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“We Have to Be Ready”: Steady and Calm Joe Kahn Takes Charge of the Turbulent Times

“We Have to Be Ready”: Steady and Calm Joe Kahn Takes Charge of the Turbulent Times

Today, June 14, 2022, is the day that gossipy media types have been breathlessly gabbing about and speculating over for the better part of the past few years: Joe Kahn’s first day as executive editor of The New York Times. In an April announcement that surprised absolutely no one, publisher A.G. Sulzberger confirmed what Times Kremlinologists had long expected—that Kahn, a mild, Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize–winning newsman who rose up from the foreign reporting corps to the paper of record’s top management ranks, would succeed Dean Baquet to become the institution’s next newsroom leader. I caught up with Kahn in a video call on Monday afternoon and got his thoughts on steering the paper’s ongoing digital transformation, building a diverse workplace, and handling journalists’ social media use—as a Twitter-fueled controversy recently consumed a rival. We discussed everything from a certain photo shoot to the role of independent outlets, like the Times, in an increasingly polarized society. Our conversation is condensed and edited below.

Vanity Fair: I was looking back at the the first time I interviewed you, and it was 10 years ago, when you were international editor and the Times was launching a Mandarin language site in China.

Joe Kahn: Yeah, that path to growth is not yet open [laughs]. [Chinese censors ended up blocking the Times’ website in October 2012.] But some things are continuous with what we might have talked about back then, in terms of, that was sort of the early days of our real push to become more of a true international news organization. We were building up much more sort of full-stack operations overseas, that could deliver the many things The New York Times needs in order to have a full report about the world, as well as to create its own continuous 24-7 news operations. So after that time was really the full realization of like, you know, creating this big hub in London, and now also in Seoul, with a variety of different coverage areas, different desks, having some of their editing staff and reporting staff abroad, having elements of our live team and breaking-news teams, but also putting in really smart editors who can direct and assign and help shape coverage in their own time zones. And also having the flexibility to be able to jump in on a huge American story that requires top editors to drive during the late-night and the early morning, to keep our report really urgent and fresh. So in that sense, some of the things we were working on back then have become more of a reality for us.

One of the things you’ve been credited with as managing editor is sort of quietly driving the Times’ digital transformation, further from the primacy of the print edition into this realm of, like, all-encompassing 24-7 digital responsiveness. Can you give our readers a sense of what that looks like in practice? Take the January 6 hearings, since that’s this massive news event happening right now. How is the Times covering the hearings and how is that different from how the Times would’ve covered it, say, five years ago, or certainly 10 years ago when when we first talked?

We covered it with something that we call a live blog, which is a blog in the sense that it is organized according to reverse chronology, essentially with—

It kind of feels like a passé term, which is ironic because it’s such a huge part of the Times’ news report now.

Yeah, around the time that we talked 10 years ago, I think that was around the time we stopped using blogs at all. There had been a little flurry where everybody wanted their own blog, and we had too many of them, and they weren’t really on the news and they weren’t getting promoted. So we just said, we’re not doing blogs anymore. Now we use a really evolved form of the blog format, which can integrate streaming video, it’s a much more visual form, it can integrate a lot of reporter inputs that give us an experience to draw on some of the stuff that people might have gone to Twitter for, but to draw that back into our own experience. So when we have our own expert reporters involved in covering one of the major news stories of the moment, we’re hoping they can channel their expertise and their insights into an experience that we create rather than rushing to Twitter to do that.

I’ve noticed that you really push readers into the live blogs. When I click on something from the Times I’m often getting directed straight to a live blog about some big story.

It’s not for just anything. We want to use them for a fairly limited number of really major news-type events. The Uvalde shooting. The January 6th hearings. The Ukraine war.

And this live format is something that you championed during your time as managing editor, right?

I was concerned with that and also the tools that we have for creating these more robust digital packages, so that you can more intuitively guide readers through the full range of coverage that we have. You know, charts and data and explanatory pieces that help people get leveled up on the subject.

Your transition to executive editor was very carefully stage-managed and drama-free, and also widely expected. But there was still such a voluminous number of words written about it, including multi-thousand-word profiles delving into your childhood and college years and the minutiae of your career. Were you surprised by the level of interest?

Well, I’ve never been through it before, so I didn’t have a baseline expectation. I was happy that we were able to achieve what I think both Dean and A.G. really wanted to achieve, which was a really sort of intentional transition process that allowed me, but also a team of people who will now move into fresh positions in newsroom leadership, to really have time to work closely together. So many transitions in the past, in fact the majority of them, have taken place in a somewhat herky-jerky or unexpected way, where something happens, somebody departs suddenly, someone is dismissed from the job. And even when it has been a more kind of consensual transition, a lot of the work of really getting ready, or thinking hard about the transition, postdates the naming of the executive editor rather than predates it. You want the early days to actually be a time when you’re marshaling your forces and really working closely with the staff in pushing forward an agenda. In terms of the coverage itself, I was a little surprised, but I guess not shocked by the way everybody went further back in history and tried to find little things from the past that I would’ve thought would not necessarily have been as much of a part of the coverage as they were, like college friends or people I had known as a journalist.

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