Lessons from leading US paper’s decision to kill off public editor

Thursday June 8 2017

Elizabeth Spayd, the Times sixth public editor, was fired

A past edition of the The New York Times. Elizabeth Spayd, the Times sixth public editor, was fired and the position abolished 14 years after it was established. FILE PHOTO 

By PETER MWAURA
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America’s most prestigious newspaper, The New York Times, hired its first public editor in 2003.

It was responding to a major confidence-shaking scandal involving plagiarism and story fabrication.

One of its reporters, 27-year-old Jayson Blair, was discovered to have made up dozens of stories and interviews and plagiarised stories from other newspapers.

OPEN TO SCRUTINY

This happened at a time when the Times was being accused of being disconnected from its readers.

It admitted the scandal was “a profound betrayal of trust”.

In truth, only quality papers like the Times (and if you like the Nation) hire public editors.

They are big enough to open themselves up to scrutiny and to hire a public editor to facilitate that.

CRUCIAL ROLE

The Times first public editor, Daniel Okrent, hired in October 2003, was charged with handling reader complaints and taking them to editors and reporters for redress.

He was also charged with the responsibility of publicly holding the newspaper accountable to professional standards and reader concerns in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal.

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth and longest-serving and most influential Times public editor who served from September 2012 to April last year, describes this function of the public editor as that of “holding the feet of editors and reporters to the fire”.

READERS' ADVOCATE

The public editor, most commentators say, is in a unique position as an internal critic to get answers from editors and reporters and to insist on accountability and transparency.

Editors and reporters cannot ignore the public editor and when they do – as indeed some do in some cases – they do it at the risk of their own public trust and credibility because the public editor is the messenger and advocate of the reader.

Though, like all advocates, he does not always agree with his readers.

FAKE NEWS

Last Friday Elizabeth Spayd, the Times sixth public editor, was fired and the position abolished 14 years after it was established to deal with a crisis of public confidence.

And this has happened at a time when US media most need public confidence and trust in an era of Trump-like charges of fake news.

Indeed, the elimination of the role in the newspaper, which also has an international reputation to safeguard, has provoked a debate on the value of public editors.

SOCIAL MEDIA

However, the question is not whether the role is useful.

According to the Times, it is whether the public editor should be left to do that work.

In a memo to staff explaining why Spayd was axed, publisher Arthur Sulzberger said: “The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog.

"We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, 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.”

READERS' CENTRE

He said they had put in place “several new reader-focused efforts”, including a “Reader Centre” to serve as an accountability mechanism.

“The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office,” he said.

“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.”

In a word, Sulzberger is saying editors and reporters, relying on social media for feedback, can and have the temperament to do the work of the public editor.

If he is to be believed, Americans on Twitter are smarter than their Kenyan counterparts whose major preoccupation in social media seems to be trading insults, ethnic chauvinism and fake news.

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