Last week, after years of public speculation on the matter, the New York Times named Joe Kahn as Dean Baquet’s successor to the position of executive editor. How did that process play out behind closed doors? And, as the midterms draw near, how does Kahn plan to cover the threat to American democracy?
Baquet and Kahn sat down with Kyle Pope to discuss objectivity, the evolution of the paper from a news outlet to something we’ve never seen before, and—inevitably—Wordle.
Doubling down at the Times, Kyle Pope, CJR
New editor at the Times faces the same old questions, Mathew Ingram, CJR
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kyle Pope: Can you shed some light on how this process of picking a new editor works? It’s completely opaque in my mind. Is there a committee where there are interviews? What happens?
Dean Baquet: We bring the cardinals together in a room. There’s smoke.
Pope: I knew there was going to be a white-smoke reference.
Baquet: No, I mean, it’s the publisher’s call, it’s A.G. [Sulzberger’s] call. What I tried to do, my commitment to him when I became the editor, is that I would make sure there was a slate of candidates, of people who he could think through and get to know. There is no committee; it’s essentially his call. He spent a lot of time with Joe, which Joe can talk about. And he spent a lot of time with some other leaders in the newsroom, because I don’t think he just thought about it—nor did I—as picking the next executive editor. Obviously, that’s the most important and the most visible choice. But I also think he wanted to make sure there was a leadership team overall to lead the place into the next generation. With A.G. it’s a very thoughtful process. I mean, we even started to think about, like, the next generation after Joe’s generation, which Joe is going to be the one to nurture. I think we just tried to identify a whole bunch of people who could lead the place going forward. It’s not any more mysterious than that.
Pope: And when did all that start? When did those conversations begin in earnest?
Baquet: In the moment I chose Joe as managing editor, I think he was automatically a pretty significant candidate, and from that time on I encouraged, and A.G. wanted to spend a lot of time, one-on-one with a handful of people, including Joe. There was no memo writing; it was an ongoing process that lasted a few years.
Pope: A few years. So, Joe, you can’t pinpoint the time frame any more specific than that, to say this is when it was really clear that A.G. was at a kind of decision point?
Joe Kahn: I could, but I, you know—I don’t know about being that specific. As Dean said, it felt like a couple of years, anyway, maybe several years. A.G.’s a young publisher. He knew that he was going to need to make one of his first big decisions on the next editor and the next generation of leadership, because we have a mandatory retirement age from our masthead. So it’s not a mystery, the fact that there will have to be a leadership transition.
So that was very high on the list of things that A.G., as a new publisher, wanted to make sure that he had a very intentional process around, so he had a number of conversations. There were a number of people in the newsroom who got various degrees of feedback, and 360-degree reviews, and stretch assignments and challenges.
Pope: What’s a stretch assignment?
Kahn: You know: We’ve got a big problem—we’d love you to step in and try to solve it. You’re the leader of this initiative. Here’s some feedback on how you did in that situation and the sort of reaction.
Pope: What was yours?
Kahn: Boy, there were a bunch of them.
Baquet: He’s pretty well stretched.
Kahn: Honestly, some of the cultural challenges that we had during the pandemic, and some of the racial tensions in American society that obviously had manifestations inside our newsroom in 2020: I was asked, along with some other future leaders of the place, to take a really hard look at our workplace culture, at our retention and recruitment policies, but also the way we make journalistic decisions in the place. Could we have a more open process? Could we be more transparent? Could we do better work to help people from more diverse backgrounds feel like they have a path at the New York Times? That wasn’t the only one, but that’s an example of it.
Pope: And was one outcome of that the report that was presented to the staff?
Pope: Okay. What’s interesting about this traditional retirement age is that both of you are going to have almost exactly the same number of years in your tenure.
Kahn: You’re assuming I last.
Pope: Assuming you live that long. Dean, what is the sort of trajectory? What is the learning curve of this job if you’re in it for eight years? I assume it takes a couple of years to get your sea legs.
Baquet: Mine was chaotic, if you recall. And that influenced how long it took me to build the team. Unlike in this case, where we had a leadership team being groomed, mine was chaotic—which I think was one reason, by the way, I thought we needed to make sure that this was not that. But it took me at least a year to have a team around me. There were buyouts and layoffs for a couple of years.
But in terms of learning curve, I think it certainly was at least three years for me before I started walking into the newsroom thinking I had a handle on how all the desks work, who the best people were. To be honest, I don’t think I completely came into my own as an editor until Joe became the managing editor. That was the point when I really felt that I had a partner. I had great colleagues. I mean, Matt Purdy is one of the most brilliant editors ever to walk into this room. But I don’t think you’re fully baked as an editor until you have a team in place, to be honest, because this is just not a one-brain job. It’s just not.
Pope: Looking back on it now, is there something that you would wish somebody had told you about this job, and maybe even that you’ve gone to them and said, “Why in the hell didn’t you say this? This would have been so helpful”?
Baquet: It wasn’t one piece of information that somebody could have given me. I don’t think I quite realized until a year into the job just how much the media business had changed. I had worked at the LA Times, and I was involved in business, but I don’t think I fully understood just how much the world had changed. I got it intellectually, but I didn’t get it in my bones.
I’m not sure anybody had that full picture, but if somebody had said to me the first day, “Look, this is a different institution than the LA Times, and you’re going to have to understand the role of audience, the role of product, the role of technology. And you can’t think of it the way all of your predecessors thought of it”—I think if somebody could have said that to me, that would have, you know, saved me many months, if not years. But I’m not sure anybody had that full picture, then.
Pope: Well, and also to your point, when you came in, the place was on fire. So you’re talking about a luxury question.
Baquet: That’s right. I mean, now everything I just said feels obvious. It wasn’t quite as obvious then. There were a lot of attempts at sort of making the New York Times a viable institution those first couple of years. I think it’s only in the last handful of years that everything has sort of come together. I think there’s a clear vision of what kind of business the New York Times needs to be to thrive, and what role journalism plays in that business. It’s a very different calculation than when I took over the LA Times.
Pope: Joe, I want to ask you in a second, what is the Times? What is this institution? But before we get to that, just one more note on the decision to go for this job. Did you have any pause at all about the parts of the job that suck? You’ve seen these videos of Dean being chased down the street by James O’Keefe. And it’s such a public thing, and it’s such a political thing. Did any of that give you pause?
Kahn: Yes, it did. You know, I think there is a very big difference between being the number one and being the number two in the New York Times newsroom, even though Dean and I worked very closely together. Dean, just by the nature of the kind of editor he is, always wanted to have thought partners on the leading issues that we were facing, or the big coverage decisions we were pondering, or whatever staff dilemma we had. There never felt to me to be a wall between the managing editor and the executive editor, in terms of the business of the New York Times newsroom.
But there is a big gap between the public role that the top editor plays and the team around him or her in that role. And you know, if you’re a target, you’re more public-facing. What you say is taken as institutional in its importance. And that’s a bigger responsibility than the one that I had. And we’re in a toxic environment where attacks on the New York Times are seen as a way to get traction on social media. Dirty tricks are part of the playbook of some journalistic-adjacent attack groups. And the New York Times’ editor is going to be heavily scrutinized and occasionally even harassed the way Dean has been.
So I would be lying if I said that didn’t bother me or I’m looking forward to that part of the job. It is part of the risk of the job. I would say that the benefits of the job outweigh that: the journalistic platform that we have, the role that we have in American life. I do think that this is an important institution. I’ve been in the business of journalism my whole life, and this is as important a moment as ever to make sure that we get it right more often than we get it wrong, and that we aggressively cover the biggest issues of our time and report hard and present that in the most compelling way. The opportunity there to me outweighs the risks, but I’m very aware of the risks.
Pope: So Dean was talking about this question of all the things that you now have to be, have to do. This isn’t running a newspaper. It’s not even necessarily running a news organization. It seems much broader than that. You helped shape the Live coverage, the Live feature that I’ve seen referred to as the Times’ attempt to be sort of CNN, which I think it does. You have a documentary studio, you have an audio studio, you have a big lifestyle arm. So what is this thing now? Is it an information brand? How do you articulate it?
Kahn: It’s a fair question. I would slightly, if you don’t mind, just try to refine what you said about Live, because that is something I have thought about a lot over the past couple of years. We do think we can fulfill a news need in the lives of our readers that addresses some of the role that you once went to linear television for. There’s a major story unfolding, and you want to know the latest thing, you want to see images of it, you want to be taken to the scene. That is not a role that newspapers played in people’s lives, ever.
I don’t think that our Live experience should be compared in too much detail to a linear broadcast; that’s not really what we mean by that. The best minds in the New York Times newsroom are thinking hard about what real-time news means on a dynamic digital platform. That’s not a direct one-for-one comparison with a hosted show where you have reporters in the field standing up with a microphone and narrating. We’re not looking to re-create literally what you think of as CNN. What we’re looking to re-create, with a large number of beat reporters and visual journalists and photographers, and with the tools to bring some of the real-time updates that you see filling social media—but from our own people in a value-added way, and hosts on our own platform in a way that feels natively digital and that distinguishes the New York Times.
So if Live coverage ends up compared moment-to-moment to what’s on the screen on broadcast CNN, I would say that is a failure. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to really reinvent it.
Pope: I didn’t mean that you were going to have a kind of Wolf Blitzer character walk you through it. I sort of see the editors of the Times off-screen as they’re curating this feed for me. And they’re not there in front of me, but I think in some ways I can feel them in the background. I was like, Oh, this is what they thought was important that I know.
I have a lot of other issues with it. I get frustrated because I read stuff, and then I want to read the whole story, and it’s hard to find. But especially on stories like Ukraine, I just find myself going back just to see what’s in the feed.
Kahn: And I think the way you just put it is much closer to the way I think about it. We have a curated feed filled with, I hope, very high-quality journalism. But also we have the full span of visuals that tell the story in as close to real time as we can get, in a way that provides a New York Times version of that kind of need-to-know instinct that might have sent you to Twitter. Or a previous generation might have said, “I’ve got to turn on my television set right now.”
Pope: Let me just pick up, just for a second again, this idea of what is a corollary to the Times. I was watching this Netflix news, and the thought occurred to me: that’s a competition for attention that they appear to be losing. What are other ways of presenting information, what are other ways of storytelling that we should expect to see from the Times? Dean, was there something that was the kind of crazy idea of, like, Let’s try to present a story this way, you know, scratch-and-sniff or whatever, that you just weren’t able to pull off?
Baquet: Oh, I was going to come up with ones I could pull off. I mean, let me mention one that did work that felt very much scratch-and-sniff at the time. It seems like a long time ago, but it was important: “Snow Fall,” which was the first time we actually wrote a story to the visuals. I mean, I was deeply involved in those discussions, and it was the first time the graphics department said, instead of writing a ten-thousand-word story—I think it was longer than that—and building the interactives around it, let’s actually make the words deeply part of it and write the story around the interactives.
That now seems like something that people do all the time. That seemed insane. And I remember the first time I presented it to another editor, who I won’t mention, the response was, “Are you smoking something?” Because it seemed so bizarre. Now it seems pretty common.
I mean, the other sort of revolutionary way of telling stories and of investigating [involved] the visual-investigations team, which was the creation of the video department. I think—frankly, you know, as somebody who grew up in the world of investigative reporting—it is actually revolutionary. Not only revolutionary in the long-form stuff they do, but in the drumbeat of coverage in the ongoing war. I just find that stunning.
I had dinner with a group of them a couple of weeks ago, and I think it’s a great story. It’s like the arrival of the phone, and the commercialization of satellites meant these sort of wonderful people just sort of showed up in journalism, who knew how to do something that I wouldn’t even have imagined five years ago.
Pope: Joe, so what about going forward? What’s on your wish list?
Kahn: Well, there are some things that I think are still storytelling forms where we’re not quite performing the way we have the potential to in the long term. I do think that we have a lot of growth still in marrying the kind of original reporting that we do with visual storytelling forms. Dean has talked about some of those, the multimedia enterprise spectaculars, and also about video investigations, and those are growth areas for us.
I think that there are other ways to integrate the expertise that we have in beat reporting, the on-the-ground presence that we have around the country and the world, into our storytelling in ways that depart even further from the traditional newspaper format, the article format of storytelling. Which is not to say we’re moving away from text or moving away from articles in a wholesale fashion, but to complement that with more immersive and often just better formats for being able to take the reader to a place, to hear the voices of people as obviously you do in audio, to see the scenes that you’re describing.
I still think we’re at a fairly early stage in the evolution of digital journalism. You know, print essentially is a legacy product at this point. And although we’ve got some really fabulous print designers and editors, who are all the time thinking about compelling print experiences, that’s not where I’m spending most of my time. I’m spending most of my time in thinking about how we can use some of those tools that Dean described to bring even more of our journalism in the most impactful way for more people.
But one thing about your original question, Kyle. The motivation for that, at least for Dean and me, would not be the same motivation that Netflix might have, right? Netflix is literally, as you said, trying to find a way to get people to spend more time watching Netflix, right? If people want 1960s television sitcom series, Netflix wants to have as many of those as you could possibly imagine. If people want a period drama, Netflix is going to have some of those.
They’re pretty agnostic about what they would call content, and we are not in the least bit agnostic about what we would call content. We provide a journalistic value, not looking for ways to keep people awake at night because we have so much great content that they could just consume on our platform. That, to me, would kill the New York Times newsroom, if we were asked to pursue that kind of an objective.
The objective that we’re pursuing is, we’re chasing stories, and we’re looking for the best ways to tell the stories that we think have journalistic value. I don’t know that there’s a particular upper limit to that, because I think there’s a lot of great news and compelling issues in the world for us to invest in. But the motivation, in my view, should not be “I want another half hour of an addicted reader’s time, by introducing this new feature that will distract them a little bit more and, you know, get them to…”
Pope: Joe, you bought Wordle.
Kahn: I didn’t buy Wordle, the New York Times Company bought Wordle. I bet she’d do it, if you want to get Meredith [Kopit Levien, the Times Company CEO] on your show. I think she would be delighted.
Pope: Look, I understand. I’m not equating the Times and Netflix in terms of the product, but you guys do identify areas where you want to grow both your journalism and your subscriber base, like you did with The Athletic, or you’ve done with Cooking, or you’ve done with any other number of things. I’m not implying at all there’s anything wrong with that, but I do think that it is true that you sort of identify zones, right?
Kahn: Opportunities, opportunities. I would say Cooking is the marriage of a storytelling and kind of journalistic passion that a subset of our staff had, with a digital opportunity to present that in a new and very useful way to what turns out to be a really large number of readers and subscribers. I think that’s absolutely true. And I’m not at all shy about looking for ways to get particular journalistic experiences in front of more people to drive subscription growth. I mean, there’s nothing antithetical about subscription growth and journalism. And, you know, there’s service journalism. The New York Times newsroom is big into that. That’s a growth area for us. There’s various kinds of lifestyle journalism that have always been a part of our portfolio we can continue to invest in. I’m only somewhat pushing back against the notion that Dean or I sit around saying we should, like, cook up this or that feature because it will distract people for a little while. I don’t think that’s a journalistic imperative.
Pope: Let me get to domestic politics. I have a gut that tells me that we’re entering an incredibly ugly period—both in the midterms and then what comes after—and that journalism and information and especially places like the New York Times are going to be even more at the center. I’m curious: you’ve seen the objectivity debate play out about, you know, “how scared are you about the threat to democracy?” Depending on your level of fright, what should news organizations like the Times do about that? What can they do about it? What should they throw out if they think that this is a real threat? Both of you, as well as A.G., have been pretty clear that you’re in the business of trying to find the truth, as best as you can figure it out, through reporting, and through facts, and that this isn’t a one-side-or-the-other discussion. Did I summarize that right or not?
Baquet: Yeah. If I can say one thing about that, I actually think that the discussion about objectivity is a healthy one. It’s funny to see it suddenly seem like a new debate. It’s really not a new debate. It’s a debate that comes up whenever there’s sort of a large crisis. And I think it’s actually healthy for newsrooms to think hard about what they mean by objectivity and/or independence. That debate doesn’t bother me.
I think it’s pretty clear that there are some significant threats to democracy. I think they’re evident. I think the fact that a significant number of Americans have become convinced that Joe Biden didn’t win the election, when he clearly did win the election—I mean, I think that’s an important story. And frankly—I know some people who disagree with this—I think we’ve told that story pretty forcefully. I do think that sometimes people don’t value enough the importance of reporting in telling that story. I think there’s been a lot of discussion about language and framing. And I just think that our role, frankly—I mean, if you use Trump’s finances, there was a tremendous amount of speculation about Trump’s finances, a tremendous amount of, you know, speculation about whether he was involved in money laundering etcetera. The only truly deep reporting about Trump’s finances, I would argue, appeared in the pages of the New York Times.
Pope: After he was already elected.
Baquet: Well, no, actually. The first scoop about his taxes came before he was elected, if you remember.
Pope: The Sue Craig thing in the mailbox.
Baquet: That’s right.
Pope: But the deep dive came after.
Baquet: Because it took that long. We didn’t sit on it. It literally took that long.
Pope: I understand.
Baquet: So I guess what I would say is I welcome a full-bodied discussion over objectivity. But what I believe is that reporting, and being open-minded in going into any reporting exercise, is the way to win trust from people and is the way to find stuff out.
But I do. Of course I think there’s a threat to democracy right now.
Pope: Let me ask it this way. I saw a Pew poll that said something like more than 90 percent of New York Times readers identified themselves as Democrats. We all acknowledge that there’s a significant number of especially conservative Americans who don’t trust outlets like the New York Times and may not ever. Are those people winnable to you? Is there something you could do? Is that an audience that you’re interested in trying to get back in the fold? And if so, what would you have to do to do that? Joe?
Baquet: Go ahead. I’m glad you asked that of Joe.
Kahn: I guess what I would say to that is, I’m definitely interested in continuing to increase the readership and the reach of the New York Times, including among people who do not identify as Democrats. I mean, the idea that we are narrowly targeting people who have a political identity as Democrats would never really enter my mind.
I do think that the idea that we’re going to reach people who have gone down the rabbit hole of, you know, partisan propaganda—which, among other things, targets the New York Times—and somehow persuade them through targeted articles that we’re a friend, not a foe, is a little bit unrealistic. But I think that there are actually very large numbers of open-minded Americans, and open-minded nonpartisan readers globally, who are in the market for genuine, independent journalism that offers high-quality reporting and analysis of the major events of the day, and are not in partisan rabbit holes just firing at each other.
And it’s very hard to measure those numbers, but the real partisanship that you see, including on Twitter, is really a tiny percentage of the population that we’re trying to reach with our journalism. I don’t deny that you can come up with different ways of slicing the demographics of our readership and saying you only reach so-called Democrats, or very few self-identifying conservatives. But I believe that we do, and can, reach a large number of people who are not partisans in the fights of the day, but want to be informed, and are curious. And we should continue to invest in really good quality journalism with that reader in mind, not with the most partisan reader in mind. So I don’t expect—well, actually, maybe he does. You should ask: Does Sean Hannity have a subscription to the New York Times? Maybe he does so that he can try to figure out his daily targets.
Baquet: I bet he does.
Pope: It seems to be the main thing he reads to figure out what to do.
Kahn: It may well be.
Pope: Dean, do you regret that this is the case, that the audience is so tilted in one direction?
Baquet: Look, I think we have to have a broad audience. I don’t think it’s healthy. I mean, it was a century ago that news organizations started to try to have broad audiences, that the days of a left-leaning paper and a right-leaning paper sort of went away. I think it’s unhealthy, honestly, to have an audience that’s not as broad and as rich as possible. I think it’s not healthy for the institution. If you believe that you’re supposed to listen to your readers and try to serve your readers, if you only have one kind of reader, I just don’t think that’s healthy for us. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s healthy for the society.
I think the number of news organizations that can do the kind of big, ambitious journalism the New York Times and a smaller number can do—I think if those institutions are only read by one kind of person, that can’t be good for the society, right? If one kind of reader only reads, whether it’s the Times or the Post, and comes away with one view of mask-wearing or covid, and everybody else reads something else, I can’t imagine anything more… And that’s partly where we are right now. I can’t imagine anything more disastrous for this society.
And so I think we have to have a broad audience. I don’t think you pander to your audience. I don’t think, as Joe said, that you go out and create stuff to, you know, get some segment. But part of the argument for being independent is, you want—and again, I don’t expect, we don’t have plans to go after the QAnon reader—but part of the argument for being independent is that you want to serve the reader. You want to serve the larger society, and I don’t know how you serve the larger society if you’re just writing for one small group of people.
Pope: For either of you, what is your sense of where the newsroom sits on this question? You can’t talk about it in a monolithic way, but I did note a tweet from Nikole Hannah-Jones in which she was talking about the need for a massive reset of how we cover what’s happening in the country. She wrote, “I believe we’ll look back and be appalled at the failures of journalism in this period.” What she was getting at was sort of acknowledging this democracy-at-risk question and whether institutions like the Times are adequately responding. Joe, or either of you actually, what is your read of whether the need to bring the newsroom along to your point of view is going to become a bigger chunk of your time?
Kahn: I think it’s a big chunk of my time. I do. I think it’s—you know, we have to try to hold two slightly contradictory thoughts in our mind at the same time. One is, as Dean said, there really are genuine threats to democracy in this country and in other countries. There are influential figures in this society who would be eager to fatally undermine democratic institutions, and even the legitimacy of the vote, in order to hold on to power. Right? It’s just true. It’s a reality, and we have to cover that really aggressively.
At the same time, I think we also have to keep in mind that politics hasn’t died. It’s still alive. There is still politics in the country. The Republicans did not win the governorship of Virginia because they killed democracy in Virginia. They won the governorship of Virginia because they outpoliticked the Democrats, right? We do not think the Republicans are going to do really well in the midterm elections because they’ve somehow successfully gamed and undermined the voting system in the United States. There’s a legitimate argument that, over the decades, there’s been a withering of the integrity of the vote, through gerrymandering for example, and we cover that aggressively. The Democrats do some of it. The Republicans in more states have done more of it, right? That, I think, is factual.
But the idea that the only thing the New York Times should cover—at the expense of the politics that are motivating voters around the country—is the threat to undermine the democratic system, and that therefore everything on—if you’re a Democrat—the other side of the fence, the Republican side of the fence, is nothing but a threat to democracy, is the formula to not having any more independent journalism in the United States. I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.
At the same time, if we don’t put some of our best reporters on really looking hard at the attempts to fatally undermine the integrity of the vote and the institutions that protect democracy in this country, we’re not doing our job as a leading news organization.
Those are slightly contradictory thoughts, and we have to motivate a staff to be able to do both of those things.
Baquet: Yeah, the only thing I’ll add to the question of how much of Joe’s time will be spent managing that with the staff is, if you look into history, there have been a lot of moments in history when the editor of the New York Times or the Post or any other organization has had to manage a staff where people disagree sometimes, right?
I mean, picture what it must have been like to be the editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War, when there was a draft, when there was a staff, mostly men, who were draft-eligible.
I think you should have a newsroom that reflects society. I mean, that’s the essence of diversity, right? And if you get a newsroom that reflects society, you can also get a newsroom where people are going to sometimes disagree with us. Our job is to listen to them. To hold on, as Joe described, to the values that are important to the place, but also listen to them, and sometimes change things in response to them. There is no institution in America right now that’s not a little bit restive. What you have to do is hold on to your values, stick with your values, and figure out what things should change. And some things, of course, should change.
Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.