The New York Times is in the market for a new public editor.
Brisbane is the fourth public editor in the paper’s history, following Clark Hoyt, Byron Calame and Daniel Okrent. If you look at the backgrounds and qualifications of those who’ve held the position, many similarities jump out. For example:
- All have held very senior positions at publications.
- All had roughly two decades of publishing experience prior to being named public editor.
- All were at least middle age or older at the time of hiring.
- All are white males.
These four points are interconnected. It’s highly likely that someone who has recently held a very senior or top position at a large mainstream news organization will also be a middle-aged white male with decades of experience.
This isn’t to bash experienced white males. But for whatever reason the Times search process seems destined to end up with a consistent type of hire.
It needs to break that mold with Public Editor Number Five.
For that to happen, the paper should work with a different set of qualifications — a list that will hopefully lead it to a different kind of hire. Below are five suggested qualifications the Times should seek in its new public editor.
1. Experience on the digital side of journalism: This is non-negotiable. The most important developments and initiatives at the Times are on the digital side of the organization. It’s also the place where new ethical issues and approaches to coverage and journalism are being born. The new public editor should not come to these issues as a stranger. I won’t specify a minimum number of years of experience, but the person should ideally have managed/led a digital operation so he or she can hit the ground running. This experience is also essential because it will enable the next public editor to approach his or her work digitally.
2. Existing online profile: The next public editor should be adept at tracking and curating reaction to Times reporting in social media and other places on the Web and Internet. They shouldn’t have to spend time getting up to speed with Twitter, etc. The new public editor should already be there, be active, and have demonstrated an ability to engage and use these platforms.
3. Bring at least one element of diversity: The Times as an organization is committed to diversity, and it’s therefore unacceptable that none of its public editors have provided diversity. As a result, the organization should commit to at least one aspect of diversity in the new hire: age, race, gender, etc. I believe the first two qualifications above could help achieve this.
4. Experience with media criticism/reporting/watchdogging: I expect this suggestion may generate the most criticism, as it really narrows the pool of potential hires. But if the public editor job is valuable enough to hire, shouldn’t the paper seek out a person with at least some experience in this arena? I don’t believe a person is qualified to do this work just because they’ve had a long and successful career in journalism.
5. Eagerness to disrupt the job: I know, how trendy of me to list an item related to disruption. But the public editor/ombudsman role is ripe for disruption. It needs to move more quickly, publish more frequently online, find new and better ways of engaging with the public, and it should avail itself of new storytelling and narrative techniques to deliver reporting and opinion. Is a regular column really the most important thing to focus on? That’s one question I’d like the new public editor to seriously consider. As a starting point, I previously offered ideas for how the job should evolve, and so did Dan Gillmor and John Robinson.
Update and Correction: Dan Schwarz, author of “Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009,” got in touch to say Daniel Okrent spent 25 years in publishing prior to being hired by the Times, rather than the 30 years I said in my second bullet item. So that line now reads, “All had roughly two decades of publishing experience prior to being named public editor.”
I also changed the first bullet from “All have held very senior positions at news organizations” to ”All have held very senior positions at publications.” This is to acknowledge that Okrent came from magazines and books, rather than newspapers.
“Okrent thought he came from a different world and so did the Times; at the time, post Jayson Blair and Raines’s forced departure, they wanted a very bright outsider,” Schwarz said by email.