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The New York Times' new editor will run its biggest newsroom ever — and most outspoken

Joe Kahn will become <em>The New York Times</em>' executive editor on June 14. Now the paper's managing editor, he first joined <em>The Times</em> in 1998.
Celeste Sloman for The New York Times
Joe Kahn will become <em>The New York Times</em>' executive editor on June 14. Now the paper's managing editor, he first joined <em>The Times</em> in 1998.

Joe Kahn takes over next week as executive editor of The New York Times as the newspaper is riding high on a new crop of Pulitzer Prizes, recent acquisitions of the sports site The Athletic and Wordle, and record levels of digital subscriptions.

All Kahn has to do is replace a legend and corral an often contentious newsroom of more than 1,700 journalists — the largest news staff ever boasted by an American newspaper.

"The days when you can appoint an executive editor, and that was the decision-maker — and that person sat at the head of a big table and decided which six stories were going to go on Page 1, and kind of slam down the gavel at the end of that and that was sort of the essence of the job — are over," Kahn said in a recent hourlong interview at The Times' cavernous Manhattan headquarters.

Kahn's two most immediate predecessors were groundbreaking — the first female and African American executive editors in the paper's history. His appointment was logical, long planned and drained of any of the drama that accompanied some earlier transitions.

Kahn joined the paper a generation ago, in 1998, and rose through the ranks as a reporter and international editor. He has served as managing editor, or second-in-command, since 2016 under Dean Baquet, who prepared him as a successor. And Kahn developed a rapport with A.G. Sulzberger, the 41-year-old scion of The Times' controlling family who is its corporate chairman and publisher.

In an unflashy manner, Kahn has sought to steer the paper through a series of changes designed to embrace the digital age: editors scattered across time zones now take up stories at any hour; teams cover breaking events for the website as they happen; stories appear in apps and online before the printed edition; and new squads present The Times' reporting in new ways, including graphics, podcasts, videos, charts, cartoons, gifs, apps, newsletters, classroom texts and more.

We spoke in what's archaically called the Print Room. Historic front pages line the walls to honor the paper's hard copy legacy. It sits underused. A more formal exhibit can be found a dozen floors above, dedicated to the paper's history.

The following reflects our interview as well as discussions with eight Times colleagues, who asked not to be named because they had not been authorized to speak for this story.

On finding his path as a journalist in China

Kahn's father, Leo, was a successful businessman outside Boston, transforming the family grocery business into a supermarket chain before launching Staples, the office supply company.

Yet before all that, Leo Kahn had earned a journalism degree from Columbia University and spent a year as a reporter. And Joe Kahn chose to follow that path. As a student editor at Harvard, Kahn once told C-Span, "I hope to try my hand at journalism — print journalism — for some time. I won't be happy until I do."

Kahn landed at The Dallas Morning News. After covering local news in the suburb of Plano, he sought a faster, more exciting track to the heights of journalism. He returned to Harvard to get a master's in East Asian studies, headed to China and found himself covering the student protests in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.

Soon after driving to a rural community on the outskirts of Beijing to report, he was turned in by an informant. "The police sort of swooped in as I was interviewing somebody and took me to the local police station," Kahn recalls. He was eventually interrogated by state security agents back in Beijing and told that he had violated martial law.

"I remember feeling pretty unmoored at that moment," Kahn said. "I was there by myself. My editors were 8,000 miles away in Dallas. And we didn't have email at that time. We didn't even have fax."

Kahn was sent out of the country. He'd return to China in later years for The Wall Street Journal and then The Times, for whom he would share a Pulitzer Prize. And he'd be detained repeatedly.

As the years passed, the ruling Chinese Communist Party increasingly kicked or shut out reporters for The Times, Bloomberg News and The Journal as they exposed how political elites there diverted vast sums to their families. The Times now bases its coverage of China primarily from Seoul.

"We're not going to change our approach. We cover every story, you know, aggressively, and we report hard and deep," Kahn said. "And if we get back in, we're going to continue to report big enterprise [stories] as well as [breaking] news out of China. And we've said as much to them."

On The Times' standing up for democracy

In our conversation, Kahn deployed the word "independent" 14 times to describe The Times. I asked why.

Kahn suggested the paper had no mission beyond serving an audience eager for high-quality journalism, free from the influence of corporate, government or partisan interests. And yet, when pressed, Kahn conceded a larger agenda: "You can't be committed to independent journalism and be agnostic about the state of democracy." (The word "independent" forms the backbone of The Times' latest brand advertising campaign as well.)

Like some of its top competitors including The Washington Post and NPR, The Times is more explicitly focusing on the threats to democracy at home as well as abroad, he said. In the U.S., that threat involves an asymmetrical peril from the political right, from those who support former President Donald Trump and his imitators. He acknowledged such reporting would likely only give more grist to the newspaper's Republican and conservative detractors, he said. The Times has to cover it nonetheless, he said.

"The New York Times can't exist in Hungary, it can't exist in China. It can't exist in Russia," he said. "It exists only in the context of respect for the role of a high quality, nonpartisan press in a thriving and functioning democracy where we're protected by rule of law and where we work directly for our readers, not for any kind of political power or other institution.

"So you can't have independent journalism in a non-free society, and we are not impartial about whether or not this [nation] becomes a non-free society."

He noted dozens of stories touching on the question in the U.S. and abroad.

The Times' digital subscriptions rocketed in the Trump years, in part due to readers' concerns about his presidency and hunger for news about it. Kahn cautions, however, that not all political news involves perceived threats to democratic order: He points to the election of the new Republican governor of Virginia. That outcome reflected the state's political sentiment, Kahn said, and the paper's reporting showed that to be so.

On succeeding a legend, Dean Baquet, at The Times

A charismatic newsroom chief, Dean Baquet is renowned for reporting and overseeing richly detailed investigations at the paper, and earlier for standing up to budget-slashing corporate chiefs while the top editor at The Los Angeles Times.

Now 65 years old, Baquet is assuming a new editing position at the paper generating investigative reporting to be shared with local news publications.

Baquet very much served as an ambassador for The New York Times and for journalism outside the newsroom; inside he led through suasion, cheer, direction and delegation.

Kahn is measured. Contained. Quieter in making his mark.

"By virtue of getting the job, I'll take on some of the responsibilities for representing The Times institutionally and the values of our newsroom," Kahn said.

Given The Times' growth and expanded ambitions, Kahn said he had focused on building a collaborative leadership team that did not rely on him but on the expertise and experience of its members. He appointed two accomplished and well-regarded deputies to replace himself: Marc Lacey and Carolyn Ryan.

But twisty challenges remain. For all of his push into digital realms, Kahn is now seeking to establish a sense of restraint online for the journalists who work under him. This spring (in a process that had neared completion before billionaire Elon Musk bid for Twitter), the paper's leadership issued new social media guidelines.

On discouraging reporters from "wallowing" in Twitter hate

Readers have encountered such Times luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winners Maggie Haberman and Nikole Hannah-Jones tangling — rhetorically — with their online critics. Former Times digital media reporter Taylor Lorenz is a brash presence on Twitter who, like Haberman and Hannah-Jones, often draws intense and sexist backlash there. She recently departed for The Washington Post, chiding the Times in interviews for what she characterized as its hidebound outlook about social media. (To be fair, male colleagues with smaller Twitter followings have also been privately chastised for their tweets, but with less public awareness.)

Under the new policy, the paper is monitoring its journalists' tweets to make sure they're not criticizing each other or their work. Lorenz tweeted that was "counterproductive, damaging to journalists, especially those who need to use the internet for reporting,'' according to Mediaite and other outlets. (She apparently later deleted the tweets.) Hannah-Jones, who has received racist backlash along with other critiques, has told colleagues that she feels the paper does not sufficiently come to her defense in public.

At The Times, Lorenz had mocked Haberman on internal message boards; after she left, Haberman and Lorenz clashed on Twitter as well. (At The Washington Post, an uproar ensued after a similar incident this month, with a male reporter called out by a female colleague for retweeting a sexist joke, and another Post journalist criticizing her for the response. Editors rushed to inform the newsroom they wanted colleagues to engage constructively.)

Kahn says most colleagues have expressed relief at being officially discouraged from spending so much time online.

"It had begun to occupy a little bit too much of a share of mind of some of the people in our newsroom," Kahn said, declining to name anyone he had in mind. "They might have felt like they actually were under a bit of pressure to define themselves and be participants in the Twitter ecosystem."

The criticism, he said, was "dominated by a relatively small number of hyper-engaged and somewhat partisan users. And wallowing too much in that feedback sometimes could distort your sense of what the wider audience out there was thinking or receiving." Part of the new policy also sets out ways in which the paper will support staffers who draw online harassment.

One of the paper's Twitter stars for years was its former terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi.

She rose at the international desk with Kahn's encouragement — in significant part on her quick-twitch Twitter analyses of terror attacks, which gained her hundreds of thousands of followers.

Her award-winning podcast series on ISIS for the paper, "Caliphate," turned out to be primarily based on the lies of its key source, even as the journalists working on the project ignored red flags. The awards were returned and she was shifted off the beat.

Colleagues now see her as a cautionary tale rather than a model.

Kahn isn't prohibiting a social media presence, but said his journalists can head to Substack or other sites if they want to be known primarily for making a mark through one-liners or off-the-cuff takes.

"The value that you will have on Twitter or on social media in general or in the world of journalism is going to be based on the good quality, in-depth, edited reporting that you do in The New York Times," he said. "We're not really in the market for people who just have a giant following on Twitter but can't deliver."

On the need for newsroom culture to evolve

George Floyd's murder in 2020 and the ensuing protests for social justice roiled cities and newsrooms alike. At The Times, they revealed a divide significantly, but not exclusively, along racial, gender and generational lines over balancing open debate and inclusiveness.

In the ensuing months, Times journalists turned to Twitter to vent their frustrations. Three such episodes led to the departures of prominent journalists.

In June 2020, James Bennet, the editor of the paper's editorial page (which is run separately from the newsroom), left after a surge of internal criticism over publication of an op-ed by a Republican senator calling for troops to be sent out in response to riots in the wake of the murder of Floyd.

One of the paper's lead reporters on COVID-19, Donald McNeil, was urged to resign by Baquet when it was revealed that he had earlier been rebuked for repeating a vicious, racist slur when a high school student asked him directly about its use on social media.

A star podcast producer, Andy Mills, who had helped to create the tainted series "Caliphate," left after the resurrection of accusations of his mistreatment of women, largely during earlier work at New York Public Radio. Mills had apologized for that behavior but denied doing so at The Times. Both McNeil and Mills departed early last year.

I asked Kahn how he looked at these departures in retrospect.

Once more, Kahn would not be drawn into any specifics. But he said the newspaper "needs to be a place where people from many different backgrounds can feel they have a path" and restated its commitment to equity and diversity in its staff and its coverage.

"We do not have, you know, space or patience for people who aren't fully on board with that program," Kahn said. "And if that's the case, they can go work elsewhere."

Yet Kahn, who comes from privilege himself, suggested that his colleagues who spoke out were right to force change on the newsroom's culture.

"We're not lowering our journalistic standards at all," he said. "We are raising our standards of what it means to be an active and constructive contributor to the workplace culture we need."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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