The media today: Requiem for a lost job

For 14 years, a succession of accomplished journalists held “a job few envied but most people in journalism circles paid close attention to.” That job: public editor of The New York Times. In an excellent oral history for CJR, Andy Robinson spoke with the six people to hold the position, gathering honest, often blunt, recollections of their time in the arena.

Robinson traces the evolution of the position, from its establishment in 2003 following the Jayson Blair scandal that shook the Times’s newsroom and brought down its two top editors through its transformation in an age of blogs and, later, social media. In this way, it’s not just the story of how a position changed, but also how the media landscape has been transformed in the 21st century.

The Times, of course, eliminated the public editor job in May, part of a larger newsroom restructuring that shifted resources from editing to reporting. That decision sparked intense debate within journalism circles over whether the position had outlived its usefulness, and how outlets can best be held accountable.

Robinson’s story contains thoughtful responses to those questions and others, but anecdotal nuggets really bring life to the experience of holding the job. For example, Liz Spayd, the final public editor (and former editor and publisher of CJR), shared a story about Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who was particularly livid in response to a January column in which she argued that the paper had been “timid” in its reporting on connections between Russia and Trump. “He was like out of control. But I got his attention, and hopefully he’ll think twice about what he knows about a serious investigation into a presidential candidate and not writing about it. You know? Like, what the fuck?” 

For Baquet’s response, and other stories of life in one of journalism’s most scrutinized jobs, check out the piece. Below, more on the public editor position, at the Times and around the industry.


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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.