Disturbance in the Journalism Force? New York Times spikes its public-editor post

If you are a journalist or a news consumer who is concerned about the survival of old-school reporting and editing in this troubled day and age, then you probably felt a disturbance yesterday in what could be called the Journalism Force.

When I say "old-school journalism," I am referring to what textbooks often call the "American model of the press," which stresses that journalists should strive to honor standards of accuracy, fairness and balance when covering the news. The key: When reporting on hot-button issues, journalists should strive to treat people on all sides of these debates with respect.

This classically liberal approach to news emerged, and evolved, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The goal was to produce news that was as independent as possible, thus exposing readers to genuine diversity. Citizens could then make up their own minds.

An older, advocacy model built on clear editorial biases -- often called the "European model" -- has remained a crucial part of modern journalism, primarily in magazines and journals of opinion (think The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard).

So what happened yesterday? Here is the top of the Associated Press report:

NEW YORK -- The New York Times is ditching its public editor position, created in 2003 as the paper sought to restore its credibility with readers after a plagiarism scandal.
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote in a memo Wednesday that the public editor's role "has outgrown that one office" and that the paper is instead creating a "reader center" to interact with the public and will allow more commenting on stories. The paper's current public editor, Liz Spayd, will leave Friday.
Margaret Sullivan, the well-regarded former Times public editor, now a media columnist at the Washington Post, tweeted that she was not surprised that the Times dropped the role, which she characterized as a "a burr under the saddle for the powers that be" and capable of holding managers' "feet to the fire." ...
Spayd had taken up her duties as the paper's sixth public editor last summer. Some of her criticisms were panned as tin-eared or inappropriate by media observers and Times insiders, including New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet.

During her short tenure, GetReligion has frequently quoted Spayd's work as she argued (a) that the Times needed to be serious about intellectual and cultural diversity in the newsroom and (b) that the Times was offending many readers -- she quoted liberal readers, as well as conservatives -- by veering into one-sided, advocacy journalism on many hot-button topics, including many linked to religion.

She was not the first liberal in the Times public-editor chair to voice these concerns. For example, click here for the classic Daniel Okrent essay: "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"

She was also echoing concerns -- frequently cited at GetReligion -- addressed in the classic 2005 Times self study entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" (which devoted lots of space to issues in religion coverage). In one key passage, that study stated:

First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation.

During coverage of the 2016 presidential race, Spayd grew increasingly concerned -- not with critical coverage of Donald Trump -- that Times leaders appeared to have tuned out the voices and concerns of millions and millions of Americans living in between New York City and Los Angeles.

A former Washington Post managing editor and leader of the Columbia Journalism Review, Spayd carried on in the public-editor tradition of defending professional standards, diversity and self-criticism. She opened one piece, entitled "Why Readers See The Times as Liberal, like this:

I HAVE been here less than a month, but already I’ve discovered something that surely must be bad for business if your business is running The New York Times. It comes via the inbox to the public editor, from people like Gary Taustine of Manhattan, who writes: “The NY Times is alienating its independent and open-minded readers, and in doing so, limiting the reach of their message and its possible influence.”
One reader from California who asked not to be named believes Times reporters and editors are trying to sway public opinion toward their own beliefs. “I never thought I’d see the day when I, as a liberal, would start getting so frustrated with the one-sided reporting that I would start hopping over to the Fox News webpage to read an article and get the rest of the story that the NYT refused to publish,” she says.
Here’s frustration as it crests, from James, an Arizona reader: “You’ve lost a subscriber because of your relentless bias against Trump — and I’m not even a Republican.”
You can imagine what the letters from actual conservatives sound like.

As you would imagine, this topic only heated up during the national state of journalistic rage and mourning caused by the election of Trump. This led to an essential Spayd column, with this blunt headline: "Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking."

Let me stress, again, that Spayd was writing from the cultural left. Her journalism concerns focused on whether Times leaders -- representing the highest levels of elite American journalism -- had cut themselves off from crucial voices in American public discourse. Thus, they were missing important stories and warping the contents of others.

The picture was of a juggernaut of blue state invincibility that mostly dismissed the likelihood of a Trump White House.
But sometime Tuesday night, that 84-percent Clinton win Upshot figure flipped. Suddenly it was 95 percent -- for Donald Trump. And when readers woke up Wednesday, they learned that the second forecast, at least, was on target.
Readers are sending letters of complaint at a rapid rate. Here’s one that summed up the feelings succinctly, from Kathleen Casey of Houston: “Now, that the world has been upended and you are all, to a person, in a state of surprise and shock, you may want to consider whether you should change your focus from telling the reader what and how to think, and instead devote yourselves to finding out what the reader (and nonreaders) actually think.”
Another letter, from Nick Crawford of Plymouth, Mich., made a similar point. “Perhaps the election result would not be such a surprise if your reporting had acknowledged what ordinary Americans care about, rather than pushing the limited agenda of your editors,” he wrote. “Please come down from your New York City skyscraper and join the rest of us.”

Spayd stressed that news about Trump's rhetoric, and his provocative rallies, was an essential part of election coverage. But, over time, the radical style and content of Trump became the only "conservative" point of view in 2016. This sharp focus on Trump and his most extreme supporters:

... drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.
In other words, The Times would serve readers well with fewer brief interviews, fewer snatched slogans that inevitably render a narrow caricature of those who spoke them.

Now, Spayd has been shown the door and the public-editor position is gone.

At Poynter.org, media ethics specialist Kelly McBride (a former religion-beat professional) was not amused. The headline on her must-read post proclaimed: "The New York Times killed the public editor job just when it’s needed most." Here is her overture:

No, New York Times! Not the public editor! Why, with trust in news organizations at an all-time low, would you cut the one position dedicated to holding your journalists to account in public? We need you to reconsider.
We know you can pay for it. Thanks to a big increase in subscribers (whom the public editor represents!) your digital revenues are at an all-time high. And it seems a bit disingenuous that an organization spending an extra $5 million to cover the White House couldn’t spring for another position to safeguard accountability and promote positive change.
The public editor was one of many initiatives the Times instituted in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal. And the powerful role remains the absolute best way to do explanatory journalism about journalism.

Yes, that 2003 ethics scandal led to the 2005 self-study quoted earlier in this post. This is a wheels within wheels situation.

So what now? It would appear we are seeing a familiar pattern in Gray Lady strategy.

After the 2005 self-study, then editor Bill Keller (yes, he of the "Kellerism" term here at GetReligion) said Times editors didn't really need to embrace the study's call for new intellectual and cultural diversity in the newsroom (.pdf document here). When covering issues linked to religion and culture, the existing Times team would simply police itself and strive to do a better job.

Years later, days after stepping down as editor, Keller said the Times remained committed to balanced, fair-minded coverage on politics. But he defending slanted, coverage on issues of morality, culture and religion.

Once again, here is a short summary of his Austin remarks in 2011:

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted. ... "We're an urban newspaper." ...
Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."
Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

Now, Times leaders appear to be saying they don't need a truly independent public-editor office. The existing newsroom team will simply open a new desk to handle that on its own. Once again leaders of the Times team are promising to police itself and strive, strive, strive to do a better job.

Thus saith Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger:

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.

Sound familiar? All together now: Just trust us.

That's all for now. Here is the full text of the Sulzberger memo about this decision. Read it for yourself and leave us some reactions in our comments pages.

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy