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Why Margaret Sullivan left the public editor job at the New York Times

"You need to be an outsider" to report on the Times, Sullivan says on the latest Recode Media.

New York Times' Quarterly Profits Falls 58 Percent Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

When Margaret Sullivan became the public editor of the New York Times, after 32 years in print journalism, all the previous journalists to hold the job had only stayed for a couple years, on average. As she discovered, there’s a good reason for that.

“When I got to the three-year mark, I realized there’s a reason this job has a pretty tight term limit,” Sullivan said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “You need to be an outsider, you need to have an outside perspective.”

The public editor is tasked with keeping a check on the rest of a newspaper’s staff, by reporting on how they do their jobs. Sullivan’s successor, Liz Spayd, has been in the news recently for criticizing her colleague’s tweets about President-elect Donald Trump.

“For the most part, people would say, this is a necessary evil,” Sullivan said of the public editor job. “If you did it well, there was a lot of respect about it. They wouldn’t like it if it came to their door, but in general, I had many people saying, ‘I’m really glad you’re doing this, keep it up, keep us honest.’”

But she recognized by that three-year mark that going into the Times headquarters every morning colored her columns: “People start to feel less like subjects, and more like colleagues,” Sullivan said.

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