NEW YORK — The New York Times has a tradition of letting its work speak for itself, rather than publicly defending its journalism from criticism.
Yet with democracy, truth, and the news business under attack, that’s a luxury The Times’ incoming executive editor, Joe Kahn, may not be able to afford. Kahn, a managing editor for the past five years, succeeds Dean Baquet on June 14, inheriting the most high-profile job in journalism.
The deliberate, soft-spoken Kahn said he’s been thinking about whether The Times’ reluctance to speak about its work is still the best approach at a time when people take sides about journalism brands like they do about politics. How Kahn will tackle things differently from his predecessors remains to be seen, but he is open to trying.
“I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to it,” said Kahn, who believes efforts to communicate with readers could be improved. He added: “Being able to narrate that to some degree, and bring a broader audience into the investment we’re making in quality journalism, I do think (that) is an important part of the job.”
News organizations sometimes let marketing teams do the talking, with ad campaigns highlighting their work and why it is done, as CNN did when former President Donald Trump labeled them “fake news.” Former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron famously said that the Post was not at war with the Trump administration, “we’re at work.”
That may not be good enough anymore, said Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Journalists for a long time have taken it as a given that the country and its leaders understood the role they play in a functioning democracy,” Pope said. “We’re at a moment now where you can’t take that for granted.”
Targeting The Times for criticism has long been a rite of passage for many conservatives. More recently, liberals have stepped up their criticism, most notably by demanding the newspaper more aggressively call out what they see as Republican efforts to subvert democracy,
Kahn said he wants The Times to be dogged in covering voter access, the certification of elections and increased political violence. Reporters and editors dedicated to the topic need to be persistent about focusing attention on the problems, similar to how The Times tracked the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“We can cover these issues really well and assertively without turning ourselves into a partisan news organization,” he said.
The Times can point to examples where it has led the way. This past week, Times reporters broke the news of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy saying he planned to urge Trump to resign following the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection. In June, The Times’ painstaking “Day of Rage” video outlined clearly what happened that day.
Still, some critics on the left believe it too often treats efforts to change voter access laws as a typical political fight when the meaning is much deeper.
“Reporting more aggressively, accurately and clearly about threats to democracy is not asking them to become a partisan organization,” said Dan Froomkin, editor of the Press Watch media criticism site.
The Post announced in February that it would hire two editors and three reporters to staff a new democracy team to cover these issues, and The Associated Press said last week it would add a new democracy editor to its political staff.
On a sometimes related topic — disinformation — Kahn said The Times plans further investment. That was illustrated recently when satellite imagery from Ukraine was used to refute Russian propaganda that civilian killings were staged.
The Times is also writing stories specifically designed to show up in Internet searches when people want to learn the truth about false stories that spread online, like quack COVID treatments.
“If you’re partisan and want to live in your own information silo, it’s really hard to break through to that,” Kahn said. “But if you are, in my view, like the vast majority of people who hear things and may not believe them, we’ll be there to help guide you in those moments.”
One trait Kahn has that is not always common in top media executives is that he’s open to listening to criticism, wrote Margaret Sullivan, the Post’s media columnist. From 2012 to 2016, she was public editor at The Times, where her job was often to convey reader complaints to editors.
The Times discontinued that role in 2017. Although Sullivan doesn’t expect that decision to be revisited — and Kahn pointed out that’s the publisher’s decision, not his — she said in an interview that “the thing that’s missing is a steady sense of The Times hearing outside voices, outside critics, and responding in real time on a regular basis.”
Baquet has tended to respond to individual issues that come up through media interviews.
The Times’ decision to appoint an insider as executive editor is typical, but does contrast with the Post choosing AP’s Sally Buzbee and Los Angeles Times picking Kevin Merida from ESPN as leaders over the past two years. Part of the reason they went with outsiders, “if I’m being honest, is that they’re trying to catch up with us,” Kahn said.
In announcing Kahn’s elevation, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said it was an affirmation of the Times’ direction under Baquet, who had Kahn as his top lieutenant for five years.
The Times has grown from under a million digital subscriptions to nearly 10 million under Baquet. Its footprint has widened, encompassing a popular podcast, “The Daily,” the Wirecutter product recommendation service, newsletters and a documentary unit that made “Controlling Britney Spears.” Not everything has gone smoothly — The Times painfully concluded its 2018 podcast “Caliphate” did not meet journalistic standards — but it has been a remarkable transformation.
Neither The Times, nor he, believes in standing still.
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