Former NY Times public editors criticize “unseemly” decision to cut the “essential” position

Two former ombudsmen at other outlets join in the criticism

Several past New York Times public editors, along with two former ombudsmen at other media outlets, are criticizing today’s announcement that the newspaper plans to cut the ombudsman-type position after more than 14 years.

The former public editors said the independent position is a necessary tool in making sure the paper follows its ethical guidelines and sticks to factual reporting.

“It’s a shame,” said Daniel Okrent, the first Times public editor, who began in December 2003 and served 18 months in the job. “It’s hard for me to gauge the wisdom of doing this. The public editor rightly or wrongly has more authority and credibility than the random critic you’d find anywhere else.”

The Times announced the elimination of the post currently held by Liz Spayd in a letter to staff today. She was expected to serve until at least 2018. In a story, the paper also announced a buyout offer to employees in an effort to cut back on “layers of editing.”

The letter, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., stated that a new “Reader Center” would be created in place of the public editor and stressed that the paper would seek to respond more to reader comments.

“I think it's unseemly,” Arthur Brisbane, who served as the Times' public editor from June 2010 to September 2012, said about the decision to cut the job. “I think it’s unfortunate because I do think the public editor remains an essential role. I think that a lot of readers look to the public editor as a place where the Times offers some accountability on what it does. And the public editor, because it is a dedicated individual, can really dive deeply into some of the important issues that arise.”

Clark Hoyt, who served as the Times' public editor from May 2007 to June 2010, agreed.

“Creating a new Reader Center to expand the ways The Times interacts with readers is a great idea. But it lacks one essential quality: independence,” Hoyt said via email. “No organization – whether it’s an arm of government, a business or a news outlet – likes to be second-guessed. And it’s true that there are already plenty of critics of The Times and the news media in general. There always have been. But the public editor played a unique role as an experienced journalist, within the newsroom but independent of the executive structure, who could investigate complaints and render measured judgment."

He later added, “In my experience, readers who believed they couldn’t get a fair hearing from a newsroom invested in a particular decision, looked upon the public editor as an essential avenue of appeal. I hope The Times, one of the world’s most respected news organizations, doesn’t come to regret this decision.”

Byron Calame, the second Times public editor, serving from May 2005 to May 2007, said expanding reader response is good, but not enough.

“The other piece is more difficult, the crunch time stuff, when the executive editor or another top editor has made a decision that is simply wrong,” he said in an interview. “And will this process find a way to deal with that when the top guy makes a wrong decision?”

He cited a 2006 story in The New York Times Magazine that claimed an El Salvador woman had been jailed for having an abortion. When it turned out the story was wrong, and that the woman had most likely killed a newborn, Calame revealed the truth in a column months later that prompted the paper to publish an editor’s note correcting the story.

“I wrote a column and they had to do an editor’s note fessing up to this,” he said. “I think you need a public editor to deal with that. You can question very powerful people and keep questioning them.”

Okrent said his “biggest concern" is that the move "will be unfairly used by the paper’s enemies [to say] that they can’t take the criticism. To say, ‘See, they don’t care about criticism.’”

Alicia Shepard, a former National Public Radio ombudsman, said responding to reader comments is good, but it lacks the direct approach the public editor had been allowed to take.

“While a news organization can respond to readers, no one else can really push management to be accountable and ask tough questions that can't be ignored,” she said via email. “If the new Times' Reader Center can do that, then great. At this point in journalism, we desperately need more accountability and transparency - not less.”

Robert Lipsyte, a former ESPN ombudsman and previously a longtime New York Times sports writer, called the public editor elimination a “big mistake.”

He wrote in an email that it's “a big mistake to move from independent oversight (as ESPN has) to what is basically a customer complaint and service department. An internal check is particularly important as the paper makes business moves that may affect its journalism,” he continued. "The editorial consensus at ESPN was why should we pay for an Ombudsman when we get so much criticism for free. The answer of course is that a good public editor loves the report and wants to make it better within its own terms.”

Bill Keller, a former New York Times executive editor and the first to work with a public editor, said he did not always like what the public editors did, but he appreciated the need.

“I've described it as the most thankless job in journalism, squeezed between critics of The Times who see you as an apologist and defenders who see you as an interloper,” he said via email, noting that today’s increased reader comments and responses can make up for some of the public editor’s job.

“At their best, though, the public editors had two things the reading rank-and-file did not: access and authority," he added. "At their best, they knew the habits, good and bad, of newsrooms, they brought reporting skills to bear, and they sometimes spoke wisdom to power. (Of course, when not at their best they could be a royal pain in the ass.)”