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Summary:

The new “public editor” for the New York Times has been getting good reviews for the way she is handling the job of being a go-between for readers and editors. But wouldn’t it be better if every NYT writer and editor did that for themselves?

The New York Times recently appointed a new “public editor” — the ombudsman-style position that is designed to be a liaison between readers and the management of the newspaper — and so far, former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan has been getting pretty good reviews: she is engaged, she takes advantage of social media well, and she is broadening her reach in terms of what she will tackle or comment on. But the more I think about her job, the more I keep coming back to one thing: Why does the NYT only have a single person who engages with readers around what the paper is doing? Why can’t more of the paper’s existing editors and writers do that? In the long run, I think the Times (and plenty of other traditional media outlets) would be better off if they took that approach.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think having a public editor is a bad idea, because that’s not the case at all. The NYT and other newspapers who have this kind of ombudsman role are at least trying to do a better job of interacting with readers and paying attention to issues that involve the paper, which is frankly a lot more than some publications do. And the New York Times has tried hard to structure the job so that it can remain independent while still being part of the newspaper: the public editor is appointed by and answers to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., so that he or she can criticize the editorial side of the operation without (theoretically) having to worry about keeping his or her job.

Since she took over the role, Margaret Sullivan has made a point of involving not just editors and writers at the paper, but also pulling in comments from interested readers and other outsiders on Twitter, and linking to as many different sources of reaction to the NYT’s behavior as possible. As she describes her job in a recent post:

“I intend to blog frequently and to use social media outlets like Twitter to expand the sphere and invite other voices in. I’ll also sometimes comment on journalism outside The Times, both for comparative purposes and because I think it will interest readers.”

The role of an editor should be public by default

All of that is good, and so far Sullivan has done an admirable job of responding to criticism about a number of topics, including why the Times didn’t do more on its front page about the anniversary of September 11 and also the coverage of gender issues. She talks to the editors involved and gets their reaction, and that is valuable — but why can’t we hear from those editors directly? If readers are complaining about a lack of coverage of a certain issue, or the way in which the newspaper is leaning to the left (as departing public editor Arthur Brisbane alleged in a controversial post just before his departure), why can’t an editor who is actually involved in those decisions respond somewhere?

There are some great examples of New York Times journalists who interact with readers and critics directly all the time, using Twitter and other outlets including their Tumblr blogs. Media reporter Brian Stelter is one: not only does he use Twitter extremely well, but he has also done some pretty interesting stuff with his Tumblr blog during breaking-news events such as the tornado last year in Missouri. As I argued at the time, that kind of effort breaks down a lot of the walls that still exist between “traditional” journalists and what Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience,” and I think that is ultimately a good thing.

Assistant managing editor Jim Roberts is another example of someone who is trying hard to use Twitter as a way of listening to readers and outside sources, and of interacting with them as well. As he described in a recent interview with Talking Points Memo, the benefits of doing this are many-fold: Not only do journalists get a better sense of what kind of reaction their work is getting, but the paper as a whole benefits — since it is seen as being interested in what readers think and in engaging with them. Says Roberts:

“I often keep an open feed of @NYTimes mentions, just so that I can see what our readers are talking about. I think that’s a really, really valuable piece of real-time feedback. There are quite often things I see in there where people are either praising, or, you know, in some cases, criticizing our work that I think is very valuable for me to know as an editor.”

Connecting with readers isn’t just nice, it’s essential

This kind of engagement is more than just a buzzword, or some touchy-feely recipe for social-media success: As I tried to point out recently, newspapers and other traditional media have to spend more of their time trying to get to know their readers better if they are going to rely on them for an increasing amount of their revenue — which papers with paywalls like the New York Times are essentially doing. How better to build that relationship than by interacting with and responding to readers directly? If Margaret Sullivan is the only one who does this, then Margaret Sullivan is the only one who will have a relationship with NYT readers.

I can almost hear editors at newspapers everywhere saying: “We don’t have time to interact with readers — we are busy focusing on our journalism, and we are already overworked.” This was a constant refrain when I worked for a newspaper as the online “community editor,” and it continues to be a standard fall-back position in the industry. But does it really take that much time to do a search on Twitter and respond to comments now and then, or to write a blog post to say that you are listening and you have given readers’ concerns some thought? Couldn’t you miss another layout meeting or some refresher course on headline writing to do that?

One of the things that blogs are good at — and blog-derived new media outlets like The Huffington Post — is speaking directly to readers whenever there is something worth discussing, and editors at plenty of online outlets do this routinely. There may be the occasional pissing match or overly emotional response, but that comes with the territory. And even if it occasionally goes too far, it is better than the ivory-tower style institutional response that people routinely get from their newspapers. That approach is not doing newspapers any favors as they try to fight the ongoing decline of their traditional business models.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and jphilipg

  1. If you’ve ever worked at a newspaper, you’d know an editor hasn’t the time. It’s full one: making assignments, tracking progress, editing, overseeing putting it together.

    There is no parallel between being a blogger and working at the NYT, both in regards to work flow and work load, and demands of the job.

    There is three to four times the QA involved in getting a newspaper as with a website blog.

    There aren’t enough hours in the day for an editor at the NYT to engage consistently with the public.

    I was an editor there. It’s a stress engine on many levels to keep the quality.

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    1. Thanks, David — I worked at a newspaper for 15 years, and I have been an editor and a reporter/columnist. I know that it is a lot of work, and adding the responsibility of engaging with readers isn’t easy, but I also believe that doing so is pretty crucial to the continued existence of newspapers, whether they like it or not.

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  2. And stupid me for trying to write on an iPad whilst in a taxi. Mistakes galore in my previous post. As I said, I *was* an editor, but not now. :)

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  3. The idea that accountability can be achieved by having reporters and editors deal directly with readers and complainants is flawed.

    Those conversations tend to be private; public discussions of journalism ethics serve accountability best.

    Maybe a newspaper needs more than one public editor, or reader representative; certainly editors do not have the time to deal with all the inquiries and complaints that readers and subjects of stories present.

    I spent 14 years as executive director of the Minnesota News Council, which served the press and the public for 40 years, until its demise a year and a half ago.

    It was precisely in the public airing of journalistic issues that the News Council process created value. The Council had no authority to impose sanctions; it wanted none. Half the complaints considered at public hearings produced findings for the news organization; half, for the complainant.

    Regardless of the outcomes, and regardless of the size of the news outlet involved, those discussions often influenced news managers to adopt polices that increased transparency and accountability, which increased public trust.

    Reporters face enough of a challenge in using all the technology they are expected to employ and still managing to cover the story fully; they ought not be expected to represent the newspaper. Too many reporters who are given that responsibility can duck accountability and never alert their editors about complaints.

    Better to have an independent ombudsman represent the reader by getting reporters and editors on the record and inviting vigorous discussion with the public — in public.

    Gary Gilson
    Minneapolis

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  4. Couple points:

    1. To the NYT’s credit, it does have a number of editors, in addition to reporters, on Twitter (http://www.nytimes.com/twitter). The amount of interaction on those accounts vary, but it’s certainly more than a couple editors. That page, however, needs to be much easier to find on the NYT site.

    2. While I agree that it’s beneficial for all editors to interact with readers, from a reader’s standpoint, I can see the value of having the responses coming through one designated public editor. Given the number of editors at an organization the size of the NYT, I may not know who exactly was in charge over a story that I had a question/complaint about, and even if I do, I may not care enough to want to start following that person just for a potential answer to one question.

    3. Regarding this line:

    “But does it really take that much time to do a search on Twitter and respond to comments now and then, or to write a blog post to say that you are listening and you have given readers’ concerns some thought?”

    The trap is that to do it well, it can and does take a considerable amount of time. If you start using Twitter to respond to comments, you can’t really do it just “now and then”, or you’ll be criticized as unresponsive and not getting the point of Twitter. Even if you don’t respond to every comment, the monitoring has to be ongoing, and that can take up a decent amount of time depending on how prominent an editor’s position in the company is. And of course, the other problem is that if you do only respond now and then, you risk not engaging enough to build up a worthwhile following, in which case your occasion explanation/response goes unseen by many of your readers, and you might’ve been better off delivering that explanation through the much more visible channel of the public editor.

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    1. Thanks, John — those are some good points, and I do see the value of having the public editor as a single point where information is exchanged and people can see that happening. But I wish more writers and editors did it as well, because I think it is a crucial element of what journalism is becoming.

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  5. It would be helpful to remember that while the masthead says “newspaper”, in truth it should say “marketing ad delivery mechanism”. If the content were still all that important it would still be published even without advertisers; hey, I think they call that blogging.

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  6. As a reader, I would certainly prefer to interact with the appropriate editor, not a public one. I would think that it would be a waste of time to communicate with a public editor, doubting that the appropriate editor would ever know my concerns or comments.

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  7. Matthew — very good column. I hope every news organization reads it. I am certainly going to point it out to my New York Times colleagues.

    But I thought you would find it interesting to learn that The Times has an extensive system (machine) in the newsroom for responding to readers — a system that I have overseen for the past six years. And a long-time editor, Bill Borders, did it for years and years before I took over.

    I have at any given time 35 editors I work with on a daily basis who help me respond to readers, hour by hour. And those editors in turn recruit reporters or other editors in their departments to help them respond to the e-mails. On any given week — sometimes in a day — we have well over 100 staff members writing readers. (Some of us respond to dozens of emails; others, just a few.) We received 17,000 e-mails in July alone. So it keeps us hopping.

    By the way, these are not form letters that we send. I would be screaming louder than readers if I caught someone sending a pure form letter that did not address specific points, in a personalized way, from a reader.

    We have a firm policy of writing back to any reader who points out what they believe is an error, but that we decide is not an error. We explain to them our research and why we made that decision. As a rule, we do not write them back to say: yes, you are correct and we are publishing a correction. That is because sometimes 200 or more readers will write to point out the same error. We thank them in advance in a lengthy electronic response when they write to nytnews@nytimes.com. (Send an e-mail to that address and you will get a copy of the response.)

    One of our key editors, Jill Taylor in Science Times, is truly a master at responding to readers. Just the other day she had to write an “authority” at Harvard to explain why he was incorrect about what he believed was an error. Her research was amazing; the personal touch she brought to the note was masterly.

    Also, we do not necessarily send notes espousing the company/newsroom line. I agree with readers’ criticism all the time. (I hate most of those bloody photos on the front page more than they do.) Responses in which we agree with them seem to stun them the most.

    There is no issue that is too small for us to respond to. One reader a few weeks ago was having a debate with a friend about what the “dots” stood for at the top of the front page, beside the Volume number. So I asked the editor who oversees the make up of our pages and daily space to explain it. (They denote the various editions. Now she knows why her paper has 2 dots and her friend’s has 4 dots.)

    Sometimes readers write just to express their opinion. If the note requires a response, we send one. In all cases, we make sure the feedback gets to the correct person. Sometimes I write back just to thank a reader who has been with us for 50 years. You mentioned new media. That we do, of course. But we still have hundreds of readers who write to Arthur Sulzberger through snail mail. I send all of them a personal response on his behalf — on stationary, of course. (Like Miss Manners, I — in my old-fashioned way — prefer ecru paper and black ink. No — I am not on Twitter.)

    We also read notes that are part of “e-mail campaigns,” but we do not respond to those — mainly because there are thousands sometimes. Plus, I find that the vast majority are not actual readers of The Times.

    We have a reader phone line on which readers leave complaints, point out errors and so forth. We respond to those calls — sometimes just to thank them for screaming at us. (Our readers feel a real ownership of The Times; even a grammar error sends them into a rage. They expect us to uphold all standards.)

    Readers can also click on a staff reporter’s byline — in most cases — and send an e-mail. I have mixed feelings about that process. Many reporters kill themselves responding. Others, not so much. And that I cannot control. Usually when a reporter does not respond it is because of the volume. A few months ago, one reporter got 2,000 e-mails about her article in just a couple of days. I think readers realize it is impossible to answer that many e-mails. (Unless, of course, we want to pull the reporter off reporting duties for a couple of weeks to answer them. But then readers would be writing to complain that we had not covered a particular story.)

    There is much more to the reader-response system than I am including here. But I am rattling on far too much — using time I should be devoting to responding to readers. I just checked and my assistant has forwarded me 27 e-mails while I have been doodling around with this note.

    The bottom line is that we find that responding to readers pays huge dividends. For one thing, they realize there are real human beings here and that they have not written to merely an institution. And invariably they are staggered that The Times would bother to respond. One reader was so blown away that she got, well, carried away somewhat when she wrote back:

    Dear Mr. Brock:
    Your e-mail made my week. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy day to reply. It’s like getting an e-mail from Bono; only much, much better.

    (I could only assume that she is a Bono fan. Lucky for us, she is now a NYTimes.)

    Again, great column. Keep up the good work.

    Best regards,

    Greg Brock
    Senior Editor for Standards

    P.S. I’m sending a copy of this to our new public editor. She is a terrific person and is settling in quickly. I tried to warn her that the volume of reader response is overwhelming — even physically debilitating some days. But she has a great assistant helping her. The secret I kept from her — until today — is that I have more than 100 assistants at any given time.

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    1. Thanks, Brock — that is a fascinating look inside what I expect is a little-known part of the NYT’s newsroom, and I appreciate you sharing it. I do know that many writers and editors at the paper make the effort to respond to readers, I assure you. I wish more did it, that’s all — and in more ways. Thanks for the comment.

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  8. And now I see that I misspelled “Mathew.”
    As The Times would say:

    An earlier version of a Comment on this post misspelled the surname of the author. He is Mathew, not Matthew.

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  9. And now I see that I misspelled “Mathew.”
    As The Times would say:

    An earlier version of a Comment on this post misspelled the given name of the author. He is Mathew Ingram, not Matthew.

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    1. Not to worry — happens all the time :-)

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