If the New York Times still planned to employ a public editor, she’d blast what the venerable newspaper just did. Maybe she will yet.
The paper announced Wednesday that it is eliminating the public editor position after 14 years. Its current occupant, Liz Spayd, will step down after Friday. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone broke the news on the same day that the Times announced a major round of newsroom buyouts, which will include a significant downsizing of its editing staff. But the public editor announcement came separately, in the form of a memo from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. He wrote, in part:
The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.
The paper declined my requests for further comment and for clarification as to whether Spayd will publish a final column before she goes. I hope she does, and I hope she makes it count.
I’ve written at length about Spayd’s failings as the Times’ sixth public editor, and I was not the only one to do so. Presumably her controversial performance in the role helped give the paper’s leadership cover to do away with it altogether. But it shouldn’t. Spayd was disappointing not because she occupied a role that had lost its meaning but because she squandered a role that should have been as meaningful as ever before.
The Times created the public editor position in 2003 in response to the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, at a time when the paper seemed to have grown dangerously disconnected from its audience. Back then, it made sense to organize the role around an email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, giving readers a new way to reach the paper with their critiques and concerns. At the time, blogging was nascent; Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist; email was the thing.
From the beginning, though, the Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent, showed that the job could be much more substantive than that of email reader–in–chief. His January 2004 column “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” remains a classic. It’s a flawed classic, in my view, because Okrent mistakenly viewed gay marriage opposition as a legitimate political position worthy of sympathy and positive coverage. But a classic, nonetheless, because it sliced to the core of the sort of important, existential question that the Times ought to be publicly asking itself on a regular basis. He also challenged the paper to introspect more honestly about the incentives that shaped its disastrous coverage of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. And he took a thoughtful look at the Times’ reliance on anonymous sources—as urgent a topic today as it was then.
The quality of the public editor column has fluctuated in the years since Okrent left. But Spayd’s immediate predecessor, Margaret Sullivan, proved throughout her stint that the role could be as vital as ever in the social media era—provided its occupant made it so. Sullivan, an avid Twitter user, understood that social media changed the paper’s relationship with its readers in complex ways. Even as it made the Times more accountable to the public’s immediate complaints, it created enticements that at times threatened everything from the paper’s business model to its workflow to its underlying values. Sullivan saw, in short, what Sulzberger clearly doesn’t: that when it comes to thoughtful media criticism, the endless, crazy-making din of social media is no substitute for a single human intelligence. (She continues to write thoughtfully on these issues in her new role as media columnist for the Washington Post, which jettisoned its own ombudsman in 2013.)
On Wednesday, Sullivan tweeted a measured reaction to the announcement, saying she was convinced during her tenure that the public editor still “served an important purpose for the readership—and for the Times itself.” She had elaborated in greater depth when I emailed her in April for a story I was considering about the future of the position. (I don’t think she knew then that the Times would cut it; I certainly didn’t.) Here is an excerpt from her response:
The most important aspect of the public editor’s role (at The Times or other media companies that employ ombudsmen) is the ability to get top editors to address a controversial issue—to seriously consider, and publicly answer, questions and complaints. The public editor can then challenge those answers with further questioning or by registering disagreement. He or she can also give voice to — or amplify — valid criticism from readers. …
If it weren’t for that, one might reasonably say “there’s plenty of criticism and comment out there, so no need.” But outside critics often can’t get that kind of serious response. Almost invariably, the public editor can.
Spayd, unfortunately, lacked Sullivan’s grasp of social media and how it fundamentally affected both the role of the Times and that of the public editor. She made it clear from the outset that she believed her primary responsibility was to sift through piles of email from random readers, just as the paper had first envisioned the job—14 years ago. That’s a self-conception far too modest for the most prominent watchdog of the world’s most prominent watchdog.
If Okrent showed that the public editor could be more than a glorified customer service rep and Sullivan showed that it could be more than a Twitter-skimmer with a megaphone, Spayd insisted stubbornly that it couldn’t. “The definition of the job as public editor is to collect and absorb the reader email,” she told the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance in a May interview. “So that is the job.”
If Spayd were right—if the point really were simply to collect and absorb readers’ emails—then the Times would be equally right to do away with it. There’s an irony that would be delicious, if it weren’t such a shame, in the way Spayd’s pedantic adherence to the letter of her job description ended up justifying her own ouster.
But it is a shame, because when everyone on Twitter is a Times watchdog, then no one is. There will still be a firehose of complaints directed at the paper, but there will be no one to harness it, no one whose job and right it is to stand in front of the paper’s leaders and say, “This. This is a valid criticism, and you can ignore the rest if you wish, but this one you need to answer to.” The Times may no longer have needed a Spayd, but it sure could use an Okrent or a Sullivan.
That said, Spayd has three more days, counting today, to leave a mark on the paper. Whatever her other flaws, she has never been reticent, never afraid to write something unpopular with either the Times’ readers or its editors. Perhaps even she can see through Sulzberger’s thin rationale for dispensing with a position whose continued existence was always tenuous, given that it was created largely as a PR move and was by definition an irritant to its underwriters. Spayd may lament the position’s passing for the wrong reasons—who will read all the emails now?—but I hope she laments it nonetheless, and loudly. People may continue to do so on blogs, and on Twitter, and wherever else people go to air their complaints. But never again will someone have free rein to do it in the Times’ own pages. At least, not until its next big ethical scandal.