Does A.G. Sulzberger Even Understand What a Public Editor Is?

(Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images)

Last year The New York Times announced it was ending the public editor — a role created to help readers get accountability from the paper of record in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003 — and replacing it with the Reader Center.

Ever since, readers of the Times have lamented the loss whenever an article or op-ed comes out that draws consternation. The paper’s final public editor, Liz Spayd, was less than beloved, but her predecessor Margaret Sullivan, now a media columnist at The Washington Post, earned the respect not just of readers, but of those inside the Times newsroom.

A friend at the Times recently asked me what I thought of the Reader Center. I replied that I didn’t know it had been set up or even what it did. I’m a home delivery subscriber to the Times, a native New Yorker who grew up writing detailed letters of admiration to Times reporters. Why hadn’t I heard about what the Reader Center had been up to?

A glance at its homepage suggests that’s because they haven’t really done what Sullivan did so well: Address reader outrage as it happens. The closest thing I could find was a Q&A with new publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and a sort of call-and-response regarding Glenn Thrush, both of which read more like public relations fodder than the kind of pulling-back-the-curtain Sullivan excelled at.

The Sulzberger interview has some good questions and even a few good answers, but he’s frequently lobbed softball questions and allowed to provide responses that are less than meaty. I missed the sense I got while reading Sullivan’s columns, that sense that this skilled reporter was our liaison — she was going to do her damnedest to get us real answers and be frank in calling people out when they weren’t provided.

Maybe this is why Sulzberger’s characterization of the role of the public editor comes off as insulting. In response to a reader-provided question about ending the role, Sulzberger responds:

The public editor was created in a different era to act as an intermediary between our readers and our journalists. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But today there are faster, more effective and more transparent ways to receive and respond to feedback….

In the old model, the public editor would have sat down with the new publisher, asked a few questions of her choosing and written a short article based on my responses. In the new model, I’m hearing your questions directly and you’re hearing my answers directly. (As part of this process, every question submitted by readers was reviewed by editors, who selected those that captured the most common areas of interest and concern.)

First of all, the Reader Center hardly seems “faster,” let alone “more transparent” than Sullivan’s approach to accountability. As a reporter-turned-columnist, Sullivan seemed determined to be as of-the-moment as possible, turning around quick and thorough responses to reader outcry. I sent her a lengthy email myself in 2014 and received a prompt and respectful response from her assistant. I was delighted to find my concerns addressed in her column the very next day.

Sullivan’s background as a reporter gave me faith that she was going to be dogged about getting real answers; she was regularly “transparent” about her process attempting to do so. As far as “more effective” — well, that’s on the Times, isn’t it? It’s up to the Times to learn from reader feedback and criticism, whether it comes through a skilled public editor or a deluge of comments and tweets.

Harsher critics than myself might characterize Sulzberger’s description of what the public editor did as intellectually dishonest. (“[T]he public editor sat down with the new publisher, asked a few questions of her choosing and written a short article based on my responses.”) To me, it seems he just doesn’t know what the public editor did.

On Twitter, Sullivan characterized the role:

This resonates for me, remembering Sullivan’s work at the Times. I would emphasize her insistence that she worked “on behalf of readers” in response to Sulzberger’s explanation that the Reader Center somehow represents readers better than a savvy reporter would. Sullivan listened to readers, brought their concerns to the people who had answers, and doggedly pressed them, as any good reporter would. It’s interesting to imagine how differently an interview with the new publisher of the New York Times would have read if Sullivan had been asking the questions.