The New York Times Is Eliminating The Public Editor Role

Elizabeth Spayd will be the final journalist to hold the accountability position created in the wake of a 2003 plagiarism scandal.
Gary Hershorn/Reuters

The New York Times is eliminating the position of public editor, an accountability role the paper created in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.

Elizabeth Spayd, a former Washington Post managing editor who was named the paper’s sixth public editor last year, had initially agreed to serve in the position until summer 2018. But Spayd, who had a rocky tenure on the job, will leave on Friday now that the position has been cut.

“The responsibility of the public editor ― to serve as the reader’s representative ― has outgrown that one office,” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote in a Wednesday memo to staff shortly after HuffPost broke the news.

“There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers,” Sulzberger added. “A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary.”

Several news organizations, including The Washington Post, have phased out the role of ombudsman or public editor, an independent voice that serves as a liaison between readers and the newsroom and has the authority to weigh in on editorial decisions in print or online.

Post editor Marty Baron justified ending the role in 2013 by pointing out that the paper receives plenty of criticism from “all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age.”

Similarly, Sulzberger wrote Wednesday that “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.”

It’s true that major news organizations regularly face scrutiny from traditional media critics and reporters, along with partisan outlets and members of the public on social media.

But by being in the newsroom, public editors and ombudsmen can often get responses from management on editorial decision-making that outside reporters and critics cannot. While an outside reporter covering the Times may not get calls returned, the public editor, who serves for a fixed term and reports directly to the publisher, can literally wait outside a Times editor’s office. And Times management typically responded to the public editor’s queries, since failing to do so would call into question its commitment to transparency.

In the memo, Sulzberger stressed that there were “several new reader-focused efforts,” including a “Reader Center” announced on Tuesday, that could serve as an accountability mechanism.

A March job posting for an editor for the new “Reader Center” prompted some internal speculation that the public editor job could be eliminated in the future, given that some of the listed duties included creating “a more effective system for editors and reporters to receive and respond to feedback from readers ― whether tips, suggestions, questions or complaints.” Still, the timing of the decision ― before Spayd had finished even the first year of her two-year term ― caught the newsroom off guard.

Spayd took over last year for Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s longest-serving public editor, who transformed the position with her quick response to budding controversies involving the Times and her use of social media.

Sullivan tweeted Wednesday that she understood possible budgetary reasons for ending the job, but highlighted the public editor’s unique role.

Spayd, who had most recently been editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, rarely used Twitter before taking the job and maintained much less of a presence on social media as public editor.

Though Spayd wrote incisively on newsroom struggles with diversity, her tenure was marred by both internal and external criticism of her performance.

The Times’ sports section publicly took issue with Spayd’s criticism that its Sunday section increasingly focused on long-form stories rather than scores most fans presumably get online. Executive editor Dean Baquet described Spayd’s column on the paper’s pre-election Russia coverage as “bad.”

And Spayd didn’t win fans in the newsroom when recently writing that it would be “disconcerting” if those with legitimate libel claims felt “too intimidated” to sue the paper.

Previous public editors also rankled reporters and editors at times, given the inherent tensions between an internal critic and the rest of the newsroom. But the internal criticism of Spayd was more pronounced, as was criticism from members of the public and media observers, who generally held Sullivan in high regard.

Slate’s Will Oremus wrote last month that Spayd was “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.” Other critics said Spayd was failing to effectively challenge the paper’s management, including its hiring of a climate skeptic on the op-ed page. And journalists both inside and outside the Times questioned her decisions to respond to far-right criticism of a Times reporter’s dog pun tweet and to describe political reporters’ tweets as “outrageous” on Fox News.

In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this month on her “controversial” tenure, Spayd said her “job is not to win any popularity contests.”

Regardless of their opinions of Spayd specifically, several journalists on Twitter questioned Times management’s decision to kill the job completely, given its unique role as an internal check on arguably the most influential news organization in the country.

“The public editor is more important than ever as trust in the press remains low,” Andrew Seaman, the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, tweeted Wednesday. “It’s about engagement, it’s about accountability.”

Read Sulzberger’s full memo below.

Dear Colleagues,

Every one of us at The Times wakes up every day determined to help our audience better understand the world. In return, our subscribers provide much of the funding we need to support our deeply reported, on-the-ground journalism.

There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers. A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary.

The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.

To that end, we have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts. We are grateful to Liz Spayd, who has served in the role since last summer, for her tough, passionate work and for raising issues of critical importance to our newsroom. Liz will leave The Times on Friday as our last public editor.

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.

We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

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. 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.

Phil Corbett, a masthead editor, is responsible for making sure that our report lives up to our standards of fairness, accuracy and journalistic excellence. His team listens and responds to reader concerns and investigates requests for corrections. Phil anchors a reader-focused operation intent on providing accountability that is already larger than any of our peers. And we are expanding this investment still further.

As the newsroom announced yesterday, we have created a Reader Center led by Hanna Ingber, a senior editor, who will work with Phil and many others to make our report ever more transparent and our journalists more responsive. The Reader Center is the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism, but the work will be shared by all of us.

It’s also worth noting that we welcome thoughtful criticism from our peers at other news outlets. Fortunately, there is no shortage of those independent critiques.

We are profoundly grateful to our six public editors ― Daniel Okrent, Byron Calame, Clark Hoyt, Arthur Brisbane, Margaret Sullivan and Liz Spayd. These remarkable advocates tirelessly fielded questions from readers all over the world and have held The Times to the highest standards of journalism.

Changes like these offer the strongest paths towards meaningfully engaging with our growing audience of loyal readers, which rightfully demands more of us than ever before. We are up to the challenge.


This story was updated after The Times confirmed HuffPost’s original report with a memo from Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

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