Liz Spayd is failing as the New York Times public editor.

The New York Times’ Public Editor Is Squandering the Most Important Watchdog Job in Journalism

The New York Times’ Public Editor Is Squandering the Most Important Watchdog Job in Journalism

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 14 2017 1:35 PM

Dear Public Editor: What Are You Doing?

How Liz Spayd is squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.

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Times readers may not be the best judges of what the paper should be doing.

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Say what you will about the headdesk-inducing columns of the New York Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, but don’t say she didn’t warn us.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

Spayd, a former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and managing editor of the Washington Post, made her mission clear when she took on the prominent post of in-house critic and reader liaison at the Times last summer. Where various predecessors had prioritized the maintenance of ethical standards or the tricky transition from print to the internet, Spayd diagnosed the paper’s most pressing problem as “a newsroom too distant from the people it serves.” She pledged to listen, really listen, to readers’ ideas and concerns about the organization’s coverage, and to push the paper’s leaders to take them just as seriously.

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Listening to readers might sound like a worthy, even obvious, goal for an ombudswoman. When the Times created the position in 2003 in response to the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, it was meant “to serve as a representative for readers.” The paper endowed the role with broad editorial leeway, real estate in the Sunday print edition, and a guarantee of access to the publisher, giving the public editor a uniquely influential perch from which to hold the nation’s most powerful periodical to account. To ensure her independence, she reports directly to the publisher.

In her first nine months on the job, Spayd has largely delivered on her promise. Most of her column ideas appear to spring directly from the public editor’s email inbox, which she and her assistant monitor vigilantly. She quotes from readers’ missives prolifically, and she presents their sundry beefs and prescriptions with a level of respect that verges on reverence.

But if we’ve learned one big lesson from Spayd’s work so far, it’s this: Readers are quite often wrong. Of course the public editor should listen to them and take them seriously. The real challenge, though, is to distinguish between their wishes and their true interests, to understand not only where those overlap but where they diverge, and to recognize which should influence the paper’s editorial decisions and which should not.

At that difficult task, Spayd has repeatedly failed.

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Her Sunday, April 9 column, which sympathized with readers’ chauvinistic gripes about the Times’ sports page, was only the latest of several that have prompted more criticism of Spayd’s own judgment than of the paper she’s paid to scrutinize. Her takes on false balance (she’s for it), reporters’ tweets (she’s against them), and the paper’s campaign coverage (not enough false balance) stand out among the howlers.

That Spayd sometimes swings and misses is not in itself an indictment. Anyone who thinks her job sounds easy would certainly be far worse at it than she is. What’s damning are the direction in which she habitually errs and the consistency with which she does so. It suggests that the trouble lies not so much with Spayd’s intelligence, as some critics have colorfully suggested, but in her basic outlook on journalism. And the signs were there all along.

From the smug headline of her first column—“Want to Attract More Readers? Try Listening to Them.”—Spayd brought a sensibility starkly different from that of her thoughtful, principled predecessor, Margaret Sullivan. Working from the premise that the Times’ top priority should be to broaden its audience—for business reasons—Spayd seemed to view herself as a corporate consultant more than a journalism critic.

Yet it’s a peculiar kind of business strategist who eschews data on millions of consumers’ behavior in favor of interrogating them one by one. “What the Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl,” Spayd lamented. Instead, she suggested, the paper’s top editors should spend their time peppering individual subscribers with questions, such as, “What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?” She proceeded to undermine her own argument by citing as examples a series of audience trends—the shift to mobile, the rise of ad-blockers—that could have only been detected in the aggregate. My colleague Isaac Chotiner was quick to catch on to what he called her “phony populism,” whose underlying assumption seemed to be that the paper’s editors ought to prioritize the whims of random readers over their own news judgment. (Au revoir, overseas bureaus!)

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It remained possible to hope at that juncture that Spayd had merely gotten off to a bad start. Instead, the themes she laid out in that column have permeated her work ever since. So have the clichés and the fallacies.

Spayd’s broadside against the sports page may not be the most consequential example, but it’s an illustrative one. Her letter writers, we learn, are peeved that the section devotes resources to feature stories on bighorn sheep hunting, Nordic surfing, and college basketball coaches’ neckwear, while shirking quotidian beat coverage of local teams in the major professional sports. “Why does a soccer column from Europe get more play than a column on sports in America?” reader Charles Paikert of South Orange, New Jersey, demands to know.

It’s a fair enough topic for a column. The public editor’s role includes interrogating the paper’s editors on readers’ behalf and reporting on their editorial process. To her credit, Spayd does that, giving sports editor Jason Stallman a chance to explain that his section is pitched to a global, general-interest audience—an approach supported by internal data showing that just 20 percent of its readership is local. With a much smaller sports staff than industry giants such as ESPN, the Times has learned to pick its spots, prioritizing features and investigations over comprehensive game coverage. “We’re always looking for what people wouldn’t get elsewhere, for what’s not being done,” Stallman says. It seems to be working: Spayd reports that the Times’ sports page is punching above its weight, trafficwise.

Bizarrely, after all that, Spayd sides with the soccer hater from South Orange. Making a scapegoat of the bighorn-sheep–hunting story—which was excellent, by the way, and which even Spayd acknowledges “resonated with many readers”—she finds it “hard to imagine how a staff of 20 writers—with a mandate to cover the world—can afford to pick such obscure targets.” (As Stallman had just explained, it’s precisely those constraints that preclude a more conventional, comprehensive approach.) She proposes instead a “litmus test” for story selection that includes such stultifying questions as “How close is it to the biggest dramas of professional sports?” and “Will it help a reader follow the pulsing heart of the NFL?” (As opposed to its damaged brain?)

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No matter that the Times has good reasons for covering sports the way it does. If Chuck in South Orange wants his red meat, then who are those effete Times editors to serve him veggie wraps? Spayd would strip the section of everything that differentiates it in an oversaturated market—in 2017, readers have no shortage of venues for straightforward coverage of the major sports—to cater to the prejudices of the sort of fellow who gets so irked at the presence of foreigners on his sports page that he tosses the paper down and huffs off to email the public editor about it.

Fortunately, Stallman and company appeared to laugh off Spayd’s advice. (No doubt Spayd disapproved of the cheeky tweet from the section.) The column, like others before it, was derided both within the newsroom and without. (“What’s with all these interesting stories where the box scores should be?Deadspin’s Lindsey Adler deadpanned.)

That apparently doesn’t bother her: Spayd has said from the outset that she’s “not there to make friends,” and I suppose it’s a testament to her authenticity that she really doesn’t seem to care what industry wags say about her on Twitter. It might help that she evidently has no idea how to use Twitter—which could also explain her weird valorization of reader emails as sacred windows into the soul of the common subscriber.

Yet if authenticity and consistency are among Spayd’s virtues, her vices include obtuse logic, shoddy epistemology, and the sort of common-sense conventionalism that a public editor ought to be challenging rather than championing. Nowhere were these traits on more embarrassing display than in her righteous rebuke of a jokey tweet by Times culture writer Sopan Deb, in which he made light of a tweet from the rapper Bow Wow that crudely insulted the first lady. Deb’s tweet was taken up by the men’s rights activist Mike Cernovich as an example of the left’s hypocrisy on gender issues, and he urged his legion of alt-right Twitter goons to fill Spayd’s inbox with complaints. Incredibly, she took the bait, devoting a whole column to Deb’s “ill-advised” pun and extracting from him a promise to “be more careful.” If Spayd must hew so dutifully to the gripes of readers, she should probably first check to see if they’re Nazi frog sock puppets.

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With her CJR and Washington Post pedigree, old-school news sense, and thick skin, Spayd must have struck the Times’ higher-ups as just the sort of person you’d want negotiating the sharp-elbowed conflicts between the paper and its discontents. When I emailed her for comment on this story, including my hypothesis that she gives outsize weight to unrepresentative samples of reader complaints, Spayd responded promptly and without rancor. In the spirit of her own lavish blockquoting of reader emails, here’s her full response:

It’s definitely a challenge to navigate how much I should focus on what readers are concerned about and how much should come from my own journalistic instincts. It needs to be a balance. I hold the position of “public editor,” after all, and I want to be a fair representative of the reader. That doesn't mean I always agree with what they say, but if a worthwhile issue is raised, it deserves attention.
On other occasions, I let my own instincts be my guide. I can think of numerous examples of that, but my columns on Russian hacking were initiated by my own concerns about New York Times coverage.

It’s hard to disagree with much of that, including Spayd’s assertion that she has produced some worthwhile original critiques of the paper’s reporting. Her column on the paper’s Russian hacking coverage may not be the best example, though—and if she thinks she made it through the whole thing without quoting any reader emails, her recollection is mistaken.

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One of Spayd’s beloved block-quotes.

Screenshot, NYTimes.com

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Still, I can think of at least a few instances in which Spayd’s cherished inbox steered her right, such as when a reader asked why the Times was slow to cover a series of prison strikes around the country, while outlets such as Vice dove right in. While I’d quibble with Spayd’s framing of the question around “the race for millennials”—as in, millennial news audiences, whose coveted clicks are not the only reason to cover prison strikes—her verdict was on point. It was an example, she concluded, of the Times’ propensity to think that “something isn’t news until it says so.”

That sort of insight into the unexamined structural biases that shape a newspaper’s coverage is exactly what both the Times and its readers need more of from Spayd at a pivotal time in the institution’s and the nation’s history. Why can’t she give us more of that and less facile scolding of reporters for offhand jokes on the grounds that someone might misinterpret them and take offense?

No doubt Spayd is a capable journalist. The problem is that she’s exactly the wrong sort of journalist for the job. She shares with many successful newspaper editors I’ve met a set of predilections that conspire to make them champions of the status quo even when they think they’re contesting it. She traffics in anecdotes rather than data, evinces little tolerance for intellectual exercise, and settles complex disputes via “the smell test.” Those traits often serve them well: You don’t beat the competition on a big breaking news story by overthinking it. You win prizes from committees of veteran newshounds by following in journalism’s hallowed traditions, not flouting them.

On the other hand, you don’t stumble across a lot of fresh, provocative critiques of the status quo if you aren’t willing to overthink things now and then. (See New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s sprawling attack on the ideology of journalistic objectivity, which he calls “the view from nowhere,” after a book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.) Spayd’s “false balance” argument was such a glaring case of underthinking that commentators from other publications practically raced each other to tally up the logical fallacies. Often her headlines give away the hollowness of the arguments below, as with her attempt at a sweeping postmortem on the Times’ election coverage: “One Thing Voters Agree On: Better Campaign Coverage Was Needed.”

At a time when journalism’s norms are under assault from all sides—the right, the left, Russian hackers, social media, and most worryingly, the presidency—the opportunity for a brilliant media critic with the ear of the Times’ top editors to effect progress could hardly be greater. Instead we have Spayd worrying that the sports page isn’t sportsy enough, that the tweets are too tweety, that lies should be called lies only “rarely,” and that, yes, better campaign coverage was needed.

Perhaps I’ll email Spayd back, in my capacity as a loyal Times reader, with a complaint of my own: Better media coverage is needed.

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