Former public editor Okrent would like to see New York Times hire female ombud

Sometime late this summer or early fall, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. will invite an exclusive, but growing, group of Times alumni to gather for a meal and welcome a new member to their ranks.

This ritual began when Daniel Okrent ended his 18-month tenure as the paper’s first public editor. Sulzberger invited Okrent and his successor, Byron “Barney” Calame for a meal. When Calame’s term ended, the group reconvened to welcome Clark Hoyt. They gathered again for Arthur Brisbane, the current public editor.

Brisbane recently revealed he is ending his term in the fall.

Okrent looks forward to the next meeting, and he’d be particularly happy to see the next hire break up the boys’ club.

“It would be pretty wonderful if they had woman in the job, frankly,” Okrent said.

Daniel Okrent was public editor of The New York Times from October 2003 to May 2005.

In a phone interview this week, he shared his view of the public editor’s role, how he views his tenure with the benefit of nearly a decade of hindsight, and the characteristics the Times should seek out in its next public editor.

Okrent said each public editor approached the job in different ways. But that’s all he’ll say about his successors; Okrent pledged to never comment publicly about their work.

“I won’t do that,” he said. But he’s read all of their columns.

‘Trying to be too damn clever’

Okrent wouldn’t critique the other Times public editors, but he did talk about one column from his tenure that nags at him still. It’s perhaps Okrent’s most famous column or at least his most frequently quoted.

“Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” read the headline Okrent wrote for his July 25, 2004 piece.

“Of course it is,” he replied in the column’s first sentence.

Okrent regrets the headline.

“Because I stupidly or vainly wrote a headline that would attract attention, I’m paying the price,’ he said. “I really regret that headline. I don’t regret the content of the piece. As with all articles, I’d like to think it’s much more subtle than the headline I put on it. But I pay the price and the Times pays the price for me trying to be too damn clever.”

He said the paper pays a price because the column is now used by critics to accuse the Times of bias.

“I was speaking specifically to social issues and how the Times reflects its environment and the staff,” he said. “I don’t think the Times is any nicer to Democrats [than Republicans].”

Okrent is often singled out among Times public editors for his strongly opinionated and sometimes combative columns. That’s usually meant as a compliment.

Looking back, he thinks he could have been less combative in his approach.

“I went in at the Times prepared for a fight,” he said. “I was chippy. It was, ‘Oh yeah, let’s mix it up.’ I think I was showing off.”

He thought the newsroom was against him.

“I went in unfairly thinking it was one against 1,200 and it wasn’t one against 1,200 at all,” he said. “There were many who were sympathetic to the notion of internal criticism.”

Role still important

Okrent read my recent post on the five qualifications I think the Times should seek in its new public editor. He agreed with some of them, such as a need for diversity and digital experience.

“I think digital chops are very important now, and there could be a tendency, if they continue hiring people from my generation, that as much as a person may be in sympathy with the digital revolution, it’s still the ‘other’,” he said. “It would be useful to have somebody who views [digital] as central to the journalism being done there.”

“The difficulty with getting a younger person in the job is it’s an end-of-career job. It’s hard to say to someone who is mid-career, ‘Take two years off, go be public editor of the Times, and find yourself unemployed when the two years are up.’ ”

He also highlighted some so-called soft skills that are essential for any public editor.

“Willing to bite the hand that feeds you is number one,” he said. “And a willingness to acknowledge when you’re wrong as well. Then, beyond that, judgment, journalistic know-how, reportorial skills. It’s really important to me that whoever does a job like this report out a story and not just react to what he or she may read or heard from different people.”

Okrent said he now consumes the Times digitally more than in print. Regardless of medium, he said “it’s still the same paper” as the one he served as public editor.

“I think that the Times culture is stronger than any editor, and the culture is to put out the best newspaper in the country,” he said, “and I think they do.”

He also noted one way the Times has changed since he served as public editor.

“I think there’s less willful ‘Well, we’re writing a tough piece on the Democrats so we have to do one on the Republicans,’” he said. “They are less self-conscious about ledger balancing and more likely to go with the news and where story takes you. And I’m happy with that.”

I asked him if he thinks he helped instigate any lasting changes at the paper during his tenure.

“I think that as far form perfect [as my tenure was] there is a greater reluctance to use anonymous sources for direct quotation,” he said. “Not that they don’t do it, but they don’t do it nearly as blithely as was once done — or as was once done on inconsequential stories. I’d like to think I played a role in that.”

Okrent still sees the public editor role as important. “I think the Times needs to show its readers that it’s open to criticism, and that it sometimes deserves criticism,” he said.

Okrent now splits his time between New York and Cape Cod. He returned to book writing after leaving the paper, and he recently co-created the off-Broadway hit, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

But nearly a decade after leaving the paper, people still want to talk to him about the Times.

“I remember when I had been at Times for about six months, I said to John Geddes, who was a managing editor, ‘Everywhere I go all people want to do is talk about the Times. Is that going to be the case for the rest of my tenure here?’ ” Okrent said. “And he said, ‘No, for the rest of your life.’

“And that seems to be true.”

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