In an age when large sections of the public are unable to differentiate between real events and outrageous, obvious falsehoods, it might seem ill-advised for a newspaper to rely on readers to check up on its reporting.
But that’s where The New York Times is going with this week’s announcement that it is eliminating the position of public editor after over a decade on the masthead.
The decision affects the current public editor, Elizabeth Spayd, who will leave the newspaper a year ahead of her contracted employment.
Similar to an ombudsman, auditor and media critic all rolled into one, the NYT public editor was supposed to serve as an advocate for readers. The post was first created in 2003, following the Jayson Blair scandal, as part of a broader strategy to restore trust in the newspaper. (It was further tarnished by Judith Miller’s inaccurate reporting on WMD in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.)
Over the years, the various public editors were encouraged to show their teeth at least occasionally, giving the job a bit of an adversarial character: if they didn’t give the newspaper a good poke now and then, what was the point?
However, the newspaper’s management has decided that it no longer needs an in-house gadfly, according to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who explained in an internal memo to staff: “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. We have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts.”
Those new measures include a “Reader Center” online hub, where readers can interact with the newspaper on editorial issues.
Sulzberger also argued that the rise of social media has brought a level of scrutiny to online journalism that obviates the need for the old-fashioned role: “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.”Still, this approach contains a number of potential drawbacks and pitfalls.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike social-media followers, the public editor had a position inside the newspaper, giving him or her a close-up view of editorial judgments, as well as the motives of editors and reporters. That matters because potential errors aren’t limited to factual mistakes or outright fabrications.
Readers may also be ill-served by less visible decisions, for example, not to focus on certain topics at all, which an insider would be better placed to uncover.