For many, the New York Times is the benchmark for journalistic excellence. What happens in its newsroom shapes editorial strategies globally.
Joseph Kahn took over as Executive Editor of the New York Times in June 2022. A year in, Kahn joined WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Taipei to reflect on the changes he has introduced, what lies ahead for the brand and what keeps him up at night.
Below is an edited conversation between Kahn and Jane Barrett, Global Editor, Media News Strategy, Reuters, UK.
Jane Barrett: What are the highlights of the last 12 months as Executive Editor at the New York Times?
Joseph Kahn: I was the Managing Editor to the former Executive Editor [Dean Baquet] for five years so I thought I had a pretty good sense of what the job was like because I was good partners with my former boss and felt like I would just slip into the new role and it would feel comfortable and familiar.
In many ways, it felt like a different job, partly because of the structure we have. We have called the job Executive Editor, but actually on a day-to-day basis, it’s a bit of an inversion. A good part of the job as you get to preside over the day-to-day kind of news report – our biggest storylines, what we’re doing to stay competitive on those stories, our distinctive or special contributions – is that people really look to the Executive Editor for leadership on that question.
So, the executive part of the job, actually, I’m able to delegate to some extent, and really focus on the core report. You wake up every morning and there’s a new emergency somewhere in the world. It’s not necessarily always beneficial to the world, but it’s good for the news media. So, it’s been a little bit more fun than I anticipated.
From topics ranging from the war in Ukraine to illustrative data journalism, how do you stay on top of the report on a day-to-day basis, both geographically and in terms of the storytelling you’re doing?
There’s a lot to keep up with every day. Particularly, because we are expanding what we do, not just in terms of the number of staff we have covering big stories, but the different types of media we are trying to develop as a way of reaching a much larger number of news consumers in whatever way they want to consume the news. Obviously, there are traditional incumbents in the space, but for us, audio has been the largest investment we’ve made in trying to translate more of what we do into the audio space. It has become a big part of the job.
Additionally, the evolution of the way we do visual storytelling – we don’t do the classic “press and play” video very much, instead incorporating video, visual storytelling and forensic video into our core report. All done in a way that’s very labour intensive and collaborative. That has helped us reach more people who want to get the news told in different ways but also advance our journalistic product. It’s a lot more to keep up with and a lot more to consume every day, but I’ve got a good staff and team.
You started off your international reporting career in China, and saw great highs with your first Pulitzer. So, China has been good for you in your own journalism, but it’s been harder recently, with only two people from the NYT now able to work in mainland China. How are you reporting the China story at the moment? And how challenging is it?
It’s unfortunate, but what’s happened in terms of China’s willingness to allow international media – particularly leading American media – there’s been a particular focus on limiting the number of people that American media companies can have inside China. We are down to two correspondents in China, which is insufficient for a global news organisation. It was only six or seven years ago when we had 12 people. We also had 20-25 people working on the Chinese language version of the New York Times who were based in Beijing; that number has also sharply reduced.
A lot of our people were told to leave. And the trend has been toward grave restrictions on the number of press visas that China will offer to a number of American media organisations. They may have a little bit of antipathy to the New York Times, so that’s perhaps an added twist, but we’re not alone. Many people have been forced to cover a giant country – a global geopolitical force, the second largest economy in the world – with a handful of people, which is inadequate for trying to enhance global understanding and immersing more people.
I worry if this continues for too long. China is losing the opportunity to have a generation of international correspondents, who learn the language, learn the culture, come to make friends and relationships there, and develop nuanced understanding that you get from living in and experiencing a place, having setbacks.
We’re committed to doing what we can. We have reporters in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a big operation based in Seoul. Many of those people are connected to coverage of China – both what’s happening inside China and China’s impact on the outside world.
China ranked 179 out of 180 in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index. With China restricting not just press freedom and visas but also scaring people out of talking, to what extent do you see that chilling effect on free press as an issue around the world? And how do we start to combat that?
I don’t think China is alone in doing that and we’re unfortunately seeing it in a large number of places. The sophistication of surveillance – the facial recognition, the instantaneous monitoring, both of Chinese and foreign correspondents there, I think it’s probably changed the situation considerably from the time I was there as a correspondent.
When I was there, I felt like China was still a pretty tightly controlled and policed society. It took a long time to win people’s confidence and get information. That said, I do think it was possible in the years that I was there to win the trust of people and to travel with a degree of anonymity. You were not constantly monitored. You didn’t have facial recognition in every building, lobby, subway and intersection on the street. So, I think it’s become a very difficult place for international journalists to operate but also for people to trust not just them but also domestic journalists or to express themselves and their opinions on online forums.
We’ve seen outbreaks of that kind of disruption where people pile on and the internet censorship can’t keep up. It’s usually for brief periods of time and then you see them reasserting control, reconstructing what happened and potentially coming after people.
China’s a particular example. But also, it would be dangerous to speak up on the war in Ukraine, if you’re Russian. There are penalties inside of more authoritarian meeting places like Turkey, and throughout Latin America. India, unfortunately, has become a place where certain kinds of expression on certain issues have become more polarised where you can be subject to attack.
So, there are even some democracies that are experiencing a tightening of press controls. While there’s a trend toward more authoritarian leadership in places that were once considered to be on the path to democracy, world press freedom has come under sharp attack. So it’s become a more difficult world.
It’s interesting, because it’s not just politics. It’s the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of press for democracy, the importance of coalescing around facts. How concerned are you about what’s happening in the United States in terms of still denying factual evidence about the 2020 elections?
It’s undeniable that style of attacking and trying to undermine confidence in fact-based reporting has an impact. It has an impact around people who want to associate themselves and follow and trust an individual leader, who don’t want to be confronted with the complexity of the world or sometimes the unpleasant news or information or evidence-based conclusions that might be unfavourable to them, and they prefer just to follow a leader who says, “What I say is right, and don’t believe in those guys because they are against you…”
I take that as a fact of life, there is definitely a correlation with that in my home country and I see that repeating itself in many different contexts.
On the other hand, this is a new year. I don’t think that we should in any sense give up. The pursuit of facts and the increased investment in evidence-based journalism becomes even more important. You have to show your work, it has to be more persuasive, you have to come at subjects again and again, you have to have a degree of repetition of an evidence-based reality. It can’t be assumed that that will just be absorbed by people and you can move on to the next thing; you have to stay committed to it.
So, it is true that election denialism or the dispute about what happened in the 2020 election, which is not fact-based, nonetheless has had a long life in the United States. But it’s also true that quality media companies have invested huge amounts in doing quality investigations, repeating evidence-based conclusions from it and that matters. I don’t think you should give up. I don’t think you should write off the average, furious, independent leaning voter who matters. It’s the person who isn’t fully engaged, who isn’t politicised who needs that information and that on the margins can ultimately make a difference in creating a consensus in society, participating in the electoral process and having a better outcome.
So, I still have a lot of faith in the ability of the news media to reach an influential subset of the population that’s curious, that cares for facts, that can be persuaded by unpolarised and un-politicised information presented in the right way. We’re continuing to see that in the United States, and I think we’ll see it elsewhere, too. The news media matters.
At New York Times you’ve been criticised both from outside and within on some pretty hot button topics over these last few months. I’m thinking particularly of the series that you’ve done around the Jewish schools in New York, where the Hasidic Jewish community was criticising you saying that we’re already being persecuted, or internally with both sides-ism and with some of the difficult issues that you’ve been carrying around transgender issues… How do you hold on to independence and keep fighting for it when you’re coming under attack, not just from politicians but also interest groups and your own journalists from within the newsroom?
The examples you raised are ones that are a little trickier than having an almost cartoon-like figure like Donald Trump attack you as being fake news. Even though he’s a powerful figure and could in the American future be a powerful figure again, his claims of fake news just happened to be wrong.
A truer test of independent, non-partisan journalism is when you have people who expect and potentially even love the journalism you do, but they don’t see something you’re writing about or an angle you’re taking on a particular story as being in sync with their beliefs or view of what the news media should be doing. That’s a trickier situation, because you want to hear those people out. We don’t always get it right, we often make mistakes, we miss angles on stories, and we can mischaracterise things. Our language and our understanding of important issues evolves over time.
Part of the way it evolves is that we reflect our collective understanding of things like the societal place for trans people. That’s been a rapid evolution in the US. We’ve seen it in some other societies as well. People’s understanding is evolving and while that’s happening, it can be a very polarising issue, and we have to navigate that. But the meaning of independence in those moments is built to follow solid journalistic instincts, the truth of the issues that remain unsettled. Even if either side doesn’t want them to be so, you still have to remove yourself from what is a passionate, emotional struggle and look for the news and information that’s going to matter to the broadest number of people. Sometimes that will anger people who are otherwise real aficionados of your media coverage. And when that happens, you sit back and listen to criticism, but ultimately you can’t shy away from doing good reporting.
“The real test of a commitment to independent reporting is what you do when your reporting does not align with what your most loyal readers want, expect, or value from the media” Kahn tells @NewsEdJane #WNMC23. “Sometimes that will anger people” who expects you to do differently. pic.twitter.com/RRBpre16X8
— Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (@rasmus_kleis) June 28, 2023
On the subjects you’ve mentioned, we’ve done excellent and well-rounded reporting. I strongly feel we have to protect the journalists who are doing that work, who come under scrutiny on social media, who could come under attack even by their friends, relatives or acquaintances. They need to know the institution has their back to be able to look into sensitive issues. That where they have good evidence-based reasons for doing investigative work or writing stories from a variety of angles, we will protect them and will continue to feature that coverage.
The meaning of independence is finding those issues that your own staff is divided about, when your own journalists are unsure about how to cover in a good way and finding a way nonetheless to do good journalism that speaks to a broad number of people about exactly why those divisions are out there.
The GenZ is now really starting to shake things up, seeing things in a very different way. It’s an interesting news challenge, but it’s also a very interesting management challenge, with issues from online security being much more important to some generations than others, mental health issues in the newsroom, issues around hybrid work post COVID. How do you go about managing those differences within the newsroom and managing 1700 journalists across the world and across different generations?
There are important generational differences.
We have a staff of over 1700 people with a variety of differences in experiences, age, geography, race and gender but I don’t always find the differences to be generational in nature.
For instance, we are undergoing a big struggle in the US over remote work and how lasting that is in the flexible work culture; how often we need people back in the office and why. Some people are passionate about working from the office. I didn’t take a poll but if I had to call it, half the people want to be in the office but also want their colleagues to be there and not be in an empty newsroom. The other half wants infinite flexibility to do exactly what it wants to.
The dividing lines on that are not purely generational. You would think the young people would be the ones who would be more into flexible working. But they are the ones who passionately want the work from an office culture. They are the ones sharing apartments and can’t be home all the time. But also, they are ambitious journalists who want to learn from people, know how to create things and do great work. They’re also naturally more collaborative.
It’s the people with young kids who want infinite flexibility.
Young people are coming into journalism for the right reasons. They want to make a difference in the world, but they also are eager to learn what makes a good story and what makes a New York Times story different from something that they might get online for free. What is that extra bit of reporting and perspective that you bring into it, and the context that you have to offer.
Others are pushing us to take a more aggressive stance on certain issues. But I’m pretty encouraged by the diversity of viewpoints and experiences that have come in. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to add to our staff recently. Diversity is very important in the American context – of religious culture and religious background. We found some younger people who come from evangelical backgrounds who have helped us understand communities in the United States that are critical to social and cultural trends, and increasingly political trends as well.
And I think it’s such a good call about bringing in these people and actually engaging them in the news process, instead of them ticking off boxes as an Evangelical Christian or Muslim. So that’s changing now … the conversations about stories. You’ve got a young 26 year old coming in with a diverse opinion. 20 years ago, they would not have had a voice in the morning meeting. Is that now changing in terms of folding it into the news editing process?
They would probably say it’s not changing fast enough (laughs). If you’re a 26-year-old coming into the New York Times today, it feels like a pretty big organisation, it still feels like a hierarchy. We have a mission and we have journalistic values we feel pretty strongly about. We care about training, talking about why we do journalism the way we do it. I think people would say that they can’t just come in and immediately have the agency to change the way the New York Times works.
That said, we have made a conscious effort to provide more channels for people to be able to express themselves and offer story ideas.
We have a program, which is tricky to operate but very popular, called Embed. This program allows employees to learn a completely different set of skill sets and try something new. An employee may have come in as an audio producer or design expert but learn new skills through this program.
We invest in the training to help them do that so they can build their careers. Giving people agency within the organisation to be able to affect change and have the opportunity to work on something that they care deeply about is part of being open. Actually providing a much more fluid organisation where people can navigate the place and have opportunities to grow as journalists is probably most important.
You’re now increasingly reaching diverse demographics within America but also huge international expansion. The Reuters Digital News Report 2023 talks about changing trends in the way people engage with news, the rise of TikTok, etc. Where are things now at NYT in terms of reaching out to different audiences?
Extending reach with younger readers who want to consume news the way they want to consume it and not how we want them to, is our collective challenge as media organisations.
That does mean continuing to challenge ourselves to figure out the stories we can tell in terms of, say, vertical video or how we can create compelling journalistic experiences that are native to that platform. How can we get people who are in search of news and information, at least a taste of what it would mean to come to us directly and potentially provide a funnel that would lead them back to us at some point.
We have those moments where unless you do X, you’re going to lose the next generation. I’m not that eager to remake the New York Times for whatever platform people happen to be favouring at that moment. We’re not going to be an Instagram or TikTok news organisation. We’re going to build a compelling digital destination where more and more people will come to us for news and information. We will also distribute broadly across multiple platforms. We will give people good quality information on those platforms but also ideally lure them back to ours over time.
So, I don’t think we’re going to rush to suddenly reinvent the way we tell our stories, but I think we have to pay very close attention to how people are consuming information. We have to be willing to try out new platforms, we have to invest. Some of them are pretty labour intensive to produce for; it takes teams of people to make a 30-second vertical video on TikTok. It is not a natural platform for news media, there’s no monetisation there. So it’s long, hard work to reach people where they are but also in the long term to persuade them to think of us as a place they can come to directly.
In your previous job as managing editor and now as Executive Editor really leaning into it, one of the big innovations you started was the live pages. It was interesting to see you pioneer that and several other publications following suit. How have you been experiencing that live coverage? How is the audience taking to it?
I have felt for years that legacy newspaper companies were underperforming as digital news organisations because they were insufficiently invested in handling certain kinds of news stories in the way readers were looking for. It felt to me that there was no reason why in the digital space, traditional newspaper companies that often have more people on the ground covering stories than television, should be in any sense less of a resource for real-time breaking news than broadcast.
It felt like a major opportunity to me. Broadcast has far fewer people who are actually engaged in news-gathering. There are important exceptions out there, including the BBC, that have a lot of people engaged in news presenting, not news-gathering. We’re engaged in news-gathering. So why, if something big happens like Russia invading Ukraine, should you turn on the television? You turn on the television because there is an instinct that when there is breaking news, the fastest updates you’re going to get are from broadcast. But broadcast was getting its updates from the work our journalists were doing on the ground in these places, and then presenting it to a broadcast audience.
It felt to me like there was a much bigger opportunity for digital media companies to invest in something approaching real-time story coverage – as stories break… not by continually rewriting newspaper stories, but by developing new formats and templates for live storytelling that incorporate much more frequent updates from expert reporters who are on the ground and video and photography and do some of the graphics work in something approaching a breaking news fashion and present that to people with timestamps that is much more immediate than anything broadcast can give you.
So live was a chance for us to start speaking directly to a very different kind of reader need in certain moments when there was a large audience for something approaching real-time news. It’s been a transformation for us because it’s not the traditional thing that newspapers do.
If you’re on the biggest breaking story, we want you to engage in real time. That has changed the nature of being a correspondent, not always in ways that the correspondents love, I have to say. But, as we’ve gotten accustomed to it and built up teams to make it possible for them to execute, many of them have come to see that immediacy. Using their content and expertise to relate to readers directly and immediately in the moment that they’re paying maximal attention is great for correspondents, and many of them have come to embrace it.
What is your take on generative AI, the risks associated with it and how you might use it at the New York Times?
We’re being eager experimenters but extremely cautious in what we would be willing to present as a finished product to our readers. We’ve done a lot of journalism about generative AI. We’ve been transparent in explaining to our readers that we’re using it, but in essence, I don’t think we’re close to the point where we would use AI to produce journalism and under our own institutional brand.
We’re very cautious about the use of AI in the digital space, where we’re already seeing unreliability slipping in. At the moment, it’s more of a burden than a help because it encompasses extra effort on fact-checking and verification, particularly for visual teams that are used to harvesting information from digital sources online and now you can’t 100 percent rely on it. In the long term, we may find good uses of AI to extend our reach and translate our journalism into other languages.
If properly trained, it can help us analyse large databases of information and extract good quality information while drastically cutting human labour.
The New York Times is one of the most successful digital transformations in the media industry. You reached 10 million paying digital subscribers; the new target is 15 million. What is your responsibility in reaching that target?
I’m not on the hook as editor or any specific KPIs, if you will, around digital subscription growth. What I’m on the hook for is creating a news report that is urgent, relevant to more and more people and distinctive. And there are no clear KPIs for that, except to wake up in the morning and say, “We killed it on that story” or “We’re behind on a big story.” We just have to shake the tree and see if we can be competitive.
The publisher thinks as long as I have that rolling morning restlessness, we’re going to have a competitive news organisation. We’re going to produce that core, urgent, relevant and distinctive news product that’s going to drive the people who do have digital subscription KPIs to be able to realise them in the long term.
So how does New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Kahn handle the responsibility that comes with NYT’s big goals of reaching 15M digital subscribers? That is one question from @NewsEdJane during this one-on-one at #WNMC23 pic.twitter.com/baY8ZTg1Hr
— WAN-IFRA (@NewspaperWorld) June 28, 2023
The news is the best thing we’ve got going. We’ve created a sort of bundle of products that give people not only urgent news, but also a diversion from it, while serving other needs in their lives, and creating a portfolio of journalistic and journalism-adjacent activities like puzzles, recipes that are all great complementary products. But what drives the day-to-day relevance is the war in Ukraine… It is Prigozhin turning against Putin. It is the day-to-day urgent reality that you need the news in your life, those are the biggest stories we face and that’s what drives daily engagement with the New York Times. Ideally, when those moments happen and we have good coverage of it, people will come to us and start to experience the other things that allow you to take some time off like Wordle or Spelling Bee or look up a recipe.
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