Abe Rosenthal, the totemic New York Times editor who published the Pentagon Papers, used to say that there was one path to the executive editor’s office — over the dead, burned, and maimed bodies of the ten other people who wanted the job. So I turned to Joseph Kahn, the new top dog at the Times, and asked whom he incinerated to get here.
“I didn’t kill anybody,” he said, suppressing a sly smile. It was late last Friday afternoon — just days before it would be announced that he had ascended to journalism’s Iron Throne — and we were sitting in a conference room high above the empty newsroom. “The truth is that we’re in a bit of a different era, and some of the transitions in the past admittedly have been rocky, and there have been more abrupt changes in leadership. I think we’re going to have a really smooth change in leadership.”
Rocky? There have been four executive editors of the Times in the past two decades, and two of them — Howell Raines (2001 to 2003) and Jill Abramson (2011 to 2014) — imploded spectacularly in public after losing the faith of the Sulzberger family. Was Kahn nervous? “I am,” he told me, “for a variety of reasons. Not really because I think that I’m going to self-destruct but because it’s an enormous responsibility to manage a newsroom of this size and ambition at this particular moment.”
After Abramson, Dean Baquet took over in 2014 and became one of the most popular executive editors in the paper’s modern history. Kahn is no prom king, but nobody is much surprised that the paper’s proprietors picked him. He is the ultimate inside man, so sturdy, disciplined, and reverential to the mission of the Times that the very notion of him self-destructing seems improbable.
Kahn had led me into the elevator and down the hallway lined with photographs of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize winners and into this room adorned with black-and-white pictures of the old printing press. The place was desolate, but the Times has never been bigger. It can hardly even be called a newspaper anymore. The company has some 5,000 full-time employees, and it produces documentaries and podcasts, newsletters and cooking apps. It bought the podcasting company Serial, the sports site The Athletic, and a daily chunk of your procrastination time since it got ahold of Wordle.
“It’s just a big responsibility,” said Kahn, 57, looking trim in a blue polo shirt, gray cardigan, and jeans. “I’ve been Dean’s partner for five years now, and I’ve seen the way that he navigates the challenge of editing the Times when we’re under as much, or more, scrutiny than we ever have been in history.”
Baquet will be a tricky act to follow. His origin story — he mopped the floors of his family’s New Orleans restaurant and scaled the heights of American journalism to become the Times’ first Black editor — could hardly be more compelling. Baquet is an operator, a politician who likes being liked. The rank and file consider him cool. He wears Acne, smokes cigars in Washington Square Park, knows art and books, and wears good cuff links. He interviewed Jay-Z.
Kahn, a fabulously wealthy Bostonian, is, arguably, a throwback to a more patrician leader of the paper. On the surface, he seems more akin to Bill Keller, the son of a Chevron CEO, who ran the Times for eight years between Raines and Abramson. Those were the dark days, when the share price was less than the cost of a copy of the Sunday paper and the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim had to loan the company $250 million to keep it afloat. (Remember when the New York Post ran a picture of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. with a black eye wearing a sombrero?) Old-timey Timesfolk also compare Kahn to Joe Lelyveld, the uncharismatic brainiac who had the job before Raines (and briefly again after he self-destructed).
“It is a ridiculous job, and it is almost impossible to do right,” says Andrew Rosenthal, who held senior newsroom jobs and then ran the editorial page for nine years until 2016. He is the son of Abe Rosenthal and personally knows all the editors I just mentioned above. “In order to aspire to be the executive editor,” he says, “you have to be crazy. And that includes me, by the way, because I once aspired to that job.”
So what sort of crazy is Kahn? He’s a mandarin who actually speaks Mandarin; he spent years reporting from China. He’s been kicking around the Times since 1998 — winning a Pulitzer, overseeing various institutional transformations — but in an organization built on nosiness, he remains something of an enigma. He’s a man without obvious eccentricity or need to be liked and isn’t known for much beyond his reputation for adroitness and overachieving.
Oh, then there is his family money — his father co-founded the office-supply retailer Staples — which has always been gossiped about quietly at the Times. He’s got a second home upstate. During the pandemic, he would Zoom in from there and reporters couldn’t help but notice its modernist opulence. The apartment building he lives in on lower Fifth Avenue is said to have once been inhabited by Marlon Brando. He and his wife, Shannon, who previously worked for the World Bank, send their two sons to a private school uptown.
Kahn is not flashy, but he does have a taste for the finer things. He is a familiar face at opening night of the Metropolitan Opera. He is an oenophile with a particular fondness for Burgundy and is part of a wine consortium that includes the billionaire Joseph Bae. Kahn was an investor in Monkey Bar, a clubby restaurant owned by Air Mail editor Graydon Carter. “I like Joe immensely,” Carter tells me. “He’s got a quiet wit and intelligence that you might miss on first meeting.” The two men share an architect in Basil Walter.
Rosenthal says, “We used to call him the smartest man at the New York Times,” which he means presumably as a compliment. I ask one editor who worked closely with Kahn for years to describe him, and he says “Voltron”; another opts for “automaton.” “Good poker face,” says one person who has actually played poker with Kahn. “Keeps his cards close to the vest, doesn’t take huge risks.” In news meetings, which are often a world-class exercise in ass-kissing, Kahn comments sparingly.
Baquet — who “will remain at the Times to lead an exciting new venture,” according to the publisher — calls Kahn his partner and says, “We literally live about three blocks from each other. We didn’t plan that, but it’s been convenient. And he’s a friend. I can’t imagine passing this job to anybody more qualified in every way.” But Kahn is in some sense inheriting a time bomb — the opportunity to lead an institution seething with internal conflict over whether it has evolved enough, or too much, from its historical approach to journalism; to navigate how, exactly, the paper of record should cover the erosion of American democracy while not unintentionally furthering it; to be the public face of the nation’s most consequential news operation. “Look, it’s hard, but, my God, lots of people still want to do it,” says Baquet. “I mean, look at how much fun it can be, too. Right?” I ask how he imagines the Kahn tenure to depart from his. “It’s always hard to know when an executive editor is actually in the chair what kind of changes they’ll make,” Baquet says. “And Joe is his own person.”
Kahn was born in Boston in 1964. His father, Leo Kahn, was a successful businessman whose parents were from Lithuania. Joe’s middle initial is just F — no name is attached, but his parents reportedly wanted him to share initials with JFK. Joe Kahn’s mother, whose family was Irish, died of breast cancer when he was 10, and his father soon remarried; by 14, Kahn was attending Middlesex, the prestigious New England boarding school that, students joked in those days, put the sex in Saint Grottlesex. Next was Harvard, where he ran the Crimson.
In a video interview from those days, a young Kahn, wearing short shorts and still with a full head of hair, talks like he’s already the executive editor of the paper of record. Asked about his “prime ambition,” he answers solemnly, “I hope to try my hand at journalism, print journalism for some time. I won’t be happy until I do.” Kahn told me his early journalistic influences included “the witty, explanatory style” of Michael Kinsley as well as James Fallows and David Halberstam. Graham Greene sparked in him a desire to become a foreign correspondent. Kahn also cited as a favorite The Honourable Schoolboy, a John le Carré spy novel. “I ended up being a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong,” said Kahn, “and that had a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, so it was kind of intriguing.”
Kahn graduated in 1987 and got a job at the Dallas Morning News. But he was more interested in a le Carré life than that of a local-news beat reporter and figured the best way to get there would be to return to Harvard for a master’s degree in East Asian studies. “I got interested in China when I was an undergrad,” he said. “It clicked for me that I wanted to know more about it and become better versed in China when I started thinking about what I wanted to do as a reporter.”
He went to China as a freelancer during the Tiananmen Square protests and convinced his former colleagues in Dallas to print his stories. After being deported by the Chinese government, he got hired by the Morning News and returned as a correspondent from Hong Kong. He won his first Pulitzer there in 1994 as part of a team that reported on violence against women.
“China was really just opening up at that phase. It was coming out of a long period of being closed to the outside world,” he recalled. From the Morning News, he got scooped up by the Wall Street Journal, and after the Times poached him, he returned to China.
“I think Joe really knew and sensed that this was one of the most important stories in the world,” remembers Jim Yardley, who was Kahn’s reporting partner in China and is now the Times’ Europe editor (and a member of the Kahn inner circle). “It was a hard story to translate at the time to our American audience, because foreign correspondents thrive on elections and wars and China has neither. Joe had a great sense of, We need to look at this in big thematic ways that explain that change that was going on in the country, explain how this resonates to the rest of the world.”
The two crisscrossed the provinces. Kahn also wrote about business and filed colorful features rendered in the polite and lofty tone of a bigfooting Timesman of yore. He reported on a Cambodian cease-fire and, in Bangkok, profiled a transgender kickboxer, who told him, “Don’t be distracted by my looks. This smile has knocked out 18 boys.” After one particularly tough story about the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party, the government arrested Kahn’s researcher, who would spend three years behind bars. “That became a test of defending our journalist under pretty heavy Chinese pressure, and the paper stood by him and our staff the whole time,” said Kahn. Yardley says he remembers vividly when the researcher was released and how “Joe was really relieved beyond belief.”
But seeing how China treated his researcher inspired Kahn to investigate the country’s legal system. “Justice in China is swift but not sure,” Kahn once wrote. His dispatches about a legal gadfly born in a cave, a torture technique known as the “tiger stool,” and officials in Fengfengkuang would help win both men a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. “Jim and Joe, what a tag team,” says David Barboza, a Pulitzer-winning former Times reporter who worked with the pair and now runs The Wire China. “In the years they were together, those two were phenomenal.” Barboza says Kahn always “had amazing sources, because he was a business reporter and a political reporter.”
While in China, Kahn met Shannon Wu, who he would later marry. In our hourlong interview, he came alive most while talking about her. “I can’t say enough,” he said, sitting up a little straighter. “Shannon has been my partner since 2007. We met when I was stationed in Beijing back in 2002. We weren’t immediately a couple; we were friends for a number of years. She actually left China while I was there and worked at the World Bank in Washington. So while I was living in her home, she was living kind of back in mine. We did stay in touch, though, and at some point, a couple years later, we got together and were married in 2007. And our older son was born in 2008, so, you know, she’s been my most important partner ever since.”
Eventually, Kahn faced the dilemma that many star foreign correspondents do: continue writing or become a newsroom leader. “It wasn’t an automatic decision for me,” said Kahn. “The actual choice to move away from having your own beat and the autonomy that comes with being a foreign correspondent and the thrill of being on a big story and developing it yourself and thinking through lines of enterprise reporting, like the work that Jim and I did in China, felt like it was going to be hard to replace through the more vicarious nature of editing other people.”
But he recognized an opening. The Times’ foreign bureaus then were a tattered patchwork of print-first operations that didn’t work in unison. The company suddenly, almost by accident, had one of the biggest news websites in the world. The question was what to do with it. “It felt a lot like the New York Times at that point had a real opportunity to sort of reimagine the way it covered the world,” said Kahn. “I felt a certain amount of energy in thinking about it not only as a correspondent doing my own work but also thinking more collectively about how we could expand our reach.”
He soon set about expanding and coordinating the foreign desks. Today, the London bureau has some 80 editorial employees, and the hub in Seoul has grown. (Many moved over from Hong Kong after the passage of a notorious security law in 2020.) The international desk is now a 24-hour machine, integrated into Kahn’s greatest, wonkiest achievement: those smartphone-friendly continuous-scroll “Live” briefings.
As Baquet’s managing editor, Kahn became heavily involved in driving the news report across many desks. “That means coming in every day with ideas,” says Baquet, “coming in every day to push coverage, and he’s really good at that. I would say he has been, along with the foreign editor, the leader of our coverage of the war in Ukraine.”
Until last fall, I spent four years working at the Times, as a clerk for the columnist Maureen Dowd, whose only real input on this story was that she’d personally strangle me if I didn’t give Kahn a fair shake. I was always in awe of all the journalism I saw at the Times but also in awe of how much time there is spent agonizing over who is up and who is down. Gossip at the Gray Lady is an art form. So is, all too often, self-regard. Which leads to a good deal of passionate disregard for other people. About Kahn, the real question these straight-A students are asking is, as always, How will this affect me?
I called around about Kahn last week, and some asked if I was sure it would really be him, then, in the next breath, began speculating, unprompted, about who would be next in line after he was done. (If he keeps the gig till he’s 65, that will be in 2029.) Newsroom suck-ups were already recalibrating.
Unlike other publications, the Times does not like to recruit its top editor from the outside world. A Times editor is supposed to come from inside the building. A little box, printed each morning on page 2 of the Times, almost always contains the name of the next editor. This is the masthead, a scoreboard drawn in ink. Here’s how it went with Kahn: On January 1, 2018, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. handed off the company to his 37-year-old son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, known as A.G. The Baquet era was in full swing then, but given the Times’ retirement strictures — executive editors are expected to leave before they turn 66 — the new Sulzberger soon began to think about whom he might select after Baquet.
There seemed to be three choices. The young publisher, a Manhattan-raised graduate of Brown, considered his leading candidates. Each man was whiter and better educated than the next. There was Clifford Levy, who went to Princeton. There was James Bennet, who went to Yale. And there was Kahn, a Harvard man. Kahn was always the front-runner, but the Sulzbergers like having options, since things have a way of going awry at the Times.
Below and beside these men, a new, more diverse class was finally ascending. These other names on the masthead were formidable journalists, but few students of the Sulzbergers thought they had a shot this go-round. After all, it was Baquet who had elevated and groomed Levy and Kahn. Bennet was run out of the paper two years ago, then the publisher picked his man.
Now, the Kahn regime is taking shape. A masthead reshuffling coming later in the week will make clear that two other names on the masthead, Marc Lacey and Carolyn Ryan, are the new capos. Good luck getting on their Google calendar for a martini downstairs at Wolfgang’s now.
Raines once wrote that the Times is packed with “lifers, careerists, nerds, time-servers and drones.” But there are also the high-church technocrats. Kahn is one of them: groomed, anointed, and, now, appointed. Still, as he once wrote of China, justice in the Sulzberger kingdom is swift but not always sure.
Just ask Bennet. He ran the opinion section after Rosenthal and was whispered about as Kahn’s competition until he published a Tom Cotton op-ed in the summer of 2020. A.G. Sulzberger had given Bennet a mandate to solicit and publish conservative voices. In the immediate wake of the Cotton op-ed, which advocated for using the military to quell Black Lives Matter “riots” breaking out in cities across America, Sulzberger sent a letter to staff saying he believed “in the principle of openness to a range of opinions.” But the heat grew too hot, and Sulzberger lost his nerve. He turned on Bennet and pushed him through the trap door. All parties were outraged, some about the op-ed, the rest about the firing. Sitting in the Times conference room, I told Kahn I couldn’t quite figure out where he was in all of this. Did he step out of the blast radius while his competition imploded? Or was he advising his boss, Dean, or Dean’s boss, A.G.?
“I was very much part of the leadership team that was managing the reaction to, and the fallout from, that issue with our staff,” Kahn replied. He said he believes the geyser of emotion uncorked by the op-ed was about much more than just the piece itself. “There was a broader sense about the New York Times, that it had to get serious about looking internally at its diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, and what kind of workplace we had, and to what extent we had begun to make a significant investment in recruiting a newer, more diverse generation of journalists all across the organization.”
When it was all going down, I remember Zooming into an all-company town hall in which one employee asked Sulzberger how he could possibly expect to navigate these issues once Baquet was gone and another regular old white man was in charge. Sulzberger became visibly infuriated and basically said he resented the question and its implications. I asked Kahn if, in that moment, alarm bells began to ring in his head. “I don’t exactly remember the question or A.G.’s response,” he said (which seems a little unlikely). “I do think it’s been clear for some time that no matter who the next leader of the New York Times is, we have to build a strong culture that represents the country and the world that we cover. We need to have leadership and journalists throughout the organization who have the experience and the background to be able to cover this country and this world, fully and impactfully. And you can’t do that without a really continuous commitment to diversity and also to making that diverse staff feel that this is a fulfilling and aspirational place to work. So it’s not a one-person job; it’s a whole newsroom job, and there isn’t going to be anyone in the leadership of the New York Times who isn’t fully committed to that.”
Lacey does remember that question being asked of Sulzberger. “The bottom line,” says Lacey, “is that DEI work is not about optics; it’s actual work. It’s about hiring and developing and setting up structures and believing in people. It’s about all those things, and I think A.G. felt very comfortable that Joe has a long track record in that regard.” Lacey says Kahn has been “an important part of why I’ve had a very varied, interesting leadership career at the New York Times, because he’s believed in me and helped develop me.”
The tumbrels didn’t stop there. Last year, longtime science writer Donald McNeil was pushed out for an incident that had occurred years prior in which he quoted the N-word while discussing an anecdote on a Times-sponsored camping trip to South America with a bunch of rich kids. The same Friday that McNeil was axed, an audio journalist named Andy Mills was out for behavior that had occurred long ago outside his work with the Times. Opinion writer Bari Weiss had already departed in a ball of fire, torching Sulzberger in an open letter. The right-wing media and enemies of the Times everywhere were gleeful at the never-ending spectacle. The place kept spitting people out, and all the important journalism seemed to be the last thing anyone was focused on. Roving subgroups of freaked-out news reporters and columnists had banded together and were emailing Sulzberger, begging him to get a grip.
Around this time, someone who had studied in China remarked how similar it all seemed to a Maoist struggle session. Did it ever resonate with Kahn that way? “Uh,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “it didn’t exactly resonate with me exactly that way. There were a lot of really candid and emotional conversations during that time. It didn’t quite feel like a ‘Maoist struggle session’ to me. There was nobody being forced into, you know, self-confession or that sort of thing.”
Times staffers still smarting from these pileups are hoping Kahn will be a steady hand at the wheel. One decorated reporter who is a favorite plaything of the masthead says about Kahn: “There is a sense — and this makes a lot of people very happy — that he is much less willing to indulge the complaining and the constant cries of activism and that he is somebody who has expressed little patience for the newsroom culture-war eruptions that have been such a distraction for us lately. The question is whether or not he feels confident to act on those impulses.”
I read that quote to Kahn and asked, well, does he? He answered diplomatically, conceding that it’s a fractious time we live in, and that he’ll “continue to have staff debates” about how the place needs to evolve. “I pay very close attention to those debates,” he continued, “I’m also really committed to the independent mission of the New York Times.” He told me he’s worked hard to “make this a place where people felt they didn’t have to just take to Slack to spout off” but rather have “colleagues they could go to and know their concerns were going to be heard. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to react instantly to any concern that anybody has and immediately agree, because there’s some journalistic values of the place that mean sometimes we’re going to have to say ‘no’ to colleagues.”
Two weeks ago, as one of his last big newsroom management decisions, Baquet issued “a reset” in the Times’ approach to Twitter. It basically instructed everyone to grow up or log off. Many in the newsroom found it to be a welcome, if late, missive. How will it work in practice? Can Times stars who love to scrap on Twitter, like Maggie Haberman or Nikole Hannah-Jones, really be reined in? I asked Kahn, whose own Twitter account is adorably named @nycscribe and had only 6,772 followers as of April 18 (the day before his promotion was announced), what he will do if he soon finds one of the more prolific tweeters in violation of the big reset. “I’m not going to comment about one specific journalist, obviously,” he said, “but broadly speaking, first of all I think you’re right that that memo was generally well received and it felt timely and there is a bit of Twitter exhaustion on our own staff.” He added that there will be “reminders to people who are not adhering to the policy, and we’re going to be serious about that, whoever it is. And we already have a regular, ongoing conversation with people who sometimes are on the line, and we talk about ‘Maybe this wasn’t exactly the right thing to tweet,’ or ‘Maybe you should have paused on this,’ or ‘Maybe you need to take a little break from it.’ You know, we’re not ordering anybody that they can’t be on Twitter. But we also just want to help people modulate it.”
The first time I met Kahn was in Des Moines, just before the pandemic, when a brigade of Times journalists descended on Iowa for the 2020 caucuses. I was there with Dowd, my then-boss. We had rented a Ford Expedition the size of a city bus, and Kahn hopped in for a ride on the way back from some frostbitten caucus gathering. MoDo rode shotgun as I drove us all across town. We turned down the Rolling Stones a couple notches and tried to get Kahn to engage in a bit of office gossip. We dangled some juicy pieces of bait, but the guy just wouldn’t bite. Later, at a Super Bowl party at the Marriott downtown, everyone started getting loose. Kahn stayed reserved — not aloof but dignified and contained. (Which is why it was so funny seeing his face split into a boyish grin when he watched Shakira and J.Lo do their halftime show.)
Rosenthal says, “At one point, I had commented to Janet Elder, the sainted Janet Elder” — the beloved masthead editor who died in 2017 — “that I really liked Joe but I thought he had no sense of humor. She said, ‘You’re going to invite Joe to dinner,’ and I did. We went to that steak place in the building” — Wolfgang’s — “and we had martinis and it was fucking hilarious. I can’t remember a joke he told, but it was like having a conversation with any other person.” Lacey, who sat beside Kahn when they worked together on the foreign desk, says, “I just remember he’d be talking to his kids and they would make him laugh and so this very serious intellectual guy would be giggling, laughing at the next terminal over.” Yardley says Kahn is “totally funny” once you get to know him. I ask Yardley if he can think of any stories about the two of them getting drunk after deadline — maybe a good bar fight or two? — or any naughty behavior or appetites of any kind. He says nothing comes to mind.
Kahn is not without flaws in his résumé. In December 2020, he faced one of the bigger crises of his career. He had anointed as one of his stars Rukmini Callimachi, the terrorism reporter. She was the literal face of the Times’ big Caliphate podcast series until, oops, it turned out she’d built the whole thing around someone who was playing make-believe about ISIS. There were many red flags about Callimachi’s reporting methods, some of which predated Caliphate. Reporters had tried to warn Kahn and his lieutenants about Callimachi and what they saw as her sketchy ways, to no avail. Ben Smith wrote in his media column how C.J. Chivers, the august war correspondent, “clashed particularly bitterly with Mr. Kahn” over the issue. People familiar with the situation say Kahn dismissed colleagues’ warnings in part because he chalked up their griping to simple professional envy, the toxin that courses through every last capillary of that newsroom. It was a major misjudgment by Kahn, one that raised the jangly specter of “Miss Run Amok,” a.k.a. Judith Miller. Her overreliance on Mesopotamian hucksters, among other malefactors, is how the Times helped shove America into her worst foreign-policy catastrophe ever. Such are the stakes when one top-edits the Times.
Abe Rosenthal famously had the phrase “HE KEPT THE PAPER STRAIGHT” etched into his gravestone. That may be harder than ever to do now — just as it also might be harder to agree on just what straight is exactly.
The paper has been dragged leftward by its liberal staff and subscriber base. It drew a fresh round of criticism recently after reporting in the 24th paragraph of a news story how it “authenticated” a cache of emails from Hunter Biden’s laptop. (It all seemed a little rich for the Times to be authenticating something everyone always knew was real, more than a year after barely touching the story at election time.) The laptop contains more stories, yet to be mined, and voters have legitimate questions about how the Biden family made its fortune. Maybe the Times was feeling scarred after all the blowback from their liberal subscribers about how it handled Hillary Clinton’s emails. Or maybe it didn’t want to be seen as doing the bidding of Rudy Giuliani, who would later brag about how he’d shoved the laptop down the throat of the New York Post. I posited this to Kahn and asked if he can honestly say that, had the laptop belonged to Donald Trump Jr., the level of coverage would have been the same.
“We did cover it at the time,” Kahn insisted. “We made a conscious decision based on what we knew at the time, or what we could confirm at the time, not to hype it, but we did cover it.” He continued, “We’re still digging on some of the issues related to Hunter Biden, and we will cover Hunter Biden like the son of any president. Do I think that somehow there was an election-changing scandal that the New York Times was not on? I guess I don’t really think that.”
The paper was constantly criticized for how it covered Trump. The right accused it of joining the resistance. The left complained that it treated Trump too credulously, spent too much time interviewing his voters in diners. If Trump did run again, how would Kahn direct coverage of round two? “Report the hell out of that story,” he told me. “Explore every aspect of what round two would mean for the country and the world. Scrutinize all the people he puts in positions of influence. Understand the motivations or grievances of voters who put him back in power.” Did Kahn subscribe to the poststructuralist critique of “objectivity” as being a delusional construct? “I strongly believe the Times needs to ground its journalism in deep reporting, open-mindedness, curiosity, and empathy. There is no such thing as perfect neutrality, and defaulting to ‘both sides’ framing on divisive issues can be insufficient and misleading. But the journalistic process needs to be objective and transparent, and we need to challenge ourselves and our readers to understand all the facts and explore a wider range of perspectives.”
One of Kahn’s signature accomplishments is his shaping what the Times calls its “Live” desk. The home screen these days is often hijacked by these bulletins, consisting of short bursts of news, updated at all hours from around the world. They are a lot of work to cobble together, and reporters and editors whine about doing so, but the “Live” briefings get mondo clicks and are incomparable during big moments on Capitol Hill and in keeping up with Ukraine. Kahn told me he believes this is where the future of the Times lies. “We’re still in the early years of developing that and proving it out, but to me, it’s one of the most exciting unlocks of our journalistic expertise,” he said of the operation, “and as we refine it and we get it right, I think you’re just going to feel a more and more impactful experience that ultimately draws people back again and again on the biggest stories as they unfold rather than, say, going to linear broadcast television.” Baquet says, “I hope people understand how big a deal that is.” He thinks that “it’s made the Times competitive with CNN” and suspects that Kahn “is going to keep pushing in that direction. In that direction lies a whole lot of innovation that it’s even hard to wrap your mind around now.”
Before meeting with Kahn, I decided to meet up with the one person who understands more about Times Kremlinology than anyone else on the planet. “It really is a noble institution,” explained Gay Talese, looking spiffy in an orange velour jacket he found in Paris. He slid into a booth at the Regency bar on Park Avenue and sipped a Tanqueray martini. “You’re dealing with cardinals. On the other hand, they’re also competitors. They’re climbing, or trying to climb, to the top of this little pinnacle, and they’re being knocked off by like-minded people.” Before he helped invent New Journalism, Talese was a copyboy and reporter at the Times. In 1969, he published The Kingdom and the Power. It remains the Ur-text about the Times, and many of its parables resonate still. But Talese didn’t know anything about Kahn. I told him about his money.
Talese’s eyes grew wide and he wondered if Kahn may be the first top editor in the history of the Times to have more money than the Sulzberger who owns it. (Later, when I told this to Kahn, he laughed, and said, “Gay Talese should do some more reporting. That’s pure speculation.”)
If there is one lesson from The Kingdom and the Power, though, it’s that editors cross the Sulzbergers at their own peril. “The people like the executive editor, or the managing editor, and all the other names we see on the masthead, are dancing around flames all the time,” Talese told me. “They can go flying down in obscurity, or they can survive for a while, and they can probably embellish their lives and win all kinds of prizes. But their time on Earth is temporary. Their time at the Times is temporary. They’re never going to own the candy store. It was Rosenthal who told me, ‘I’ll never own the candy store.’”
Rosenthal’s son, Andrew, says, “You have to remind yourself that the place is owned by a family that can just change everything at will. They don’t, usually. But they can.” One primary factor that led to Abramson’s downfall was that she didn’t properly manage up. “I still didn’t understand how personally endangered I was,” Abramson wrote in her recent book. “I told myself that after the Raines debacle, the publisher wouldn’t fire another executive editor he had picked.”
When we met in the conference room at the Times last Friday, I suggested to Kahn that it seemed like covering the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party might be good training for handling those slippery Sulzbergers.
He grinned good-naturedly but got serious quick. “The reason why this is the best job in journalism,” he said, “is because we have a family that deeply believes, cares about, and is absolutely committed to investing in journalism.”
Spoken like a company man.