The decision this morning by The New York Times to eliminate the position of public editor touched off a debate over the value of a position established in the wake of the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal to hold the paper’s editors and reporters accountable to industry standards and reader concerns.
Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. explained the move in a memo to staff: “The responsibility of the public editor—to serve as the reader’s representative—has outgrown that one office.”
According to Sulzberger, “When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.” To that end, the paper will rely on an expanded comment section and social media feedback, as well as a new “reader center,” which was announced yesterday.
Relying on social media critiques and angry voices in the comment sections is a curious way of replacing an experienced journalist who could offer nuance and perspective while writing with the institutional backing of the nation’s most influential newspaper. The move comes at a moment when public confidence in the media is at an all-time low. In a time when the value of introspection and transparency is at a premium, cutting a position designed to provide both smacks of self-satisfaction and a misreading of the current media landscape.
The last day for current Public Editor Elizabeth Spayd will be Friday. Spayd, who previously served as editor and publisher of CJR, was hired by the Times last summer for a two-year term. She stepped into the job at a precarious moment for the paper, as it faced criticism from the left and right for its coverage of the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In an email to CJR, Spayd writes:
The Times is reimagining itself in all sorts of ways, and the decision to eliminate the public editor’s role is just one part of that. I’m honored to have been among the six who’ve sat in this chair, and to be among those who tried to keep a great institution great, even as it made the inevitable stumbles.
I imagine all five of my predecessors would agree that while it can be an unusually stressful job, it’s also one that’s highly rewarding.
While Spayd wrote insightfully about newsroom diversity and the fading fortunes of women at the Times, she faced criticism for several columns, including one that questioned the strategy behind the paper’s sports section and another that took a Times reporter to task for a lighthearted tweet.
Since its inception in 2003, the role of the public editor has been to serve as an independent voice within the Times. That last part is critical. The Times, as Sulzberger notes, receives plenty of criticism from outside its walls. Reporters and editors are generally, and admirably, responsive to questions from organizations like CJR. But Spayd’s predecessor Margaret Sullivan writes in an email to CJR that “The public editor is in a unique position to get answers from the organization’s top brass and to insist on accountability.”
5. I did feel, while doing it for almost four years, that I served an important purpose for the readership — and for The Times itself. -30-
— Margaret Sullivan (@Sulliview) May 31, 2017
The public editor reported directly to the publisher, rather than the executive editor, and was charged with reviewing standards and practices and serving as a liaison between readers and the newsroom. Unlike outside critics, the public editor had unique access to Times staff. “At least in my arrangement, the reporters weren’t obligated to answer questions, but they had to take them,” says Byron Calame, who served as public editor from 2005 to 2007.
Calame agrees the media environment has shifted, and the ability of readers to directly critique coverage has outpaced the public editor’s ability to respond. But answering audience critiques of specific stories was only part of the public editor’s role. Also important was the ability to hold top editors’ feet to the fire and to evaluate the broader effectiveness of the Times’s coverage of certain topics.
The move, first reported by HuffPost, comes four years after The Washington Post eliminated its ombudsman position, and leaves only two major media outlets, NPR and ESPN, with public editors or ombudsmen.
ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady tells CJR in an email: “I don’t want to speak to the Times‘ decision specifically, as I don’t know enough about the considerations involved. But I do still believe the public editor role is important. Yes, the explosion of sites covering the press and the rise of social media [has] dramatically increased the number of voices critiquing journalism. But internal critics have access to information and to people most others don’t, and they’re required to publish criticism under the same brands they’re criticizing. I think that’s good for transparency and speaks well to a publisher’s seriousness of purpose.”
Daniel Okrent, the Times’s first public editor, was direct about what the paper has lost: “I think it’s a shame,” he tells CJR. “I think the paper would be better off continuing it. I think that the Post would have been better off keeping theirs.”
The public editor is more important than ever as trust in the press remains low. It's not about engagement, it's about accountability. https://t.co/DVAU2qJgoO
— Andrew M. Seaman (@andrewmseaman) May 31, 2017
The question for media watchers concerned about the future of the nation’s most influential newspaper is somewhat simple: What is lost by eliminating the public editor role? For Okrent, the answer lies in the authority the Times lent its internal critic by printing his or her words under the paper’s own banner. “Even though the person is independent of the Times, presumably that person knows a lot more about how the paper works than somebody who is just offering their words online,” Okrent says.
Okrent worries the move will be seen by critics of the Times as an attempt to limit transparency. “My concern is that this will be used against the paper by its enemies,” Okrent says. “For somebody who doesn’t like the Times, and there are a lot of them out there, they’ll say See, they’re cowards, they’re not willing to have their own stuff examined any longer. They’re afraid that their public editor is going to find them doing things wrong. They don’t really believe in transparency.’ You can write the tweets that are going to be coming about this over the next 48 hours.”
In a statement, Deputy Managing Editor Cliff Levy says the new reader center will allow readers to “hold us accountable, helping to ensure that we meet the standards of quality, fairness and accuracy that they expect from The New York Times.”
Twitter is a pretty good public editor. https://t.co/Xflm9NjpRX
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) May 31, 2017
What’s certain is that accountability will no longer come in the form of one voice imbued with authority by the Times itself.