Times public editor Margaret Sullivan says journalists need to be like sharks

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan says journalists today are like sharks. “If you’re not moving forward, it’s over.”

Sullivan gave a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, titled, “What I’ve learned at The New York Times — and what that says about journalism.”

In her prepared remarks, she discussed what she sees as the emerging consensus about where journalism is heading, and Sullivan also shared four journalistic values that in her view will never go out of style. She also emphasized the rapidly changing nature of journalism, and why that means journalists, like sharks, always need to keep moving in order to survive.

Her moment of realization of that fact came roughly four years ago after she read Clay Shirky’s post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.”

“I had romantic notions at that time about the sounds of printing presses and the smell of printer’s ink,” she said.

Sullivan was the top editor of The Buffalo News, and she decided to stop “being part of the old guard, holding on tight with my eyes closed as tightly as they would go.”

She joined Twitter and began blogging for the paper. This embrace of social media and the digital world was a factor in her being hired by the Times, she said.

Challenging and stressful

Sullivan has been in the job now for a little more than a year and a half. She called the work “endlessly challenging and often stressful,” and said her sense is the newsroom appreciates the importance and purpose of the public editor position. But there are inevitably times when she writes things that people at the Times disagree with. In fact, disagreement is a constant in the job.

“While in life and especially in journalism it’s very hard to please everyone all the time, as the public editor of the New York Times it is impossible to please anyone, ever,” she said, perhaps only half-joking.

One specific topic she mentioned was the March 2013 decision by the Times to close its Green blog, and the decision in January of that year to redeploy environmental reporters and editors. Sullivan talked about how she followed up on the story in November and reported that the “quantity of climate change coverage decreased,” as had “the amount of deep, enterprising coverage of climate change.”

Sullivan said every news organization needs to invest in climate change coverage, and that the Times has made some hiring moves in that direction.

“I would urge every news organization to have a reporter or a team of reporters covering” climate change,” she said. “I can’t think of too many other subjects that will affect our world more than the environment.”

Sullivan was also asked about the fact that she often hears from readers on Twitter about their concerns, and how that has affected the way she does her job.

“One effect that it’s had on me is I fell like I’m on duty all the time,” she said. “It’s really hard to walk away or be off the grid, and that can be very exhausting. There have definitely been times where I found out from Twitter what I will be writing about the next day.”

However, she cautioned that she sees “a tendency to overreact” on Twitter.

As a general takeaway, Sullivan said she admires the Times and believes that it’s “excellent in so many ways — but being excellent doesn’t translate into being perfect.”

Areas of consensus

Here are the five items Sullivan said have emerged as areas of consensus at this moment in journalism:

  1. “Serious readers, at least sometimes, will pay for serious news.” Sullivan said the Times and the success of its metered paywall is evidence of this.
  2. “Digital news is not just another platform.” She cited Vox, BuzzFeed, Vice, The Verge, PandoDaily and Business Insider as “nimble new ventures” that “are as different from newspaper as streaming ‘House of Cards’ on your iPad” is from traditional ways of consuming TV/films.
  3. “Data driven journalism continues to be a huge trend and continues to embraced, and we’ve not figured out exactly what it’s going to be.” She also cited the importance of single topic news sites, such as Chalkbeat and InsideClimate News.
  4. “We are seeing big money philanthropists investing in news.” Sullivan called it a “Great use of some enormous personal wealth, and wonderful to see it gaining strength.”
  5. “Twitter is so closely interwoven with news that it’s hard to believe it’s only seven or eight years old.” She noted that “every hiring editor is on Twitter,” and wondered whether another platform would emerge to challenge Twitter’s role as the place where we see the first draft of history, in real-time.

Values that remain

Sullivan shared a list of values she says will never go out of style, regardless of how much journalism is changing.

  • Integrity. “Simply put, as a journalist you are not for sale.” She also emphasized the importance of attribution and crediting sources. “Always give credit where it’s due. If you want your name on it, do your work.”
  • Challenging authority. “We’re supposed to be a check on power. Sometimes that means being adversarial.”
  • Accuracy. “Fast is good, but right is better,” she said. “We need the strongest possible commitment to accuracy and its close cousin, fairness.” After news organizations, including the Times, wrongly identified the perpetrator of the Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooting, Sullivan said a reader wrote her to say “she had always believed that if ‘I read it in The New York Times it’s always true,’ but her belief in that truth had been shaken.”
  • Transparency. “We can say what we know and what we don’t know at a particular time, and we can be quick to admit it when we know something is wrong and when we get something wrong,” she said. Sullivan also said that journalists are eager to shine a light on the actions of public figures and institutions, but we are “not always so eager to shine that light on ourselves.”

Correction: The headline for this piece originally said “Time” instead of “Times.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • JHamer

    The final paragraph of this piece, on Transparency, is critically important. The lack of media transparency, the resistance to admitting errors and biases, and the reluctance to “shine that light” on ourselves are among the primary reasons for the decline of public trust in journalism. A simple tool to help counter that may be found at http://taoofjournalism.org. Journalists should be as Transparent, Accountable and Open (TAO) as they demand of those they cover.

  • Kenny Ocker

    Time =/= New York Times