Over and Out

Why The New York Times Fired Its Public Editor in Favor of a ‘Reader Center'

The New York Times has terminated the position of public editor, claiming the position is now superfluous. Some doubt that a ‘reader center’ will do as rigorous a job.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Dean Baquet, the New York Times’s executive editor, has a clever analogy for Publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s abrupt sacking of Public Editor Liz Spayd Wednesday—more than a year before her two-year tenure is up—and his total elimination of the job of independent in-house newspaper critic.

“I think it’s like one of those cases when governments create big bureaucracies to fix a scandal—one particular scandal,” Baquet told the Daily Beast as news of Sulzberger’s controversial, much-criticized decision, first reported by HuffPost’s Michael Calderone, percolated through the media-political complex. “They should ask themselves after the passage of 20 years or whatever, ‘Is this what we need now?’ And I would argue that now we need something different.”

But Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan, who preceded Spayd in the job at the Times and lasted 3 ½ years, was skeptical of the purge, tweeting: “The one thing [a] public editor can almost always do is hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management…The role, by definition, is a burr under the saddle of the powers that be.”

Sullivan added: “I did feel, while doing it for almost four years, that I served an important purpose for the readership—and for the Times itself.”

It was 14 years ago that the Times overcame rigid institutional resistance to create the Public Editor position in response to the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a young metro reporter fabricated and plagiarized dozens of stories, managing to get many of them on the front page, unchecked, before the massive fraud was detected.

The debacle prompted collective embarrassment, a paroxysm of newsroom soul-searching, the resignations of the both executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, and the appointment in October 2003 of Daniel Okrent as the Times’s first Public Editor, charged with fielding reader complaints and taking them to reporters and editors while publicly policing journalistic infractions at the so-called “newspaper of record.”

Unlike the Washington Post, which hired its first ombudsman, the Public Editor equivalent, in 1970 (but abolished the job in 2013 due to budgetary issues), the Times had long rejected the idea that a journalistic organization can be held accountable by sometimes harsh internal critiques, and many in the newsroom continue to chafe at being second-guessed by outsiders planted in their midst. 

Spayd, a former managing editor of the Washington Post and editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, is the paper’s sixth and last person to fill the job.

Her columns and blog posts drew frequent derision from both inside and outside the Times newsroom. A recent article in the Daily Beast took her to task for slamming a Times reporter’s humorous tweets concerning President Trump’s attack on rapper Snoop Dogg without any apparent awareness that the supposed reader campaign against the reporter was orchestrated by alt-right troll and rape apologist Mike Cernovich.

Two weeks ago, the Atlantic noted that Spayd was deeply unpopular among some fellow journalists who variously claimed she’s ‘“inclined to write what she doesn’t know,” that her work has become “iconic in its uselessness and self-parody,” and that she is “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.”

There was also little love lost between Spayd and Baquet, who slammed one of her efforts—a complaint the Times hesitated too long to publish a blockbuster report on Trump’s connection with Russia as “a bad column” that was“fairly ridiculous.”

Spayd, who reported to Sulzberger, not Baquet, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment; her final day is Friday, the publisher announced in a memo.

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“The responsibility of the public editor—to serve as the reader’s representative—has outgrown that one office,” Sulzberger wrote, in a lengthy explanation of Spayd’s termination. “Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.”

Sulzberger argued that the Public Editor is now superfluous because “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

The publisher listed several measures to achieve that goal, notably expanding the paper’s online commenting platform to permit readers to register their reactions to most articles; and the creation of a “Reader Center,” which Sulzberger called “the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism.” Critics might be forgiven if they confuse that description with yet another newsroom bureaucracy.

“We are grateful to Liz Spayd,” Sulzberger added, “for her tough, passionate work and for raising issues of critical importance to our newsroom.”

Left unmentioned in Sulzberger’s memo was that Spayd’s early departure will probably save the paper in excess of $200,000, since the Public Editor is what one insider called “a highly compensated position.” 

“Everything has some budgetary issue,” Baquet told The Daily Beast, “but I think it is more broadly a comment about whether or not we needed somebody in that job.”

Baquet added: “I think what Arthur crafted in his note is true. The access people have to the New York Times is much greater than it was when the Public Editor was created. People now feel very comfortable sending me notes, and I think there’s a whole world of very public critics that we pay attention to. Newspapers like ours have to understand that we have to reach out to our readers, talk to our readers…

“The job was created in an era when the leadership of the Times was thought of as inaccessible, and when people had issues with our reports, they couldn’t quite surface them.”

But with the explosion of the internet and social media that gives ordinary members of the public a direct line to journalism’s decision-makers, “I think all of this is a realization that the distance between the reader and journalism is not nearly as great as it was when the Public Editor was created,” Baquet said, adding that at the Times, “we are better at holding ourselves accountable. We do editor’s notes more quickly than anybody else. We correct ourselves more quickly than anybody else. I think it’s now part of our DNA to hold ourselves accountable.”

However, Sulzberger’s critics said the move was concerning, particularly at a time when the media itself was under attack.

“This is no substitute for the independent, focused review provided by the public editor, and it’s unclear whether the ‘Reader Center’ will have the sort of public cachet that will require editors and reporters to publicly explain their decisions,” wrote Matt Gertz of the left-leaning Media Matters press watchdog organization.

Gertz added: “It is truly unfortunate that this decision comes amid an all-out assault on the press’s credibility—including numerous attacks on the Times — from President Donald Trump and his associates. The public’s trust in the media has plummeted. A diligent independent public editor could be a key weapon in combating the growing skepticism toward the media, explaining controversial reporting methods like the use of anonymous sources—and explaining when those practices are justified—while also reserving room to critique failures.”

Last October, when it seemed certain that she’d serve out her term, Spayd described her role this way in an interview with the Daily Beast: “I guess the way I approach this job is I do take seriously the idea that I am a representative of the reader. Their [the Times’] whole business depends on readers. It’s in their interest—and it’s my responsibility—to take that incoming, and try to figure out what part of that is justifiable, and to turn to the newsroom and force them to be accountable.”

In her fourth month on the job as the Times’ in-house scold, Spayd was acclimatizing herself to the ambient stress of losing friends and alienating people.

“I’m surprised that I’m much more comfortable taking it from all sides than I would have expected I might be,” she said. “It doesn’t faze me. I knew coming in that that’s what this job is, and I’m not going to be the popular girl. I’m not going to have a lot of friends at the cafeteria table.”

That, in any case, was a prescient prediction.