An insider takes over the ‘Times’ foreign desk, in an unlikely period of expansion amid international turmoil

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The four 'New York Times' journalists who were held captive in Tripoli. ()
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When the announcement came that Joe Kahn would take over the foreign desk of The New York Times on Sept. 7, he was in the middle of editing two articles on Libya: one, by David Kirkpatrick, about former Khadafy loyalists rushing to find positions in the rebel leadership after it overtook Tripoli; another, by Rod Nordland and C.J. Chivers, about shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles missing from a secret Khadafy munitions warehouse.

Kahn, a two-time Pulitzer-winner and Times veteran, had spent the past three years as deputy foreign editor to Susan Chira (who in turn was recently promoted to a top masthead position as part of the shakeup that followed Jill Abramson's ascension to the top editorial slot at the paper). So he knows the job, even though the job is changing.

He takes charge of the Times’ international coverage in a year when the volume of massive global news has been daunting, from the ongoing wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq to the tsunami that ravaged Japan to the massive uptick in drug-cartel violence in Mexico to the killing of the world’s most-wanted terrorist to the turmoil now wreaking havoc on Europe’s financial markets—lest we forget the Arab Spring, which continues to blossom in a wide swath from Syria west to Libya even as those of us who have been following it from this corner of the world prepare for autumn.

The Times fields active desks across all those areas even as other papers that once had a national footprint, like The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times have in recent years severely cut or in some cases completely eliminated foreign bureaus, a result of the print-advertising slump that has suffocated the industry.

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"The proliferation of world events is kind of more massive than I've seen in my three years on the desk and Susan has seen in her almost eight," Kahn said in a phone interview Monday. "We obviously have had major big stories before, but the number of different things all happening at once, and the challenge of covering all of those intelligently and presenting them in real time on the web, intelligently; it's sort-of three-dimensional. It's pushed us in new directions. There's a lot more pressure on our correspondents now than there might have been if we had the same series of events 10 years ago when they were mostly thinking of how to sum things up once a day for the newspaper."

In the midst of all this, the foreign desk's brief is actually expanding.

For one thing, Kahn expects to add additional bodies to the Times’ Cairo bureau to make sure it has an ample supply of journalists who can sustain regular deployments to Libya for the foreseeable future as the recently liberated nation begins its transition to democracy. (There are no plans to create a Libya bureau at this time.) Afghanistan will likewise remain a priority as the gradual drawdown of American troops begins this fall. Some of the Times’ correspondents in Afghanistan are set to cycle out, so it will be Kahn’s job to “find some good replacements to go in there and keep coverage at the level it deserves,” he said. “We’re going to continue to add in the Middle East. It’s a big job when you’ve got so much going on.”

The foreign desk is also involved in an initiative at the Times to develop news sites in foreign countries. When they are up and running and the business side is figured out, the foreign desk will be deeply involved in their development. The first, rolled out earlier this month, is India Ink, the Times' first country-specific blog, which now falls under his purview. And the foreign desk is likewise involved in at least one “big additional initiative” that will add a foreign language component to the Times’ content strategy, said Kahn. The plan is to launch an online editorial product for China, where the paper already maintains its largest foreign bureau (Kahn worked in that bureau, as well as The Wall Street Journal’s, before becoming deputy foreign editor in 2008), within the year.

“If things go well, I expect we’ll see The New York Times producing a pretty robust product in Mandarin Chinese before long,” Kahn said, though he declined to go into detail. What he called “deep verticals”—which we take to mean, like City Room, repositories for continuous original reporting from the field combined with blogging—in other languages are likely to follow, he said.

More such foreign-language sites could pop up over the next couple of years. About the Chinese product, asked whether reporting from that site might make its way into the main Times news report translated into English, Kahn said he hadn't worked that out yet.

"But most likely we would not have a substantial reverse-translation operation," he said.

Instead: "Most of the writers, even those who produce original stories in another language, would be able to produce stories in English as well. 

He also said, "It’s going to be an interesting challenge to really explore all of those opportunities while at the same time continuing to focus on our core mission.”

THE CORE MISSION, ACCORDING TO HIS PREDECESSOR Chira, is pretty simply put.

"[It is] to aim to provide the most comprehensive, nuanced, intelligent and passionate foreign coverage that we can, every day," she wrote in an email. "We need to make sure readers on the Web see the latest news updated as quickly as possible, written with as much sophistication and context and analysis that we can layer in over repeated updates and revisions. The Web reaches a far larger audience than our print edition, and we owe those readers articles that reflect the very best we can accomplish—Times quality."

But even that mission sounds drastically different from how a Times editor might have described it a decade ago.

If the Times has little competition from traditional newspaper competitors, entering this new realm makes it a contender in the digital realm for international reporting, areas where wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg, and the web outfits of publications like The Economist and The Financial Times, as well as muscular international cable and satellite news outfits like CNN and the BBC, have significant audiences. It's something Chira herself acknowledged in an interview with the paper's own public editor, Arthur Brisbane, on April 9.

“We are weighing ourselves against the wires,” she said. “That’s new for us.”