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.”

Sullivan said she spent about an hour talking about the job with Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

“It was not a casual chat,” she said, describing Sulzberger’s questions as “detailed and searching.” She said that both the publisher and Times editor Jill Abramson stressed the importance of “transparency and responsiveness to readers.”

Sullivan will report to Sulzberger when she starts work Sept. 1 and will work independently from Abramson and the paper’s news operation.

The digital emphasis described by Sullivan reflects a change from current practices that Times editors -- and at least two of the unsuccessful contenders for the job -- have stressed in recent weeks.

Sullivan said she had read “and certainly learned from” the application excerpts published by author and teacher Dan Gillmor and Poynter’s Craig Silverman.

Her goal, Sullivan said, is to facilitate “a daily online conversation with readers.” Catching herself, she offered a quick edit: “Well, maybe not every day, but a lot!”

Sullivan, who has worked at the Buffalo News, her hometown paper, for 32 years, said she pushed the Times to retain the every-other-week print column that appears in the Sunday Review section.

“It’s really important to slow down a bit and take a bigger, deeper look, a more deliberate look,” she said. “Print readers deserve that ... rather than just reverse-publishing blog posts.”

Sullivan said she hasn’t worked out how the aggregation or forum organizing will work, but expects to meet with the paper’s social media and tech experts to brainstorm the details.

Sullivan is no stranger to working out digital details. As she told the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, she was involved in building the News’ website “from the ground up” and has become an active blogger.

Her digital chops appear to lie more in the gritty details of moving a print paper online, though, than in the fine points of digital conversation and debate.

Sullivan didn’t quarrel with that assessment when I ran it by her Monday, but she added: “We’re all learning every day how to rise to the digital challenge. In the last six months, I have immersed myself in the digital world and I love it.”

Sullivan’s online world is about to get much bigger very quickly. Within the first six hours of her selection, her Twitter followers climbed from 540 past 1,000. That compares with more than 11,000 for the current public editor, Art Brisbane, who tweeted his congratulations shortly after the announcement.

Sullivan said her immersion in digital media has involved capturing video at local concerts, a skill she’s been learning from a Buffalo News colleague who covers high school sports. She said she jumped into social media “partly because I wanted a creative outlet beyond the editing function -- and I also wanted to learn this stuff from the inside out.”

Asked what scares her about the new job, she said: “I don’t feel afraid of it in any way. It will be challenging. There will be a lot of learning. I’m feeling very excited about it.”

Asked what she’d like people to be saying about her first four years in the job, she said: “I’d like them to say that I was unafraid, open-minded and fair. And it’s always important to be engaging. It’s a big value of mine. To be interesting. To do something that captures people’s imagination and attention. I think I can do that. There is so much rich material!”

Some of the discussion about what the Times should do with the public editor’s job reflects two main goals, both of them worthy, in my view. The first is focused on serving the paper’s audiences; the second is more focused on serving the Times itself.

One goal is reporting, analysis and commentary aimed at making the Times more useful to its audiences. The second would improve the paper’s journalism by taking better advantage of audience expertise with the use of such tools as crowdsourcing.

There’s overlap, of course, but I’m hoping that Sullivan focuses on the first goal and that the Times devotes whatever resources it takes to address the second. There is too much work in serving readers to dilute that effort by having the public editor enlist reader involvement in investigations and other realms of Times coverage. That’s work that needs doing -- and I’m convinced the Times would reap huge benefits with greater emphasis on it -- but not by the public editor.

Sullivan’s occasional in-paper column, her blog (she says she posts about five times a week) and her latest live chat with readers suggest an editor confident in her newsroom leadership, open to reader critiques and candid about the steep economic challenges facing newspapers.

In her most recent column, published June 15, she informed readers that the News would begin charging non-subscribers $2.49 a week for digital access to much of the paper once readers have clicked on 10 free articles a month -- along the lines of Times paywall policies debated with great fervor by many of her new constituents.

Noting that “that the economics of the news business have declined dramatically,” she credited the News’ owner and chairman, noted investor Warren Buffett, with the paper’s profitability and debt-free balance sheet.

“But our profit is far less than it was in previous years,” she added. “We need to reposition ourselves to be economically stable in the future.”

As you’d expect, Sullivan’s blog is more personal than her in-paper column, her most recent post (published Thursday, July 12) focused on “a few of my favorite things,” including the digital future of news, author talks at a nearby conference center and updates on Buffalo’s summer music scene.

She conducted her most recent online chat with readers July 5 and discussed, among other things, criticism of the paper’s political coverage, questions about its digital subscriptions, and a critique of its online comments policy.

I asked Sullivan to point me to something she’s written that might be especially relevant to her new job. She sent me to this piece published in the Buffalo News just over a year ago: “The view from the digital edge.”

The piece includes the sort of personal detail about her relationship with paper and ink that should provide some common ground with the many lovers of the print edition of The New York Times. But her kicker leaves no doubt about her sense of where the news business is headed:

“But the tipping point is coming; the digital tsunami has already transformed the world of print as we know it. We can't afford to spend the rest of the revolution wiping tears off our screens.”

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

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years.


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