THE BLOG
07/20/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Advice for the New York Times 's New Public Editor

Margaret Sullivan

On July 16, the New York Times announced that its fifth public editor would be Margaret M. Sullivan, "the first woman to hold this position."

In addition to being the first female public editor, something that had been called for in some circles and which I expected under the leadership of Jill Abramson, executive editor, and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher who has been more sensitive to diversity issues than his predecessors, Ms. Sullivan is apparently more in touch than her predecessors with recent newsgathering and news production platforms, such a online chats and videos, and plans to use them. The Times wants to put more stress on online conversation with the public editor and less on the weekly or biweekly column.

With the appointment of Ms. Sullivan, this is a good time to review what the public editor position has accomplished and where it has failed. We know this position was created in part as damage control in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal in which the New York Times reporter plagiarized and made up news stories. But it also was a way of putting a public face on the internal workings of the Times after the forced and quite public resignation of Howell Raines. The first public editor was Daniel Okrent, named in 2003, followed by Byron (Barney) E. Calame (2005), Clark Hoyt (2007) and then Arthur S. Brisbane in 2010.

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. For example, rarely has the public editor questioned the Times Company's overly optimistic financial reports or inquired whether a Times reporter -- rather than the public editor or an outside financial specialist working independently under the public editor's auspices -- should be commenting on those reports which have for years been predicting an upturn just around the corner and rarely stressed the precipitous fall in stocks price, the suspension of dividends, or the drop in capitalization (the price of shares times the number of shares) to under a billion dollars. Nor has the public editor inquired about whether the family trust -- which owns the B shares and elects most of the Times Company Board of Directors -- was losing its cohesion, something that would threatened the Sulzberger family ownership.

In his first column, Okrent, coming from the magazine world, defined himself as "the first person charged with publicly evaluating, criticizing and otherwise commenting on the paper's integrity" and, thinking of himself as an ombudsman, wore the mantle of someone whose role was to keep an eye out for shenanigans. 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."

By contrast, Calame, whom others and I thought of as Gentle Barney, had more of newspaper editor's background and saw himself as an intermediary between reader and newspaper as well as the moderating and low-key voice of experience and reason. He tended to accept what he was told by the Times's senior employees. On one hand, Times editors breathed a collective sigh of relief when they saw how sympathetic Calame was to their performance. On the other, some were embarrassed by what they saw as lackluster and enervated critiques; one senior figure -- Chuck Strum, then associate managing editor-- who expressed admiration for Okrent, told me that Calame was a "dreadful public editor" who was "rearranging the placemats on the Titanic."

Hoyt, who also came from the newspaper world, was more critical than Calame but less so than Okrent. Combining skepticism, diligence, experience, and insistence on nuts-and-bolts accuracy, and an ingrained belief that reporting and editing can always be better, Hoyt was more rigorous than Calame in holding the Times to the highest standard. He was responsive to readers' complaints; although he lacked verve and playfulness, he was sensitive to ethical issues. But he too was a cautious man and Times editors felt, by their own testimony, comfortable with his low-key and predictable mode of operation.

Arthur Brisbane declined the option for a third year, and seemed to have run out of things to say and on the whole was bland. Brisbane, another career newspaperman, continued Hoyt's work but never found his own voice. Typical was his recent discussion with Jonathan Landman about cultural coverage: Brisbane simply interviewed Landman -- an editor I admire -- rather than supplementing the interview with outside perspectives. Previously Brisbane had raised hackles when he questioned whether newspaper journalists should challenge "facts" presented by newsmakers and sources and thus be a "truth vigilante." I am reminded by what Lord Northcliffe, owner of the London Times and the Daily Mail, once said: "News is what someone, somewhere is trying to suppress. The rest is advertising." It is the job of the Times to get behind the masque of self-advertising and find the news.

Like all institutions, the Times does its share of advertising and it is the role of the public editor to get to the news. What we need is a feisty public editor who, like Okrent, is not afraid to be witty, independent, and bold and, when necessary, separate self-serving advertising in which Times's editors and the publisher -- like all of us -- engage and to dig out what is really going. While men of good will with high ethical standards, the last three public editors have sometimes been the embodiment of the Old Grey Lady -- once the ironic name for the staid Times -- disguised as a man.

In accepting her position, Sullivan speaks of the need for transparency, but we also need a little more of a transgressive and disruptive public editor who sees larger patterns and is aware of the continuous compromises made to keep the Times afloat. As the reader's representative, the public editor might write a twice-a-year column evaluating on how the publisher is running the Times, including a focus on the extent to which business decisions are driving newsgathering decisions.

In another twice-a-year column, the public editor might evaluate the executive editor on how the Times can be improved. The public editor needs to put her columns in the context of an overview of the Times's performance so it does not appear, as it sometimes has, that the public editor cannot tell the forest from the trees. Sometimes it seemed as if Okrent's successors were playing small ball. We need a perspective that speaks to where the Times is and where it is going.

I expect the new public editor to sharply hone her focus on diversity issues within the newspaper as well as in its coverage. Clearly there needs be a more discussion of the implications of and rapid changes within digital journalism. I would also like to see evaluations of the op-ed columnists, some of whom basically write the same thing week in and week out, and a few of whom seem immune to criticism within the Times building no matter how off base and fey their columns. The public editor might ask whether op-ed columnists should have a virtual lifetime appointment or whether there need be greater rotation, maybe even five-year terms except for rare exceptions.

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.

Evaluation of the Times as a business needs be outsourced by the public editor to a financial writer who challenges the Times's own reporters writing about itself as a business and tells readers what is really going on in the quarterly and annual financial reports rather than allowing the Times's spokespeople to spin their own versions of its financial situation.