The New York Times Succession Sweepstakes Is Probably Settled

New York Times succession drama
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
October 22, 2021

Last month, Dean Baquet turned 65, the age when the executive editor of The New York Times traditionally relinquishes his title. Given the challenges of Covid, Baquet graciously opted to extend his stay, but handicapping his successor has returned to the fore as one of media’s favorite parlour games. 

And in many ways, it’s an overdue one. Baquet, after all, seized the top job via some shrewd political engineering that led to the largely bloodless coup, in 2014, in which he ascended from managing editor to executive editor and Jill Abramson exited with what is believed to be a generous severance. There were some recriminations, a few weird New York Post covers, including one with Abramson in boxing gloves, and the threat of a tell-all book that morphed into a different project. But in the end, it didn’t amount to much. Baquet went on a listening tour throughout the building, and then went back to work.

During the intervening years, Baquet has had an enormously successful tenure at the Times, perhaps the most storied since Joe Lelyveld—he’ll be able to hang his hat on the Weinstein investigation, The Daily, the paper’s remarkable Trump coverage (including its historic tax series), its odyssey from Carlos Slim’s predatory loan to a $9 billion market cap behemoth, and the expansion of the brand’s enormously successful lifestyle division. Underappreciated is that he did it all while keeping his ambitious potential successors at bay. In some way, that might have been the most difficult trick to pull off, especially at a place like the Times, which is notorious for its infighting.

Regardless, Baquet will step down no later than next summer, and Times insiders are now anxiously awaiting publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s selection of a new editorial leader the way Catholics await Vatican smoke signals. The politicking has started. 

Gabriel Snyder, the author of the new Off The Record newsletter, recently posted a set of tongue-in-cheek odds that more or less match the conventional wisdom coursing through the building: Managing editor Joe Kahn, Baquet’s current No. 2, was listed as the clear favorite; deputy managing editors Cliff Levy and Carolyn Ryan were a distant second and third, respectively, and assistant managing editor Marc Lacey brought up the rear in fourth. (There are sixteen more names on the list, but none of them need to be taken seriously.)

These odds are mostly, but not entirely, right, per a survey of my Times sources. Kahn is certainly the most likely successor: The Harvard-educated son of a notable New England businessman, he has spent nearly two-and-a-half decades at the paper and amassed an impressively varied C.V., including stints as a business reporter, Beijing bureau chief, and international editor before being promoted to Baquet’s second in command. He is described as smart and polished, with a firm grasp of both the business and editorial requirements that come with being atop the masthead. He believes he will get the job, sources close to him say, and most other candidates believe he will get the job, too.

Levy’s odds of inheriting Baquet’s role, or becoming Kahn’s second in command, are actually longer than Snyder’s list suggests. A Princeton man, he’s been at the paper almost as long as Kahn and has a similarly if not quite as varied C.V., including stints as Moscow bureau chief and Metro editor. He also has a couple of Pulitzers. In recent months, he’s taken on oversight of standards and integrity, a thankless but important role for a paper that has been embroiled in internal conflicts driven by the frustrations of some of its younger, more progressive employees. But Levy, sources tell me, has more of a demeanor of a No. 2: the guy who does the work and keeps the newsroom humming. He lacks Kahn’s grace and élan.

If and when Kahn assumes the top position, it is Ryan, not Levy, who is likely to be promoted to managing editor: She is widely admired by Times journalists for her leadership and news judgment. As much as anyone, she is personally responsible for awakening the Times from an era of complacency by bringing on and guiding shit-kicking reporters from Maggie Haberman to Ben Smith, who helped change the culture by, among other things, adding adrenaline to an engine that once hummed at a more academic pace. She has been a force for greater diversity at the paper, leading the most diverse recruitment effort in its history. She would also become the first L.G.B.T.Q.+ Times journalist ever to assume a spot that high on the masthead. And while her skills and C.V. alone qualify her for the managing editor position (and, many say, the executive editor position) it goes without saying that Sulzberger is too smart to make the mistake of promoting two straight white men to lead the paper.

Politico’s New World Order

The second most compelling media leadership story right now is Axel Springer’s takeover of Politico, which closed this week. Already, it’s off to a slightly rocky start. On Thursday, Axel chief Mathias Döpfner was forced to walk back plans to put Politico behind a paywall, saying in a meeting with his new staff that it was “a mistake” to make such a claim and that “no decision has been made.” That has hardly quelled Politico staffers’ anxieties about their future. But more nerve-wracking than any paywall plan is the leadership vacuum following a recent exodus from the newsroom. In the last three months, executive editor Paul Volpe, top editor Carrie Budoff Brown, and managing editor Blake Hounshell have all abandoned ship (Volpe and Hounshell for the Times; Brown for NBC News).

Politico is no stranger to turnover. The Arlington, Virginia-based company has long served as a farm team for top national news outlets, and it has always been able to fill its vacant chairs with new hires. Their next big hire will be announced next week: Jonathan Lemire, the Associated Press White House correspondent and ubiquitous green room presence, is moving to Politico, partly so that he can also take on a new role hosting MSNBC’s Way Too Early, three sources with knowledge of the matter tell me. (In short: The AP didn’t want him splitting his time with MSNBC; Politico was OK with it). 

But of course, one notable reporting hire does not a great newsroom make. The general consensus at Politico now, and certainly among a lot of its alumni, is that its best days are behind it. Without strong leadership, they fear it is destined to become the new CQ Roll Call. 

One last note on this: The Times‘ Ben Smith reported this week that Döpfner had at one point floated a plan to acquire both Politico and Axios, and install Jim VandeHei, a cofounder of both companies, as chief executive of the combined entity. At least, that’s what VandeHei told his staff at Axios. Döpfner now assures Politico staff, “there was at no point the idea, as it was written—I think—that Axios top management should become editor-in-chief of Politico or something like that.” (Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has some additional dish on all that).

Who should you believe? I’d put greater stock in VandeHei’s word than that of the guy who just had to walk back his publicly-stated paywall plans. Either way, it’s water under the bridge.

Facebook’s New Identity May Come Next Week

Mark Zuckerberg is indeed planning to change the Facebook company name as early as next week, sources there tell me, confirming a report by The Verge’s Alex Heath. Zuckerberg’s motivations here are twofold. Obviously, the parent company is looking to distance itself from some of the toxic stink that has been associated with its signature product. (As Alex Kantrowitz reported yesterday in Puck, Facebook executives are well aware of their brand’s connotations.) But the move is also motivated by Zuckerberg’s larger ambitions to move beyond social media—most specifically in the metaverse. Think of this as Facebook’s Alphabet moment, analogous to when Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to create a new parent company for Google. That’s all I have for now, but there’s more to come. Watch this space. 

Lastly, My Three Favorite Stories of the Week

The Tech Billionaire Aiding the Facebook Whistleblower, by Politico’s Emily Nussbuam: “The Facebook whistleblower whose disclosures have shaken the world’s largest social network has drawn behind-the-scenes help from a big player in the online world: Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire tech critic who founded eBay.”

The Battle of the Streaming Gatekeepers Heats Up, by The Information’s Jessica Toonkel and Sahil Patel: “Amazon, Roku, Google and others are fighting to own the software in connected televisions, all for a cut of the subscription and advertising dollars pouring into the category. But TV makers and entertainment companies are worried about their tightening grip on streaming content.”

M.I.T.’s Choice of Lecturer Ignited Criticism. So Did Its Decision to Cancel, by NYT’s Michael Powell: “Dorian Abbot is a scientist who has opposed aspects of affirmative action. He is now at the center of an argument over free speech and acceptable discourse.”