About a month ago, I received a rather cryptic email from a manager at The New York Times, asking me to give him a call.
I did, and was greeted with a surprising bit of information: I was on a relatively short list of people they were considering for the paper’s next public editor. I almost immediately told the person on the other end of the line that I had my doubts I’d be the right person for the job.
I was pretty certain I wouldn’t end up being their choice, but I was happy to participate in the process, and to have been on the list.
The list has since been whittled down and the remaining people are being interviewed by Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. As I expected, I’m not one of the finalists.
When contacted by the paper, I was asked to provide a current CV and a memo outlining my vision for the job. It was the same request made of Dan Gillmor, as he revealed in a recent blog post for The Guardian. I had no idea who else was on that list, but consider it an honor to have been in the same company as him, not to mention Poynter colleague Kelly McBride, who I subsequently learned was also a candidate.
Now I’m going to follow Gillmor’s lead. His recent post about the job included a large excerpt from his memo to the Times. It’s his blueprint for what the job should look like in the social media era. Here are two ideas from his memo:
- Aggregate (quote and link to) every thoughtful critique of the organization’s work that I could find, and invite readers to analyze and comment on those critiques. I would ask permission to crosspost some of these on the blog. When I thought a critic was wrong, I’d say so. I’d also note when they were, in my view, making fair points. I’d deal with disrespectful critiques on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that sometimes a nasty person can make a good point.
- Create a robust, open forum about the newspaper’s work. This would most likely take the form of a traditional bulletin board system where readers could create their own topics, using moderation software that would minimize staff costs while still filtering out the worst trolls.
I confess to being jealous of this line from his memo: “I’d do my best to lower the personal profile of the Public Editor and raise the profile of the public.”
It turns out Dan and I had some similar ideas for how we’d do the job — as well as some differences. Below is the main section of my memo, which outlined five areas of focus, as well as a relevant part from my memo’s introduction.
Here’s a relevant section from the brief introduction that preceded those five items:
My approach can be summed up in one word: reporting.
If the reporting produced by the Times can serve democracy and society, then surely reporting is the right approach to keep the Times accountable.
I will use the feedback, criticism and praise directed at the Times and its journalism to guide my reporting. The public will in many ways be my assignment desk. I will report to answer their questions, address their concerns, and offer them information and insight about how the newsroom and related Times functions operate, or should. My opinions and suggestions will come as a result of reporting.
Areas of focus:
1. Column and Journal
In order to be relevant – and to justify the expense of the position – the public editor must move at the new pace of news, and be able to use all the tools and narrative techniques available to today’s journalists.
He must also of course produce work that meets Times standards, and be at home and available on all platforms where the Times is present.
I’ve been blogging since 2004 and intend to make the public editor’s journal a lively and frequently updated part of the website. I will produce at a rate similar to that of an online reporter, while ensuring I match speed and frequency with the patience and thoughtfulness required to do the job properly.
I will rename the existing public editor’s journal to something such as TimesPublic or simply call it the Public Editor’s blog. The blog will be the primary vehicle for sharing feedback from readers, offering opinions and analysis, and aggregating and curating notable commentary about the Times from elsewhere. It will provide a window into what I’m working on and considering, a place for me to draw attention to outside reporting and criticism about the Times, and a home to public editor reporting.
I will regularly share topics I’m investigating and invite feedback. (I will likely curate this feedback using tools such as Storify.) The blog is also where I will share items of interest published on Times properties in order to draw attention to them and elicit thoughts from readers.
I still believe a biweekly print column remains important, but more diversity in the format and content is needed. I may cover more than one topic per column, provided each can be addressed properly.
I will also enlist illustrators and designers to produce occasional columns that are more visually oriented, and that could for example make use of the data I intend to collect and analyze as part of my role. (See Structured Data below.)
To be clear, though, I see the blog emerging as the primary focus of my work, with the print column representing a unique extension and opportunity.
A public editor must be as public as possible in the way he does the job, and in the work he produces. This isn’t the case today.
A huge portion of the work done by the Times’s public editor (and others elsewhere) is never shared publicly. I’m referring to the individual responses offered to the never-ending stream of emails, phone calls and other correspondence from people with concerns or complaints.
I recently interviewed Daniel Okrent about his tenure as public editor. He said reading and responding to reader/source feedback was his first priority. The downside of private, one-on-one interaction is it keeps much of the work produced by a public editor out of public view, and denies valuable information to many who could appreciate it. I also think it leads to a wasteful repetition of work for the public editor and his associate(s).
To help change this, I will encourage people to ask questions and raise concerns publicly whenever possible. I’ll ask those who email and leave phone messages if they are willing to have their communications shared publicly. I will publish these concerns, criticisms and complaints on the public editor’s blog and also store them in a database. (See Structured Data below.)
I would also ask the Times to create an online form on a revamped public editor’s homepage to let people submit feedback and opt out of having their submission viewed publicly. I hope these [public] submissions will eventually be published in a public queue accessible to anyone.
The use of a database will also enable me to produce a new public editor project that will save time and resources for the office, and better serve readers. I outlined this idea in a Columbia Journalism Review column:
… a public archive of questions and answers could form the basis of a useful FAQ-like database of questions and answers. This eliminates the need for an ombud to answer the same question over and over again. If a frequently asked question suddenly has a new or updated answer, he can just update with a new blog post to make that information public.
This idea was picked up by current public editor Arthur Brisbane.
Even with such a move toward a more public and structured way of dealing with reader input, it’s unrealistic to think a public editor can address every piece of feedback and item of concern.
However, an attempt to at least publicize these items is one way to offer acknowledgement. This strategy will also help uncover the concerns and issues that are widely held, or that inspire interesting debate.
In a sense, it would help set priorities while at the same time giving the Times community a greater voice because their submissions live on the website in public fashion. (We would of course use filters to root out offensive comments and spam submissions.)
As part of being more public, I will also participate regularly in Q&As on the website and produce the occasional short video segment, which could be used to highlight reader feedback.
3. Structured Data and Reporting
The public editor’s office should be equipped with tools to gather, analyze and share data about the feedback it receives, the work it does, and about the Times in general. As noted above, I’d like to bring a structured approach to the collection and classification of communications sent to the public editor’s office.
I will work with the public editor’s associate(s) to categorize this input in order to gain insight into the topics, stories and issues generating discussion. Just as the Times has an internal database to track errors/corrections, I’d create a simple database to categorize emails, phone calls and other forms of contact.
I will then be able to track which issues are bubbling to the top, or are of consistent concern for the Times community. As noted above, adding a feedback form to the public editor’s page would help this process.
I would also create a running tally of commitments made by the paper as a result of concerns raised by readers or myself – basically, a Times version of PolitiFact’s Obamameter. This publicly available list would help track the organization’s progress toward stated goals and objectives, and would introduce a new layer of accountability.
4. Social Media
I will maintain @CraigSilverman as a personal account and take up @ThePublicEditor as the official voice of the office. I will use it as a place to encourage feedback from Times readers, to interact with people, to point followers to interesting or otherwise notable content on Times properties, and engage in an ongoing conversation. I will also closely track Twitter discussions about Times journalism.
On Facebook, I will maintain a Public Editor’s page where I encourage comments on my recent work, and also ask questions and seek feedback from users about Times journalism and decisions.
Along with email and phone calls, Twitter and Facebook will be two important places where I gather and track feedback. I may also add a presence on Google+ but will determine that once in the position. My feeling is a Tumblr isn’t necessary so long as I seek to make the public editor’s blog a focal point of my work. But I won’t rule out that or any other platforms.
The public editor is not an apologist for the paper; nor should he be an antagonist. There’s a balance that must be struck, and I think it takes constant diligence and focus. I will work hard at this.
As a colleague I am respectful, diligent, hardworking and cheerful. I prize fairness and civility, and work to achieve them on a consistent basis. I also admire and practice consistency, particularly when it comes to dealing with people. I won’t behave one way with Times staffers and present another attitude in my work. The same goes for interaction with readers.
Having spoken with and interviewed several current and former ombudsmen/public editors from different organizations, I believe one of the toughest challenges is to find the patience and focus to listen intently at all times, to not personalize the criticism that inevitably will come, and to be a strong check and balance on the newsroom.
All of this must also be done in a way that avoids turning the public editor into a tiresome nag who can easily be ignored and dismissed as irrelevant.
Those were my ideas. What would you do as the new Times public editor?
One more note. During the roughly one month that passed between when I received that first email from a Times manager and when I was told I was not in contention for the position, I authored four posts (1,2,3,4) that touched on the Times, or quoted Times employees.
I wrote these posts because they did not deal with the public editor position, with Times policies, or decisions by the paper’s leadership. Disclosures have been added to these posts to note the fact that they were written during the period I was still a candidate.
Having been a candidate, I will not cover the hiring of the new Times public editor when it’s announced. In the short term, I will also continue to avoid coverage of Times policies, initiatives or leadership decisions. This is to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. I’ll return to regular coverage when my editor, Julie Moos, and I feel a proper amount of time has passed.