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Under his watch, Kahn says 'Times' will raise conduct standards for journalists

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Joe Kahn takes over this month as executive editor of The New York Times. The newspaper is riding high on a new crop of Pulitzer Prizes, acquisitions of the sports site The Athletic and Wordle, and record high digital subscriptions. All Kahn has to do is replace a legend and corral an often contentious newsroom. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Joe Kahn doesn't flinch easily.

JOE KAHN: The police sort of swooped in as I was interviewing somebody.

FOLKENFLIK: Kahn was a young journalist in China in 1989 for The Dallas Morning News during the Tiananmen democracy uprising. And an informant had turned him in.

KAHN: Took me to the local police station, interviewed me for a while, and then I was escorted back to Beijing, where I was sort of interrogated by the state security and told that I had violated martial law.

FOLKENFLIK: He would later report from China for The Wall Street Journal and The Times and share a Pulitzer Prize. Kahn is a graduate of Harvard who returned to get a master's in Chinese, yet this early education at the hands of Chinese authorities occurred in real time, far from home.

KAHN: I remember feeling pretty unmoored at that moment. I was there by myself. My editors were 8,000 miles away in Dallas, and we didn't have email at that time. We didn't even have fax.

FOLKENFLIK: Today, Kahn's team uses video, audio, social media, gifs, apps, graphs and more to share all the news that's fit to print with one another and with the world. As managing editor, Kahn oversees 1,700 journalists, more than any team ever assembled by American newspaper. Colleagues say he's made his mark quietly, stationing editors across the globe, ensuring stories flow online 24/7 and in apps long before they hit the printed page.

KAHN: The days when you can appoint an executive editor and that was the decision-maker and that person kind of sat at the head of a big table and decided which six stories were going to go on Page 1 and kind of slam down the gavel at the end of that and that was sort of the essence of the job are over.

FOLKENFLIK: Kahn sat with me for an hourlong interview recently at the Times's headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. He'll be taking over for Dean Baquet. Baquet is charismatic, gregarious, a legendary investigative editor who's also perfectly happy personifying The Times to the outside world.

KAHN: He does have more of a public-facing role. I haven't had as much of one.

FOLKENFLIK: By contrast, Kahn is measured, contained.

KAHN: By virtue of getting the job, I'll take on some of the responsibilities for representing The Times institutionally and the values of our newsroom.

FOLKENFLIK: A younger generation of journalists and new forms of journalism are testing those values. Reporters now can establish their own brands and identities online, apart from the paper, even as the public often associates what they say with it. While Kahn doesn't identify anyone specifically, people have witnessed such Times reporters as Pulitzer winners Maggie Haberman and Nikole Hannah-Jones brawling, at least rhetorically, with their online critics.

KAHN: It had begun to occupy a little bit too much share of mind of some of the people in our newsroom.

FOLKENFLIK: Kahn says the intensity of backlash on Twitter can distort reporter's interactions with the public. So Kahn and Baquet announced a new policy this spring, advising Times staffers to pull back.

KAHN: The value that you will have on Twitter or on social media in general or in the world of journalism is going to be based on the good, quality, in-depth, edited reporting that you do in The New York Times. We're not really in the market for people who just have a giant following on Twitter but can't deliver.

FOLKENFLIK: Kahn and other news executives have also been confronted by matters of race, gender and identity at The Times.

KAHN: It just needs to be a place where people from many different backgrounds can feel they have a path.

FOLKENFLIK: Two years ago, as the social justice movement took root in communities around the country, many staffers in The Times's newsroom turned to internal chat groups and publicly visible social media platforms to vent about the news and the newspaper. Over a series of months, after criticism from colleagues over separate episodes, several Times journalists departed, including The Times's editorial page editor, a podcast producer and a senior COVID reporter. I asked Kahn, in retrospect, how he felt about the departures. Kahn, once more, wouldn't discuss specifics, but said The Times needed to embrace diversity in viewpoints, background and life experiences full stop.

KAHN: We do not have space or patience for people who aren't fully on board with that program.

FOLKENFLIK: Under his watch, Kahn says, The Times will not lower its journalistic standards, but will instead raise the standards for conduct by its journalists there.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.