importance of journalism from that college and post-college experience still informs how I approach my role. In fact, it’s interesting how many people here at The Times on the business side have that same kind of experience in their background, some kind of role with their college or high school newspaper and a real firsthand love for journalism.

Casual portrait in courtroom of Sydney Jean Gottfried

Sydney Jean Gottfried ’25, in collaboration with the Bech Loughlin First Amendment Center, produced a 50th Anniversary Conference – Actual Malice: Ongoing Threats to The New York Times v. Sullivan and Its Progeny. Gottfried’s conversation with Brayton was printed in the Spring 2024 issue of Texas Law Magazine.

Category: Alumni Focus, Alumni News