Public Editor No. 5 Is Yesterday’s News

By Margaret Sullivan

The New York Times

“FASTEN your seatbelts,” goes the line from “All About Eve,” accompanied by a flash of those famous Bette Davis eyes. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Or, in my case, a bumpy four years. Being public editor of The Times has been a wild ride, as one controversy after another came blasting into sight. In blogs posts or columns — 691 all told — I’ve tried my best to represent readers’ interests on topics as wide ranging as presidential campaign coverage, elitism, racial justice and the Middle East. Broader journalism issues have cropped up, too: quote approval, false balance and the overuse of anonymous sources. Many were contentious, in one way or another, which is where the bumpiness comes in.

This is my last column here, so I’ll use it to sum up some of what I’ve observed and to offer some suggestions, on behalf of the readers I’ve gotten to know so intimately, for The Times as it moves forward.

First, some background: During my tenure, journalism at The Times, and everywhere, continued to change radically. The corporate way to describe it is to say the business is being “reinvented.” Down in the trenches, it’s seen more plainly: as turmoil, a struggle for survival and for its very soul.

When I arrived at The Times in the summer of 2012, the place seemed like a newspaper. Although it was much bigger than The Buffalo News, which I edited for more than a decade, its routines and values seemed familiar. There was a “Page 1” meeting and an emphasis on print deadlines.

These days, though, The Times seems like a digital media company that happens to put out a newspaper. Over the past four years, it has been scrambling to find a sustainable business model to support its journalistic ambitions, including a newsroom staff of more than 1,300. It’s trying new things and, as some of them inevitably fail, it’s moving on to try others.

The old business model, based on print advertising and print subscriptions, is broken. A new one — based on digital subscriptions, new advertising forms, and partnerships with other businesses and media platforms — is in the works. There are hopeful signs, high ambitions and lofty plans, but certainly no guarantee of success.
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All of this brings complications that have sometimes troubled the readers whose interests I advocated. Lines that were once clearly defined are more likely to be blurred.

Recently, for instance, a reader, Dan Fishman, pointed out a banner ad for the Broadway show “Shuffle Along” that linked to a place to buy tickets, as well as to a cover story in The Times Magazine. Mr. Fishman — a perceptive observer, like so many Times readers — wondered about the ethics of this arrangement. He made a comparison: “If Hillary Clinton, after a glowing profile in The Times, took out an advertisement saying, ‘Read this article and then donate to my campaign,’ it would raise an assumption of political bias.”

Other readers found it troubling, too. And I’ve since been able to determine that there was no editorial control ceded — The Times never allows that — nor did the play promoters see the article before it ran, another no-no. It still wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever seen. And it’s the kind of unfamiliar practice that raises legitimate questions and requires caution, as does so-called native advertising, where ads look a lot like news.

So here are some recommendations, which reflect my hopes for this great news company and are based on what I’ve heard from readers:

— Maintain editorial control. As partnerships, especially with Facebook, the social media behemoth, become nearly impossible to resist, The Times shouldn’t let business-driven approaches determine what readers get to see. In dealing with Facebook and other platforms and potential partners whose businesses revolve around algorithms, it’s critical that the paper makes sure the news that readers see is driven by the judgment of editors concerned about journalism, not business-driven formulas that may only reinforce prejudices. This is one of the big questions for the immediate future, one that must be grappled with.

— Remember that speed kills. As The Times tries to gain as much digital readership as possible, it needs to keep in mind that accuracy and fairness are paramount. That seems obvious, but in the competitive moment of publication, it isn’t always easy to remember. Slow it down a little, for credibility’s sake.

— Keep clickbait at bay. In the push for digital traffic, The Times is now publishing articles it never would have touched before in order to stay a part of a conversation that’s taking place on social media and read on smartphones. That doesn’t make such articles inherently bad, but the trick is to maintain its values here.

— Keep accountability and watchdog journalism front and center. Dean Baquet’s Times is one that emphasizes investigative work. That should always be a top priority, and nothing should be allowed to weaken it.

— Don’t underestimate the importance of line editing and copy editing. As The Times tries to control costs, and trim its work force, this work shouldn’t be allowed to suffer. It may seem invisible, but it matters enormously.

— Remember the mission of standing up for society’s underdogs. The Times can be elitist in some respects — $10 million apartment, anyone? Cover the rich, yes, but balance that with deep, abiding attention to society’s have-nots.

— Protect credibility with readers above all else. Deepen the relationship with them and find new ways to listen to and address reader concerns. (And, please, fix the inequities in the commenting system — soon.)

Of course, challenges on these issues tend to arise in the moment, not in theory. A story may be published before it’s ready; a desire for digital traffic may seem more important than some lofty sense of mission.

That’s where a strong public editor can be useful, putting a spotlight on tough issues as they arise. The selection of Public Editor No. 6 is well underway. The office will be staffed in the interim by my able assistant, Evan Gershkovich, who will stay in close touch with the Times standards editors, particularly on issues concerning journalistic integrity — the core concern of the public editor’s job.

Readers, I am sure, will help to keep The Times on its toes in the near future and beyond. Many thanks to all of you who, in email, in written comments and even in real-life conversation have come with me on this bumpy but exhilarating ride. Representing and advocating for you has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on 16 April 2016.

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