On a recent episode of Recode Media, hosted by Peter Kafka, Margaret Sullivan talked about her days as the public editor of the New York Times, her current job as media columnist at the Washington Post and how the media should and shouldn’t cover President Trump.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Margaret Sullivan, formerly at the New York Times, now at the Washington Post. We were just talking this morning. Professional bloviator, you said?
Margaret Sullivan: Yes, exactly. That’s what I do for a living.
You were on at 8 am talking. And now you’re here with me, thank you.
I write about it, and then I go talk about it.
Similar jobs ...
… but different.
They’re not really all that similar, honestly.
It seems to me from very far away — and thank you for joining us — that they are sort of the same. You’re sort of critiquing the job of the media. In the case of the Times, you’re critiquing really specifically the Times, and at the Post, obviously, it’s pretty broadly. But it seems like you’re trafficking in the same stuff.
I don’t see myself at the Post as a media critic, and I do think there’s a little bit of a distinction there. I do criticize the media from time to time, but at the New York Times I was in the role of the — you know, you can look at it different ways. “Reader representative” is one way to look at it. “Internal media cop” is another way to look at it. And in this role, I’m trying to take a broader view and look at things in a kind of bigger-picture way. I will tell you that when I pitched Marty Baron on this ...
That’s the editor of the Post.
Yes, the editor of the Washington Post. I told him that I thought that David Carr at the New York Times had done a great job. He of course agreed, as every sentient being does, and I said that I would try to ... I don’t think I can be David Carr, but I would sort of model what I was doing on that, which means taking a kind of a getting-up-and-looking-at-it-from-a-little-bit-higher-and-broader perspective.
I want to talk to you about both those jobs. I want to talk to you about Donald Trump. I want to talk you briefly about — are we allowed to bring up the person who has your job now, Liz Spayd? Is there a public editor code of omerta where you’re not allowed to speak about each other?
Well, I’ll tell you this: When I was public editor, I considered it a great gift that none of my four predecessors ever found it necessary to critique my work publicly. So I considered that very helpful, and I certainly don’t want to critique her work. I know her, I consider her a friend, I know she’s gotten beaten up in the past few weeks and even months.
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask about. Because I do think it’s relevant to what you do now.
I think a lot of folks who listen to this would have heard about this story, but for those who haven’t, Liz Spayd went on Fox News about a week ago, on the Tucker Carlson show. Tucker Carlson asked her about tweets New York Times journalists had made about Trump saying they show bias. She basically, on the air, said, “Yeah, I agree, these are outrageous and something should be done about this.”
Somehow the entire media bubble missed that weekend, which is interesting, no one watched Fox News on Friday night in media-land. Then it surfaced on Monday and became a storm. She promptly got a ton of criticism on Twitter, as you would expect, from journalists.
Do you think that she made a fair point? Because there’s an argument that says, well, maybe she expressed it incorrectly, but her underlying point is a fair one. That someone like a New York Times reporter should be cautious about what they tweet, and maybe they shouldn’t tweet at all.
There are standards that have been articulated at the Times and lots of other news organizations that say ... I mean, the Times does it in a pretty interesting way.
They’re pretty loose, it seems, at the Times.
Phil Corbett is the standards editor. He’s a great guy. And what he says is, “Remember that you work for the New York Times.” That’s kind of his guidance, that you may think that you’re tweeting as a private citizen, but you will always be seen as tweeting on behalf of the Times and your position.
Right. So if you’re tweeting about breakfast, you’re still a New York Times editor tweeting about breakfast.
Right, exactly. And so you know, again, I don’t want to get into whether I agree or disagree with her, because people didn’t do that to me and I don’t intend to do it to her, but I think that in general, it’s a smart idea for news reporters to be very cognizant of how their views are going to be seen.
This is the same argument we’re making about Donald Trump right now, right?
[laughs] Yeah, that’s right.
When you get up in the morning and tweet about “Saturday Night Live,” it’s actually meaningful now.
Right. And in terms of Trump and his tweets, I really feel like we have to cover his tweets. And at the same time, I feel like not every one of them ought to be treated as a five-alarm fire, which often seems to be the case. In other words, his tweets about “Hamilton” are one thing and his tweets about how he would have won the popular vote if all those illegal immigrants hadn’t voted — which, by the way, is not true, none of that is true.
It’s funny, because we’re a month into the post-Trump election phase — he’s not even president — and there’s just been this daily, really hourly, cycle of news stories usually generated by him or people around him, sometimes there are people outside that circle, about what he’s doing, what’s happening, sometimes they’re about his tweets.
And I think it’s fair to argue that in some cases, the media does too much self-reflection here. But I think in a lot of cases, I get the sense that all of us, both as reporters and editors and just citizens who are consuming this stuff, are really trying to get a handle on how we respond to all this — both the actual news and the coverage of the news. I was going back and reading all of your stuff that you put up post-election, and it seems like maybe you’ve gotten some grip on it. There’s that first couple of posts ...
[laughs] Thank you. I’m not sure that’s true.
I don’t know either, that’s what I’m asking you. It seems like, initially, there was that state of shock we were all in. And now, you’ve been working your way up toward being more assertive and saying, “This is how we should handle things, this is how we should proceed. We should not cover each tweet.” Do you feel like you’ve got a grip?
No, I never really feel like I have a grip [PK laughs], but I have come a ways since election night. I wrote two columns on election night, one of which said the media had blown it.
You said “epic fail.”
Yeah, epic fail. And the the second one, which you know, I think I wrote at two o’clock in the morning, which made it hard to ...
I wrote one of those.
… it made it hard to source it. It was a journalistic call to action, saying that this is going to require a very diligent new kind of journalistic inquiry — and this is not my expression and I know it’s overused already, but I think “scrutinize, don’t normalize” still works pretty well and you can dance to it.
So explain what “scrutinize, don’t normalize” means. I think a lot of people have heard “normalize” a lot, it may even be a cliché now.
Right. So the role of the press ought to be looking hard at what Trump and his administration are doing and to hold him accountable and be very clear about what’s going on. And not to fall prey to acting like, oh, it’s just politics as usual — because I don’t think that is the case.
What do you think about the idea that you expressed, I expressed, a lot of people expressed immediately the night of the election and then right afterwards for a couple weeks: The media had screwed up. The media had screwed up by enabling Trump, but it really screwed up by missing the story. Initially, that seemed to make sense, and the more I think about it I’m less comfortable with that idea.
Yeah, I kind of agree with you. One thing I’ve come to realize, and of course I knew this before, but as I’ve thought about it more it’s clearer: The mainstream press really did tell the public who Donald Trump was.
Couldn’t have been more explicit.
Right. And I think the Washington Post did a phenomenal job of excavating all that. They wrote a book about it, a really good one, called “Trump Revealed.” And lots of others, from BuzzFeed to the Times and many others, did very good work, very good reporting work.
So if someone were interested in knowing who Donald Trump was, they could absolutely find out. In that sense there was no failure. I think where we missed the boat was in not looking hard enough at the forces that would, in fact, elect him and the way they would do it. So not just this, you know, “Oh, there was this rebellious vote among the white working class,” that.
Because I read lots of those stories about what’s going on in Appalachia, the hillbilly eulogy.
Right, there was a lot of that and it was good stuff. I’m not sure we fully understood the extent to which many people in the country really couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton and the ways in which she wasn’t connecting to a lot of regular folks.
Yeah, I remember seeing interviews with her, they were saying, “You’re one of the least popular candidates in history.” And then she would say, “Well, Trump is less popular.” So again, it was all sort of out there and laid out, and we all knew that it was a close race. I think eventually the polls were pretty close to correct, right? In terms of the popular vote.
Yeah, I think we ran with the polls a little too much. You know, some of the graphic representations of what the polls were saying, the probabilities, were I think, although correct, misleading.
Right. So do you think Trump is a fundamentally new kind of thing for the media to cover? Or, this is what I’m thinking, the more I think about it, it seems like he’s sort of an extension of the Bush years.
Going back and reading that Times Magazine piece from 2004 where the author is talking to a Bush administration official who says, “You guys live in a reality-based world, we create our own reality and you guys have to catch up to us.” It seems like there’s kind of a through line there, and Trump is sort of a super-sized version of that.
Yeah, I guess, to some extent. Also, each administration has become, I think, harder to cover in some ways [as] each one has become probably less transparent. Although they all vow to be transparent and say they will be the most transparent, and Obama did that, as you know. But in the end, they’re all progressively worse to cover. But I do think that Trump is something we haven’t seen before.
And given that it looks like they’re going to keep going farther down along that path, and it seems like they’re going to cut back on press pools, and he hasn’t done a press conference yet — he promised to do one this week, he just delayed to January —presumably he’s going to do less and less of that and less of the professional customs the press is used to, right?
Maybe they might even get rid of the White House briefings. When I read the traditional press talk about that, sometimes I think they’re not really making their case about why it’s important to do that. And I think I’d like to hear someone make it to an average person. Do you have sympathy for that argument?
I agree with you that there’s a kind of defensive posture about the whole thing that says you have to do it because we’ve always had it that way. And using phrases like "the protective pool" as if somehow, you know, the press has this role ...
Right, when he goes to Jean-Georges, they’re going to help him cut his meat or something.
[laughs] Right, exactly. But I’ve also seen stories about all of that that do explain it. I don’t really think they get through as much as they might. You know, the truth is, he can do pretty much whatever he wants to on that, that there is no manual and there is no law that says that he’s got to hold press conferences or, for that matter, release his tax returns, which he has said he would do and hasn’t done.
Now certainly, I want him to release his tax returns. I’m not sure that, frankly, I need to go through the ritual of having the press being briefed on background and getting spun a certain way. It seems like in this administration, more than ever, the best and most interesting reporting is going to come from people who maybe are not entirely out of the bubble but certainly not fully inside it.
Right. Yeah, one of the few things that I’m feeling pretty good about is that I think Donald Trump and his administration are going to throw a big hand grenade into the access-versus-accountability mode of doing business in terms of covering politics. Instead of the idea that, “I’m the beat reporter and I’m going to write a lot of stories and some of them are going to be beat-sweeteners that help me get the scoop ...”
Beat-sweeteners is one of the best terms ever. Explain it to people who aren’t in our world.
So a beat-sweetener is a story that you write that makes the people that you’re covering pretty happy. And makes them, perhaps, more likely to throw you a bone in the form of a scoop or a story that you might not otherwise get.
It’s great. So when you’re reading one of these stories that’s unusually rosy about someone, and you’re thinking, “Why am I reading this?” That is a beat sweetener, very often, and it’s done consciously sometimes, right? “I’m going to do this to butter them up.”
I think it may not be articulated anywhere, but it’s sort of understood. I’ve covered lots of news beats myself, and you really — if you’re covering, as I did, local government in Buffalo, you really can’t go in guns blazing every day or pretty soon nobody will talk to you. And you need people to talk to you. That’s how you cover your beat. So I do think that because the relationship is going to be so adversarial, that way of looking at journalism is going to go away to some extent.
But Trump still really likes press, right? He’s obviously watching TV. And I was struck at the end of the election cycle when it looked like he was losing, the Times did this great story about hanging out on the plane with him, and they were doing what seemed to be very amateurish campaign planning. And the thing that struck me was he’d let a Times reporter on the plane, the Times that he supposedly hated, they were hanging out and watching him tweet. So it seems like he’s still responsive to some of that, still wants that credibility and adulation.
I think Trump has a weird relationship with the New York Times.
Specifically the Times.
Yeah, I do. You know, he is a creature of New York. Grew up in Queens, made it his business to extend the family business bigly [PK laughs] into Manhattan, and I think that he both pushes against and wants the approval of the establishment media in New York City, which is certainly the New York Times. So when the Times essentially called his bluff on coming over to do what he would have preferred to be an off-the-record meeting ...
This is right after the election, he canceled the meeting that morning.
He signed up for it, then canceled it, then went back. And you know, the Times rightly said, “No, this is going to be on the record. Yes, okay, you can meet Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for 10 minutes of chitchat, but when you meet with editors and reporters it’s going to be on the record.” And you know, he did do that. That’s something he did because he really does want the New York Times’ adulation. I don’t think that’s probably going to happen.
No, but he’s easy to please, I think. Speaking of easy to please, we’re going to have our awesome advertisers come and talk to us for one second, or I’m going to talk to our audience about them in one second. We’ll come right back.
And I’m back with Margaret Sullivan from the Washington Post. We were talking about Donald Trump, because we’re required to talk about Donald Trump in every episode.
That’s right, at all times.
I want to talk about you a little bit more. We know that you’re at the Post, we know you were at the Times. And whenever I read a biography of you, it says you got your start at the Buffalo News.
Not just my start, I was there for a very long time.
Unless you scrubbed your biography in some way, it looks like you spent your entire life at the Buffalo News until you came to the Times.
[laughs] I did. I grew up in Buffalo. I actually grew up in a steel town called Lackawanna, New York, with Bethlehem Steel. So in that way I kind of feel like I do have a little bit of a sense of some of this Rust Belt stuff that’s going on. But I went to Georgetown and Northwestern and then came back.
So the plan was to do journalism?
Oh yeah, all along.
So you went to Northwestern for grad school.
Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact, I was the arts editor of a paper at Georgetown.
Where do you get that bug?
It’s weird, when I was in high school the Watergate thing was happening and the Woodward and Bernstein [thing]. I’m definitely of the class of journalists that came out of the adulation for the Washington Post and Watergate and all of that.
And that was a new idea that journalists were crusading and cool and played by Robert Redford.
Right. I never really wanted to crusade. I always hear people say, “I want to do journalism to change the world.” I don’t feel that way.
The reason I wanted to do it, and do still want to do it, is [that] it has something more to do with expression and connection with a readership and an audience. That’s what’s thrilling to me, to be able to have that two-way communication. So anyway, I started as a summer intern and ended up as the chief editor.
At the local paper. At the time, it was owned by Warren Buffett.
Yup, it was owned by Warren Buffet for the whole time I was there. And he was a very good owner, by the way. I’ve had now two excellent billionaires.
Billionaires can be very good. Sometimes bad owners as well.
That’s true. So Buffett was a good billionaire, and Bezos has been a very good billionaire owner of the Washington Post.
I did every job in Buffalo and ended up as the first female editor of the paper and did that for 13 years. So I was there a long time.
So you spent your entire career ...
But I don’t say exactly how long because I don’t want to ... journalists I know are very bad at math, but I’m afraid if they do the math they’re going to know exactly how old I am.
So I wasn’t wrong, you have sort of scrubbed that a little bit.
[laughs] Yeah, right. I was born the editor of the paper at age 17.
You were born and raised in Buffalo. Did you think, "All right, this is my career, I’m going to end my career in Buffalo”? Did you have ambitions to go somewhere else?
I was bringing up a family and I had an elderly dad, it wasn’t a good time for me to leave. But when that all changed and my kids, my daughter, my youngest was at NYU, I had thought for a while that the public editor job at the New York Times would be something I could do well.
How does that get on your radar, though?
I’ll tell you exactly how. Because I was fascinated by the whole chapter at the New York Times about Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd and Jayson Blair. And it was after that that Dan Okrent came in as the first public editor. And I read him with great interest and great appreciation.
But you were reading him. You weren’t in the New York media circle, right?
No, but we actually still do some reading and some ...
No, no, but you’re reading in the same way I read the paper in Minneapolis, right? Like, “as a conventional reader, this is a really interesting topic.”
Yeah, but it was the New York Times, which made it, as a lifelong journalist, it made it of great interest to me.
No, I meant reading the Times from Minneapolis. Like you weren’t in the Times ...
No, no, not at all. I wasn’t in the bubble at all.
And the global media elite.
No. I wasn’t. Although by the time I came to the Times as public editor, I was on the Pulitzer board and had been active in national organizations.
So that’s how you bubble up. They didn’t pluck you from total obscurity.
Exactly. But I made a big play; it wasn’t like they came after me.
You went for that job.
Oh absolutely. In fact, I read that my predecessor, Art Brisbane, was leaving, that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed. I read it in Erik Wemple’s blog at the Washington Post, and I remember reading it at my desk at the Buffalo News and saying, “That’s my job, that’s my job.”
So you apply for that job, get that job. Did you have any trepidation about getting that job? Because it seems like, best case scenario, a very difficult job.
Yeah, I walked into it with my eyes wide open. I knew that I was not going to make anyone happy. In fact, I was actually very pleased that I was able to, not make people in the sense that “oh, I’m easy on everyone.” But I found that ... I’d already been writing a blog and was on Twitter. And I found that immediately I got this hugely positive reaction from digital journalists and people who were on Twitter and people who were looking for the public editor to have that presence. There was like, “Wow, she’s doing this, this is amazing.”
We should explain a little bit more about what the job is. I think of it as a public advocate, right? What you said, you’re working on behalf of the reader. You’re paid by the Times.
And you’re an editor at the Times, but you don’t report in to the Times. You’re on an island by yourself.
Yeah, the name “public editor” is a misnomer.
And sometimes I think people either unintentionally or intentionally confuse it and they’ll say, “Oh, the editor of the Times says this.” And they’ll think you’re speaking for the paper and in fact you’re not speaking for the paper.
No, you’re actually making a point of not speaking for the paper. And you’re not really an editor at all. The only sense in which you’re an editor is that readers are writing to you at great pace and scale and you’re editing through those and finding the ones that seem most meaningful.
So a reader says, “I have a problem with this, I have a question about this.” And you either respond to that or you have your own question and you go walk down the hallway at the Times and knock on someone’s door and say, “I want to ask you a question.”
Yeah, and sometimes the reader that you’re referring to is not just some nice person who lives on the Upper West Side but it could be the head of the NFL. Or it could be Elon Musk. So it’s not always just your garden variety reader or somebody in New Jersey.
So you go up to a reporter or an editor and say, “I want to ask you about this story you wrote. Elon Musk is disappointed in this story.” The reaction you get from that person is what?
Generally I made it my practice to usually go to editors. If then they wanted me to talk to the reporter or I wanted to talk to the reporter I would. But I usually tried to talk to a section editor or a ranking editor, and they knew I was coming. I mean, that’s the role. And they were used to it.
You’re like IAD, in the cop movies. Internal affairs.
Right. So while they might not like it, I was the fifth one. So they sort of knew how it worked. And people were professional for the most part. The thing that made it hard internally was that I was tough. And I wrote some tough things. And very often there’d be a blowback afterwards, that it would be the long, extremely well argued Timesian email that told me exactly how wrong I was in the following ways.
Were you there, I can’t remember, during the nail salon?
Where did you come down on that? Because that went on for a while.
I thought that the nail salon project was a worthy idea.
So it was a big enterprise story about nail salons in New York and the contention was many of them are run by Chinese immigrants who are not paying their workers living wages.
Right, not just Chinese but immigrants from various countries who were paying their workers exploitatively low wages. And treating them badly. And where I came down on it, because there was a fair amount of criticism of the series saying that it was overblown, was that it was a good idea and there was truth to it and that it was in some ways overstated.
Did you ever get to a point where you said, “Boy, if I write what I think and what I’ve reported, this is going to damage someone’s career,” and then have second thoughts about whether or not you wanted to publish that?
No, I never did that.
Did that ever happen? Where something you wrote basically got someone pushed out of the Times or demoted or ...
Certainly not immediately. In some cases there may have been, like a year later, it may have been one of the things that caused them to get their beat changed. Nobody got fired or anything like that.
I tried really hard within each post and each column to be extremely fair and to be very cognizant of how powerful this was, because it is. As soon as I would press the button, pieces would often go viral. There was this one, you might remember it, in which the TV critic Alessandra Stanley was writing about Shonda Rhimes. And she used the phrase “angry black woman” and that drew all this criticism. I wrote a couple of tough pieces about it and, pfff, they just went. It was very hard on her and I tried to be conscious of the power of that when I wrote so that I didn’t go too far.
And she no longer has that beat. Now to be fair, in my opinion, she had not done a good job on that beat for a long time. I think she was not suited to be writing about television. She didn’t seem to enjoy writing about television.
Yeah, the odd reaction I got from her about it was that she expected people to understand, that was in the lead of her story. And she said that, “my readers know that I write” — I remember this phrase — “I write arch provocative leads.” So you were supposed to understand when you read “angry black woman” that there was some distance built into it. But I don’t think that that’s the way people really read anymore. Particularly the way we’re reading stuff in this disaggregated way, you’re not turning a page of the Times art section and coming across this and seeing that oh, it’s ragged right, so that means it’s opinion.
No, this isn’t your feed and it’s next to a Breitbart piece, depending on your media diet.
And maybe it’s in your Facebook feed. And I got a sense from afar, medium distance, that the reaction, the general sort of attitude toward people in your job at the Times was dismissive at best.
Did you find people were more collegial than that?
It’s not about dismissive or collegial. It was, for the most part, most reporters and editors at the Times would say, “This is a necessary evil.”
Yeah. And that if you did it well there was a lot of respect about it. Now, they wouldn’t like it if it came to their door, but in general, I can tell you I had many people saying, “I’m really glad you’re doing this, keep it up, keep us honest.” I had people call me from conference rooms where they couldn’t be traced and say, “You oughta look at this.”
Reporters are reporting on each other.
Well, not reporting on each other but saying ...
I won’t use the word narcing.
… “There’s a practice going on here that I think deserves some looking at, and I can’t say it. So could you look into it?” So that happened a lot.
Someone was telling me that there’s now an established practice — an understood practice — at the Times, where if the public editor comes to them with a criticism or a question, if you actually have screwed up, the way to handle it is you acknowledge some other problem, small problem, and that’s your concession. And then you hope that the rest of it skates away. [MS laughs] So there’s a sort of practice now. But then overall, you did it for just about four years right?
Yeah. Three and a half.
So then you had a tenure that was coming up? An end date.
I actually had a longer contract than most of the public editors. Okrent was only 18 months, the rest were kind of two years but could be renewed for a year or something. Because I was leaving this very secure job that I could have held for life in Buffalo as editor in chief and moving to New York, I wanted a longer contract and I got it. However, when I got to the three-year mark, I realized there’s a reason that this job should have this pretty tight term limit.
Because you need to be an outsider. You need to have an outside perspective. And the longer you’re there, for one thing the topics start to repeat themselves. How many times can you write about giving credit to news organizations that should have gotten credit? Or anonymous sources, which was one of my big things. So it became clear to me that ...
Like any beat reporter at some point.
Yeah, exactly. You start writing the same story over and over. Plus now you’ve been coming into the building for three and a half years ...
It’s hard to be an outsider.
It’s really hard. These people start to feel less like people you’re reporting about and more like your colleagues. It was pretty important for me to wrap things up before. So I actually left before my contract was over and was very happy to go to the Post.
Was there a thing you are most proud of during your tenure there?
Yes, I really whaled away, as public editors had done before me, about the overuse and inappropriate use of anonymous sources. And while I’m the first to say that a lot of reporting must use anonymous sources and there’s a kind of reporting that’s very very important, maybe the most important, that needs to be done that way, it is way overused.
It eats away at credibility and it just shouldn’t be used to the extent that it is. And by the time I left, the Times had issued new guidelines on it and tightened it up. And I was proud about that.
It seems like that’s — I’m going to pronounce this word incorrectly — sis ... pushing a rock up the hill.
Thank you. ... task, in that I’ve seen you and many other people and Jack Schafer take this on, and I’ll hear the Times say they’re cutting back on anonymous sourcing and then I’ll pick up today’s paper, go to my phone and read today’s paper, and just for an everyday run of the mill banal story about Facebook, it’ll say “According to a source briefed on the topic, according to a source who was granted anonymity so they could talk about this,” and it just means their PR person doesn’t want to be on the record. And it’s not a matter of state, right? It’s just a matter of Facebook’s earnings or something.
Again, the Times did put in some guidelines in which one of them was, if a story is going to hang on a central fact and if that central fact comes from anonymous sources, then it has to get a special kind of review and it basically has to be read by one of two or three top editors.
That came about because there were a couple of stories that really went wrong that were hanging on an anonymous source. And so I thought that was pretty good progress.
So a story like the CIA/Russia hacking accusation that broke last week ...
I’m sure that would have had to be read by Dean Baquet anyway. But now there’s a clear guideline and a procedure in place. I hope it makes a difference. I also think it’s the kind of thing that can sort of go away after a time and say, “Oh yeah, well we used to be a little clearer about that but now it slips back.”
Yeah. So when you went to the Post, this is what? A couple years into the Bezos era?
A couple years into the Bezos era, correct. I’ve only been there about six months.
Right. So when he bought it I certainly thought, “Oh man, this could be really bad for the paper. He’s going to want to digitize it and Silicon Valley-ize it,” even though he’s not from Silicon Valley. And do things that a lot of smart people when they look at a newspaper say, “Well, this isn’t efficient, let’s change this.” And he’s done some of that, but it seems like he’s injected it beyond just money, just energy. Did you have a sense of what the paper was like prior to getting there?
For one thing, I had always admired — as I said, I was drawn into journalism because of the Washington Post. It’s very cliched, but I admired Ben Bradlee and all of that. And I went to Georgetown. So I had been reading the Post for a long time, I admired all their critics, all that. I had seen the terrible financial shape it had fallen into and was very concerned about that. So I was glad that somebody with deep pockets and apparently a good intention had bought it.
But what was most important to me in going to the Post was that Marty Baron was the editor. Marty, who people know through his role in the movie ... not his role but the role that he was portrayed as having, in the “Spotlight” movie, the Catholic church and when he was the editor of the Boston Globe.
The Liev Schreiber role.
The Liev Schreiber role.
If those names all blended for you.
Right, exactly. I’d known Marty for years, admire him very much, and I thought if I got the chance to go to work in Marty Baron’s newsroom, that would be a great experience.
And did that position exist? Because Erik Wemple was and is doing a lot of media reporting to begin with.
Yeah, there already were two people doing media stuff. Erik Wemple is online only and actually works for the opinion side of the paper. On the news side, in the regular newsroom, Paul Farhi, very good reporter, was covering media as a news reporter. So this was a new role.
And this is a blend, like you said, right?
Yeah, it’s an opinion job but on the news side. And done as much as possible in a reported way. And in that sense it was an outgrowth of what I was doing at the Times because I really was trying to make every piece I did very much fully reported but also having opinion in it.
And so you’re six months into it. What surprises you about that job?
Being at the Times was tough because I couldn’t really have colleagues in the newsroom. So I would go to this place every day but I couldn’t make friends.
You didn’t get to have lunch with them?
I never really do that whole lunch thing anyway. I did actually make friends at the Times, but it was like you were making friends against your better judgment, right? And you never want to feel like that. So it was really nice to go the Post and be part of a newsroom again. It’s a very collegial and very warm and very helpful newsroom, so that’s good.
And of course I came at a time that was really intense. I showed up in May and I went to both political conventions, and by the time it got to be July or August, I guess August, my editor said, “We pretty much just want you to write about the media and politics,” the media and Trump, basically. So it got to be very very focused.
Do you think there’ll be an opportunity and a reason to write about non-political stuff?
I’m grappling with this as I think about how I’m going to spend the next couple of years.
Yeah, because there’s a lot of other stuff that’s going on in the media world. I remember talking to David Carr about how he was approaching the column and he said it’s amazing. He was talking about the digital transformation of media and how there were just so many stories. It was for him the beat that kept on giving, because every time you turned around there was some monumental thing happening. Well, that’s still all happening.
Right, it’s still all happening, it seems in some way to me at least, because that’s the stuff that I was writing about, that now in context that stuff is much less important. And maybe there’s a middle ground.
It’s less new feeling, anyway.
Less new feeling, and I guess like when we talk about Facebook and what they’re doing with the news, in a Trump era it means something different than a pre-Trump era.
In the pre-Trump we were thinking, “Well, what does this mean for the New York Times and are instant articles going to work, and how about the revenue?”
And now it’s, “Holy shit, people believe Pizzagate is real because they’re reading it in Facebook.”
Yeah, there’s an intensity and a sense of importance that I think the political stuff has right now that the changing business model doesn’t seem quite as compelling.
On Facebook: One of your columns called for an editor in chief. This is something that they see really constitutionally opposed to, although who knows, maybe they’ll appoint one tomorrow. Do you still want them to do that? Do you think it’s realistic?
That was a way for me to talk about something. Do I really think they should have someone who’s title is executive editor? Not necessarily. But I do think that Facebook needs to confront and accept the fact that they are a media company, not just a wonderful way to see people’s baby pictures.
They really don’t want to accept that.
They don’t, they will say that over and over. Although I guess there’s some sort of job that they’re advertising for that says you need 20 years experience and it’s like the director of news partnerships or something like that.
I don’t think that’s what this is.
No, I talked to them about it and it sounds like they want someone to go talk to the newspapers and make them feel better and that’s about it.
While Facebook will say, “We don’t produce news,” they certainly distribute the heck out of it and in fact with Facebook Live, news is being made on Facebook.
Yeah. I bet Facebook Live goes away pretty soon.
I don’t think anyone wants to do live or consume live.
[laughs] I’ve done many many Facebook Lives now.
How’s that going?
The Post has agreed to produce a certain number of them.
Yeah, I guess so.
Yes. They’re getting paid.
And they need to be a certain length, which is at least 10 minutes, I think. So I don’t know. I don’t think they make for great journalism.
One other media critic-y question, but it’s about the Post: Do you guys have comments? A lot of people have gotten rid of comments. I only noticed it because I was reading a Pizzagate story I think the day of and the comments were just a cesspool. And this was like a week after the Star Tribune had shut down their comments about a story about a black Santa Claus. Do you think comments serve a role at the Washington Post? Or do you think the Post should join everyone else in dumping them?
I still believe that comments are useful. And I don’t want to see them go away. But I do want to see them change. The Pizzagate story, as you just mentioned, had some pretty awful comments in it and eventually they just disabled it and took the comments down.
They had to turn that off, too.
Yup, they turned it off and took the ones that were there down. So it can get ugly very very fast. But I’m not ready to say they don’t serve a purpose.
You want some kind of engagement with your readers.
That’s visible to all.
Yup. I agree, I just don’t know how you do it. In a world where we can barely afford to pay copy editors.
You can’t really edit them, although I have to say the Times does moderate. At this point they pretty much moderate every comment, which is remarkable. Of course they only open comments on certain stories. But I think that the comments at the Times often add a lot to the stories.
Oh, I love the idea of it. I just don’t know how you, especially if you’re a national paper that’s going to have reach and especially if you’re writing about a topic including black Santa Claus that’s somehow controversial, it doesn’t seem like this is something you can solve with an algorithm. It seems like you have to have a human to deal with it, and that seems like an enormous luxury for most publications.
There’s an outfit working on this called the Coral Project. They were looking for ways, and I think coming up with some ways, to use technology to highlight the best comments and sort of downplay the worst. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.
Let’s end on an upbeat note. What are you most looking forward to in 2017?
[laughs] I’m most looking forward to it not being 2016 anymore.
I would toast you if it wasn’t so early in the morning. I agree. Thank you, Margaret Sullivan.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.