Journalism is now examining how it should treat Donald Trump. Shouldn’t we signal to readers high up in stories that he’s a liar? That he’s a racist?
The answer from the New York Times today appears to be yes. “Unwinding a Lie: Donald Trump and ‘Birtherism,'” reads the headline of a story written by reporter Michael Barbaro. If the New York Times had ever before published such a strong headline in its news section, this lifelong reader surely missed it.
“I didn’t write the headline, but I like it,” says Joe Kahn, the Timesman who is now moving from three titles — assistant editor for international, international editor and co-leader of the NYT Global group — to a single, more exalted one — managing editor. “That piece shows that where there is a clear falsehood, that covering it in an entirely traditional way in which the headline appears to indicate a wide range of possibilities and quote a wide range of sources and step back with the premise that you’re going to let the reader decide for himself or herself … didn’t feel quite right.”
That refreshing approach is now settling in at the New York Times No. 2 newsroom position — a position, in fact, that Executive Editor Dean Baquet had eliminated back in 2014, in favor of a tier of deputies. Now Kahn will circulate in New York gossip circles as a possible successor to Baquet, who is soon to turn 60. Top editors at the paper “traditionally” serve till they’re 65. Kahn is 52.
Discussions with Baquet about taking this position, says Kahn, started in midsummer. Impetus for the structural change came in part from the increased burden falling on top editors at the New York Times — as well as other newspapers — related to survival. “We’re all getting dragged much more into trying to figure out strategy not just for the newsroom but for the whole company,” says Kahn. “The job has just gotten much busier and more complicated than it may have been 10 years ago.” In his post as international boss, Kahn helped to construct an enhanced world news product, a collaboration involving staffers from the product and technology areas as well as consumer, subscription and data analysis elements. “I think Dean liked the way that worked,” says Kahn.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked Kahn to share the killer memo that he wrote as a precursor to this promotion. “It didn’t come from a memo,” he replied, though he did speak in broad terms about his priority as managing editor. “I think the big challenge is to make sure that all of our story creations, starting from very beginning when reporters cover news events and create journalism, is being thought of in the most digitally sophisticated way, which means taking best tools available for all kinds of storytelling, visual storytelling, and our best thinking about what kind of writing works for a broader audience and reporters.” In his work on the international beat, Kahn found that there was a bulging international readership for explanatory stories that take a panoramic view of the news — stories, in effect, to bring the “significantly less addicted reader” up to date.
Earlier this year, the New York Times trimmed staff — about 50 in all — with a buyout offer, and there’ll be more reductions ahead. No longer will Kahn have a newsroom of 1,300 to mess around with. “We have had a variety of meetings that have made very clear that we’re going to need to cut costs and also believe that we not only have to cut costs, but also have to free up some resources to invest more in crucial areas, continuing to hire journalists and experts in in areas to have the most authoritative global news report.” Does Kahn expect opposition from the NewsGuild of New York in accomplishing these transformations? “We’re going to have a really extended process of talking with the guild about how the newsroom needs to modernize. We want to bring them along with us,” says Kahn.
As he takes his position just below Baquet, Kahn is masculinizing the upper reaches of the New York Times masthead. Concurrent with his promotion, Susan Chira is leaving her position as deputy executive editor and moving into writing about gender issues. Context matters here, too: In May 2014, Jill Abramson was ousted as executive editor in favor of Baquet. Staffers concerned about the removal of the first female top editor of the New York Times received a spate of commitments and promises. Now the publisher — Arthur Sulzberger Jr. — and five of the six top spots on the masthead are men. “Stay tuned,” says Kahn, urging a look at the “broader masthead.” “It’s a real priority for us,” he says.
That’s what New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson said in the spring at a meeting of top New York Times managers. Editors received a warning that if they didn’t comply with diversity measures, they would be encouraged to leave or be dismissed. Given this latest move toward gender uniformity, perhaps Thompson himself is now on the hot seat.
And what about ideological diversity? In July, Public Editor Liz Spayd addressed the perennial rap against the allegedly left-leaning New York Times. “You get hit with complaints that we’re biased pretty much whenever you go out, especially at a Republican rally,” New York Times Magazine Chief National Correspondent Mark Leibovich told Spayd. Kahn’s take: “I think we absolutely do not look for a political litmus test for people in either direction. We wouldn’t hire somebody because we found out they were left-leaning, and we wouldn’t be super-excited about a journalist just because they’re right-leaning.” The key, he argued, is to “look for people who have a track record of writing about and to conservatives.”
Among the folks at the New York Times who cover conservatives is Jonathan Martin, the former Politico scribe who covers politics for the Times. Whatever distinctions may come his way, Martin won a Journalistic Lifetime Achievement Award this week in the form of Donald Trump’s call for his dismissal. “I read some [tweets] by Jonathan Martin and a couple of their writers — how can you have a writer who’s supposed to be unbiased saying horrible things about a person and then he is supposed to write about them. They should be fired immediately. Someone like Abe Rosenthal, when the paper was run properly, that’s The New York Times, would have fired them on the spot.”
“Would we have a staff left if we listened to Donald Trump?” asked Kahn, who said Martin was “doing a fantastic job.”