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.”

"We have some of our most traditional competitors—The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post—and a lot of new and evolving competitors, including the ability of the wires to get their news and information out to a general readership more effectively than they were able to do traditionally," Kahn said. "But their core readership and financial model calls for them to focus mostly on people who buy their terminals, and that shapes their coverage in a way that affects their mission."

"Reuters and [The Associated Press] have very comprehensive and impressive operations around the world, and on any given story they're likely to have physically more people covering it than we are," he said. "They really have traditionally been strong competitors, trying to reach a more general audience now, and we do feel the pressure from them.

"But at the same time, they are not able to do what we do. We have really experienced people writing breaking news, but not just writing headlines. They're instantly putting things into context. If you are a devoted consumer of foreign news and look at the quantity of stuff that comes across the newswires from A.F.P. and Reuters and Bloomberg and various news agencies, you'd be literally swamped with information all day long, most impossible to absorb. You have basically a daily tsunami of irrelevant-to-you information. What our people do better than anyone else is to prioritize and jump on bigger stories and present from the get-go a discriminating judgment, to put it in perspective, tell you what's really important."

He acknowledged that the wires were increasingly putting out longer investigative and analytical pieces now, but pointed out that a general audience's needs are different from those of a finance-based readership.

"We know we're gonna be fast but we also know we're gonna be smart," he said. "Wires try to do that too, but need to cover a lot of stuff also because their financial readers want to see every headline that will affect some little market where they're trading. That's not the business we're in."

And as for television, that is considered less of a problem.

"CNN might have a headline up fast … but if you actually do a story-by-story comparison it's pretty rare that they beat us," he said. "If there's a big story, CNN's gonna have a headline up faster because they've always been a real-time, 24-7 cable network. … People did not traditionally think about The New York Times being a first responder in terms of headline news. The fact is we now beat CNN all the time, if you want to find out what's happening right now you can come to the New York Times homepage and find it faster than on CNN."

BUT ENTERING THIS COMPETITIVE FIELD WHEN most American organizations that revolve around a core newspaper product have fled it will be expensive.

Kahn wouldn’t offer numbers, but said there has been “no diminishment in terms of our budget for foreign news” and that “we have more people reporting for us”—about 75 of them on a full-time or essentially full-time basis—”than we ever did even in times that were financially more flush.”

Kahn did concede that the desk has “been under pressure to justify the very heavy increase in expenditures this year in terms of increasing coverage around the world.”

He said anyway that the operating budget isn't the point. They staff and budget for an intense news cycle, but not for the biggest spikes. For those, they get special handouts.

"Multiple times this year, Susan and I went to [Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson] and said, 'Here's what we think we need,' and they said, 'That sounds fine, we're gonna make it available.' It meant an almost open-ended commitment to give us resources we need to staff up on a particular story. It was the same with [the tsunami in] Japan. 'We're gonna need to call on Japanese-speakers throughout the paper, we need to bolster up the staff there; can we borrow these people?' Bill and Jill also made that call, made those people available, had extensive additional resources available to us for months; staying in hotels, racking up very heavy travel expenses, renting Geiger counters. Those calls are so frequent that whenever we have a big story we go directly to [them]."

The largeness of the expenses can change from one reporting theater to another. Satellite phones become essential at times like during battles in the Middle East or during the earthquake in Japan. Airtime fees can run in the tens of thousands to have a reporter call in stories from Japan on a satellite phone. In other areas, bulletproof vests and other security equipment is needed, not to mention the cost of shipping them into chaotic places on a moment's notice from nearby bureaus. And then there is the team of security consultants, necessary in some places for traveling with reporters and photographers in what he called "unstable areas." They also find safe locations for staff to stay, and interview locals who help facilitate the Times' work, and often, its reporting.

"Geiger counters by that standard are relatively inexpensive," Kahn said. "I don't think they are a major cost factor. But we wanted everyone going into Japan to have access to them, so we purchased as number of them and had them shipped to the bureau there."

Nor is it precisely unstrategic to have this foreign-emergency slush-fund handy. Kahn pointed out that nytimes.com has seen unprecedented spikes in traffic during this year’s accelerated global news cycle—more than a million readers at any given minute, for example, during the several hours this past February when it was unclear whether Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had resigned.

Data from the online metrics firm comScore likewise reveals a massive spike in March, to about 62 million unique visitors, when the tsunami hit Japan and the Arab Spring began to pick up steam. ComScore’s stats also confirm that the Times remains the world’s most-read newspaper brand on the web, with 46,000 uniques to Mail Online’s 41.5 million and Tribune’s 33.3 million.

“It’s a growth area for us in terms of readership,” said Kahn of the Times’ foreign coverage. “We’ve never gotten even a momentary signal, from [Times publisher] Arthur [Sulzberger Jr.] on down, that, ‘Jeez, I hope we don’t have another big foreign story to cover because we can’t devote the resources.’ On the contrary, I think they’re excited about what’s happening around the world and that it’s bringing in traffic. These stories are good for us. They signal that we’re indispensable.”

Such commitment to international coverage comes with a price tag of another sort for those who produce it. While the annual foreign budget isn’t diminishing, neither is it increasing. So even if Times brass are willing to write a check whenever there’s some natural disaster or tumultuous social uprising abroad, there’s still a fair amount of slack to be picked up.

“The number of different things all happening at once and the challenge of covering all of those stories intelligently while also presenting them in real time has put a lot more pressure on our correspondents now than it would have if we’d 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,” said Kahn.

“We have to continue to think about ways to enhance our coverage without throwing massive new financial resources at it,” he said. “This means getting reporting and rewrite help where we can, making fuller use of social media to enhance our coverage, getting editing support so we can leverage our coverage as much as possible. We have to just continue to do more with our existing resources.”

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