The publisher of the New York Times announced in a staff memo Wednesday that the position of public editor — an ombudsperson of sorts, meant to be an advocate for the paper’s readers — is being eliminated. The current occupant of the role, Liz Spayd, was expected to remain until summer 2018, but her tenure will now end on Friday.
According to a screenshot tweeted by Times reporter Daniel Victor, the memo read:
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.
NPR media reporter David Folkenflik noted on Twitter that the first public editor’s tenure also “coincided with growing outcry over failed WMD/Iraq coverage.” But as Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone noted, the “grave journalistic scandal” the publisher referred to was in 2003, when reporter Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications were revealed. In a lengthy story on their own investigation into Blair’s wrongdoings, Times reporters wrote that “something clearly broke down in the Times newsroom. It appears to have been communication — the very purpose of the newspaper itself.”
Calderone also pointed out that several other major news outlets have eliminated similar positions in recent years. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron did so in 2013, making the same case that the Times’ publisher did: Essentially, watchdog-style criticism comes aplenty “in this Internet age.” And in this seemingly unending age of cash-strapped, fiscally floundering journalistic entities, it’s also notable that it comes for free.
The elimination of the public editor position was announced alongside buyouts for Times editors, as the paper seeks to streamline its editing process. Calderone also noted that a memo sent out on Tuesday established a new “Reader Center” aimed at improving how the paper responds to and interacts with its audience.
Spayd has been a controversial public editor, as criticized as her predecessor, Margaret Sullivan (now a columnist at the Washington Post), was beloved. Sullivan seemed to have gained the respect and trust of the newsroom in her tenure there, sometimes getting ideas for columns from the paper’s staff themselves (an apparent motivation for her ongoing scrutiny of the paper’s diversity in hirings). Spayd, conversely, was criticized for contradictory positions — agreeing with less daily coverage of New York City, while arguing for more ESPN-style, minute-by-minute mainstream sports coverage — and for giving credence to fringe readers who launched a campaign attacking a Times writer of color, Sopan Deb, for a joke tweet.
Looking at Twitter — one of the platforms where the Times’ publisher evidently plans to find his criticism now — the widespread reaction appears to be a mix of lamenting the loss and blaming Spayd. Folkenflik’s suggestion on Twitter that it “could return after [the] next big scandal” was met with outcries about the paper’s coverage of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election — perhaps proving the Times’ publisher’s point, that readers will make themselves heard without an in-house conduit. Still, some argue that the value of the public editor can be seen in the difference between how Spayd and Sullivan did the job.
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- “The Disconnect on Anonymous Sources” (Margaret Sullivan, October 2013)
- “Introducing ‘Anony Watch’: Tracking Nameless Quotations in the Times” (Margaret Sullivan, March 2014)
- New York Times Sunday Book Review of Public Editor #1 by Daniel Okrent: “Eye on the Times” (Harold Evans, June 2006)
- Podcast & Transcript: “Former New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on journalism in the Trump era” (Recode Media, January 2017)
- “NYT’s Dean Baquet rips ‘fairly ridiculous conclusion’ in public editor’s column on Russia coverage” (Erik Wemple, January 2017)
- “THE PUBLIC EDITOR; An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself” (Daniel Okrent, December 2003)
- “The New York Times’ Dreadful Public Editor” (Jack Shafer, May 2006)