Today, June 14, 2022, is the day when media gossip for the past few years breathlessly chattered and speculated: Joe Kahnfirst day as editor-in-chief of The New York Times. In an April announcement that surprised absolutely no one, publisher AG Sulzberger confirmed what? Time Kremlinologists had long expected — that Kahn, a mild-mannered, Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who rose from the foreign journalism corps to the top of the newspaper’s management, would succeed Dean Baquet to become the next chief of the newsroom. I spoke to Kahn on a video call on Monday afternoon and got his take on steering the newspaper’s ongoing digital transformation, building a diverse workplace and dealing with journalists’ use of social media — as a Twitter-driven controversy recently rival consumed. We discussed everything from a particular photo shoot to the role of independent outlets such as the Time, in an increasingly polarized society. Our conversation is summarized and edited below.
Vanity Fair: I looked back on the first time I interviewed you, and it was 10 years ago when you were an international editor and the Time launched a Mandarin language site in China.
Joe Kahn: Yes, that path to growth is not yet open [laughs]† [Chinese censors ended up blocking the Times’ website in October 2012.] But some things are in line with what we could have talked about back then, in terms of, that was kind of the early days of our real push to become more of a real international news organization. We were building a lot more kind of full-stack operations abroad that could deliver the many things The New York Times needs to have a complete report on the world and to create its own continuous 24-7 news activity. So after that time really the full realization of like, you know, creating this big hub in London, and now in Seoul too, with a variety of different coverage areas, different agencies, with some of their editing and reporting staff in abroad, with elements of our live team and breaking news teams, as well as really smart editors who can direct and map the coverage in their own time zones and help shape it. And also have the flexibility to jump in on a massive American story that requires top editors to drive 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 doing then have become more real to us.
One of the things you have been credited as editor-in-chief is quietly driving the Time‘ digital transformation, further from the primacy of print edition to this realm of, like, all-encompassing 24-7 digital responsiveness. Can you give our readers an idea of what that looks like in practice? Take the January 6 hearings, because that’s a huge news event happening right now. how is the Time deal with the hearings and how is that different from how the Time would it have been, say, five years ago, or at least 10 years ago when we first spoke?
We’ve covered it with something we call a live blog, which is a blog in the sense that it’s organized in reverse chronology, essentially with:
It kind of feels like a passé term, which is ironic because it’s such a big part of the Time’ news item now.
Yeah, around the time we spoke 10 years ago, I think that was around the time we stopped using blogs at all. There had been a little buzz where everyone wanted their own blog, and we had too many, and they weren’t really on the news and they weren’t promoted. So we just said, we don’t blog anymore. Now we’re using 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 reporters inputs that give us an experience to draw on some of the things that people may have gone to Twitter for, but to bring that back to our own experience. So when we have our own expert reporters involved in covering one of the most important news stories of the moment, we hope they can channel their expertise and their insights into an experience we create instead of rushing to Twitter to to do that.
I’ve noticed that you really push readers into the live blogs. When I click on something from the Time I am often referred directly to a live blog about a big story.
It’s not just for anything. We want to use them for a pretty limited number of really big news-like events. The Uvalde shooting. The January 6 hearings. The war in Ukraine.
And this live format is something you advocated for during your time as editor-in-chief, right?
I was concerned about that and also about the tools we have to create these more robust digital packages so that you can more intuitively guide readers through the full reach we have. You know, charts and data and explanatory pieces that help people level up on the subject.
Your transition to executive editor was very carefully staged and drama-free, as well as widely expected. But such a sizable number of words were still written about it, including: profiles with 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 it, so I had no baseline expectation. I was pleased that we were able to achieve what I think both Dean and AG really wanted to achieve, which was a real kind of intentional transition process that allowed for me, but also a team of people who will now take on new positions in the leadership of the newsroom, to really have time to work closely together. So many transitions in the past, in fact most of them, have happened in a somewhat herky-jerky or unexpected way, where something happens, someone suddenly leaves, someone gets fired. And even if it’s been more of a consensual transition of sorts, a lot of the work to really prepare, or think hard about the transition, goes after the executive editor’s naming rather than before. You want the early days to be a time where you join forces and work really closely with the staff to push an agenda forward. As for the coverage itself, I was a little surprised, but I guess I wasn’t shocked by the way everyone went further back in history and tried to find little things from the past that I didn’t think would necessarily matter so much. have been. some of the reporting as it was, such as college friends or people I had known as a journalist.