Articles about "Ombudsmen"

Washington Post’s new ombud replacement ‘sounds like a customer relations person’

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth announced Friday that the newspaper would not appoint a new ombudsman, because “The world has changed, and we at The Post must change with it.”

The paper will instead appoint a “reader representative” to answer communications from readers. “We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles,” Weymouth wrote.

How’d that go over?

The new job “sounds like a customer relations person,” NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes.

As often as not, I disagree with complaints. But by taking them seriously, even those made by advocates, I find that it disarms the critics, or at the very least wins their appreciation. Listeners, readers and viewers want above all to know that someone with independent power in the organization is actually listening to them and acting on their complaints.

One, moreover, would be foolish not to listen to an audience as smart as NPR’s, and even extremist advocates can be right. Receiving a pro forma response to a complaint, or having your complaint read on air, is a far cry from having someone believable actually investigate your complaint and get to the truth. The online stories cited by Weymouth are at least a public response, which is good, but the stories sound as if they could be written by the public relations department. If they are that way, it is unlikely to win much credibility among readers.

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Pexton: Ombudsman can get answers from reporters who won’t answer readers

During an exit interview during his last week as The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton told “Kojo Nnamdi Show” guest host Paul Brown that one of the benefits of his job was that he could get answers from reporters who refused to respond to readers’ emails. In so doing, he echoed a point he made in a column he wrote about leaving, in which he said the ombudsman is “often the newsroom’s backstop,” for reporters who “have more demands on them than ever before to be faster, to write more, to tweet, blog, take photos, videos and all the rest.”

Pexton said he thought the Post had a “slightly wrong emphasis” on digital operations, because print brought in more revenue. The care and feeding of those print readers, he said, was a big part of his day. Asked about future plans, Pexton said he would be interested in a “leadership position” at a news organization that believed journalism had a bright future. Read more


Outgoing Washington Post ombudsman: ‘My bet is that this position will disappear’

The Washington Post | Washingtonian | The Wrap
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron makes a good case against the newspaper hiring another ombudsman, Patrick Pexton reports. Pexton will end his two-year term at the end of February.

For one, he said, it is not as if The Post doesn’t come in for criticism, from all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age. … Secondly, Baron said, there is intense “competition for resources.” … He’s right again. It is likely that Baron will have to make further cuts in The Post’s newsroom. An ombudsman’s salary is like that of a senior editor’s. It’s a tempting target.

Baron was previously the editor of The Boston Globe, which doesn’t have an ombudsman.

I’m not sure an ombudsman focused as heavily as they have been on a weekly column makes sense any longer,” Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Harry Jaffe earlier this month.

And indeed, former Postie Sharon Waxman writes in The Wrap, digital news sites like hers “don’t have copy editors, much less ombudsmen. (Instead we have spell check!) In the age of declining budgets, an ombudsman may be a luxury, sad to say.” Read more


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.” Read more


Exit interview: Brisbane says New York Times Public Editor job is ‘not a conversation’

Arthur Brisbane’s New York Times email address has been shut off, and he sounds pretty happy about it.

“I’m trying to decompress,” he told me two days after his stint as the fourth public editor of The New York Times came to an end. “…Yesterday and today are the first two working days that I haven’t had to worry about the e-mail queue and what’s coming in and what’s in the paper, and you know what? I am enjoying it.”

Brisbane spent two years as the Public Editor whose inbox, voicemail and to a lesser extent Twitter account were the designated targets for concerns and complaints about Times journalism. Perhaps he can be forgiven for enjoying the sudden silence of being the former public editor of The New York Times.

(Disclosure: I was on an initial list of candidates to replace Brisbane. The paper hired former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan as its fifth Public Editor.)

The ‘Truth Vigilante’ post

A few months before he left the job, I asked Brisbane to do an exit interview. He agreed, but said it would have to wait until he was out of the position. He also made it clear that the last thing he wanted to do was rehash specific columns and opinions.

But of course we talked about his infamous “truth vigilante” blog post and his final column, which said, “Across the paper’s many departments … so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.”

Not surprisingly, Brisbane cited the vigilante post when asked which of his columns and blog posts would likely be most remembered. He didn’t seem happy about it.

“For better or worse, it’s probably the goddamn fact checking thing,” he said.

Brisbane is still trying to grapple with why it elicited such a strong reaction.

“Understanding the underlying reasons why the response was so strong is not one of my strong points,” he said. “I have a theory on it, but I’m not entirely sure. I think the headline is provocative. ‘Truth Vigilante’ is a provocative phrase, but frankly when I wrote the headline, you know, I was doing what a lot of headline writers do: capture the idea, get the reader’s attention. And it was a catchy phrase. I still think that people read the phrase in multiple ways; it’s one of these things you look at, it’s like a Rorschach … people see different things in that phrase.”

Brisbane doesn’t view that post as a mistake. I asked him to name something he regretted or got wrong, and he said he occasionally committed errors of fact. But he didn’t point to an opinion or piece of writing that he wishes he could take back.

“I don’t really have, I don’t really look back and say, ‘Well, shit, you know that was a fundamental mistake,’ ” he said. “I mean, to the extent that there are shortcomings that one might identify in my term, I don’t think there are shortcomings of my strategy, my tactics. They might be shortcomings that one would identify in my mindset, reporting skills, whatever … You bring your best to the job, you do the best you can, and you know, I’m satisfied when I look back.”

‘It’s not a conversation’

Overall, Brisbane said the position was challenging. One area where he said he struggled was incorporating social media into his work.

“It’s an alien realm for me,” he said. “I didn’t dive into it whole hog, as pretty much everybody who is a media commentator has observed. I understand that my successor is going to do that more in-depth, and I wish her best.”

He said he focused his attention on identifying specific complaints of merit and examining those, rather than doing quick hits on topics of the day, or collecting the reaction from social media and elsewhere.

“I preferred the paradigm that says there’s an article, there’s a complaint, and there’s a point of view that I’m going to arrive at and express, and that is the process,” he said.  “It’s not a conversation. I can fully appreciate that one might say it is a conversation, and it goes on and on and on. That’s fine if somebody wants to take that approach. It’s not the approach I took.”

His preference was to avoid the rapid fire approach of curating reaction and offering quick-hit opinions online.

“There’s a view — and I understand it — that because digital media has sped up the pace of publication, that therefore every topic needs to be addressed at a rapid pace,” he said. “I preferred not to be pressured by the increased frequency of digital reporting. I preferred not to be pressured by that to arrive at a point of view before I was ready. I frankly thought that the schedule of the print column with the option to publish something on the blog was well suited to taking the time, getting to a comfort point, saying my piece and moving on.”

Brisbane anticipated the amount of scrutiny his work would attract. But one thing he didn’t foresee was how quickly he would have to get up to speed on a wide variety of topics in order to be able to write about them.

“There’s a temptation to see the job as one that focuses on journalistic controversies, and to fail to recognize something that actually comes before that and is very sensitive and very hard,” he said. “That is, before you get to the question of the journalistic controversy you have to understand what the heck people are talking about…. You certainly have to study the issue, sort of to master the facts of a particular story.”

Basically, Brisbane said, “when you wade into something as a public editor you best not wade in as an ignoramus.” So he approached the position as a reporting job.

“I wasn’t shy to reach out to other journalists whose opinions I thought carried weight,” he said. “And you know it’s just like any other article, you’ve got space of 1,100 words for the print column, and so you have to sort of do triage on what’s most important and try to construct it … I wanted the pieces to be lively enough to engage readers well in print and online, so the writing was important to me.”

The newsroom relationship

Brisbane recognized that telecommuting was a challenge in this job. He continued to be based in his home in Massachusetts and would spend two or more days a week in New York at the Times.

“I think it’s a disadvantage to have to commute such a distance,” he said. “I think it’s an advantage to be in the newsroom. That’s based on kind of a gut feeling.”

Times journalists were for the most part cooperative and responsive when he reached out, according to Brisbane. He rarely had to push to get a response to an inquiry from his office.

“I felt that the Times staff members that I interacted with certainly accepted the [Public Editor] position, functioned as though it existed by right, and were overall, in terms of their willingness to respond and interact with me, very constructive,” he said.

As a news organization, he said that “in the relative scheme of things [the Times is] excellent.”

One qualifier on that assessment was what he highlighted in his farewell column. Brisbane wrote of the “political and cultural progressivism” that pervades the Times, and in his view plays a role in how it delivers coverage.

“I think I made in my final comment an effort to identify two things that I think I wish the paper was alert to,” he said. “I don’t really want to kind of rehash them, but I do think that those things operate as qualifiers on my rating of excellent.”

What’s next

New Public Editor Margaret Sullivan is now charged with evaluating coverage and responding to complains and concerns. Brisbane said they briefly met in person before he departed, but declined to detail what they talked about. He also said he will follow the practice of his predecessors and not comment on how his successor does the job.

“My sense of it is that after you have done the job, you appreciate that it’s a challenging and difficult job, and that there will be plenty of adversaries out there for the Public Editor,” he said. “It just seems inhumane to add to the list of adversaries by making one’s own comment. So, yeah, I get that completely and I will not be adding to the list of adversaries for the new Public Editor.”

Brisbane said his plan is to decompress for a period, and then get back to writing. He didn’t share specific plans, but it’s unlikely we’ll see him launch a blog.

“No, no I don’t think so,” he said. “On the one hand, I do admire people who do that … There are people who publish blogs that I think have every bit the same deliberative, thoughtful quality that the traditional print medium tend to establish. So it can be done very well, but it’s probably not something that I’m going to do. Whatever I do create, I am going to try to move beyond the frame of daily journalism.”

I told him that’s a shame, as he’d probably get lots of attention if he launched the Truth Vigilante blog.

“I would have to fulfill the promise of the phrase,” he said, laughing. “Who knows, in the right hand, The Truth Vigilante might be a pretty good trademark.” Read more


Why it matters that The New York Times’ next public editor is a woman

For the last nine years, white men have filled The New York Times public editor position. That will change in September when Margaret Sullivan becomes the Times’ first female public editor. Sullivan was also the first woman to be named editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, where she has worked for 32 years.

When she succeeds Arthur Brisbane as public editor in September, Sullivan will write a print column and is expected to have a more active role online than her four predecessors.

One of the unanswered questions is how Sullivan’s role as a woman could affect her coverage of the Times’ journalism. Sullivan, who has signed on for four years, touched upon this in an interview with my colleague Bill Mitchell:

“I think we all bring all of who we are to our roles. The fact that I’m a woman, a mother of college age children, all of those things that are specific to my gender, certainly my role as first woman editor of this newspaper, the first corporate officer — all of those things, along with my admiration  for pioneering women who came before me, will figure in. I don’t come to the role with a gender-driven agenda. I bring myself to it, and that’s part of who I am.”

Sullivan told The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, however, that she doesn’t think being a woman will significantly affect what she writes about the Times: “My being a woman has certainly informed and affected all of my roles as a journalist. It’s part of what I bring to this new role.” But, she added, “I don’t expect the subject matter to be obviously reflecting that in any way.”

I’m not so convinced, though, considering previous public editors have written about the Times’ coverage of women. Last year, Brisbane critiqued a Times story about an 11-year-old who was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas. He said the story, which was widely criticized, “lacked balance.” He reiterated readers’ arguments that the piece heavily quoted sources who blamed the victim, and said the quotes “led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.”

But Brisbane never took a firm stance on why this type of blame is wrong, and didn’t use his critique as an opportunity to talk about how prevalent sexual abuse is among young women. I can’t help but think that a woman would have shared a different and perhaps deeper perspective on the issue.

This isn’t to say that women make better public editors than men; it’s to suggest that women bring a different sensibility to the job.

Advocates for newsroom diversity have argued for years that people with diverse backgrounds bring different perspectives and experiences to the workplace, and Sullivan’s role as public editor is no exception.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fischer, who’s an expert on gender in the workplace, wrote about the value of a woman’s perspective in “The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press”:

Indeed, women’s power is likely to escalate, because many of our business environments need the skills of women: their verbal skills, their collaborative and nurturing leadership styles, their mental flexibility, and, increasingly, their tolerance for ambiguity.

Additionally, studies have shown why newsrooms need women. The 2011 Global Media Monitoring Report on Women, for instance, found that stories by female reporters are more likely to challenge stereotypes and contain more female sources than stories by men.

Sullivan’s remark about her gender not having a significant impact on her coverage of the Times is similar to what Jill Abramson has said. Shortly after being named the Times’ first executive editor last year, Abramson said in an interview with Brisbane: “The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.”

Her remark sparked reaction from female journalists who disagreed. Women do bring a different taste and sensibility to stories, they said, not because they can write only about subjects that are of interest to women, but because they can draw from experiences they’ve had as women in ways that men can’t.

It will be interesting to see if Sullivan writes columns about the Times’ coverage of women, and how she approaches them. Based on essays she’s written, it’s clear that she’s given serious thought to issues affecting women — particularly when it comes to balancing work and family.

A few years after becoming editor of The Buffalo News in 1999, Sullivan wrote about balance in an essay for the American Press Institute’s “Survival Guide for Women Editors”:

When I got the big job, I had a phone call from a favorite uncle, an accomplished physician and an excellent father and grandfather. He was a man of few but well-chosen words. After he’d said congratulations, he left me with a two-word piece of advice: “Family first.” I’m not sure I’ve followed it perfectly, but it sure has stuck with me.

In a 2009 essay for “The Edge of Change,” Sullivan looked back on her accomplishments and the challenges she has faced as a woman:

I didn’t really “have it all,” although it might have looked that way for a while. (And frankly, I liked giving that impression. My bio, for years, listed my professional accomplishments and ended with a sentence about my long-term marriage and two children.) …. I was in a stable marriage for more than twenty years, but, now separated with a divorce pending, I can acknowledge that the strains of my job had at least some role in its outcome, although that’s a complicated subject. (A voice from the sensible feminist in my head demands to be heard now, so let’s allow her to speak to these points: Why apply the standards of the sexist 1950s to the twenty-first century? It’s a different world, a better one for women, so let’s not wax nostalgic for the bad old days. As for your marriage and your career, what successful man has ever blamed his job promotion for his marital problems?)

No doubt, Sullivan’s personal experiences have affected her outlook on her profession and issues concerning women. And I hope, from time to time, they’re reflected in her role as The New York Times’ next public editor.

Related: “Instead of ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ the Public Editor’s motto is ‘I bite the hand that feeds me.’ ” (Dave Winer/Scripting News) | Sullivan: “Newspapers must be truth vigilantes” (Joe Strupp/Media Matters) Read more


New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan signs on for 4 years

The new public editor of the New York Times pitched the paper on two main roles in her application for the job: “smart aggregator” and “forum organizer.”

Margaret M. Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News since 1999, credits “Blur,” the 2010 book by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, for highlighting those roles as essential to journalism in the digital era.

“The criticism and commentary is already going on,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “I want to centralize it in the [public editor’s] blog.” She said she’ll play the role of “forum organizer” by “inviting commentary and letting people use the [public editor’s online] space as a place to come and discuss. And we’ll use multimedia tools to make that happen.”

Unlike the paper’s previous public editors, who worked under variations of two-year contracts, Sullivan has signed on for four years.

“There’s a possible out after two years for both parties,” she said, but added that there’s also the possibility of extending for a total run of six years if things go well.

“There was some discussion of fine-tuning the role of public editor, sticking around a little longer, digging in a bit more.” Read more

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New NYT public editor knows what it’s like to be in the hot seat

Nieman Reports
Buffalo News Editor Margaret M. Sullivan, named Monday as the next public editor for The New York Times, writes in the latest issue of Nieman Reports about how she dealt with outrage in Buffalo’s black community that resulted from her paper’s reporting. The essay provides some insight into how she thinks a newspaper should handle public outcry over its reporting — the sort of thing she’ll keep an eye on and be subject to at the Times.

In August 2010, Sullivan writes, eight people were shot at a party in Buffalo; four of them died. All of the victims were black, as was a man who was later convicted of murder.

About a week after the shooting and the same day that the News covered the funeral of one of the victims, the paper published a front-page story with the headline “7 of 8 shooting victims had criminal past.” Read more


Buffalo News editor Margaret M. Sullivan to be next New York Times public editor

The New York Times | The Buffalo News
Margaret M. Sullivan, now editor of The Buffalo News, will succeed Arthur Brisbane as The New York Times public editor, becoming the first woman to hold the post. The Times announcement says the Web will become a larger part of the role for Sullivan:

Sullivan will continue to write a print column, but she will focus on a more active online role: as the initiator, orchestrator and moderator of an ongoing conversation about The Times’s journalism. That conversation will center on a blog and Web page on, along with an active social media presence.

Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold that post, praised Sullivan’s combination of print experience and willingness to adapt to new platforms:

“She has an impressive 32-year background in print journalism where she has distinguished herself as a reporter, columnist, editor and manager. And critically for us at this time, she has shown adeptness at embracing new platforms and engaging and interacting with readers in real time online, in print and in person.”

Sullivan writes a blog for the News and holds a monthly live chat with readers. She joined Twitter in January (her handle is @Sulliview), and she had about 540 followers as her new position was announced. (She may end up doubling that by the end of the day.)

She joined the News as a summer intern in 1980 and rose to the ranks to become the paper’s first female editor. She was named to the Pulitzer Prize Board a year ago.

Unlike previous public editors, Sullivan has signed on for four years, reports Poynter’s Bill Mitchell. She told him that she emphasized two roles in her application: “smart aggregator” and “forum organizer.” Read more


Candidates for New York Times public editor job list their priorities

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.

Memo excerpts

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.

2. Publicness

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.

5. Temperament/Attitude

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. Read more