More than 14 million people tuned in Thursday for the clash of 10 presidential candidates in Houston on ABC News and Univision, the second-largest audience to date for a Democratic primary debate.
Only the NBC News debate in June, which drew 18.1 million viewers on its second night, outranked it. And total viewership on Thursday was likely far higher, since Nielsen figures do not count online audiences and livestreams.
Broadcasts of primary debates are, foremost, a civic service, offering voters an unexpurgated view of the candidates. But they also serve as tent pole events for the media organizations that sponsor them, a chance to showcase journalism and burnish the brand in front of some of the biggest audiences in news.
Next month, a newcomer is joining the debate game: The New York Times.
The paper said on Friday that it planned to co-host, with CNN, next month’s matchup in Westerville, Ohio, the fourth debate of the Democratic nominating contest. A pair of CNN anchors, Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett, will share moderating duties with The Times’s national editor, Marc Lacey.
It is not hugely unusual for newspapers to team up with television networks for a debate night: The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other print news outlets, co-sponsored events in the 2016 campaign.
But The Times, despite chronicling more than a century’s worth of American elections, has abstained in recent years from formally organizing a high-profile forum for candidates. The last time it happened was 2004, when one of its reporters co-moderated a Democratic debate in New York.
With millions of eyeballs comes intense scrutiny, and The Times’s entry into the tricky work of organizing a debate comes as the paper is expanding its reach beyond the traditional print product.
“The Weekly,” a documentary-style show on FX and Hulu featuring Times journalists, debuted in June. An adaptation of the paper’s “Modern Love” column — starring Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, and other notable actors — begins streaming on Amazon in October. Its podcast “The Daily” is among the most popular in the country, and a Showtime documentary about the paper’s inner workings aired in 2018.
Such efforts are rooted in the paper’s journalism. Still, it’s a shift for an institution that shied away in the past from self-promotion — sometimes, its critics argued, to its detriment.
“Our decision to take a leading role in planning and hosting a debate grew out of our mission to cover the major issues and concerns facing voters and the country,” the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, and its politics editor, Patrick Healy, wrote in a memo on Friday.
The paper is also considering taking part in additional events. “If 2020 Republican primary debates are held, we intend to look into helping plan one of those, as well as a general election debate next year,” Mr. Baquet and Mr. Healy wrote.
Mr. Healy said in an email that The Times approached the Democratic National Committee “as a way to understand the process for planning and presenting debates.” Soon afterward, the paper began discussing a joint editorial approach with CNN.
Sponsoring news organizations are responsible for the costs of each event, which can be significant. Along with renting a venue and paying a production crew, the sponsoring outlets oversee the construction of a set — usually festooned by massive and expensive LED screens — and the logistics of a live television production.
The Times acknowledged on Friday that its debate partnership with CNN includes “a financial component,” but declined to discuss specific terms.
CNN is the first television network to secure a repeat sponsorship of a 2020 debate. CBS News is aiming to hold an event closer to the Iowa caucuses early next year. Fox News requested a debate, but was turned down by the Democratic National Committee.
The mid-October event will be the first Democratic primary debate in Ohio since February 2008, when NBC News sponsored one between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Cleveland. A Republican contest in Cleveland in August 2015, featuring a voluble upstart named Donald J. Trump, retains the record for viewership of a primary debate, with 24 million watching on Fox News.