The New York Times headquarters is deserted. Most desks in the two-story newsroom in Midtown Manhattan are empty; the newspaper is still operating in pandemic mode. "Presence is voluntary, many of our people are working from home," says Joe Kahn.
Yet he is there, as usual. "Hi Joe," a colleague calls out as Kahn walks by. The walls of the glass corner office where he greets his visitors are covered with historic Times covers: the Hindenburg disaster, Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, Donald Trump's election in 2016. Small talk doesn't suit Kahn, he wants to get straight to the point.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Kahn, you began your career as a correspondent in China and recently described those years as good preparation for your job as executive editor of the New York Times. Why?
Kahn: China doesn't have an open Internet, it doesn't allow open, robust debate. A lot of information that people are consuming is essentially coming through a propaganda network. The challenge for us, as reporters, was to understand that that was part of the information fabric of Chinese society and that people were being informed from sources that are not free and open.
DER SPIEGEL: And what does that have to do with your job today?
Kahn: In the U.S., we once had pretty open and robust media on both sides of the political spectrum. What we're seeing now, especially on the right, is a more party-line, propagandistic approach to the news.
DER SPIEGEL: Right-wing media claim the same about the New York Times.
Kahn: Yes, they will always say that about us. These media also say they're "fair and balanced." But observing them and their reporters, I know that they are not engaged in deep reporting or critical thinking about the big issues of the day.
DER SPIEGEL: You're talking about Fox News.
Kahn: Fox News had a very robust political team. They got rid of that after the 2020 election because they didn't want to rely on their political experts anymore to actually call results in the races.
DER SPIEGEL: Fox News is the most-watched news channel in the United States. What does it mean for the future when so many Americans listen to the nonsense that is being spread there?
Kahn: Fox News is the leading cable news channel, but it doesn't reach the majority of Americans. I think it's worrying that there aren't more right-of-center quality media that still adhere to journalistic standards.
DER SPIEGEL: Like the Wall Street Journal, your former employer?
Kahn: The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal is right-leaning, but the paper still delivers very good journalism. I consider it a peer and a competitor, Fox News is not.
DER SPIEGEL: For a large part of the Fox News audience, you and your paper are the Antichrist.
Kahn: Part of the American public clearly rejects legacy media like the New York Times. But the number of people who have really closed their minds is pretty small. So, we still have a chance to make ourselves relevant and indispensable there.
"Take America Back": Trump supporters in FloridaFoto: CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: Fox News, Donald Trump and many Republicans continue to spread the lie that Trump was cheated out of winning the election in 2020. The Republican Party of Texas, the second-largest U.S. state, has even included that in its official platform, declaring Joe Biden an illegitimate president. What does that mean for the state of democracy in the United States?
Kahn: I'm pretty worried about our democracy. The former president and his supporters are running a very robust campaign, using the false notion of the stolen election to mobilize their supporters and raise money. They are generating hatred that gets people engaged in politics. And it seems some of these people are also winning Republican primaries for the midterms in the fall.
DER SPIEGEL: Across the country, candidates who question the legitimacy of Biden's election victory are making inroads.
Kahn: Yes, and some could be in positions of power in the 2024 presidential election that will allow them to undermine the integrity of the electoral process at the state level.
DER SPIEGEL: What can media outlets like the New York Times do about that?
Kahn: We do our best to report aggressively on these subjects and engage a larger and larger audience with evidence-based reporting. But again, there are some so-called media out there whose reporting borders on propaganda on behalf of a political party, spreading misinformation or disinformation. This could potentially lead to a situation where, in the 2024 presidential election, a candidate who isn't legitimately elected still claims victory.
DER SPIEGEL: Many media companies are currently struggling to achieve plurality and diversity within their own ranks. Two-thirds of your readers are white. You yourself are also white, which led to criticism when you were appointed in April. How do you deal with that?
Kahn: We are constantly growing our team. Our newsroom is significantly more diverse today than it was five years ago, both the leadership and the rank and file of journalists. We have improved diversity in terms of gender or race. The creators of journalism need to reflect the country and the world we're covering.
DER SPIEGEL: However, there were journalists who left the Times because they clashed over the Black Lives Matter movement. One editor had to leave because he allegedly used the N-word while talking to a group of students. Another writer quit after complaining about too much political correctness at the New York Times. Is there a culture war brewing in your newsroom?
Kahn: I don't think there's a culture war in our newsroom. Our newsroom and many others went through some intense internal discussions over the past few years. We learned a lot from that – for example, in terms of the openness of such debates.
DER SPIEGEL: A constant source of conflict is the Twitter presence of journalists. It wasn't long ago that media companies encouraged their employees to be active on social media. Was that a mistake?
Kahn: Some reporters may feel compelled to have some presence there to get information, to get ideas, to develop a following for their journalistic expertise. We're not telling them to stop doing that, just that it might make sense to do a little bit less.
Turbulent times: The New York Times headquarters in Downtown ManhattanFoto: MARIO TAMA/ AFP
DER SPIEGEL: What does "a little bit less" mean?
Kahn: Do less of going down these rabbit holes where the media critics accuse you of being stupid or biased. If you engage in that too much, you might lose your journalistic instincts. The Twitter audience is tiny.
DER SPIEGEL: Tiny, but vocal and powerful.
Kahn: To allow those people too much influence over what we do and how we do it, seems crazy to me. Engaging in this combat, you get into situations like we saw at the Washington Post, where your own reporters attack each other on Twitter. That's bad for workplace culture. We don't have a one-strike-and-you're-out policy, but we'll give real feedback to those who we think are stepping over the line. We want them to be spending most of their time on journalism. We don't want them getting into useless fights with critics or trolls on Twitter.
DER SPIEGEL: You yourself have fewer than 9,000 followers on Twitter.
Kahn: I'm not very active, yes.
DER SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you recently had your own Twitter experience. New York magazine published a photo of you sitting seductively in socks on the floor of your apartment. You were immediately mocked for that.
Kahn: (Laughs) Yes, that's true.
DER SPIEGEL: How did it come about? Was that your idea?
Kahn (center), with his DER SPIEGEL interviewers Rolland Nelles (left) and Marc PitzkeFoto: Celeste Sloman / DER SPIEGEL
Kahn: No. I don't have much experience with being photographed, and certainly not quite that way in my apartment. Photographers are trying to get interesting shots, so they try this and that: What if you hold the newspaper this way, or if you sit down over here? Then they suggested that pose, and I didn't really think carefully about it. That's how that came about. Doesn't exactly fit the image of the New York Times.
DER SPIEGEL: You're now celebrating great digital success with the Times, with 9.1 million subscribers. Is there any potential for growth?
Kahn: We want people to think of the Times as solving different problems in their lives. For example, we have invested in the sports website The Athletic. The platform provides journalism for fans of teams and leagues, including European football. There's also Wirecutter, our product recommendation service. All of these are subscription services. Our readers can come to us for the news, but they can also have some downtime with games or let us help you think about what to cook.
DER SPIEGEL: You publish newsletters, podcasts, recipes, games, crossword puzzles. Is the New York Times still a newspaper?
Kahn: Each platform has a large audience and plays a slightly different role in promoting our journalism.
DER SPIEGEL: What role does hard news still play there?
Kahn: The news is still the most important traffic generator for us.