Joe Kahn: Political polarisation poses a major challenge for journalism

2023-02-08. The New York Times Executive Editor, a former foreign correspondent in Asia, will have been in the editor’s chair a year when he takes to the stage at this year’s World News Media Congress in Taipei in June 2023. Shortly before he took control of the newsroom, Kahn outlined some of his priorities in an interview with Fernando Belzunce, which we are republishing here with permission.

Joe Kahn. Image: Celeste Sloman (The New York Times)

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | February 8, 2023

By Fernando Belzunce
Editor in Chief, Vocento, Spain
This article was first published in June 2022.


It will be a smooth turnaround. Joe Kahn (Boston, 1964), the journalist who has consolidated the full-scale digital transformation of The New York Times over the last six years, will replace Dean Baquet at the helm of the emblematic American newspaper.


Having honed his skills as a correspondent in Asia, the current New York Times second-in-command and, of course, Pulitzer Prize winner, is about to take charge of an editorial staff of 1,700 journalists whom he encourages to experiment with new forms of storytelling and to be ever more ambitious in their journalistic endeavours. The Gray Lady, the most influential newspaper in the English language, celebrates its 171st birthday with its digital homework done, 10 million digital subscribers and the sense that it is enjoying a period of splendour.


What are your main challenges?

I think the first goal of any New York Times editor-in-chief should be to stay focused on our most important journalism. We are known for our great determination, in long-running stories, and also for the competitiveness of our daily news offerings. We constantly strive to develop the relationship with our audience by always focusing on high-quality, differentiated journalism that we believe will keep them coming back again and again. That is always the first challenge. Then there are others.


Such as?

Political polarisation is a big challenge for journalism. It’s not just in the United States but in Western democracies. We are looking at how to make our output more valuable to more people regardless of their political point of view. We need to continually emphasise the importance and indispensable role of quality reporting. Our independence. Another very important priority is the way we do our journalism, the way we tell stories, which is changing and evolving in significant ways. We rely on many specialists in all kinds of multimedia storytelling, with graphics, with video, with different uses of photography and design. We have also invested heavily in audio storytelling. The combination of these formats creates great digital experiences. This is a tremendous challenge.


Your predecessor, Dean Baquet, claims that you are the most digitally savvy journalist in the newsroom and the least afraid to experiment with formats. How did you become an Internet expert?

I spent many years as a correspondent in Asia, initially for The Wall Street Journal, and that was key. In China I no longer had daily access to the paper edition, so my access to the newspaper was always through a digital experience, not print. I got used to consuming in digital and working with digital in mind. Perhaps because of that I had a head start on others in developing ideas about how our digital storytelling could evolve. And when I became an editor, I had the chance to try a lot of things out. I saw a whole world of opportunities. So, along with many other colleagues, I focused on rethinking workflows and engaging more readers with different ways of presenting journalism.


Is digital the new golden age for The New York Times?

That’s a good question. I hope so. I think this stage could even surpass the heyday of print newspapers. The priority for the newsroom and the company is for good journalism to drive a subscription-based relationship with more and more people. I’m not sure it worked that way when the print version was at its peak, when we were primarily an advertising as well as a circulation business. People paid for the physical product then, but the relationship between the articles and the number of subscribers we had was very difficult to measure. It was more about measuring the amount of advertising sold. So there was a much more focused approach on the part of the company that sold advertising, while the newsroom produced journalism that mostly filled the print newspaper. We pivoted and became an essentially digital organisation with subscription at its core.


The subscription model believes in the value of journalism?

Definitely. Now we have a much more direct relationship between producing good journalism and getting people to subscribe. In that sense, I do think this is a golden age for the newsroom, because the news we create, the journalism we do, drives the business directly. And so the company has an incentive to continually reinvest in journalism and attract more subscribers. There’s a kind of merging of the company’s strategy and the newsroom’s strategy. And I hope that means some kind of golden age.


Many large newspapers are experiencing serious financial problems. Do you think the economic model on the Internet is conducive to making journalism profitable?

It’s complicated. I think each media outlet is going to have to develop specific strategies. In any case, I think this approach of creating relevant journalism for readers, getting them to pay, and reinvesting more and more in the quality of the content is the one that more and more media are adopting. Some have already succeeded. It has taken us many years to develop it and perfect it. This is not an overnight thing where you flip a switch and suddenly your problems are solved. No. It takes a long time to build.


You launched the Chinese-language edition of The New York Times 12 years ago and shortly thereafter published a story about corruption in Beijing that caused the government to block access to that website from China. Is that situation sustainable?

We have no expectation of change from the Chinese government. Of course, there are a large number of Chinese readers who have access to international information through virtual private networks and who can visit our website. And there is the Chinese community living abroad. So we continue to work for that audience without any immediate expectation of a change in mainland China.


You went to China as a correspondent in the 1990s because you thought it was the best place to grow as a journalist. Do you still think that’s the case?

I wish I could still say that. I think, unfortunately, China has become a very difficult place to work, partly due to the change in attitude of the country’s political leaders and also because of their response to the pandemic. They have become more closed to the outside world. There is a contrast with the 1990s, when they were in a process of opening up. That’s not to say that China is not a fantastically interesting story. It is. We will do everything we can to keep as many correspondents there as we are allowed.


Where would you choose now to develop as a journalist?

I wouldn’t point to a specific country. I think the world has become a more dangerous place. Even so, there is a great need to develop that journalistic expertise in many places. There is a need to explain the changes in the most authoritarian countries. China, Russia, Turkey and even India, which is a democracy but with authoritarian inclinations. Understanding those trends is very important and it should present some opportunities for young journalists to really develop their linguistic and territorial expertise.


What are the values you most appreciate in a journalist?

We look for professionals who have a strong track record as well as the enthusiasm to analyse issues really thoroughly and explain them. An investigative mindset is very important. We also hire a great many specialised professionals. We are interested in people who know how to handle data, people who understand how to create a multimedia presentation, audio journalists… And we’re also always looking for first-rate editors who can work alongside journalists to develop their stories and to coach and mentor and to help elevate a piece of journalism into another realm.


Why have you advised your journalists not to use Twitter ‘too much’?

We’re not against it. But we don’t want people to treat Twitter as if it represents the audience, which is much broader and richer. We should always be willing to listen to criticism, but on social media it’s not that useful and it’s not representative either. We want journalists to pursue their journalistic mission outside the networks. This recommendation is a message for journalists to focus on what is important. Twitter generates very toxic debates, and we shouldn’t use it as a kind of barometer of what’s good and what isn’t.


During Donald Trump’s presidency, social networks underwent a boom and distrust of traditional mainstream media grew. How can that trust be regained?

We think a lot about these issues. We have created an initiative, called the ‘trust project’. We want to make sure that we provide readers with as much information as we can about why we are doing an investigation, who the journalists involved are, or what their expertise is. As a company, we also want to be more open and communicative with the outside world and not come across as an ivory tower. We’ve found that some of our new narratives, particularly The Daily podcast, do a great job in that respect, showing the day-to-day life of the newsroom. And that has helped lift the curtain on the journalistic process and make it more trustworthy.


The recent investigation into the Bucha massacre in Ukraine, where you proved with satellite imagery that Russian authorities had lied, must have given you a boost?

Of course. I believe in big international stories. We have sent a big team to work on the ground in Ukraine. We have war correspondents, some of our best photographers, a video producer, many cameramen, a visual research unit, and a fair number of audio producers and sound technicians. One of our podcast journalists will also be working there for a while. That war needs to be reported properly.


What are the most important risks for journalists today?

The first would be the physical risk, as journalists operate in increasingly dangerous territories, and the second would be the psychological risk, due to the harassment campaigns that reporters are subjected to on social networks. These are two risks that we take very seriously.


This interview first appeared in Vocento group newspapers, in Spanish, on 12 June 2022. (ABC, El Correo)

The author, Fernando Belzunce, is Editor in Chief of Vocento group newspapers and a member of the World Editors Forum Board.




Joe Kahn will take part in a fireside chat at the World News Media Congress in Taiwan in June. 

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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