The New York Times killed the public editor job just when it's needed most

No, New York Times! Not the public editor! Why, with trust in news organizations at an all-time low, would you cut the one position dedicated to holding your journalists to account in public? We need you to reconsider.

We know you can pay for it. Thanks to a big increase in subscribers (whom the public editor represents!) your digital revenues are at an all-time high. And it seems a bit disingenuous that an organization spending an extra $5 million to cover the White House couldn’t spring for another position to safeguard accountability and promote positive change.

The public editor was one of many initiatives the Times instituted in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal. And the powerful role remains the absolute best way to do explanatory journalism about journalism.

As the chattering field of media critics and analysts has become more crowded (including myself and my colleagues) the public editor role has the potential to be the pinnacle of the pinnacle. Done well, as it was by Margaret Sullivan and Clark Hoyt, the position creates a pathway to questioning and challenging the most powerful news organization in the world.

(Disclosure: I discussed many a column with many of the men and women who held the position. I interviewed for the job. And, I served in a similar role for ESPN.)

Granted, there are plenty of outsiders who can play this part. And we will.

But when the role is structured well, with a foot in the newsroom and a foot rooted on an independent contract that can’t be cancelled, it sends a message to the audience. It’s the editor and publisher both saying: “We so believe in what we do, we will make sure a qualified person is scrutinizing our work, in public.”

Even more so than in 2003 when the position was announced, today’s audience cherishes transparency, sometimes even over independence. Readers don’t just want to know how journalists know what they know, but also why they chose that story, those sources, a particular tone of questions, and a method of telling the narrative of our world.

The reign of the New York Times public editor coincided with an era when the press came under increasing pressure to be ethical and sound. In the face of wide efforts to decertify the media for political or ideological reasons, The New York Times stood above the fray, because it funded this unique position.

Paying a good journalist to pull back the curtain and see what’s happening behind the scenes demonstrated that the institution was responsive to critics from all directions. It established credibility, not just for itself but for the world of journalism.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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