Joe Kahn took over as executive editor of the New York Times on Tuesday, replacing the legendary Dean Baquet, but readers may not notice an immediate difference.
Kahn’s elevation will inevitably represent something of a culture shift for the Times, however, a passing of the torch from a backslapping boomer (the 65-year-old Baquet) to the circumspect Generation Xer Kahn, 57, who spoke carefully and deliberately during a recent interview at the company’s Manhattan office building. “I’ve been a close partner with Dean in recent years,” he said, “so there’s no kind of grievance that I’m nursing that, as soon as I have the opportunity, we’re going to shift gears on.”
“It’s absolutely inevitable that he will do things that will be apart from what I have done,” said Baquet, who is remaining with the Times to lead a new investigative reporting fellowship. “Every executive editor does things differently.”
Although Baquet was known for his commitment to investigative reporting, Times veterans and close observers of the company expect Kahn to make his mark by reemphasizing international reporting and business coverage. Kahn covered China for the Dallas Morning News and the Wall Street Journal before serving as Beijing bureau chief for the Times in 2003; he also covered international economics and trade from the Times’s Washington bureau and Wall Street.
When it comes to China, “Joe knows that story better than, I suspect, anyone who has been yet to lead a major American news organization,” said Richard Tofel, the former ProPublica leader who worked for the Journal in the 1990s when Kahn served as editor of another Dow Jones publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review.
And yet “life has a way of delivering your priorities to you when you’re the editor of the New York Times,” said Bill Keller, who held the job from 2003 to 2011. “He’s got a war in Europe, a pandemic that hasn’t gone away yet, and significant challenges to American democracy. I think those things all loom pretty large in his basket.”
Even as he served as Baquet’s second-in-command since 2016, Kahn kept a fairly low profile, meaning that much of the early media coverage of his appointment has felt like a crash course in public exposure, with multiple stories plumbing his long career and shaking down his network of friends and admirers for clues to how he might lead the newspaper. “I’d be lying if I said it’s a totally enjoyable process to have people poking around and talking to classmates from high school or college or journalists I worked with briefly,” Kahn said.
“Dean was more of a kind of person who walked through the newsroom and was very good at small talk,” said former Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “That’s not so much Joe. But I think Joe is very widely respected for terrific journalism and really having a command both of the traditional news operation and the digital operation.”
Meanwhile, Kahn and Baquet appear to be aligned on some of the most pressing issues capturing the mind-space of Times employees and the paper’s many critics on social media.
Both men are down on “labels as a shortcut to reporting,” as Kahn put it; he’s resistant to the increasingly loud calls to characterize certain public figures in terms such as “racist” unless the paper has “unambiguous evidence” to back that up. He cited, for example, the deep reporting behind a recent three-part series on Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which included the assertion that “Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.” (Carlson’s top producer responded that his show “embraces diversity of thought and presents various points of view in an industry where contrarian thought and the search for truth are often ignored.”)
“I don’t know that we should be known as a place that casually or quickly throws around inflammatory labels based on a kind of quick analysis or a quick guess as to how something fits into other people’s belief system,” Kahn said. “We felt like there was a lot of loose discussion about the role that Tucker Carlson as a pundit was playing in the dialogue in American life. But we felt that we had a real opportunity to slow that down and look at it in more detail.”
He also shares Baquet’s strong belief that Times journalists need to de-prioritize Twitter. Part of that is an exhortation to spend less time sending tweets; but a bigger concern is that too many journalist have come to see the Twitter audience as a proxy for the public. Increasingly, he fretted, some Times journalists “don’t even want to engage in certain kinds of stories because they anticipate the reaction that they’ll get from writing on, reporting on, a story that tends to be a lightning-rod type issue on Twitter.”
The two editors seem to practice what they preach in that regard, both professing unfamiliarity with a backlash Kahn faced on Twitter in late April over his comments on a Columbia Journalism Review podcast. In the interview, he expressed concern about the push for ever more coverage of right-wing efforts to promote former president Donald Trump’s election-fraud lies and undermine confidence in public institutions — topics on which the Times is already devoting substantial resources.
“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,” Kahn told CJR. The press critic Dan Froomkin called it the “smarmiest, most deceitful and clueless straw-man depiction of what critics are asking for I’ve ever seen.”
In his interview with The Post, Kahn argued that voters are concerned about many more issues when they cast a ballot than just a candidate’s stance on the electoral process. “Politics coverage remains somewhat distinct from challenges to democracy,” he said. And he said he believes the Times should be trying to reach a broad pool of potential readers who have not necessarily made up their minds on contentious policy issues.
“Many of our peers have become more polarized or more partisan,” he said. “When we lose that curious but not fully decided [or] committed, nonpartisan reader, and we’re not thinking about the interests of that person, I think we ourselves risk being dragged in one direction or another on some of these issues.”
Baquet, for his part, said he has “mixed” feelings about leaving the top job. It was the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, who pitched him on staying on at the Times, as he began to receive inquiries about post-Times opportunities.
“On the one hand, I would be lying if I didn’t say I feel a little sad about stepping away from a job I love,” he said. “On the other hand, the place is in good shape. I think my successor is fantastic.”