The New York Times announced it is letting go of its public editor, Liz Spayd. But they aren’t just letting her go — they’re eliminating the position of an in-house ombud entirely.
Few will mourn Spayd, who took over from the widely respected Margaret Sullivan in the summer of 2016. She’s been so bad at her job that the elimination of the role might be seen as an improvement.
But what the Times is doing to replace Spayd is just a continuation of everything wrong with her tenure.
Instead of a public editor, the Times is making a new effort to give readers ways to connect with the journalists who produce their stories. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that the Times is creating a “Reader Center” to respond directly to reader suggestions. According to NiemanLab’s Laura Hazard Owen, the Times is opening up comments on most of its articles.
In the year 2017 — when Twitter is ready to field criticisms of every piece of journalism — it might not make sense to pay someone to serve as a mere liaison between readers and journalists. Indeed, that was the biggest problem with Spayd’s tenure at the Times — she saw her role as amplifying the loudest complaints from readers, then threw up her hands to complain about “objective” journalism.
Indeed, this is part of a general newsroom trend toward eliminating ombud positions (Vox, like most outlets, has never had one). Editors like Arthur Sulzberger of the Times and Marty Baron of the Post are implying that the obligation to listen to readers should fall directly to journalists.
But “accountability” means more than “accountability to readers.” It means accountability to truth and journalistic ethics, integrity and professionalism. Journalists always have to be careful to be responsive to readers without letting themselves be bullied.
When the Times’s public editor did its best work under Sullivan, she helped journalists walk that line. The Times’s suggestions for replacing the position lean heavily to one side.
Spayd’s spectacular failure as a public editor
It’s entirely possible that the Times would have eliminated the public editor position even if Liz Spayd hadn’t been such a disaster in the role. (After all, the paper appears to be “streamlining” its editorial staff across the board.) But it’s really hard to argue that Spayd’s work was in any way necessary or helpful to the paper, or that letting her go is going to be a big loss.
At best, this made Spayd’s work irrelevant. Her first column was dedicated to urging reporters to read the comments on their articles, when most reporters had learned years before that most commenters never read the articles they complained about. (Some sites, like Vox, have turned off comments by default for exactly this reason — the Times is actually going against the grain by opening comments back up.)
At worst, Spayd’s naiveté empowered deliberate attempts to discredit the Times. When a Times reporter was targeted by a right-wing troll mob for quoting a threatening tweet from a rapper as a way to make a dumb pun, Spayd chided the reporter for his insensitivity.
She didn’t appear to realize that the criticism he was getting on Twitter wasn’t from people who respected the Times and were disappointed by a reporter letting down the brand — it was from people who already thought the Times was illegitimate and wanted to get others to agree.
It was an embarrassing use of a public editor column. So was Spayd’s support for complaints that the Times’s sports section did too much original reporting of off-the-beaten-path events, and too few basic recaps of major sporting events (of the kind you can find anywhere else on the internet). So was the column she spent hand-wringing about when it’s a good idea to call a false statement from a politician a “lie” — not because the reporter may not know whether the politician is knowingly lying, but because it sounds partisan to use the L-word.
But the reason all of these were bad uses of the public editor’s role is that they were already criticisms that the relevant Times staffers were hearing. They didn’t need another voice saying, “People are concerned.” They needed someone to remind them that there was more to doing their jobs than making people happy.
The job of a public editor is to juxtapose what people say they want with what they consume
The public editor role at the Times wasn’t created out of a simple desire to connect readers with reporters. It was part of the publication’s response to a devastating 2003 scandal — the revelation that reporter Jayson Blair had made up large parts of several high-profile stories, often including key facts, and sometimes plagiarizing quotes and reporting from other outlets to cover his tracks.
The Blair scandal was a serious threat to the Times’s reputation as the best newspaper in America (especially considering that around the same time, Times reporter Judith Miller was relying on often-inaccurate information from the Bush administration to write articles making the case for the Iraq War). It threatened to damage readers’ trust because it violated the values the Times claimed to hold dear.
The public editor’s role, in theory, was to make sure that everyone in the newsroom felt appropriate pressure not to let down readers. But simply listening to readers more wouldn’t have prevented Blair-type scandals. Instead, at its best — as it was under Sullivan — the public editor has been a voice in the room for those values, rising above the clamor of the day’s controversy.
It’s not that readers shouldn’t be listened to. It’s that readers often contradict themselves — and what they say they want in theory is often belied by the media they actually consume.
They say they dislike “clickbaity” headlines, then click on them en masse. They say they want in-depth foreign coverage but aren’t willing to subscribe to pay for it. They say they just want the news given to them straight, then only trust outlets that flatter their ideological preconceptions.
As journalists, we can take two approaches to that. One is to give the people what they want — to package our work as appealingly and accessibly as possible, and try to avoid dishonesty in the process.
The other is to realize that what people say they want, even if they don’t reward it now, actually is what they value in the long run — and that media outlets that provide those things will be rewarded eventually. That’s the bet that the Times and Post (among other outlets) have made by doubling down on investigative reporting in the Trump era, and they seem to be reaping the rewards.
Such decisions, though, aren’t made only once. They’re made multiple times a day — as a newsroom tries to figure out which sources to include in a story, how to headline it, when to hold a scoop to make sure it’s correct in every detail.
There will always be plenty of pressure in the newsroom to satisfy the short-term demands of readers. There will rarely be anyone explicitly speaking up for long-term interests — reminding everyone that cutting professional corners now might get more eyeballs today but could damage readers’ trust down the road.
At its best, the public editor role incentivizes people in the newsroom to speak out for those interests in advance — so that they don’t get dinged later for ethical lapses or ideological laziness, and so that if they come under heavy criticism from bad-faith critics, the paper will have someone willing to defend them.
Doing that job requires a more nuanced approach to reader complaints than simply signal-boosting them. It requires discerning when a reader complaint about, say, use of anonymous sources aligns with good long-term journalistic practice (when reporters too easily let campaign flacks speak anonymously to praise their candidates, for example) and when it cuts against it (when reporters allow FBI agents to speak anonymously, for example, in order to discuss a memo documenting an inappropriate meeting between the ex-director and the president and not get fired by the president’s vengeful staff).
Living up to journalistic values is in the best interest of everyone in the newsroom. If a public editor can’t be relied on to remind her colleagues of that, she shouldn’t exist — but that doesn’t absolve journalists, even if they’re being pushed to engage more with the daily clamor of immediate feedback, from keeping their moral compasses pointed toward true north.