About Newly Named New York Times Editor Joe Kahn: A Quiet Intensity, Matched With Big Ambitions

From a New York Times story by Michael M. Grynbaum headlined “A Quiet Intensity, Matched With Big Ambitions”:

Joseph F. Kahn’s first job out of college in 1987 was covering Plano, Texas, for The Dallas Morning News, and he was impatient at the prospect of a slow career path.

“I realized that filing on deadline and slipping the occasional felicitous phrase into a news story may not get me much farther than the city hall beat, and then only after years of hard work,” he wrote in a Harvard alumni note years later. “Suddenly a nation with a billion-plus people and a remarkably thin foreign press corps beckoned.”

That nation was China, whose potential as the next great story had been impressed on Mr. Kahn by one of his professors. At the time, ambitious young reporters flocked to high-profile bureaus like Moscow and Jerusalem; Mr. Kahn reasoned that China, not the pivotal power it is today, gave him a better chance to stand out.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kahn, 57, was named the next executive editor of The New York Times, the culmination of a steady journalistic rise that began with his decision to move overseas. In China, he collected two Pulitzer Prizes, met the woman who would become his wife and spearheaded exposés of excess and corruption, the consequences of which are still being felt.

Now he has been asked to forge the next chapter of The Times, a 171-year-old institution that is adopting the global outlook Mr. Kahn embraced 35 years ago.

As the paper’s managing editor since 2016, Mr. Kahn built a 24-hour operation with hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea. He helped re-engineer a print-focused newsroom into a more agile digital outfit, and introduced real-time news updates that The Times believes can compete against the speed and immediacy of cable TV and social media.

“An executive editor of a news organization in this period, where the ways people engage with news are changing so rapidly, is a person who should be inclined to say yes, to try things, to experiment,” A.G. Sulzberger, The Times’s publisher, said in an interview. “Joe is the most digitally savvy person to ever step into that role.”

For all his influence at the paper, Mr. Kahn is a quieter, more reserved presence than the departing executive editor, Dean Baquet. When Mr. Kahn starts in June, he will need to lead 1,700 employees around the world as they navigate big shifts at their institution, amid a moment of political polarization, disinformation and distrust.

“He’s going to have to continue to build a staff that’s a mix of talents and abilities while maintaining our independence, which feels like one of those easy things to say, but it’s really hard,” Mr. Baquet said in an interview.

L. Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, where Mr. Kahn once worked as a foreign correspondent, said Mr. Kahn’s prescience would serve him well. “Joe has a long history of seeing things clearly, even if he’s lonely in seeing things that way,” he said.

Prosperity and Tragedy

Joseph F. Kahn was born Aug. 19, 1964, the oldest of three children of Leo Kahn, a wealthy Boston businessman and pioneer of big-box retailing. The F does not stand for anything; his parents wanted their son to share his initials with John F. Kennedy.

Leo Kahn was a child of Lithuanian immigrants who briefly worked as a reporter before running successful supermarket chains and health food stores in the Northeast. In the mid-1980s, he was a founder and an initial investor in Staples, the now-ubiquitous chain of office superstores.

It was a privileged childhood, interrupted by tragedy. Joe Kahn was 10 years old when his mother, Dorothy, died of cancer at age 47. The full impact of her death dawned on him only when his own children reached the same age he was.

“It changed the course of my life,” Mr. Kahn recalled in an interview.

His father soon remarried, but their household’s equilibrium was shattered. At 14, Joe Kahn enrolled in the elite Middlesex School in Concord, Mass.; he lived 30 minutes away, but attended as a boarding student. He never again lived year-round at home.

Friends from Harvard recall the young Mr. Kahn as unusually cerebral and ambitious. He became a star reporter at The Crimson, the undergraduate newspaper, securing the prestigious beat of covering the university leadership.

“I would be hard pressed to draw any clear distinctions between the teenage Joe and the 50-something Joe,” said Michael Hirschorn, a television producer and journalist and a fellow Crimson editor. “He’s probably a little more easygoing now.”

At one point, Harvard’s president, Derek Bok, got so fed up with Mr. Kahn’s dogged reporting that he barred university officials from speaking to The Crimson. Years later, Mr. Kahn relished the memory, an early experience of journalism’s capturing the attention of the powerful. “That felt addictive,” he said.

In 1986, he was elected The Crimson’s president, succeeding Jeff Zucker. “Joe was a pretty unanimous choice,” Mr. Zucker, who would later lead NBCUniversal and CNN, said in an interview. “I would describe him back then as quiet, serious, intellectual, a sly sense of humor, and often smoking a cigarette.” (Mr. Kahn said he quit in his 20s.)

A 1986 drawing of Mr. Kahn commissioned by The Harvard Crimson after he was elected president of the undergraduate newspaper.
Credit…David Royce

After his first job in Texas at The Dallas Morning News, Mr. Kahn — on the advice of his former professor Roderick MacFarquhar — returned to Harvard to begin preparing for a career in China. He enrolled in Mandarin classes and a master’s program in East Asian studies. (Mr. Hirschorn conjectured that Mr. Kahn had decided to specialize in China “out of sheer degree of difficulty,” which Mr. Kahn said was only partly true.)

By the spring of 1989, his professor’s prediction had come true: The world was watching the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Kahn decided to pause his Harvard studies; he secured a tourist visa and traveled to Beijing to report on the front lines, persuading his former editors in Dallas to run his dispatches.

In a matter of weeks, he was deported.

Life in China

It was a June afternoon when Chinese security officials swooped down on the curly-haired young American journalist interviewing peasants in a village on the outskirts of Beijing. Mr. Kahn, then 24, was detained, ushered into a van and accused of violating martial law. Forced to sign a “self-criticism” of his alleged crimes, he was ordered to leave the country, or face jail time.

Nicholas D. Kristof, then The Times’s Beijing bureau chief, covered the episode for The Times. “He was quiet, smart and thoughtful, with an intensity lurking somewhere behind that laid-back exterior,” Mr. Kristof recalled of the young Mr. Kahn.

Back in the United States, Mr. Kahn completed his master’s program, then returned to Dallas as an editor on the foreign desk of The Morning News. Soon, the newspaper agreed to make him an Asia correspondent, based in Hong Kong, where his reporting on mistreatment of Chinese women helped the paper win a Pulitzer in 1994.

Hired by The Wall Street Journal at the end of 1993, Mr. Kahn was based in Shanghai, a rare station for American journalists at the time. One colleague, Kathy Chen, recalled Mr. Kahn as wry but understated. “He was a master of making some funny comment while barely cracking a smile,” she said.

His career was on the upswing — until a wrong turn threatened to derail it.

At 32, Mr. Kahn was appointed editor and publisher of The Far Eastern Economic Review, a weekly publication owned by Dow Jones, The Journal’s parent company. It was a poor fit: Older reporters were skeptical of Mr. Kahn’s relative inexperience, and he had never overseen the business side of a professional publication. He returned to The Journal as a correspondent after only three months.

In hindsight, Mr. Kahn called it a blessing: His reporting soon landed him a job at The Times in 1998. He would have to start over in an unfamiliar newsroom, but he said that was part of the appeal: “I was excited to prove myself again.”

After a stateside stint covering Wall Street and economics, Mr. Kahn returned to China in 2002. He reported aggressively on the country’s politics and financial dealings, irking leaders who were hostile to a free press. In 2003, a young Times researcher, Zhao Yan, was arrested on charges of disclosing state secrets; Mr. Kahn helped lead efforts to free him and defend him in court.

In 2006, Mr. Kahn’s investigation into China’s antiquated legal system, co-written with the correspondent Jim Yardley, won a Pulitzer Prize. The next year, he married Shannon Wu, who formerly worked at the World Bank; they now live in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with their two sons.

After returning to New York in 2008 as an editor, Mr. Kahn helped launch The Times’s Chinese-language website, a multimillion-dollar investment at a time of financial scarcity for the company. Shortly after the site launched in 2012, Mr. Kahn was part of the team of editors who decided to publish an investigation into the hidden wealth of China’s ruling class, led by the Business desk, over the strident objections of the Chinese government.

Infuriated, China blocked online access to The Times; a decade later, its sites remain inaccessible there. Mr. Sulzberger said in an interview that the episode was an illustration of Mr. Kahn’s “bedrock conviction and principle.”

“He will always put the core values of journalistic independence before anything else,” the publisher said. “To me, it was a really remarkable moment where you learned a lot about the steel in that guy’s spine.”

Mr. Kahn will be taking charge of The Times when many Americans distrust mainstream sources of news, and disinformation tactics are growing increasingly sophisticated. In the interview, he acknowledged that his experience with Chinese officials, well versed in propaganda and deception, was newly relevant.

“I would not have thought,” Mr. Kahn said, “that being a foreign correspondent in China would be good preparation to be executive editor of The New York Times in 2022.”

Michael M. Grynbaum is a New York Times media correspondent covering the intersection of business, culture and politics.

Speak Your Mind