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In this edition: A Q&A with The New York Times’ Joe Kahn.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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May 5, 2024


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’re just glad they let us back into the building.

I stopped by Joe Kahn’s modest office in the New York Times newsroom Thursday to ask him what some of his readers want to know: Why doesn’t the executive editor see it as his job to help Joe Biden win?

The Times sets the tone for American journalism, and Kahn sets the tone for the Times. So it’s worth listening closely to his view on this topic. He told me the paper is a “pillar” of democracy but not a tool of power. He believes he is ignoring pressure to “become an instrument of the Biden campaign” and “turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda.”

Kahn has been in the job for two years. He is quiet, comfortable in his skin, and often described as cerebral, which is true both in the usual sense and of a defining physical feature, his large head. His job draws criticism from all quarters, and I put both left- and right-wing critiques to him, but his defining management challenge is with the left. The Times, he said, went “too far” in the summer of 2020, and Kahn sees his role as walking back from “the excesses” of that period.

Also today: A text from Tom Freston on the Paramount latest. Plus, Columbia’s student journalists get gigs, Al Jazeera gets booted from Israel and Scott Galloway gets a(nother) podcast. (Scoop count: 4)

One Good Text

Tom Freston is a former Viacom CEO and was chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, a part of the company that is now Paramount Global, from 1987 to 2004. He is board chair of the ONE Campaign.

(Freston added after, “With a little luck, and some good choices, they can put it out and rebuild.”)

Ben Smith

Joe Kahn: ‘The newsroom is not a safe space’

Al Lucca/Semafor

On the newspaper’s role

Ben Smith: Dan Pfeiffer, who used to work for Barack Obama, recently wrote of the Times, “They do not see their job as saving democracy or stopping an authoritarian from taking power.” Why don’t you see your job as: “We’ve got to stop Trump?” What about your job doesn’t let you think that way?

Joe Kahn: Good media is the Fourth Estate, it’s another pillar of democracy. One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters. If you believe in democracy, I don’t see how we get past the essential role of quality media in informing people about their choice in a presidential election.

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda. It is true that Biden’s agenda is more in sync with traditional establishment parties and candidates. And we’re reporting on that and making it very clear.

It’s also true that Trump could win this election in a popular vote. Given that Trump’s not in office, it will probably be fair. And there’s a very good chance, based on our polling and other independent polling, that he will win that election in a popular vote. So there are people out there in the world who may decide, based on their democratic rights, to elect Donald Trump as president. It is not the job of the news media to prevent that from happening. It’s the job of Biden and the people around Biden to prevent that from happening.

It’s our job to cover the full range of issues that people have. At the moment, democracy is one of them. But it’s not the top one — immigration happens to be the top [of polls], and the economy and inflation is the second. Should we stop covering those things because they’re favorable to Trump and minimize them? I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work in the view of Dan Pfeiffer or the White House. We become an instrument of the Biden campaign? We turn ourselves into Xinhua News Agency or Pravda and put out a stream of stuff that’s very, very favorable to them and only write negative stories about the other side? And that would accomplish — what?

On his newsroom
Joe: I’m open to graduates from whatever school who understand what they need to commit to being in an independent news environment. But I don’t think we can assume that they’ve been trained for that, if they’ve been trained for safe spaces. The newsroom is not a safe space. It’s a space where you’re being exposed to lots of journalism, some of which you are not going to like.

Don’t you feel like there was a generation of students who came out of school saying you should only work at places that align completely with your values?

Ben: Don’t you think we all sort of said that to them?

Joe: I don’t think we said it explicitly. I think there was a period [where] we implied it. And I think that the early days of Trump in particular, were, “join us for the mission.”

Ben: Was it a mistake to say that — even to think it?

Joe: I think it went too far. It was overly simplistic. And I think the big push that you’re seeing us make and reestablish our norms and emphasize independent journalism and build a more resilient culture comes out of some of the excesses of that period.

Read on for Kahn's views on Gaza and campus protests, former colleagues Bari Weiss and James Bennet, and what he reads in the Times. →


⁛ News

AJ out: Israeli officials closed Al Jazeera’s local offices in Israel Sunday and have blocked it from operating there for 45 days. It’s a move the Qatari broadcaster had been anticipating, in the wake of a new law to crack down on foreign media. Less than an hour after comms minister Shlomo Karhi posted a video of Al Jazeera’s office being raided, the channel posted a prerecorded message in which anchor Imran Khan outlined the new restrictions and gave a pointed sign-off from “occupied East Jerusalem.”

Access journalism: Ahead of the NYPD’s sweep of Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, and with the outside press cleared off the campus, Columbia Journalism School students found themselves among the few journalists left on the scene to document the arrests — and got working gigs.

Faculty had set up a newsroom in Pulitzer Hall, just across campus, keeping phones charged and students fed, and ensuring young reporters knew their rights and had a lawyer’s phone number scribbled on their forearms in Sharpie. Students traded text messages on how best to negotiate rates as they sold stories, videos, and photos — and, in the case of one student, anchored a live feed for CNN. (The undergraduate newspaper, The Spectator, also did spectacular work, as did the campus radio station, WKCR.)

As Columbia J-School Dean Jelani Cobb noted in a podcast, “In no world could we design a final exam that would be this comprehensive.” — Gina Chua

Cutting the wire: Quartz announced that it was ending its one-year deal with the Associated Press (as we first reported this week). But the global business-focused site wasn’t the first digital news organization to end its relationship with the wire service this year. Business Insider also did not renew its years-long AP membership, Semafor has learned — a sign of a shifting landscape in which generating traffic from stories that appear everywhere isn’t worth doing for most publications. The pair of publications join McClatchy and Gannett, two of America’s largest surviving newspaper companies, which both significantly pared back their AP subscriptions earlier this year.

“The AP has thousands of customers around the world that vary greatly in size,” a spokesperson for AP said Sunday. “As always, our focus is on making sure AP’s journalism reaches as many people as possible.”

☊ Audio

Rick Kern/Getty Images for Vox Media

Proffering up: Vox Media has decided that five hours of Scott Galloway a week isn’t enough. Later this month, the company will launch Prof G Markets, a spinoff podcast of Galloway’s twice-weekly Prof G Pod. Co-hosted by research analyst Ed Elson, Prof G Markets will also be released twice a week, and will focus more deeply on weekly markets and finance news.

“It’s really a belief in this franchise, in this Prof G Universe, as something that has bigger potential,” Vox head of audio and video Ray Chao told Semafor.

It’s the third show from Vox featuring Galloway, who also co-hosts Pivot with Kara Swisher. Over the last several years, Galloway’s ubiquity across business and news shows media and willingness to offer interesting, memorable, and occasionally half-baked takes on everything from market trends to the sex habits of young people has earned him the moniker the “Howard Stern of business media.” In an interview with Semafor, Elson said the new show would distinguish itself from the numerous other money and finance podcasts by leaning into Galloway’s personality and edge, coupling it with sharp analysis.

“The white space we identified was making one of those podcasts that isn’t boring,” Elson said. “A lot of those podcasts are, for whatever reason, a little hesitant or afraid to say bold things. That’s one thing that Scott definitely brings to the table.”

Galloway is already delivering on the promise to not be boring. Earlier this month, he made headlines and prompted a wave of online outrage after claiming on Bill Maher’s show that young people were joining protests on college campuses because they weren’t having enough sex.

In a brief interview with Semafor, he said he was a bit surprised that particular moment had gotten so much attention, as he often opines on issues related to young people and masculinity.

“It’s difficult to guess [when] what you say will get resonance or go viral or upset people,” he said when asked about the moment. “It’s a little like stock-picking. You delude yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing — you just don’t.”

He continued: “I’ll give you an example: I was on Morning Joe last week. It was six in the morning, I was hungover, I walked out of there so depressed, because I thought, ‘That was just a stew of word salad that made no sense.’ And it was probably one of the most viral pieces I’ve ever done.”

Reflections: I once wrote that I didn’t think the gifted podcast producer Andy Mills was a perfect fit for The New York Times or for Weiss, who hired him after he was forced out, because he’s more interested in doubt than in confident assertions of truth. He’s got a new show out, Reflector, whose first episode explores one of those ambiguous spaces: the idea of a “cure” for alcoholism. — Ben


Great Mentioner, cont’d: We got a lot of reaction to our starting-gun story on the New Yorker succession race last week. And we heard a couple more names we’d neglected to include: the Biden biographer and China writer Evan Osnos; and the essayist Jia Tolentino. (Also, we regret Ben’s error: The iconic 1965 Tom Wolfe blast at the magazine, Tiny Mummies, appeared in New York Magazine.)

Beastly roll-up: Ben Sherwood and Joanna Coles are just beginning their refashioning of the Daily Beast newsroom after taking it over earlier this year. But the duo have indicated that they may have bigger plans than just the Beast. In recent weeks, Sherwood and Coles met with executives at G/O Media to kick the tires about a potential acquisition of The Onion. Ultimately they decided it wasn’t worth it, and The Onion ended up in the hands of another figure in the Daily Beast’s extended orbit: former Beast tech reporter Ben Collins, who is serving as its CEO, after the satirical publication was acquired by a satirically-named new investor group.

✰ Hollywood

Big names: Two titans of Hollywood are putting their thumbs on the scale for Skydance’s bid to acquire Paramount. Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron and Endeavor chief Ari Emanuel told the Financial Times in an interview published on Sunday that they are supporting David Ellison’s effort to absorb the struggling entertainment company.

It may be too, little too late: On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter published a story floating the idea that controlling shareholder Shari Redstone may decline the Skydance bid and rival offer from Apollo/Sony Pictures, and instead attempt to combine Paramount’s streaming service, Paramount+, with NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock.

✦ Marketing

Publicis rising: The big advertising holding companies — Publicis, Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic, Dentsu, and Havas — play a central role in the media ecosystem but are notoriously hard and uninteresting reporting targets. But U.K. Campaign EIC Gideon Spanier cracks the central story: “Publicis has ‘extracted itself from the pack,’ as Arthur Sadoun, the chief executive, likes to say, and shown it can grow faster than its peers, increase profit margin and take market share — thanks to its focus on media, data, tech and consulting, and its simpler operating model.” The result: A scramble toward consolidation among the rest of the pack. (Also, we would like to write about Publicis! Please email tips.)

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