Today, June 14, 2022, is the day that talkative media types have chatted and speculated breathlessly for most of the past few years: Joe Kahnfirst day as editor of The New York Times. In an April announcement that surprised absolutely no one, the publisher SA Sulzberger confirmed what Time Kremlinologists had long expected that Kahn, a mild-mannered, Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who rose from the corps of foreign journalists to the top-tier newspaper executive, would succeed. Dean Baquet become the next head of the institution’s press room. I sat down with Kahn on a Monday afternoon video call and got his thoughts on leading the newspaper’s ongoing digital transformation, creating a diverse workplace, and managing usage of social media by journalists, as a Twitter-fueled controversy recently devoured a rival. We discussed everything from a certain photoshoot to the role of independent media, like the Time, in an increasingly polarized society. Our conversation is condensed and edited below.
Vanity Lounge: I was thinking back to the first time I interviewed you, and that was 10 years ago, when you were international editor and the Time was launching a Mandarin site in China.
Joe Kahn: Yeah, that path to growth ain’t open yet [laughs]. [Chinese censors ended up blocking the Times’ website in October 2012.] But some things are in continuity with what we could have been talking about at the time, in terms of, it was sort of the early days of our real effort to become more of a real international news organization. We were setting up a lot more full overseas operations, which could deliver a lot of stuff The New York Times needs to have a full report on the world, as well as to create its own 24/7 continuous information operations. So after that period it was really the full realization of, you know , the creation of this great hub in London, and now also in Seoul, with a variety of different coverage areas, different offices, having some of their editorial and reporting staff overseas, having elements of our team live and breaking crews, but also putting in some 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 into a huge American story that requires top editors driving late at night and early in the morning, to keep our report really urgent and fresh. So in that sense, some of the things that we were working on at the time became more of a reality for us.
One of the things you’ve been credited with as editor is kind of quietly driving the Time‘digital transformation, further away from the primacy of print publishing in this area of, like, global 24/7 digital responsiveness. Can you give our readers an idea of what this looks like in practice? Take the January 6 hearings, since that’s this massive news event that’s happening right now. How is the Time covering audiences and how is that different from how the Time would have covered it, say, five years ago, or certainly 10 years ago when we first spoke?
We covered it with something we call a live blog, which is a blog in the sense that it’s organized in a reverse timeline, basically with…
It sounds a bit like an outdated term, which is ironic because it’s such a big part of the Time’ news report now.
Yeah, around the time we spoke 10 years ago, I think that was around the time we stopped using blogs. There had been a little flurry where everyone wanted their own blog, and we had too many, and they weren’t really in the news and they weren’t being promoted. So we just said, we don’t blog anymore. Now we’re using a really evolved form of the blogging format, which can incorporate streaming video, it’s a much more visual form, it can incorporate a lot of journalistic entries which gives us experience to take advantage of some of the things that people might have done to Twitter for, but to bring that back to our own experience. So when our own expert journalists are involved in covering one of today’s top stories, we hope they can channel their expertise and insights into an experience we create rather than rushing to Twitter to do it. .
I noticed that you really push readers to live blogs. When I click on something Time I’m often directed straight to a live blog about a great story.
It’s not for just anything. We want to use them for a fairly limited number of really major news-type events. The shooting of Uvalde. The January 6 hearings. The Ukrainian War.
And this live format is something you championed when you were editor, right?
I was concerned about that and also about the tools we have to create these more robust digital packages, so you can more intuitively guide readers through the full range of coverage we have. You know, charts and data and explanatory pieces that help people get up to speed on the subject.
Your transition to editor-in-chief was very carefully staged and drama-free, and also widely expected. But there was still such a voluminous number of words written about it, including profiles of several thousand words delve into your childhood and college years and the details of your career. Were you surprised by the level of interest?
Well, I’ve never experienced this before, so I had no base expectation. I was happy that we were able to achieve what I think Dean and AG really wanted to achieve, which was kind of an intentional transition process that allowed me, but also a team of people who will now occupy new positions in the direction of the newsroom. , to really have the time to work closely together. So many transitions in the past, in fact the majority of them, have been somewhat jerky or unexpected, where something happens, someone suddenly leaves, someone gets fired. And even when it comes to a more consensual transition, a lot of the work of preparing or thinking about the transition in depth is after the appointment of the editor rather than before it. You want the first few days to actually be a time when you gather your strength and really work closely with staff to push a program forward. In terms of the cover itself, I was a bit taken aback, but I guess I’m not shocked at how everyone went deeper into the story and tried to find little things from the past that I would have thought that they would not necessarily have been so important. some of the coverage as they were, like college friends or people I had known as a journalist.