The New York Times has offered a woefully inadequate justification for eliminating the public editor position.
The paper installed an editor whose sole function would be to serve as a bridge between editors and readers in the newsroom in 2003. The higher-ups thought it would be a good idea following the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal that struck in the wake of 9/11, a time period that also saw the Times publishing false information with regard to WMDs in Iraq.
But NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the role has become unnecessary and redundant in a memo to staff Wednesday, essentially because the paper can crowdsource criticism through social media and digital journalism. Reporters and editors will have more direct responsibility for responding to questions and concerns about editorial decisions, he said.
“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,” Sulzberger wrote in the memo, published in The Huffington Post. “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.”
Of course, the paper could respond to criticism through social media and watchdogs in the press in addition to having the public editor tackle specific criticisms. Why must the two be mutually exclusive? The move seems more likely to provide the newsroom cover from actually responding to criticism, than to provide greater accountability and responsiveness.
The public editor acts an internal advocate for reader concerns, and has the authority to ask questions and demand answers. Emailed criticism and Facebook comments do not have that authority. Editors could ignore them, and we’d never know.
The public editor also has valuable real estate in the print and digital editions of the paper to broadcast widely-held criticisms from readers, as well as how reporters and editors respond and explain their decisions. A few readers may be able to get a response from a reporter on Twitter, or from an editor over email in the new system, but the wider audience is unlikely to benefit. There’s no indication from Sulzberger any of this will result in the kind of far reaching post a public editor can write and distribute.
Sulzberger also touts a new “reader center” designed to bring more transparency to reports and make journalists be more responsive to comments and criticism, as well as the fact that the paper will open up a much greater percentage of stories to comments. But neither the center nor the opening up of comments gives the reader an authoritative voice in the newsroom, which allows reporters and editors a lot of leeway to pick and choose which concerns to address and which concerns to ignore.
“We will work hard to curate and respond to the thousands of daily comments, but comments will form just one bridge between The Times and our audience,” Sulzberger wrote. “We also, of course, engage with readers around the globe on social media, where we have tens of millions of followers. We publish behind-the-scenes dispatches describing the reporting process and demystifying why we made certain journalistic decisions. We hold our journalism to the highest standards, and we have dedicated significant resources to ensure that remains the case.”
Curating and responding to comments, “engaging” on social media, and selectively explaining reports could bring some transparency and accountability, but they gives TheNYT total control over what that looks like. Readers have to trust editors and reporters won’t unfairly ignore or downplay important concerns.
And Sulzberger’s sentence on high standards amounts to a request that readers trust the paper to hold itself accountable. Again, this is a nice idea, but the reason the public editor position was crated in the first place was a failure on this exact point. And again, promising fair standards does not give the reader any real leverage to make criticisms heard.
The idea that removing an independent human voice and replacing it with a flood of tweets, emails and reader comments is a move toward greater transparency is highly dubious. Facebook comments can’t be expected to go on TV and have meaningful discussions regarding the behavior of NYT journalists. Popular tweets can’t be expected to write columns directly questioning the editorial decisions of the paper, and an open comments section can’t get on the phone and actually have a conversation with readers.
The Times should reconsider this shift, before it’s too late.
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