Doubling down at the Times

Dean Baquet’s departure as executive editor of the New York Times has been one of the worst-kept secrets in media. Baquet turned sixty-five in September—“the traditional age when executive editors at the Times step down,” the paper notes in its own coverage—and, ever since, he has been notably open about his impending exit. He’s joked with colleagues about his advancing age, and sat down in February for an interview with The New Yorker, which described him, menacingly, as being “at the twilight of his career.”

The only drama around Baquet’s departure has centered on who will replace him, in arguably the most important job in the American press, and what that says about how the newspaper and its leadership view the state of journalism in the US. Recent decisions by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post to fill their own open executive-editor positions with people from outside their organizations (and outside a succession of white men) stirred the notion that the Times, too, might opt for a new approach. 

While the anointment of a new Times editor is always approached with high ceremony by media reporters, this time the move has been watched even more widely. The residue of the Trump years, and fears that the former president will return for another campaign, have put the Times in the bull’s-eye of the journalistic debates over objectivity and both-sides coverage, which have led many legacy news operations to wonder whether traditional approaches to journalism apply at a time of high concern for the fate of American democracy.

In picking Joe Kahn, the Times’ managing editor, to replace Baquet, the newspaper is signaling that it has no plans to rethink its approach. Baquet and A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, have consistently dismissed the idea that journalistic norms of objectivity should be tossed out. The view of the Times leadership is that journalism is more threatened by a lack of trust, which only deepens when readers sense that the paper has its thumb on the partisan scale.

Kahn, holder of the newsroom’s second-highest job since September 2016, has always been a front-runner for the top spot. He’s been a reporter in the Washington bureau, bureau chief in Beijing, and international editor. Now fifty-seven, he was president of the Crimson, at Harvard, and his father cofounded Staples, the office supply chain. In announcing Kahn’s elevation, Sulzberger called him “a brilliant journalist and a brave and principled leader.”

For a moment in 2020, following the departure of James Bennet as editorial page editor after the Tom Cotton op-ed blowup, the race for Baquet’s job seemed to get interesting. Bennet was seen as a potential successor to Baquet; his exit appeared to open things up. Staffers pressed internally for a more diverse slate of candidates (Baquet was the Times’ first Black executive editor), and speculation began to grow that Sulzberger, who assumed the Times’ chairmanship in 2021, could go for an unconventional choice, perhaps from outside the organization. Then, six months after Bennet’s departure, Kahn’s candidacy seemed to be hurt when the paper retracted part of its Caliphate podcast and reassigned reporter Rukmini Callimachi after the star character in the series was found to have lied. Kahn had been one of Callimachi’s most vocal internal supporters, and his involvement in the debacle was viewed as a mark against him in the editor’s race.

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Ultimately, it was the Times financial and editorial successes under Baquet, Kahn, and their colleagues that mitigated the need for a leadership gambit. Sulzberger acknowledged as much in his note to the staff on Tuesday. “Some will interpret this promotion as a sign of confidence in our current path,” he wrote. “That’s true. Under Dean and Joe, the Times has grown stronger in virtually every way.” At a moment of financial turmoil, and even pain, across the global media landscape, the Times stands out as one of a handful of unqualified successes. In February—more than two years ahead of schedule—the company announced that it had hit its goal of ten million subscribers; it predicted fifteen million within five years. With revenue now topping $2 billion, the paper also has the capacity to buy new subscribers, as it did when it purchased The Athletic earlier this year.

Kahn inherits a newsroom that is flush with cash and stocked with talent. The paper’s coverage of the war in Ukraine has been superb; the same should be said for its coverage of covid and its leadership in the reporting on the #MeToo movement. The scale of the reporting machine Baquet has built is unmatched in media.

Kahn’s challenge in the coming months will be navigating the domestic political fights, as attention shifts to the midterm elections and then to Trump. The left, in particular, increasingly sees the paper as an enabler of the status-quo approach to covering Trump and his supporters that is now viewed as a very real threat. Times reporters continue to encounter hostility on social media (Baquet recently advised them to tweet less), and that dynamic will definitely prove a recurring distraction as the political calendar advances.

NYU’s Jay Rosen, who has been chronicling, and often steering, the objectivity debate since the rise of Trump, summarized the challenge for the paper in a column he wrote while Trump was still in office: “They want Times journalists to see what they see—an assault on democratic institutions, the corruption of the American Republic—and to act accordingly. But these people are perceived as a threat by the Times newsroom. The fear is that they want to turn the Times into an opposition newspaper. This is not how the Times sees itself. The fear is that they want the Times to help save American democracy. This too is not how the Times sees itself.” 

Indeed, it does not. Baquet, in his interview earlier this year with The New Yorker, summed it up this way:

The job of the New York Times should, in the end, be to come out with the best version of the truth, with your own political opinion held in check by editors and editing. Not everybody believes that, but I believe that. And I think that if you come to work for the New York Times—if you really want to work for the New York Times—you have to embrace that, because that’s what the New York Times is. Independence means being independent of everybody and of ideology—it just does.

In advance of this week’s announcement, Kahn and Baquet sat down for the ritually awkward job of talking with their own newspaper. On the question of the debate over domestic politics, Kahn said, “We don’t know where the political zeitgeist will move over time.… Rather than chase that, we want to commit and recommit to being independent.”

Editor’s note: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, is married to Kate Kelly, a reporter for the Times’ Washington bureau. In addition, Rebecca Blumenstein, deputy managing editor of the newspaper, sits on CJR’s board of overseers.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn. Credit: Celeste Sloman for the New York Times