Margaret Sullivan's tenure as New York Times public editor: Thrills, frustrations and the future

Margaret Sullivan on Saturday said goodbye in her final column as public editor for The New York Times, ending a much-lauded and unavoidably fractious three-and-a-half year tenure.

She'd served previously as editor of the Warren Buffett-owned Buffalo News before taking on the high profile, impactful and inherently tricky task of assessing the performance of the world's most influential newspaper.

There tend to be no Kobe Bryant farewell tours for public editors. If lucky, they get something akin to a courteous clap; sort of like a valiant loser elicits from the Royal Box at Wimbledon. Then you're on your way.

It's slightly better if you're at The Times since, well, it's The Times, New York City, the capital of the media world, the industry echo chamber. You may get a a few more exit interviews than others. But it falls rather short of Bryant's worship or what beckons at year's end for a lame duck President Obama. Your portrait won't be displayed near the Pulitzer plaques.

Public editor or ombudsman, whatever it may be called, is a tough job, and the vast majority of media organizations don't have any such position. For most papers, TV stations, radio stations, cable networks and digital news operations, a self-image of fearless independent news gatherer has not led to even a vague desire to have an independent in-house analyst of shortcomings for public consumption. Some argue that in the internet age, instant feedback somehow provides a self-correcting mechanism.

That's very debatable, as is the ultimate effect of those who serve as readers' and viewers' primary contact at some media organizations. There can be an impulse toward self-preservation that prompts serving more as apologists than neutral analysts.

Sullivan gets very solid grades, even though inevitably there remains private grousing about her tenure among both rank-and-filers and mangers, according to those at the paper with whom I spoke. It's never pleasant to be criticized, so in a universe of healthy egos it's not a Herculean task to find folks at The Times with bones to pick. She spent a lot of time questioning know-it-all-types who can find it hard to concede they made a mistake, maybe even a big one.

By design she reported to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., not to the editor, Dean Baquet. By all accounts I could find, she was regarded as serious minded, vigorous, curious and generally well-intentioned. Yes, she pissed off some people. Nobody likes to see the office cop coming their way.

"The best journalists have the most curiosity and exceptional critical thinking skills," said Marty Kaiser, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who is now assisting The Boston Globe in "reinventing" itself. "Margaret was an excellent reporter and editor at the Buffalo News. She brought her deep knowledge from inside a news organization to The New York Times. It gave her a foundation from which she used curiosity and critical thinking to represent readers as she wrote her column from inside the institution she reported on."

In her final blog post, she took an idea from BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith and opined on five things she'll miss and five things she hated.

She'll miss tips from the staff, great style stories, the paper's depth and breadth, (especially on Sundays), top-class assistants, collegiality, strong support and those ever-diligent (and picky) readers.

She won't miss the job's inherent tension, institutional defensiveness, a Times sense of "exceptionalism" ("the idea that whatever the Times does is, by definition, the right thing"), articles that celebrate the excesses of the very wealthy and those articles and series that have "prize bait" written all over them, seeming overwrought and appearing right before contest deadlines.

Unlike the Golden State Warriors with Bryant, I couldn't give Sullivan a five-day Napa Valley vacation with five wineries and five restaurants included, or a five-liter bottle from Amuse Bouche winery featuring a special label with her name on a jersey. Instead, I just offered the chance to answer a few questions.

I've always thought that being public editor at The New York Times might be the worst job in the world; akin to being a toll collector in an iPass lane. But, unlike the toll job, you've got microscopic inspection of your work, big egos, thin skins, high stakes, institutional defensiveness and the inevitable sense that you're raining on everybody's parade. It's noble and, by and large, thankless. Well, what kind of job did it prove to be?

It's both a great job and a really tough job. The opportunity to hold The Times to its own standards, on behalf of its readers, is a privilege, of course, and you get to do it on a great platform. But it can be very difficult on an interpersonal level because you're often — in essence — criticizing people who could be described as your colleagues.

Why are there so few public editors, ombudsmen, whatever you want to call them? Is it a function of resources or that the media, by and large, can't take the heat?

In an era in which resources are scarce, and every hire counts, the chance to hire an internal critic doesn't tend to rise to the top of anyone's list. It speaks well for The Times that its leadership wants to do this for its readers, but I must confess that as top editor of The Buffalo News, I never felt a keen desire to bring someone aboard to second-guess my decisions. Of course, it's the biggest institutions that probably need it most because they seem monolithic and impenetrable.

What was your toughest decision as far as a story you needed to assess?

I found navigating the complaints about Middle East coverage very difficult. The feelings on both sides are so intense and irreconcilable. It's the very definition of a no-win topic. I took one big run at it, in a Sunday column, and made some recommendations. The reaction wasn't as bad as it could have been.

The paper has new rules it just disclosed regarding anonymous sources. What's the key element? Are you confident the guidelines will be heeded?

On stories that truly hinge on an unnamed source, one of three top editors has to read and sign off on it. Matt Purdy, one of the top editors, calls these stories "journalistic I.E.D.s" and he's right. So now there is a high-level bar that they must clear. The Times hasn't been great at following its own guidelines on this subject, but I hope it will be different this time — at least for a while.

Mike Ananny, writing for Nieman Lab, recently called for an overhaul of the public editor’s job, arguing that ombudspersons should “speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values.” Do you also think the job needs rethinking?

I thought Mike Ananny wrote a smart piece, and there's no doubt that the next public editors need to expand their thinking to include those topics. Every job in journalism needs rethinking, and this is no exception.

When did the paper thrill you? What story had you going, "This is a reason I'm lucky to be here?"

Sonny Kleinfield's piece about George Bell, who died alone in his Queens apartment, was mind-blowing. So was the series on arbitration clauses (The Fine Print) out of the Washington bureau. And Metro's work on prison abuse at Rikers and Attica — really important and great. These are the kinds of stories that take incredible time and commitment, and were extremely impressive. I've also really liked Michael Kimmelman's architecture coverage because of the way he's taken it multimedia, and into all corners of the world, and not just the richest ones. And Tony Scott's movie criticism is aces. There's a lot I'm not naming.

When did it disappoint you?

I have often wished that The Times would be quicker to 'fess up to its weaknesses and mistakes. The flip side of being excellent a lot seems to be a feeling that excellence is your birthright.

You've been immersed in the expanding, fragmented media universe. What broad generalization can you make about the quality of journalism out there, especially locally?

I'm very concerned about the future of local reporting, especially investigative reporting. Good work gets done, but less of it, and that's not going in a good direction. And that's also true of statehouse coverage, and beat coverage. Numbers matter and the numbers are down; and going down further.

Do you leave The Times more or less hopeful about its future than when you arrived?

I'm not sure I had really thought about The Times's future much before I arrived. Now, I see the challenges, and they are really difficult ones, but I think The Times will make it. The leadership is certainly scrambling to do that every day, and willing to try new things and admit failure and move on. So, pretty hopeful.

What will you be doing at The Post?

I'll be writing a wide-ranging media column once a week, and also probably writing some longer, enterprise pieces and perhaps posting to a blog as well. The subject will include journalism, privacy, free speech, media personalities, and the way the digital transformation is changing how we consume information. I'm hoping to write engagingly enough and on broad enough topics to attract not just those inside the Beltway or in the media hotbed of New York City, but readers throughout The Post's growing national audience.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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