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Feb. 11, 2021, 1:34 p.m.
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The New York Times’ new opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, on reimagining opinion journalism

“I always say you can be provocative, but you shouldn’t be provocative by accident.”

Kathleen Kingsbury took the reins at The New York Times’ opinion section at an especially fraught moment. Amid a pandemic, a historic movement for racial justice, and a bitterly contested election, her predecessor James Bennet abruptly resigned after overseeing the publication of an incendiary and factually inaccurate op-ed calling for federal troops to suppress protests.

Kingsbury was appointed acting editor, a position she was to hold through the elections in November 2020. It was a very public tryout — but it seems to have gone rather well. In late January, the Times confirmed Kingsbury would officially assume the role of “opinion editor,” a title change for the role previously known as “editorial page editor.”

During the “Send in the Troops” uproar, New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger noted in a memo to staff that the “significant breakdown in our editing processes” that led to the op-ed’s publication was “not the first we’ve experienced in recent years.” (A couple of the previous incidents that come to mind? The Times had to append a lengthy editor’s note to a column by Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist hired by Bennet, that touted a discredited genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence, and it faces a defamation lawsuit from Sarah Palin about a passage that Bennet inserted into a 2017 editorial.)

As acting editor, Kingsbury was tasked with preventing another breakdown. She reduced Opinion’s general publishing volume by roughly 25 to 30 percent in a quality control effort. (Kingsbury said the Times opinion section saw its median pageviews increase “significantly” after the reduction, but didn’t speculate on why.) The opinion department already had fact-checkers, but Kingsbury hired more and promoted one, Gita Daneshjoo, to head of fact-checking.

Announcing Kingsbury’s official appointment last month, Sulzberger wrote that Kingsbury had been given a “mandate” to continue reimagining op-eds, widen the array of voices in the Times’ pages, and expand further into new forms like audio, video, and graphics.

Kingsbury — who arrived at the Times in 2017 from The Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing and served as managing editor of digital — said she had experience acting as “the connective tissue” between various teams, but wound up making herself especially available in the aftermath of the Cotton op-ed.

On the Sunday that Bennet resigned, Kingsbury sent a note saying that, until a better system was in place, if staff see “any piece of Opinion journalism — including headlines or social posts or photos or you name it — that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.” Kingsbury said that ad-hoc system was used only once but that she spent weeks having phone and Zoom conversations with anyone in the department who wanted to talk to her.

“One of the things that became clear was that the department is quite siloed,” Kingsbury said. “Even though I had been running half of it, I found I didn’t actually know how a lot of the department worked.”

Putting the Times’ platform to “more powerful use”

“My view is that Times opinion has got the best platform in the world for ideas journalism,” Kingsbury said. “The thinking behind expanding into other forms has been, ‘How can we be putting that to even more powerful use than we have in the past?'”

The Times is experimenting with audio snippets interlaced with text, such as Stuart A. Thompson‘s invitation to listen in on pro-Trump QAnon adherents. The opinion section is also building a team around three podcasts featuring big-name hires: Kara Swisher’s Sway, The Ezra Klein Show, and The Argument, where Jane Coaston (formerly of Vox) is stepping into hosting duties. Kingsbury sees the latter, in its revamped form, as one way to bring more diverse voices into the Times’ audio offerings.

“One of my messages for the team when I took the job — and this is something I feel really powerfully about — was that Opinion is going to be a place where debate is elevated and ideas will be pressure-tested and audiences will hear from people they agree and disagree with,” Kingsbury said. “I think the next iteration of The Argument is going to be even more dedicated to that than the first one. [Columnists Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg] are certainly going to be a regular presence on the show but we want to pull in an even broader range of expertise and experience and voices into it.”

Kingsbury said the Times is also the early stages of developing what an audio version of op-eds — opinion essays from outside contributors — would look (and sound) like. Opinion videos have included a look at lessons the NBA has to teach us about income inequality and allowing professional runner Mary Cain to narrate her own story surviving an abusive coach and weight-obsessed culture.

Some opinion projects find more than one final form. The editorial board’s process of endorsing a candidate in the Democratic primary became an episode of The Weekly, a limited-run podcast hosted by Kingsbury, and richly annotated transcripts. Kingsbury was overseeing the process because Bennet recused himself when his brother, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), was a presidential candidate. She publicly defended the editorial board when The Choice became The Choices. (Of endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the nomination, Kingsbury now reflects: “We ended up confusing people by choosing two.”)

Some columnists and contributors have been more receptive to incorporating video, audio, and graphics than others, Kingsbury said. She called Nick Kristof one of “the most eager and willing to try these kind of experiments,” pointing to his op-ed about death row inmate Kevin Cooper that wove graphics and photo evidence alongside text. Other recent mixed-media examples include Farhad Manjoo tracing his Covid-19 bubble and the most recent article in an ongoing investigation by Thompson and Charlie Warzel into smartphone tracking called “One Nation, Tracked.”

Kingsbury is planning a redesign of the daily opinion and Sunday Review sections in print, but emphasized the department’s digital-first approach.

“We have made this commitment, we’ve brought in all of these resources, we’ve hired all these talented people,” she said. “How do we make sure we’re constantly creating magic, being a laboratory for trying new things, and being at the cutting edge of opinion journalism — and hopefully journalism overall?”

On challenging Times readers

Kingsbury does not like the word unity. But she believes rebuilding and rethinking norms and institutions after the Trump presidency will require uncomfortable conversations.

“I think it’s important to challenge our readers who come from the left — on both sides, really,” she said. “I think that’s an important mission for us because, again, how will we ever find compromise if you don’t understand the context around where the other side is coming from?”

“It wasn’t like it was a landslide for Joe Biden,” she added.

The Times will continue to publish opinions on politics, policy, and foreign policy — “our bread and butter,” as Kingsbury put it — but she’s been thinking about how to best make room for opinion pieces that don’t easily fit on a left-right spectrum.

Kingsbury’s family is from Wisconsin, and she spent several months of the pandemic in what she describes as “among the redder” parts of the state. Her neighbors were more worried about supporting their families than the pitched political battles unfolding far from home.

“One of the things that struck me there is how often people had such heterodox political views. If it was a person who had a small child, what they really cared about was, ‘How do we get funding for childcare, for early childhood education?,'” she said. “They weren’t necessarily wedded to this political spectrum that we can often be, as an industry.”

“One example is the question around defunding the police,” she continued. “It’s really the question, ‘What should law enforcement look like in America?’ How are we bringing in the right voices, the right expertise, the right people to weigh in on bigger ideas as opposed to polemic arguments on whether or not to defund the police?”

On creating structure — and joy

Kingsbury said she and Sulzberger tend to talk daily, and that though the publisher is willing to “get in the weeds on questions about, for instance, the editorial voice,” his role is “more partner than micromanager.”

One thing they’re collaborating on is making sure the distinction between news and opinion content is clear. Kingsbury brought up a recent campaign from The Wall Street Journal that highlighted the differences between the two sections and their standards. (“I thought it was great,” she said. “It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Oh, I wish I’d had that idea.'”)

She says adopting better editorial processes and structure after Cotton’s op-ed ultimately allows the section to be more creative. “I always say you can be provocative, but you shouldn’t be provocative by accident,” Kingsbury said.

Throughout our interview Kingsbury is bright — even joyful — talking about the myriad tasks at hand. She revels in the experiments that have worked (she once pushed to devote an entire editorial page to bird murals over the objections of a few peers) and those that didn’t (readers did not appreciate when the editorial board gave Trump voters the opportunity to make their “best case” for his first year in office). Feedback is welcome, even if she doesn’t always agree. As Kingsbury said, “One of the joys of opinion is that you get to be opinionated, right?”

POSTED     Feb. 11, 2021, 1:34 p.m.
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