One month in, Margaret Sullivan talks about the changing role of New York Times Public Editor

A little over a month into her job, Margaret Sullivan has been transforming the traditional role of The New York Times public editor — by blogging almost every weekday and using social media to add a mix of voices and viewpoints to her posts.

Her new role, she says, has reminded her how much she enjoys writing on a regular basis and responding to the news of the day.

“Almost every day I come in and I say, ‘I’m not going to blog today,’ … But I always find something that seems compelling and then I end up writing something,” Sullivan said in a phone interview. “That’s how I feel the most engaged and the most satisfied — if I’m working on something that’s immediate and if I can get it out there on a daily basis, which is certainly something that was true of me when I was a reporter.”

Sullivan said she’s been approaching her coverage of The New York Times as if she were a beat reporter with an opinion to share. She’s written about issues like the Times’ decision not to acknowledge the 11th anniversary of 9/11 on its front page, its new stance on quote approval, and its reasons for using the term “illegal immigrant.”

She’s been praised for her quick responsiveness to such issues and, in New York Magazine’s words, has received a “rapturous reception.” But she’s also been criticized for being “too shy” when disagreeing with Times staffers in her blog.

Public editor as outside critic and inside reporter

Sullivan’s office is on the main floor of the Times newsroom, which gives her greater access to staffers.

“I’m in the newsroom, so if people have a gripe with me, they can find me very easily. And I can go up to someone and say, ‘I’m writing about this, can we talk?’ My approach is to not surprise anyone,” said Sullivan, who typically interviews the Times journalists she’s writing about. “…I’ve also tried to make it a point to follow up with people afterward to see if they have any further thoughts, and sometimes I’ve come back to the subject with the thoughts they share.”

While Sullivan’s presence in the newsroom makes her more accessible, it also poses a challenge: How does the public editor maintain the distance she needs to render judgement?

“I’m aware, every day, that I need to keep some distance,” said Sullivan, who signed up for a four-year term as public editor with an option to renew for two more years. “It’s a little bit like covering the police beat from a desk in the cop shop. You can be friendly, you can get to know people, but you probably can’t really be true friends. So far, I think everybody is striking a good balance.”

Sullivan’s desk is near the obituary department, which is bit removed from the news desk area. “It’s a perfect vantage point, because I can easily find the people I need to talk to, but it’s not as if I’m sitting within earshot of reporters and editors,” she said.

New York Times Spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and Executive Editor Jill Abramson wanted Sullivan’s office to be on the main floor of the newsroom.

“Both thought it was important to have Margaret located where it would be easiest for her to interact on a frequent basis with editors and reporters and have proximity to decision making,” Murphy said via email. “This was particularly important given the nature of her daily blog.”

Not all previous public editors have been so centrally located. Sullivan’s predecessor, Arthur Brisbane, was based out of his home in Massachusetts but would spend a couple of days a week at the Times. His office was on the floor above Sullivan’s. “I think it’s an advantage to be in the newsroom,” Brisbane told my colleague Craig Silverman in an exit interview. “That’s based on kind of a gut feeling.”

By contrast, Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, said he wanted to be distant from the newsroom.

“I was very far away, on the floor with the editorial page editors and writers, many floors away from the newsroom. My office was at the very end of the corridor, on the way from nowhere to nowhere,” Okrent said by phone. “I didn’t want to be in the newsroom, probably because I was a coward; I wanted to stay far away from the people I would be criticizing.”

I don’t think Sullivan has been very critical of the Times yet, and I’m curious to see if that will change as she gets more acclimated to the role. Increasingly, she said, she’s seen the value in sharing her opinion.

“I’ve come to realize that it’s not enough to simply report something out and leave it to the reader to decide from the various things you’ve written what you think,” Sullivan said. “I have the strong sense that people expect the public editor to have an opinion and to say what that opinion is.”

Engaging with readers

Every day, Sullivan gets about 200 emails from readers. “That number can spike dramatically, though, depending on what hot topic is in the news or if there’s intense reaction to something I’ve written,” Sullivan said. She and her assistant Joe Burgess read the emails throughout the day and respond personally to relevant ones.

When she was applying for the public editor position, Sullivan highlighted two roles from the book “Blur” that she wanted to embrace: “smart aggregator” and “forum organizer.”

Her goal, she says, is to “bring in a lot of different voices and pieces of reporting” while blogging. So far, she’s done a pretty good job of that; her posts often include links to  blogs and news sites, and she occasionally quotes from them. She’s also been using social media and her blog as conversation starters. (By contrast, Brisbane told Poynter in his exit interview that social media was “an alien realm for me” and that the public editor role is “not a conversation.”)

In one of her blog posts about the Times’ use of “illegal immigrant,” Sullivan asked readers to share their thoughts on the Times’ policy by commenting on the post, emailing her, or responding on Twitter. She also reached out to readers after the first presidential debate to hear their thoughts on the Times’ fact-checking efforts — and then featured some of them a related blog post.

“New York Times readers are very engaged readers; they read the paper actively, they are opinionated, they’re smart, and they have a lot to say,” Sullivan said. “I knew that coming in, but I still have been struck by how true it is.”

Sullivan has maintained the public editor’s print column, which appears in the paper every other Sunday — largely because she wants to cater to both print and online readers. She also likes having an opportunity to write a mix of shorter and longer pieces.

“It was important to me to address the print readers because I know there are many people who don’t read the Times online,” Sullivan said. “The column is more of a polished and complete piece of work. The blog can be immediate and it doesn’t have to be the final word on the subject.”

As part of her independence from the newsroom, Sullivan chooses what she wants to write about without consulting an editor. She says she tries to gauge how she’s doing by looking at how readers — and other journalists — are responding to her work.

The first female public editor

Last week, Sullivan got some attention for calling out Times freelancer Andrew Goldman after he tweeted an offensive comment about author Jennifer Weiner. Sullivan’s column about the Goldman controversy was what you would hope to see from a public editor — she laid out the issue, did reporting to advance the story, and took a stance, saying Goldman is “highly replaceable.”

This response reminded of a piece I wrote about why it matters that Sullivan is the New York Times’ first female public editor. In it, I argued that women bring a different sensibility to the newsroom than men do, and expressed my hope that Sullivan’s experiences as a woman and a mother would inform her reporting.

Though she’s written about a few gender-related issues — the naming of a rape victim in the Times, pay equity and the Goldman tweet — Sullivan downplays the idea that she wrote about them because she’s a woman. Abramson shared similar sentiments when asked about her role as the Times’ first female executive editor, saying: “The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.”

Sullivan told me that as a woman, she “may be” more attuned to gender-related subjects.

“Of course, you don’t have to be a woman to appreciate gender issues. A lot of men are savvy and sensitive about all of this — and some women aren’t,” Sullivan said.

“We all bring our experiences and our background to what we do. So, being the only woman in many conference rooms full of men, or being the first woman to have various roles such as managing editor and editor, has helped form who I am. But as a mother of a son, a sister of two brothers, and someone happy to have some wonderful male friends, I care about guys, too.”

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