5 qualifications The New York Times should require of its next public editor

The New York Times is in the market for a new public editor.

Erik Wemple broke the news yesterday that current public editor Arthur Brisbane will end his term this fall after two years. (Brisbane said it was his choice to not seek the option for a third year.)

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.

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  • Billy Budd

    I don’t see why journalism experience — basic experience as a reporter and an editor — isn’t much more important than digital expertise. Stop this lockstep nonsense, please. I was overjoyed by Patrick Pexton’s description of the job involving interaction with readers and old-school moves that involve leaving the building and engaging with the community. As I see it, the Times wants to consider good and trustworthy journalists, who are able to do the work they criticize and to separate themselves from corporate politics. In the end, this person may come from “the digital side of journalism,” but it shouldn’t in any way be a prerequisite.

  • http://twitter.com/craig_burley Craig Burley

    “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.”

    That says it all, doesn’t it. For Okrent and the Times, a “different world” meant someone who worked down the street and in the same industry, rather than someone who worked in the same building for the same company.

  • Anonymous

     Yes, these are good suggestions. I do have a very capable assistant who is handling more and more of the routine, but still even some seemingly minor things call for a lot of judgment. I am trying to put on the blog more lines of stories with links, on a given topic, so when people say, “The Post isn’t covering such and such,” I can point them to a line of stories and say actually you’re wrong, or say, yes, you’re right. Thanks Craig.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    Dealing with the onslaught of emails and other feedback is a huge challenge for those in the job. I believe the Times offers some support for its public editor in the form of an additional person. 

    One measure I previously suggested to help handle all of these questions is to create an online repository of the kind of information people tend to ask about. Kind of a FAQ on steroids. Brisbane wrote about the idea here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/opinion/sunday/many-voices-but-still-one-times.html

    This way, you answer questions in public (where appropriate) and add that information to a central place so other readers can easily locate the details. Now you can point people to that resource, rather than have to respond to emails in detail. Then perhaps over time you can encourage people to submit queries into a public queue that you can more easily manage.

    My goal in suggesting this is partly to free an ombud to engage in the kind of reporting you outline, to give them time to gather facts and information, and to enable them to produce work from those efforts. The other reason is that, as you point out, so much of the work of an ombud happens in private. The more that you can share of what you find and the questions you answer, the more value you offer to the public and the organization.

  • Anonymous

    Some nice ideas in there, but ombudsmen do a great deal more than write columns and blogs. Who would research and respond to the 200 to 300 e-mails per day I get, often with genuine reader concerns about everything from obits to grammar to Web site practices?. Who would answer the two dozen phone calls I get every day with interesting, and not so interesting, queries, from readers all over the world now. Who would speak to the D.C. police chief who is at the end of her rope and unhappy with the response from Post editors about stories she is unhappy with? Who would meet with community groups to hear their complaints about Post coverage of their neighborhood? Who would respond to readers who have been misled by a right wing or left-wing Web site about something that did or did not appear in The Post? Who would take the calls from Post readers who cannot navigate the phone tree that prevents them from talking to anyone in the newsroom? Who would talk to two or three editors plus reporters to get the real story behind a story and how it came out the way it did? Who would be the final line of appeal to scores of readers who can’t understand, navigate, or get satisfaction out of The Post?
    If the ombudsman’s job became merely a stream of curated, storified, comments online, it would no longer be an ombudsman. it would be an easy breezy opining on passing fancies.
    I’m a modernizer and am plunging in to social media, but there is more to ombudsmaning than commentary.
    Patrick B. Pexton
    The Washington Post

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    One of Daniel Okrent’s most famous columns was headlined “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” 

    The first sentence of the column was, “OF course it is.”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/the-public-editor-is-the-new-york-times-a-liberal-newspaper.html?pagewanted=all&src=pmSo he stated that the paper was liberal. It was a big deal at the time.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    I disagree but appreciate the suggestion!

  • Anonymous

    I would set internationalism as an important qualification–in that the paper that could have been expected to generalize from the education coverage in The Daily Telegraph and Guardian over the past half year, so as to help focus the limitations of American education, failed miserably. 

    The New York Times could not get the implications of The DT’s explosive coverage of exam boards, nor could The NYT’s Public Editor, apparently, understand anything about it. When Poynter capably explains errors in journalism, it tends to focus on downstream solutions. I would argue that many of the problems in American journalism–I see these as being quite visible at The NYT–can be sourced to upstream incoherence.

    For example, I rate the SAT as ineffective. What I would want to see in a high school student is the ability to create 100 thoughtful challenges for “The Hunger Games” (the Penguin Student Edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is invaluable background). Katniss said in chapter 18 (page 240):

    Why bother to carry food when you have such a bounty back at camp? When you will kill your enemies so quickly you’ll be home before you’re hungry? 

    What is the status of these two questions? Katniss does not employ report verbs to signal that she is attributing rhetorical questions to the boy from District 1. So the technique is free indirect. A student should be able to give a clear explanation of the ascription. 

    Was the reaping drawing fixed? Was the arena an environment calculated to favor the Katniss-Peeta narrative? How would our understanding of the first third of “The Hunger Games” be influenced by a close reading of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? Anyone unable to formulate 100 powerful challenges for “The Hunger Games,” or respond to such challenges, should not be considered for the position of NYT Public Editor. 

    The most amazing statement recently is the comment in the official illustrated film companion to “The Hunger Games” (page 10) that the novel is written in the present. There are many brilliant passages in the historical present, but just about equally there are exquisite passages in the past, with excellent employment of background tenses such as past progressive and past perfect. Katniss also engages in a lot of projection, in future verb phrases. Somewhat wildly, the director of the film swallowed wholesale the idea that “The Hunger Games” was written in the present, when instead its narrative texture–framing past with historical present–is far more complex. America is the kind of country where people would not notice. 

    While we are at it, could I suggest a new motto for The NYT? “All the bourgeois news that is fit to print.” The front page of the paper is dull. The Op-Eds are sleepy. The book review is bureaucratic and predictable. The Sunday Magazine is often frivolous. “The Choice” is the worst education blog in the world, facilitating the worst in American education. 

    I want my students to be able to design websites with Creative Suite, readily adapt to answering or creating challenges for “The Hunger Games” or for “The Turn of the Screw,” and master language in the COBUILD English Grammar and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. 

    I do not respect the routines in American education. The NYT is a reflection of those routines. 

    Cinna would appear to be the best choice for Public Editor. 

  • Anonymous

    They need someone who is willing to be productive. Brisbane is better than his predecessor, but the Times ombuds do not post enough. I often get the feeling they are running out the clock, since if they really probe, things can get a little messy. They need someone who understands conservatives and who is willing to admit that the Times is a liberal paper, not just in its social and cultural outlook, but in news and politics. I’d like an ombud who would ask why the Times seldom labels an individual a liberal but gives free rein to its writers in calling people conservatives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rogerowengreen Roger Green

    Obviously, race/gender notwithstanding, you’d be the perfect candidate.

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    I meant it as a way to encourage that they find someone from a different age group than the previous hires. (You’ll note I didn’t specify the person had to be younger, as you’re right that this is a sensitive issue with legal ramifications.) I personally don’t care as much about age as I do about the person’s other qualifications and approach to the job. 

    From one white male to another, I offer you kudos for being social media adept and for engaging here!

  • Steve Hall

    I’m curious as to what you mean by using age as a diversity discriminator. The only legally protected age class is “over 40.” Thus, a company can’t restrict their search to individuals younger than forty, and certainly can’t be perceived as having done so. While I don’t meet many of the qualifications, I’m sure I’m not the only social media adept who’ll celebrate their 60th birthday this year. (Unfortunately, I’m also a white male—but I’m a Libertarian!)