Sunday, August 26, 2012

The new Times Public Editor sees role as "smart aggregator" and "forum organizer" (which should mean more attention to public critiques)

The New York Times will soon have a new Public Editor, its fifth. Not only is Margaret M. Sullivan, for 13 years editor of the Buffalo News, the first woman, she's the first to emphasize the importance of being present for digital conversations.

Poynter reported that, in Sullivan's appplication, she emphasized the roles of "smart aggregator” and “forum organizer":
“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.”
According to Poynter, Sullivan said she had read “and certainly learned from” the application excerpts published by author and teacher Dan Gillmor and Poynter’s Craig Silverman.

Going digital

Gillmor offered an intriguing July 2 Guardian column headined A manifesto for the newspaper's public editor in the social media era: The New York Times set the template for readers' ombudsmen. Now it needs to update the role for a mutualised digital age.

Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for digital media entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, offered several suggestions:
I'd do my best to lower the personal profile of the Public Editor and raise the profile of the public – the audience and those affected by the journalism – using three main techniques: aggregation, curation and discussion. I would, in particular:
• Aggregate (quote and link to) every thoughtful critique of the organization's work that I could find, and invite readers to analyze and comment on those critiques. I would ask permission to crosspost some of these on the blog. When I thought a critic was wrong, I'd say so. I'd also note when they were, in my view, making fair points. I'd deal with disrespectful critiques on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that sometimes a nasty person can make a good point.
• Create a robust, open forum about the newspaper's work....
• Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these conversations....
• Use the Sunday column mostly as a guide to (with highlights from) the online conversations...
• Make moderation a core feature of these conversations: moderate the discussions and insist on civility and mutual respect.
Going transparent

Another candidate, Silverman, weighed in on Poynter.org, suggesting, among other things:
I will rename the existing public editor’s journal to something such as TimesPublic or simply call it the Public Editor’s blog. The blog will be the primary vehicle for sharing feedback from readers, offering opinions and analysis, and aggregating and curating notable commentary about the Times from elsewhere. It will provide a window into what I’m working on and considering, a place for me to draw attention to outside reporting and criticism about the Times, and a home to public editor reporting.
What it might mean

Imagine what acknowledgment of public critiques might bring. The Public Editor would actually have had to take seriously the evidence that the Barclays Center naming rights deal was closer to $200 million than $400 million, rather than let his assistant blow me off.

Then the Public Editor would link to news that the evidence was valid.

With Atlantic Yards, as I wrote yesterday, there would be ample opportunity for further inquiry.

A not-so-proud record


In a 7/20/12 Huffington Post column headlined Advice for the New York Times's New Public Editor, Daniel R. Schwarz, author of the valuable recent book EndTimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, offered some useful history of the position:
In its July 16 news release, the Times described the public editor's position as "initiator, orchestrator and moderator of an ongoing conversation about the Times's journalism." Originally, the public editor somewhat awkwardly combined two positions, ombudsman and reader's representative. Conceived as a position to critique the Times, the role has evolved into something a bit less confrontational than it might be.
Schwarz praises the first Public Editor, Daniel Okrent:
He took the Times to task for coverage that was biased, myopic or unsatisfactory. He formulated what has become known as Okrent's Law: "The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true."
However, successor Byron Calame "tended to accept what he was told by the Times's senior employees," Schwarz writes, a judgment in which I concur. (One Timesman, Schwarz writes, "told me that Calame was a 'dreadful public editor' who was 'rearranging the placemats on the Titanic.'")

Successor Clark Hoyt "was more critical than Calame" but ""he too was a cautious man," while Arthur Brisbane "seemed to have run out of things to say and on the whole was bland."

I'll note that Calame, at least, once wrote about Atlantic Yards in his blog, giving the Times unnecessarily high marks on disclosure of ties to Forest City, and occasionally wrote back to me, albeit defending the paper. Hoyt and Brisbane ignored Atlantic Yards, as well as my queries--except for a bizarrely inadequate defense of the paper I got from Brisbane's assistant.

Going forward

Schwarz proposes that the new Public Editor be more "transgressive and disruptive... who sees larger patterns and is aware of the continuous compromises made to keep the Times afloat" and writes about how and whether  "business decisions are driving newsgathering decisions":
By consulting outside financial experts, the public editor must, when necessary, shine an informed light on the Times's financial relationship with both Mexican magnate Carlos Slim and with the Forest City Ratner real estate company, which now owns the entire new Times building and leases the Times's floors back to it.
Schwarz's book, I'll note, does not mention Forest City, though I'm sure that comments from readers, including me, have sparked his understanding.

He suggests that an outsider should write about the Times as a business. Perhaps that could extend to Atlantic Yards. Then maybe we wouldn't get coverage like this.

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