in journalism

The New York Times eliminates its public editor position

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, in a memo to the staff:

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.

This is distressing news on a variety of fronts. The position of public editor, founded in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, theoretically helped keep Times’ folks honest. The idea that Times’ commenters and tweets/Facebook posts directed at the Times are a sufficient substitute for a respected person inside the organization seeking comment and effecting change is laughable. And those who think outlets like the Times don’t need to work on self-improvement need look no further than its coverage of the 2016 election.

That being said, the most recent public editor, Liz Spayd, was an unfortunate note to go out on. Spayd wrote many columns of dubious quality and essentially embodied the worst version of what this position could be.

Will Oremus wrote a takedown of Spayd on Slate not too long ago:

Most of [Spayd’s] column ideas appear to spring directly from the public editor’s email inbox, which she and her assistant monitor vigilantly. She quotes from readers’ missives prolifically, and she presents their sundry beefs and prescriptions with a level of respect that verges on reverence. But if we’ve learned one big lesson from Spayd’s work so far, it’s this: Readers are quite often wrong. Of course the public editor should listen to them and take them seriously. The real challenge, though, is to distinguish between their wishes and their true interests, to understand not only where those overlap but where they diverge, and to recognize which should influence the paper’s editorial decisions and which should not.

At that difficult task, Spayd has repeatedly failed.